Ex-nurse Christie Watson: ‘Women’s health has always been undervalued’ | Autobiography and memoir

Christie Watson, 46, is a writer and professor of medical and health humanities at UEA. She won the Costa first novel award in 2011 for her first book, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away. Her memoir about nursing, The Language of Kindness, was published in 2018 and Quilt on Fire: The Messy Magic of Midlife, her insightful and outspoken exploration of middle age and the perimenopause, is out this week.

What is your take on the current shortages of HRT medication in the UK? What does it say about how our government regards women’s health?
Menopause seems to be having quite a moment, doesn’t it? There are all these menopausal warriors raising awareness – Davina McCall, Sam Baker and many others. Women’s health has always been undervalued and underfunded by governments. And now there’s a huge influx of women requesting HRT. It is unsustainable, unfair and heartbreaking that they are not able to access treatment.

What were the worst of your symptoms?
I’d always assumed menopause was about hot flashes and rage but, for me, these were not the most extreme symptoms. I had the terrifying feeling I’d lost my mind completely. I didn’t know what was happening, I felt I was having a catastrophic breakdown. Not only could I not remember details, I couldn’t remember who I was. It felt like I’d left my body and skin and gone somewhere else. I absolutely did not believe for a second that this could be anything to do with hormones. But as soon as I started HRT, I felt so much better. It worked within 24 hours – I was amazed.

Why is menopause so often a target for unkind jokes?
Misogyny. And there is also a pandemic of ageism in the UK – we do not value the wisdom of older people enough. There are cultures in west Africa where older women are revered as they should be and seen as having superpowers – which I love. The idea is that once you’re over the hump of the perimenopause, where I am now, you gain your superpowers. If that’s my future, I’m really happy about it.

Why was it important to focus on the perimenopause?
Even as a healthcare professional, I didn’t know about perimenopause. A couple of doctors read proofs of my book – consultants in their 40s – amazing, professional women. One of them said to me: “I didn’t realise it but I think I’m going through perimenopause and I’ve made an appointment with my GP.” There is such a high suicide rate, divorce rate and depression rate in menopause that we need to focus on the rocky road leading up to it as well.

You write well about middle age’s pitfalls and the feel-bad power, for most of us, of social media.
We’re living in a culture of perfectionism. We feel we must have the perfect house, the perfect relationship, the perfect friendships… and that we can do it all by drinking green juice. Maybe because the world is in such a horrific state – in terms of Ukraine and climate change and the existential threats we’re facing – there’s a tendency to focus on minutiae. At the start of the pandemic, I got sucked into Twitter and was doom-scrolling continuously and watching the news all the time. It was so detrimental. It made me extremely anxious. I’ve stopped watching the news now, I’m almost off Twitter and am pulling back from all of it.

After your marriage ended, you embarked on online dating with entertainingly dodgy encounters, including one with a bloke who carried his pet tarantula everywhere. What are the best and worst things about online dating as opposed to the old-fashioned way (which eventually served you well, I was glad to learn)?
I don’t think there are any “bests” for me – that’s the honest truth – just “worsts” and more “worsts”. The guy with the tarantula was really quite nice, one of the better ones. But on the whole, I found online dating horrific, partly because everything felt fake and I had no idea what I wanted or needed.

What’s the key to growing older happily?
Acceptance – a soft word but hard fought for. It’s the ultimate goal – the path to contentment and to being happy in your own skin.

Is there anything nursing and writing have in common?
To understand somebody’s suffering, you have to know their story. Understanding narrative makes a good writer and a good nurse. I started nursing when I was 17. I left in 2018, then unexpectedly went back during Covid.

You write movingly about working through the pandemic on an intensive care ward. What do you most remember about that time?
The intensity of our working relationships. The friendship that was almost family that we formed very quickly because it was such an extreme experience. We had complete trust in one another. I didn’t go back to nursing through altruism or duty or because it was a calling, it was about wanting to be with my teammates.

How did Covid firefighting help your inner firefighting?
It gave me a huge dollop of much-needed perspective: my out-of-proportion worries seemed smaller than they had before. It gave me gratitude.

You had a rough ride in the pandemic when your daughter became critically ill with sepsis and nearly died. How did that parental fear affect you?
That fear contains all the darkness of the universe. Having been an intensive care children’s nurse, I had never before been able to empathise with the parents of those children as I can now – it’s a feeling I’d not wish on anyone in the world. It makes me feel sick just thinking about it. I don’t think my daughter and I have properly unpicked it yet. It’s going to take years, psychologically, to get over the trauma.

As a mother of teenagers, how important is it that they understand what you’re going through with the perimenopause?
Really important but it’s still quite a difficult conversation to have; it’s something new, not something they’re taught in schools but it affects children because it affects their mums and grandmas.

For some women, the menopause is no more than passing turbulence on a long-distance flight. For others it is a major challenge. What is most positive about this transition?
It’s painful to change but once you’ve gone through it, you come out a better – truer – version of yourself. The midlife journey is a necessary falling apart to put yourself back together: you’re shaken awake to the precious and precarious nature of this one life you have. And my goodness that makes you appreciative. The perimenopause is a becoming, a walking towards wisdom and what could be more joyful than that?

Quilt on Fire: The Messy Magic of Midlife by Christie Watson is published by Vintage (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply