When Kate Winslet, one of the world’s most elegant women, casually admitted on national TV that she often wets herself, I almost wept with gratitude.
Looking her usual glamorous self, she shrugged off a condition that causes sufferers to feel deep shame as being ‘one of those things’ – part and parcel of life after having children.
Suddenly, Kate gave every woman who knows the misery of having to change her underwear after every cough, sneeze or fit of laughter the green light to discuss it openly.
When Kate Winslet, one of the world’s most elegant women, casually admitted on national TV that she often wets herself, Belinda Birkett felt relieved and able to discuss it as the seriously debilitating problem it is
This all too common by-product of the birthing process is often seen as a great taboo: something to snigger about, albeit rather nervously. But at last women like me – now 54, I suffered the indignities of adult incontinence for three decades – feel able to discuss it as the seriously debilitating problem it is.
Not being able to control my bladder blighted my life. It was something I felt too ashamed to talk about with my friends, family or even the GP near my home in Cheshire. If only I had than I may have learned the NHS believes one in four women is affected to some extent.
It is a hideous thing that affected everything, from my sense of self-worth to my sex life. Imagine my misery as a young woman knowing that every time my husband and I made love we would lie afterwards in urine-soaked sheets. Dashing out of bed urgently to strip them off certainly took away any post-coital glow.
Three decades of feeling ashamed: Belinda Birkett, 54, from Cheshire, found that not being able to control her bladder blighted her life. The birth of her first child damaged her pelvic floor and she suffered ‘accidents’
Women talk about their dignity going out of the window when they give birth – but mine never found its way back again after I became a mother because it was following the delivery of my eldest daughter, now 33, that I started to be troubled with embarrassing ‘little accidents’.
She was a nine-pounder and her birth wreaked havoc on my pelvic floor, leaving me with what started out as only mild incontinence. This meant that every time I coughed or sneezed, or if I laughed suddenly or tried to lift something heavy, I would leak.
Like most women, I thought this was something that happens once you’ve had a baby. I accepted it and got on with it, always making sure I had dry underwear in my handbag in case of emergencies.
Imagine my misery as a young woman knowing that every time my husband and I made love we would lie afterwards in urine-soaked sheets
It was only after my twin daughters, now 31, were born that things became truly awful. Their birth went horribly wrong. I tore badly when the first baby came out; they had to cut me to deliver the second.
All this required a big surgical repair and afterwards, even after everything had healed, I was left with incontinence that went way beyond the little accidents Kate talked about.
I had no control over my bladder whatsoever. At the slightest exertion or strain, urine would leak out.
If I had a cough or cold, I’d be wetting myself constantly. Alcohol made an already difficult problem ten times worse.
I’m not just talking the odd little trickle; this was full-on incontinence. Every time I left home I had to know I was close to a loo, because if the urge to go came there would no time to spare.
Simple pleasures, such as long country walks, were a no-go. I couldn’t dance and taking public transport was nerve-racking.
Thankfully, after an internal sling was made from her own body tissue, Belinda has control of her bladder
I could never relax because I knew I might wet myself at any time, no matter how times I went to the loo beforehand.
And yet I continued to suffer in silence. Instead of carrying a couple of spare pairs of knickers, I had to make sure I had a spare outfit with me at all times. I relied on incontinence pads, but this was 30 years ago: they were big, bulky things you ordered from the chemist, rather than the much slimmer versions available in supermarkets today.
I was a young woman in my early 20s, yet I could wear only loose clothing – anything remotely tight would show up the protection I was wearing. And, of course, there was the fear of someone noticing the smell.
Then there was the terrible impact this had on my sex life. Thankfully, my husband couldn’t have been more supportive. After all, he’d been there for the births of our daughters and had seen the damage caused to my body.
But however understanding he was, my embarrassment at something that made me feel far from desirable never went away.
It seems something of a miracle that I had two more daughters, now aged 24 and 21. They were born by Caesarean section – a precaution after things had gone so wrong with their sisters.
Sadly, my relationship with their father broke down, though it was nothing to do with my problem. There were other issues, and we no longer wanted to be together.
After I met my second husband, whom I married in 2002, it took many months before I felt able to be intimate with him.
Imagine how difficult it was explaining to someone who hadn’t witnessed the cause of my incontinence why I found it so difficult to be physically close. It was during this relationship that things became even worse with my condition.
Together, we ran a successful window cleaning business employing ten people.
Mortifyingly, I started wetting myself in front of our staff – and a couple of customers, too. I always wore dark trousers as a precaution, along with pads.
Finally, I accepted that I had to swallow my pride and talk to my GP about it.
How I wished I’d gone sooner, because she immediately told me she had seen it all before. I’d been convinced I was the only person with such a vile problem.
She sent me for tests, and the consultant was reassuring. She, too, insisted that my situation, while extreme, wasn’t unique.
I had surgery in 2005 – a sling made from plastic mesh called Trans Vaginal Tape (TVT) was used to provide support under the neck of my bladder, helping to keep everything closed.
Unfortunately, my body rejected the synthetic material and as well as not working, it made me dreadfully ill. I suffered rashes, hot and cold sweats and near constant urinary tract infections.
It took almost a decade to work out the sling was to blame. Last year it was removed, after which I spent eight months having to change pads every 20 minutes. I had nappy rash, was virtually housebound and despaired at how miserable my life had become.
Finally, in October, another sling was fitted, this time made from my own body tissue, taken from above my pubic bone. Thankfully, it worked and, for the first time in 33 years, I am back in control of my bladder, and my life, too.
I’m single again and at last I’m not daunted by the thought of intimacy. I can wear what I want, go where I want and enjoy a good giggle without worrying it will end in dreadful embarrassment.
I just hope that having heard someone as glamorous as Kate Winslet speak so frankly about this awful predicament, other women won’t suffer in silence as I did, but will get the help they need.