MOST of the protagonists in Sheila O’Flanagan’s books are between the ages of 25 and 45, but any of them would have been suitably appalled at what happened to their creator as a young woman.
After a year of physical symptoms, and at age 35, it was confirmed by her doctor that Sheila was going through the menopause.
Now 56, she can still recall that time: “It shocked me — I couldn’t quite believe it. At that age you think your body will continue as it is and then to realise there are a whole lot of things going on internally. I was fit and healthy and I had no control over it”.
She went on HRT for five years but gave it up when controversial stories emerged around the therapy and transitioned to taking the herbal remedy, black cohosh for another five years.
“I was lucky in that I didn’t have mood swings and in the overall scheme of things I didn’t feel tired or less energetic. It was the hot flushes that were the worst. It was distressing — I might as well have been in Singapore, glowing and dripping, while talking to someone on a cold day. It was so sudden and so unexpected being out of control of your own body.”
Although she first thought she might have been pregnant when her periods stopped, she had never planned to be a mother.
“It wasn’t something I wanted to do,” she says. “I had no big desire — no sense that I might regret it if I didn’t. I have four nephews and they’re great — but I don’t have this feeling of not being fulfilled.”
Indeed, now when most women her age are in the menopausal transition, Sheila has 20 novels behind her, the first published a year after that doctor’s diagnosis.
It’s well documented that the international best-selling author started off as a financial trader in the commercial banking world. It was not out of choice, but to earn a crust, straight out of school as her dad had died aged 47 when she was 19, the eldest of three girls.
Though she left it to pursue her first love, writing, she now says that it complemented her ‘dreamy’ creative disposition by making her focus on “the business side of myself... it brought out a streak of determination, I didn’t know I had”.
That determination has served her well in applying herself to the creative process but she doesn’t imagine herself sticking to the disciplined routine, as she ages.
“I don’t think I’ll write a book a year for the next 20. Creatively there are always thoughts I have to get out, but I imagine I won’t want to stick to that timetable. There are other things I want to do — like travel. And I would like to go back to college. I didn’t go to college when I left school and it’s a gap I’d like to fill — to study something in depth, astronomy or physics perhaps.”
Her husband Colm has retired from Badminton Ireland to fit in with her flexible lifestyle and they spend periods in their house in Spain, where the dry climate suits her asthmatic condition.
The asthma has never stopped her from being sporty however – she has been playing badminton competitively since her early 20s. Playing twice a week keeps her fit and the competition gives her an objective to achieve, while socially some of her longstanding friends come from that circle, she says. As an incentive to age positively it ticks many boxes and players in the 55-65 age group are “incredibly competitive”, she laughs.
Sheila’s 83-year-old mum is also a positive example.
“She’s well able to work her iPad and computer. It’s fantastic to see a woman her age who likes to live on her own and who is very good at doing her own thing.”
And although her mum was diagnosed with AMD (Age-related Macular Degeneration) two years ago, “she has been so determined to live her own life — she was always a strong-willed woman.”
When her dad died in the 1970s, her mum sold the family grocery shop in the Liberties in Dublin, did a course and ended up working in the Passport Office.
“Back then she was in her late 40s and would have been seen as way past it,” says Sheila. But the whole family learnt that “life is short — nothing falls into our laps; you have to go after stuff yourself”.
It is with this motto that she looks towards the decades ahead: “I hope to live the same way my mum has lived her life — carrying on doing the things I want to do.”
Sheila O’Flanagan helped launch AMD Awareness Week which runs until September 21. See www.amd.ie