ZOE Hardman is the sort of woman who fizzes with energy. She talks engagingly, looks healthy and her skin is glowing, thanks to a much-needed post-lockdown family holiday in the South of France.
But just a few months ago, Zoe was trapped in a depression so severe that some days she could barely function. It caused her sex drive to slump, put the darkest of thoughts into her head and tested her marriage to the limit.
Things eventually came to a head one night at the end of January, when she found herself curled up on the bathroom floor, heaving with sobs before eventually sliding into bed next to her ex-rugby star husband Paul “Dozza” Doran-Jones, 35, who told her that she had to get help because he wasn’t sure how much more either of them could take.
In that moment, Zoe was forced to confront what deep down she had known all along; she was going through the menopause at the age of just 37.
“It was my lowest point,” she says, speaking about her ordeal for the first time. “Some very dark, uncontrollable thoughts were going through my head and I thought that I wasn’t going to make it through this. I felt so low that without any help I didn’t know how I’d get past it.”
Zoe had been aware for some years that she was likely to go through an early menopause – her grandmother and mother had started theirs at 41 and 40 respectively and her older sister Kathryn’s experience at only 34 had robbed her of the chance to have children.
Zoe, who is co-founder of parenting podcast Made By Mammas, brought forward her own plans for a family after realising she too was at risk.
But still, when she started to get the first physical symptoms last summer and even as she spiralled both emotionally and mentally, she couldn’t bring herself to admit what was happening.
“I had to get my head around what was going on because I was in denial,” she says. “Your periods dominate your whole life as a woman. When you’re younger you’re desperate for them to come and when they do, you can’t stand them. And then when you’re trying to get pregnant, you don’t want to see them but… they make you feel like the cogs are still turning. So I was clinging on.
“We think of menopause as happening to 50-year-old women, so when it happens early, it hits you like a train. We’re not taught about it at school, we don’t talk about the possibility of running out of eggs. We’re having our children later, so it’s even more important that we know this information – if we are aware that it might happen in our 30s then we can make informed decisions.”
Some very dark, uncontrollable thoughts were going through my head and I thought that I wasn’t going to make it through this.
This is the main reason behind Zoe’s decision to speak out about such a difficult personal experience. She wants to shine a light on what is a critical women’s health issue, as well as breaking down the taboos around menopause and encouraging open discussion about it in schools, workplaces and between mothers and their daughters.
“I don’t know why we’re so frightened to have the conversation!” she says. “It’s the same with a lot of this stuff, like the whole tampon thing. We’ve all been in a restaurant where we’ve hunted around in our bag for a tampon and slipped it up our sleeve because: ‘What if someone sees it!’. It’s a f**king tampon! It’s so weird that we feel we have to pretend it doesn’t happen.
“I’m planning on having a lot of open conversations about the menopause going forward. In school we’re told how to put a condom on a banana and how not to get pregnant and that’s great, but what about your egg count, your fertility? Give women and girls the information so we know what our options are and we can have choice.”
Zoe’s sister Kathryn had that choice taken away from her. She got married in February 2015 and immediately began trying for a baby. Within a month she started to experience dizziness and hot flushes, which she thought might be signs she was pregnant, but tests said otherwise.
Over the next few weeks the flushes continued along with night sweats, migraines and pain in her ovaries. Zoe, conscious of the family history although it hadn’t been freely discussed, advised her to seek medical support.
After months of tests, Kathryn was diagnosed with premature ovarian failure and told she was going through an early menopause. There was no hope for her to have children – there was even some suggestion her menopause may have started earlier, with her contraceptive pill masking it for years.
“It covers me in goosebumps remembering it because it was such a horrendous time for her,” says Zoe, tears forming in her eyes.
“Her only wish in life was to be a mum. I was supporting my sister – my best friend – who had lost her dream and I had to let her grieve and try and figure out a way forward. But when her specialist confirmed it was hereditary, I knew I needed to think about it for myself, too. And that was a lot to take in.”
