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Tess White: 'Menopause was the trigger' of my sister's suicide

Credit: Anna Moffat

Tess White: 'Menopause was the trigger' of my sister's suicide

Tess White’s sister, Jane, tried to kill herself 17 times before she eventually did in 2017 after drinking a corrosive liquid. It was a brutal way to die and reflected the utter depths of desperation that Jane had sunk to.

One of the hardest things for her elder sister and for those that loved her, says White, was not understanding what was happening to either her mind or her body with the onset of the menopause and in not getting the proper medical support that she required.

White is one of nine siblings, the seventh child, and one of six sisters. She says she “was lucky to be number seven because number seven means you have all this guidance that comes before you and I’ve got the added benefit of having wonderful older sisters guiding me along.”

The family grew up in Marple, near Stockport, and White describes a large loving family whose schedule had to operate with military-style precision, “like a Manchester version of the von Trapps”, laughs White, where politics, faith, music and a sense of real community predominated.

White’s father was a senior civil servant working in customs and excise and her mother was a stay-at-home mum – “well, with that many kids, there wasn’t much option,” says White. The family were integral to the local community, with her parents heavily involved with the Catholic church, being governors of nearby schools, members of the Liberal party – later the Lib Dems – and vice presidents of the locally-based brass band.

“Anything they could do to support the community, they did,” says White, “community is what mattered to them both and they had a whole little army of their own community volunteers in us.”White (far right) and her eight siblings

She describes her parents as very traditional: “The girls were expected to do their own ironing and have chores around the house, while the boys didn’t, which seemed a little unfair at the time.” Her father would always be home at 6pm sharp so that the family of eleven could all sit down to eat dinner together. She remembers her mother cooking endless “amazing meals”, filling large chest freezers in the basement with food and “she made chicken go a long way”.

White says that being part of such a large family meant you learnt to choose your words carefully, to eat quickly because someone would always be ready to finish your plate for you, to accommodate other people, and importantly, how to share.

She says her father really understood all his children as individuals and went to great pains to organise who shared a room with who by personality. She says there wasn’t a lot to go around in terms of material items, but she never felt deprived of attention or of love. It sounds almost idyllic, and she agrees that home life was like something from The Waltons.

But she also remembers “horrible abuse” directed at the family because there were nine children. She says that for a long time, she even avoided mentioning how big the family was because of the prejudice that often followed. But at the same turn, she also laughs as she describes how her uncle, who was training to be a priest, met her aunty, who was training to be a nun, basically on the eve of him taking his final vows, and they got married and had seven children.

White is an interesting mix of steeliness and vulnerability. She is acutely conscious of how Tories can be pigeonholed as uncaring and yet throughout our interview, she sobs at various sad memories but then almost immediately rallies with a story that makes us both laugh. She is very comfortable in her own skin but cares deeply about how she is portrayed.

I just think the doctors dismissed her as a woman of a certain age, gave her HRT patches, anti-depressants, and thought, that was it

Her sister, Jane, was the eldest girl. Six years older than White, she was 59 when she died, just two years older than White is now. And she was, says White, “an absolute powerhouse” who was always on the go. She was in the Scottish university canoe team, had a great job with Exxon, and remains, in death, White’s guiding force. Jane is the reason White is in politics and why she is so passionate about raising issues about women, equality, and particularly of mental health.

“Jane would organise everybody, plan things we would do, holidays as a group of sisters, picnics and walks, everything. She was action woman. When I was 40, I didn’t want any presents, I just wanted a picture of each of my sisters with me. And the picture that Jane chose for me was one of these weekends where she had a map out and she’d be telling us where we were going, how we would get there and what we would do once we were there. Everything would be mapped out and meticulously planned. When you come from a family the size of ours, you needed someone like Jane to keep us all on track and organised.

“It was small things at first. She stopped being organised, started to get over-emotional, which was not Jane at all. Then the sumptuous meals, the planned picnics, the organised kitchen, and whatever, they all stopped, and she sort of stopped caring. It was just sad to see. It was like bits of her being chipped away, slowing down and becoming broken. She wasn’t sleeping and her moods weren’t stable and then she slit her wrists with a razorblade and I just think the doctors dismissed her as a woman of a certain age, gave her HRT patches, anti-depressants, and thought, that was it. Never really talked things through with her and never thought about the interaction of different medications.

“Really, there was, is, just a complete disrespect from the medical profession for women of that certain age. They didn’t know the woman that Jane had been and obviously dismissed what was happening to her as her being depressed and it all being a bit indulgent. I mean, here was a woman who appeared to have everything, a nice house, loving family, da-de-da, what did she have to be depressed about?

“In a way, Jane symbolised everything to me about being a woman: the career woman working hard; wanting to have a baby; wanting it all; juggling; being a mother; wanting, needing, economic independence; wanting to go back to work; finding it really difficult; children leaving home; trying to redefine who you are and then the menopause hits and my God, not understanding all sorts of bodily changes going on; not getting sleep and feeling like everything is just downhill from here. As sisters, we just didn’t know what was going on and we just felt desperate, helpless, really.

