Content warning: discussions of chronic illness, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
I used to be very in touch with my body. I was aware of slight changes, and could tell what they meant. For example, I get different kinds of headaches when I’m hungry, dehydrated, tired, stressed, or around allergens. Each of these headaches feels different. Hunger headaches are a vague throbbing in my forehead. Tired headaches are often a sharp pain just over my left eye. Sinus headaches are usually just above the bridge of my nose, and include pressure behind my eyes.
As I’ve gotten older, however, my body has changed and adapted. Sometimes the signals aren’t so clear. Now when I’m hungry or stressed, I often feel nausea. But I can also get nauseous if I’m tired, eaten soy, dehydrated, eaten too much dairy, or if my stomach just plain feels like it.
So it can be hard to listen to the little signals my body sends out when something is wrong. It’s also hard when I have multiple conditions or medications that can cause the same thing. For example, my anti-depressant can also make me nauseous sometimes. Depression can also make me tired, lethargic, and give me insomnia. It can screw up my digestion, make it hard to concentrate, and difficult or impossible to take care of myself properly (for example, drinking enough water and eating healthy food).
It’s like watching a foreign movie without subtitles, where all the characters are speaking very fast in a language I have only a passing familiarity with. Is this Spanish or Italian? Does this word mean what I think it does, or is it something else entirely? Or is it a homonym in the language I think it is, but doesn’t refer to the thing I think it does?
Finally, however, all of these symptoms got to be too much. I realized that I was sleeping at least 12 hours a day, and still so tired I could barely function. My excuses of stress, making up for the Great Insomnia Battle of 2017, and adjusting to a new medication were no longer adequate. I would have days where I could barely eat anything at all. Then I started being sick to my stomach randomly, for no reason I could identify. There was no fever. The symptoms passed quickly (though that was a miserable two hours, let me tell you).
Something was definitely wrong, but I didn’t want to make an appointment with my doctor for something so random. I could picture the conversation in my head.
“So what brings you in today?”
“I don’t feel good.”
“Can you elaborate on that?”
“…well, I’m really tired.”
At this point, an eyebrow would be raised and I’d be dismissed as a hypochondriac.
And then there would be good days. Days when I was active. Days when I didn’t need to take a 90 minute nap just to get through the afternoon.
Clearly, it was all in my head. I just wasn’t trying hard enough. I was lazy. If I just worked a little harder, it wouldn’t be a problem.
Do you remember that voice? Because I do. I’ve been familiar with that voice since middle school. The one that told me I didn’t have depression, I just wasn’t trying hard enough. The one that told me it was my fault. The one that whispered in my ear and told me all the different ways I could kill myself, and that no one would care if I did.
Realizing the voice had come back was a wake up call. I didn’t feel depressed, but I did feel tired. Maybe my anti-depressant needed adjusted? Maybe I was short on vitamin D? Who knows? There was only one way to find out.
Thankfully, I had a physical coming up. I spoke to my doctor, and she also expressed concern over the extreme fatigue, but decided to reserve judgement until we’d gotten the results back on my labs. She ordered an extended list of blood work. Three vials later, I was sent on my way with orders to call if anything new cropped up.
Within 24 hours, the results were in: My thyroid had ceased functioning normally.
Suddenly everything made sense. The fatigue. The weight gain. The nausea. The aching wrists and knees I’d attributed to weather changes and too much knitting. The fact that I froze at even moderate temperatures. A whole host of little annoyances I hadn’t even realized were symptoms finally lined up.
I am now on a medication to help with the lowered hormone levels, and it has helped so much. Though it can take 4-6 weeks to reach peak performance, I felt a difference in 24 hours.
The funny thing is, in Yee Olden Days, back before doctors knew what a thyroid was or what it did, hypothyroid was treated as a mental illness, because it bears a lot of similarities to chronic depression (or melancholia, as the Victorians called it). General feelings of being tired, unmotivated, and depressed to joint aches, weight gain, and an inability to concentrate are all overlapping symptoms. The real difference is in the blood test, which didn’t exist before 1960. So it’s understandable why I would think the problem was me, and not my body.
I can’t even describe to you what it felt like to get a diagnosis. To know that I wasn’t a hypochondriac. That I wasn’t imagining it, that the problem wasn’t that I wasn’t trying hard enough, but that there was something physically wrong with my body that I couldn’t do anything about on my own.
This is a chronic condition. It’s not going to suddenly go away. But I’m learning how to handle it. Just having a course of action I can follow is incredibly freeing.
It also nudged my mom to get tested. It turns out hypothyroid disease runs in my family, and I never knew it.
The moral of the story: If something feels off, and it’s off for a long time, get it checked out. Things can change quickly. Last year, I tested for normal thyroid levels. This year? Not so much.
Give yourself the gift of sanity and peace of mind, because that little voice? It’s wrong.
Like what you see? Check out #MHMon: 2018, Year of the Squirrel