Each time they’d tell me they’d lost another egg, it was so devastating.
Zoe likens the situation to a “ticking time bomb”. She also wanted kids, but she’d only met Paul a few months before and although they were serious, it felt too early to be having the children chat.
“I had to have that conversation with Dozza and say to him that this was going to happen to me and if we wanted to have children together – he already had a daughter – what should we do?”
She went to see a specialist on Harley Street with a view to freezing her eggs. Zoe spent two weeks injecting herself with hormones in order to stimulate egg production and headed into the clinic every couple of days for a scan to check on the progress, but the outlook became bleaker with every visit.
“Each time they’d tell me they’d lost another egg, it was so devastating. On the day I was due to have my final scan they said there was one egg left and they couldn’t go in [to collect] just one [women are normally expected to produce between six and 15 during this process].
"I remember standing on the steps of that clinic thinking ‘I’m never going to have a baby’. I called Dozza and said: ‘It’s not going to happen for us.’ Straight away he said: ‘Let’s just try naturally. I love you, let’s give it a go.’”
That was August 2015 and, despite thinking she needed a miracle, Zoe became pregnant on New Year’s Eve. She was overjoyed, but that was tempered by her sadness for Kathryn as well as the dread at having to tell her the news.
“I wanted to tell her face to face, so we went for lunch and I said I had something to tell her. She said: ‘You’re pregnant, aren’t you?’ And I said I was and she got up from the table, burst into tears and walked away.”
Desperate not to upset her further, Zoe held back from sharing updates about her pregnancy with Kathryn for the next few months. However, as the due date neared, Kathryn made her peace with it and by the time Zoe’s daughter Luna was born in September 2016, she was fully on board and couldn’t be a more involved or loving auntie.
I would cry and I could feel my mental state slipping. I spent the whole of January just crying
Zoe went on to have son Kit in April 2018, also naturally, and says Kathryn shares a close bond with both her niece and nephew, now aged three and two.
“She is the most incredible aunt and I encourage that because I want her to have that special relationship with them.”
Kathryn and her husband later split under the strain, but she has a new partner and is now stepmum to three children.The first sign of impending menopause for Zoe was pain during sex. Then her periods started speeding up and by last October they were only 14 days apart.
“But it was the lows that really knocked me,” she says. “I would cry and I could feel my mental state slipping. I spent the whole of January just crying. My husband and I are such a tight couple, but I was picking holes in everything, not being able to get up in the morning and crying myself to sleep every night. It was savage.”
By January, Zoe was experiencing sleep-sapping night sweats, chronic headaches and brain fog, which would stop her from forming complete sentences.
“I remember one meeting where I was trying to get a sentence out and I just burst into tears. Luckily, I was with three other women who were really amazing about it.
“My skin became very dry and I had dandruff for the first time in my life. I was having hot flushes and suffering from hair loss and vaginal dryness. The pain during sex wasn’t going away and I was getting severe aching in my right ovary.”
In the midst of all this, Zoe’s close friend Caroline Flack took her own life, further compounding her distress.
“Losing Caroline was horrific and impacted so heavily that my depression got worse through February,” she says.
She stops, briefly. It’s not yet six months since Caroline died and the grief is still raw.
“The fact that she felt that killing herself was her only option is desperately sad and I replay it in my head over and over; could I, should I have done more? But the answer is no, because we all tried very, very hard and that was her choice.
“I really miss her. I miss the ridiculous conversations we used to have on the phone. I miss her laugh. I just miss her.”
The fact that she felt that killing herself was her only option is desperately sad and I replay it in my head over and over; could I, should I have done more?
After that night when Paul begged her to get help, Zoe booked a doctor’s appointment. A series of blood tests confirmed Zoe had no oestrogen left in her body and had started the menopause.
