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Hypothyroidism and the Last 12 Months

May 15, 2008

I have thyroid disease…hypothyroidism to be exact. It just means that my thyroid gland does not produce enough hormones naturally so I have to take hormones in pill form daily to make up for what my body cannot make itself. It’s hereditary and I was diagnosed at age 19. I probably developed it during puberty, and even though I had almost every symptom, I was not tested until my mother found out that she had it when she was in her late 50s. A low-functioning thyroid affects every system in your body. The thyroid gland regulates how your body uses energy. I had a doctor tell me once that she was taught in med school that if someone came in to see a doctor with seven or more complaints that the patient was either crazy or hypothyroid (as an aside…she was a lousy abusive doctor).

The first two years after I was diagnosed are a haze of roller coaster hormones. It was not a good time in my life and I ended up having to withdraw from an entire semester’s worth of classes because I couldn’t manage to string two coherent thoughts together. The person that I had to meet with to get a medical withdraw from my classes, by chance, was hypothyroid also and had been through a similar experience and immediately granted me the withdraw.

My thyroid did eventually balance out and for 15 years it mostly stayed that way. That meant that my weight stabilized and didn’t budge but a few natural seasonal pounds between summer and winter. I could think straight. My hair stopped falling out and it turned gray more slowly. I wasn’t exhausted as a general rule. I slept better. I had normal cholesterol levels. Depression disappeared–I still got the blues sometimes, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t oppressive, all consuming depressive mania–it was a normal case of the sads. The swelling and muscle aches were gone (okay, except when I spent all day in the sun swimming off my brother’s boat and trying to drown my nephew in the surf–the little bugger is skinny and slick, but his Auntie M is strong and cunning). It was essentially like I had a normal-functioning thyroid (except that I took two thyroid pills each morning).

A year ago I had my thyroid tested (like I do at least once or twice a year when things appear normal) and my current doctor (who is fabulous, BTW) said it was a bit high. Just a tad above what the guidelines say is normal (and the range of what is considered normal was expanded in the recent past). So nothing really to worry about, but she wanted to try to get it in that range. And for the first time since I was diagnosed, a physician actually showed me the chart of the range and explained to me exactly what my test results meant. I was stunned. In 15 years this was the first time anyone had explained it to me. She said that normal for me might lie outside that range, but she wanted to see how I felt when my level was within the range so she lowered my dosage by 1/5 and that’s where this year of hell started. Every three months I went back and had my level tested again and I yo-yo’d up and down.

Quite a bit of this year was accomplished by sheer act of will. It pains me to hear it said that fat people have no willpower. I was so exhausted that just getting out of bed, showering, dressing, driving, then walking 15 minutes to work took every fiber of my being…and I dragged myself. I met my deadlines. I did my job well. And I when I got home I collapsed on the bed and slept poorly despite my exhaustion. Then I got up and did it all over again. Along with the usual day-to-day I also punished my body working festivals (my festival assignment usually involves ping-ponging from one end of the festival to the other and back again repeatedly for three full days, and climbing hundreds upon hundreds of steps). My will is very strong and anyone who truly knows me, knows it. That cycle lasted for months and by the end of it I was maintaining a perilous grasp on my sanity.

All of the sudden I gained 35 lbs in 6 months (I don’t own a scale, but I do let them weigh me at my doctor’s office–rapid weight fluctuations can mean that thyroid hormones are out of the proper range). No change to diet. No change to exercise (I was getting at least 30 minutes of walking in a day just going back and forth to work). 35 lbs. 6 months. And that also meant they had to add an extra weight to the scale so they could weigh me, which bothered me more than I’d care to admit.

My feet got bigger to compensate for the rapid weight increase (this is fairly common in women when they gain a lot of weight during pregnancy). The knee I injured in a childhood skiing accident pained me more so than usual. I had some pretty intense swelling and muscle aches. My weight set point had been the same for 15 years and I was suddenly drastically above it in a short period of time. I felt like an alien in my own body.

The graying of my hair increased exponentially although I’m probably the only one who really noticed it since I color my hair regularly. My thoughts were so disjointed that I was worried it would show in my work. I didn’t sleep. I was mortally exhausted, but because my thyroid level was so off, I couldn’t sleep no matter how long I spent in bed. So the exhaustion got worse until I absolutely lost it. After awhile I reached a point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’m not an overly tearful person normally, but I was tired of being tired and I cried a lot (this was amplified due to depression brought about by my under active thyroid). My self-worth suffers at times like this and my hard-fought battle to regain and build my self-esteem begins to feel like a lost cause. Logically, I know it’s the hormones and when I’m back to normal again all will be fine, but emotionally I felt like casting my malfunctioning body back into the ether.

I started getting those dreaded you look tired comments from friends and coworkers. I discovered more ingenious ways to cover up those dark circles under my eyes and I fully embraced the minor boost that coffee provided.

I was in a bad way.

As of about a month ago, I’m back at the same level of medication that I was on when this whole roller coaster started and I’m feeling much better. The last check of the hormone level was normal…finally, and I’m starting to feel like myself again. Also, I dropped 15 lbs in less than a month once I was back on the right level of medication. Once again, there were no changes in diet or exercise when this happened. The only thing that changed was my medication.

Some of the damage is done, however. The gray hair that I acquired in the past year will not go away and there will be more of it as time goes on. These changes just sped up the graying process for an entire year. My immune system should recover (although it wasn’t very strong to begin with), but I’ve suffered some additional setbacks there in the past year as well. My feet won’t shrink back to the size they were for 20 years prior to this and I’m still trying to rebuild my shoe wardrobe (some lucky person receiving donations from the Disabled Veterans has an awfully nice selection of shoes now). Despite all of these things, I’m starting to feel at home in my body again. I’m not sure where my weight has fallen to, but I feel like I’m hovering where my set point wants to be again.

Whenever someone tells me I need to get my fat ass of the couch and stop stuffing my face and I’ll naturally lose weight, this last year is what I’ll think of. It’s the year where I gained a lot of weight fast without changing anything that I put into my mouth or reducing my exercise. It’s the year where I lost a lot of weight without changing anything that I put into my mouth or increasing my exercise. Nothing that I did affected whether the scale went up or down, except taking those two little pills each and every morning. So ask yourself…why do you assume that I’m stuffing my face, not exercising, and confined to the couch?  You have no idea what it is like to walk in my shoes–no matter how big my feet have grown.

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