“I remember we took her away on holiday to really give her husband a break because she had tried so many times to take her own life at this stage and it was quite wearing for him, as you can imagine. So, as sisters, we took her away to a safe place, a caravan at Millport, because we thought we’ll give her space and love and spend time with her. But we were constantly having to watch her. She tried to jump into the sea. She tried to open the car door and jump out. And then she tried to slit her wrists…the little hospital there was great and fortunately, two of my sisters are nurses and they’d patch her up until the next time.

“This kind of behaviour went on for four or five years and we honestly tried everything. You think as sisters, as close as we all were, that you can make it all better. She and her husband moved to be closer to one of my other sisters. I had her up to stay with me. I thought I might be able to help her, but I couldn’t. She wasn’t like Jane by then and was doing alarming things that I don’t really want to go into but really beyond help.

“There were other things that had happened. She had a little bit of cancer in her bowel, had an operation and then got a hernia, and all of this was getting to her, and the doctor basically had said something along the lines of women of your age have to get used to bits and bobs going wrong with their body, and that really blew her off guard. She has been this action woman, cycled, skied, walked, was on the go all the time, just a power house, and then, you know, to be told by the doctor that you are basically falling apart because of age and that is just part of life, you are past it, I think just the feeling of hopelessness, helplessness, that it was all downhill from here, really got to her.

“As sisters, we tried everything. And her husband tried everything. Everything we could think of. Everything. I look back on that holiday to Millport, and it was dreadful, but we thought we would take her away to show her how it could be, that we could talk to her, make her better, but it was dreadful, because she was so ill by then. It was so shocking because you could see that she did just want to die.

“Do I think the menopause killed her? Well, yes, it was the trigger. It was the tipping point. There were other things, but I don’t think doctors think enough about the interaction of medication like the HRT patches and the anti-depressants and with that drug and that drug, and I think, she just got weary and tired. I think it was the 17th time to try and take her own life when she first drank drain fluid, which is a horrible way to go, and it didn’t kill her that time, and then six months later, she did it again, and she wanted to go, she just wanted to go, she was tired, she couldn’t sleep, the hurt of it all was too much.

“So, yes, I do think the menopause was the trigger and being told that as a woman of a certain age, you just have to live with it, that was too much to bear. I think there is a massive prejudice here. People look at women of our age in a certain way and they don’t understand the vulnerabilities of life. That you’re always fighting. Fighting to get your grades; fighting to get to university; fighting to get a good job; fighting for the promotion; fighting to have a balance of work and home; then your children leave home, your body starts to let you down, and then the menopause comes, and you are told to just live with it because that’s what happens to women. To feel so discarded, as being described as over the hill, absolutely heart-breaking. I just think for people like my sister, like Jane, they just say, I’ve had enough, and that isn’t right. It’s not how women should be treated.”

White has equality at her core. It is a principle that she lives with every day and is rooted in her experience in HR. She was one of the first female personnel officer working in Britain’s only salt mine and she says that strange things can happen to people who are stuck 400 feet underground for 12-hour shifts and she alludes to some pretty serious employment issues that she had to handle.

People look at women of our age in a certain way and they don’t understand the vulnerabilities of life. That you’re always fighting

She describes a very macho workplace environment where a fundamental culture change involved her removing page-three-girl posters from walls and taking down calendars with semi-naked women that adorned office walls. She later worked for an American company, travelling around Europe, which also led her to making “the most heart-breaking decision” of her life, which at the time in the 1990s saw her being judged unfavourably as a woman – to leave her six-year-old son permanently with his father while she pursued her career.

“I remember somebody saying to me, ‘don’t you love your child?’, and I said, ‘of course I love my child, I want the best for him’. It wasn’t easy but it was the right thing to do. I remember there was pressure, even one of my sisters said to me ‘we know that you love your job, and you work for an amazing company, but why don’t you take him [her son] and we’ll look after him’. But that wouldn’t have been right. His father was ‘number one mum’, being with him was the right thing, it was the hardest decision I ever made. But it was the right decision for both my son and for me and now he is in his 20s and we’ve got a wonderful relationship for which I am very thankful.”

White describes herself as not being a typical politician. She will possibly only have come across some people’s radar as the newly elected Tory north east MSP who accused Nicola Sturgeon in an FMQs heckle of being anti-English during a question about what Scotland was doing to tackle racism. Sturgeon reacted with unbridled fury and later made an unprecedented complaint to the Presiding Officer. White says now that she was new and inexperience, but surprised by what felt like an over-reaction from the FM. She later apologised formally to the Chamber “out of respect for the Presiding Officer”. 

White was elected in 2021 having only joined the Conservative Party in 2014. She had previously been a member of the Labour Party – she campaigned to get Christine Russell elected as the MP for Chester in 1997, unseating the sitting Tory MP Giles Brandreth who, ironically, almost 20 years later, was involved in White’s own training to become a Tory candidate.