“My hormone levels were on the floor, so I went on HRT before my last blood test because we knew and within three days of me taking it I felt better. The fog lifted. When you don’t have any oestrogen in your body you’re aching, you have headaches, you’re constantly thirsty.”
Zoe is currently on Femoston tablets as well as progesterone and although some of her symptoms persist (she says her night sweats returned recently), the difference is remarkable.
“I’ve found my confidence again because of the HRT. I have my lust for life back. I went a bit grey for a while. I was dull inside. But now I feel like I can do it all again and I can feel good things are coming.
“The bonus of being on HRT is that my sex drive is back. So my husband and I are great! There are an awful lot of benefits!”
Zoe also found that alongside the HRT, her love of fitness has helped her.
“That has been a saviour for me, as it has been throughout my life,” she says. “Every time I feel blue, I go for a run or do a HIIT class or go to the gym and just being in that environment and getting the endorphins going is the best medicine.
“Eating well and keeping hydrated has been important – HRT means I’m at a higher risk for breast cancer so I have to be aware of that. I take fish oil every day, B6 and peppermint, so I’m like a walking pill pot at the moment.”
In the make-up chair with Zoe
What’s your lockdown skincare routine?
I love Elemis cleansing oil with a hot flannel. I get quite bad melasma and I find Murad products are great for that.
What are your make-up bag essentials?
Charlotte Tilbury Lipstick in Pillowtalk and Elizabeth Arden Lash Extending Mascara. Also, Laura Mercier Secret Camouflage concealer.
What do you never leave the house without?
A bottle of water.
Jennifer Lopez. Her skin! Just incredible.
How has your relationship with make-up changed?
I still do the eye flick, but much less obviously.
Charlotte Tilbury Hollywood Flawless Filter. Dozza thinks it’s ridiculous spending £34, but it’s amazing!
Does she feel any anger at the unfairness of going through such a brutal menopause at such a young age?
“No, I’ve got my children. The only anger I feel is for Kathryn. The kids are my heartbeat, without them I don’t function and so I can’t imagine the pain my sister has gone through to find a way forward without kids. She’s been so brave.
“But there’s a happy ending because hopefully I can help other women by showing that life doesn’t end with the menopause, you can feel well and happy again. Communication is key, understanding from partners is crucial and the NHS needs more funding in that area to provide more tests for women quickly.”
Zoe doesn’t blame her own mum for not flagging it as a potential issue sooner, but says she will be open with Luna and her seven-year-old stepdaughter Isla.
“Me and Kathryn both knew about my mum and grandmother’s experiences, but there had never been a ‘thing’ made of it. It wasn’t brought to our attention early enough and had my sister known about this she would have been able to go in and freeze her eggs and possibly have a child.”
Zoe has “just about” survived lockdown with Paul, now a property developer, and the kids although, like most parents, it’s been challenging at times.
“You realise how amazing women are to carry on with our jobs and home-school and juggle everything. I’ve got a really supportive husband, but it’s been tough and there have been a lot of passive-aggressive arguments as we’ve stacked the dishwasher. You think: ‘I want to get out of here!’ and then you realise there’s nowhere to go!”
She has been working throughout, extending Made By Mammas to two episodes a week, and travelling into work at Heart radio every weekend to present her Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning shows.
I’ve got a really supportive husband, but it’s been tough and there have been a lot of passive-aggressive arguments as we’ve stacked the dishwasher.
Does she think what she’s been through over the last year has changed her? She considers this for a few moments and then decides no. The biggest change came when she became a mum. But what it has done is teach her something about herself.
“I’ve found some strength I didn’t know I had. I feel like I’m a better version of me.
“I want to do all the fun things, go on all the holidays, hang out with my favourite people and not worry about having an extra ice cream if I want one. It’s about living life to the full because you never know what’s around the corner.
“I think that’s what has come out for me from going through this and lockdown. I want to be alive. That sounds cheesy, but that’s just my ethos at the moment!”
- Catch Zoe on Made By Mammas: The Podcast, available now.
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