She flirted with support for the Lib Dems electorally but had stopped being an active member of any party while she pursued a career in HR, reaching very senior levels within a number of multinational oil companies. She became more actively interested in politics again after she moved to Scotland from living abroad. She says that a few things coalesced at the same time to nudge her into the Conservative Party. She cites David Cameron’s same-sex marriage legislation as being pivotal to that decision, having herself by this time married Thora, her neuroscientist wife, in the Netherlands where they were both working at the time in 2005.

“That move by David Cameron was historic and signalled to me how inclusive the party had become. But also, Ruth Davidson was leading the party in Scotland and – like many others – I gravitated towards her brand of conservatism. And, of course, the run-up to the independence referendum was in full swing and I just couldn’t bear the thought of breaking up the UK.”

White was the first in her Labour/Lib Dem-supporting family to join the Tory party – her grandfather was the chairman of the local Labour Party and she has a cousin who is currently a Labour councillor – and she says that in some ways, it was harder to come out to the family about her politics than it was about her being gay.

“I remember telling my dad about Thora, and I said, ‘Dad, I’ve fallen in love with somebody’, and he said, ‘what’s his name?’ And, I just said, ‘well, actually, Dad, it’s a her’. He didn’t blink, he just said, ‘I love you very much, it doesn’t matter to me but your mother, well, it’s going to take her a long time.’ And actually, it took her until just before she died to reconcile the fact that I’d married a woman, but she spoke to me about it and said that she was sorry and that she hadn’t understood because it wasn’t part of the world that she lived in.

“I didn’t invite them to our wedding out of respect for them, I didn’t want to put them in a difficult position, and when you come from a deeply religious family, you have to respect their different views and I know that they did come to accept it.”

Unlike some politicians, White wears her sexuality lightly. She says she happens to be married to a woman now but won’t be defined by that one thing. However, she says she knows what it feels like to transition from a more socially acceptable identity – a straight married mother to being a gay woman married to another woman – and says that brings with it life experience that she hopes she can apply in a sensitive way as the parliament tackles what has become one of its most controversial bills, around reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

“I come from a loving and caring family that try not to be judgemental. I know how much their support has meant to me but equally, I’ve got constituents who have transitioned or are transitioning or want to transition, and I hear their stories, and it’s heart-breaking. So, you’ve got people who are angry and hurt and you’ve also got people who are toxic, making hugely damaging, horrific, comments to the likes of J.K. Rowling and to women who raise concerns and so on. But I think it’s like a standard deviation curve and a continuum. You’ve got people here, and people there, and then most people in the middle who don’t know what’s going on. They haven’t got a clue. You know, what’s gender, what’s sex, whatever. But I think what’s happening with the SNP government is that a lot of them don’t understand how frightening it is for some people and they just say it’s all about being inclusive and they don’t realise that women’s rights are being eroded as an unintended consequence. This isn’t at all like the debate around gay rights or equal marriage. It’s completely different. And it needs to be properly and calmly debated, with all concerns teased out, discussed and reasoned but I think I’m fearful and frightened, that, you know, with the SNP/Green coalition, that anything can get through and there isn’t a second house, a check and balance, there isn’t a House of Lords or anything like that, so I think if it goes through as is, there will be a legal challenge afterwards, and that won’t help heal any of this.

“I’m hoping that people will see sense and people will see what’s happening. But I think the language is very toxic and the language is difficult where even the word ‘feminist’ has different meanings and it really disturbs me that this Scottish government hadn’t properly consulted with the women’s groups and left it until January, so they feel sort of disenfranchised and not listened to.

“What I learnt over a 35-year career in personnel is throughout change, you must take people along with you, otherwise you don’t have a business at the end. And all I see is this becoming more frightening and more toxic. And no matter what anybody thinks about Boris Johnson, I think the words that he used in parliament and when being interviewed, might be, in my view, the right words, that we must show all people care and love, but we can’t erode the rights of women in that process.

“I’m not sure why politicians get into such a mess with some of the questioning on this. A woman is an adult, human female. But if a trans woman or a trans man wants to live as a woman or a man, then I think that they have the right and should be protected, and not bullied and not harassed. People are human beings, everybody’s different, and I think while people like boxing and labelling, it’s because it makes it comfortable for them. Every single person has their own feelings, their own beliefs, their own way they want to live their lives, their own concerns, and it is complex, so it’s not as easy as shrinking it down to asking politicians, ‘what is a woman?’. Of course, you’ve got to respect biology   –  campaigner Nimco Ali said earlier this year that ‘biology matters’ because 73 million girls are at risk of FGM. You can’t ignore that. But then you’ve also got to respect people who are transitioning and want to live their life as a man or a woman.

“I hope and I think I can listen to all of this, and I’m trying to be very, very careful to navigate through it, but I’m always trying to maintain a balance. Throughout my career, I’ve tried to always listen to both sides and navigate a way through – this is frightening, because we’re talking about people, we’re not just talking about people’s jobs, or a pay dispute, or whatever – we’re talking about their lives here and that is the care that we must carry as we take it through.”

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