After dealing with thyroid disease for almost 9 years, I finally, for the first time, can definitively identify the symptoms that are coming from being hyperthyroid. When they found the goiters on my thyroid and diagnosed me with Graves Disease, I didn’t know my very overactive thyroid was doing anything to my body. Unlike these stories you hear (like Dr. Amy Myers‘s), I was not telling an unbelieving doctor that there was something wrong with me. Quite the opposite. I had multiple doctors see my test results and look at me, perplexed: “You haven’t been shaking, anxious, losing weight? Have you been losing hair or had temperature problems?” Nope, nope, nope. I had been hyperthyroid for so long that I just thought of myself as someone who had thin hair and could eat a lot. Everything else I chalked up to my high-stress job: I was “type A”, I didn’t sleep well because I had a lot on my mind. I wasn’t anxious, I was BUSY. Give me the radioactive iodine already and let me get back to work!
A few weeks ago, I started getting very stressed out about my upcoming trip to California. So much to plan, rentals to find, plane tickets to buy, packing lists to make, food to prepare and freeze, prescriptions to fill. And for the doctor I’ll be seeing, I have to write my history, years of tests to sort, scan and email, release of records forms to ten different clinics… Of course I was feeling overwhelmed–especially with finding places to stay since every day that I didn’t make a decision, more options would disappear. My sleep had (has) gone to hell, I’m waking up with a sore jaw from grinding and my teeth feel unstable. I keep telling my husband, “There’s too much to do. I can’t breath, my heart is racing, I feel like I’m going to have a stress-heart attack.” I lie down to rest and my mind … my god, it just races and my body feels full of electricity. I give up, come downstairs and speed talk at my husband. The other night he asked me, “How do you have so much energy right now, you didn’t sleep at all?” And I said, “It’s not energy, it’s adrenaline, it’s stress. Once the trip is sorted, this will stop.” That was my explanation.
I lost a little bit of weight and thought it was because I cut back on eating so many nuts. But I’m eating more in general: one minute I’m complaining about how full and uncomfortable I am and, five minutes later, I’m back in the kitchen looking for snacks. I said to my friend, “I’m stress-eating.” That was my excuse. I said to my Mom, “My hair has started to fall out again and it never even grew back from before.” In my mind, I was blaming the hair loss on weight loss, even though I’m only down a few pounds. That makes no sense! Such a small amount of weight loss hasn’t caused hair loss, your thyroid has caused both, you myopic fool.
A week or two before I started to notice all of this, I had increased my thyroid medication from 100ug to 125ug a day. I’ve changed my dose so many times over the years, I don’t give it a second thought. I certainly don’t monitor my body’s reactions because I am an expert at ignoring the signs, even when they’re not subtle. Just like when I was a workaholic and feeling these same physical symptoms, but thought they were just from job pressure.
When the penny dropped (I was recently told that Americans don’t know that idiom — it means you put two and two together or the light bulb went off), that all of it is overactive thyroid, I was so excited, so soothed. And it was suddenly so very obvious. This is textbook. I’m not an anxious person, I never have been. My neuroses are canted more towards rumination and second-guessing. It’s a fine line, but this tight, breathless, buzzing, heart-hammering feeling in my chest is not normal and is awful. Such a sad thing to realise that, even after all this time, with my body yelling its head off, I blindly make excuses. I could be standing here, cold and jittery, with a handful of hair in one hand and my third sandwich in the other, saying, “Gosh, this trip planning is stressful.”
It reminds me of that scene in The Man With Two Brains when he’s looking at the portrait of his dead wife and asks her to give him a sign if his new girlfriend is bad news. After the ghost turns the room upside down, Steve Martin says, “Just any kind of sign. I’ll keep on the lookout for it. Meanwhile, I’ll just put you in the closet.”
I’ve been putting my body in the closet. I’m so happy to finally know without a doubt exactly what my hyperthyroid symptoms feel like and even happier to know I can fix it.
It’s 7am on a Sunday and, in a fit of irked defiance, I made myself a cup of fully caffeinated Barry’s tea with milk — real, whole, pasteurized cow milk — and sugar. I’m shaking like a leaf now and don’t know if the sudden addition of dairy to my diet will have any effect, but, oh, make no mistake, there is nothing in the world like a proper cup of tea and I needed that comfort.
I went to sleep last night at 12:30am and awoke at 4:30am with my heart pounding from a stressful dream and I never went back to sleep. This isn’t uncommon — one of the sleep issues I’ve had since being ill is waking up at the end of every REM cycle. My sleep doctor couldn’t find any reason for it (apnea events, restless leg etc.) and it means that I remember multiple dreams every night. Unfortunately, they are all too often nightmares — tortured events that almost always revolve around my illness: I am being chased by murderers, but I am too sick to get away. My dogs are in peril and I’m too weak to save them. I’m homeless and being accosted by faceless strangers on the street and I have no energy to fight and no voice to argue. No voice is a recurring theme — the inability to yell for help, the inability to defend myself.
This morning, the breathless, heart-pounding awakening was caused by a dream about a friend who accused me of something I didn’t do 17 years ago. I won’t get into details because it is buried just enough to not engulf me in a tsunami of emotion and, when I finally deal with it, it will have to be parsed out in careful digestible bits, probably with my therapist. But, I think it is time to confront it. She was a friend I loved very much and with whom I had years of history. She is actually one of my facebook contacts because I don’t like letting anyone go, but my stomach turns every time I see her interacting with my old circle of friends, a combination of bitterness, jealously, embarrassment and mourning for the loss of that closeness and confidence in childhood loyalty. The situation actually changed the course of my life because, in the wake of it, I postponed a move back to Ireland and wound up meeting my husband soon thereafter.
Although I never believed it before, it occurred to me recently that maybe all this dealing with the past bullshit has some merit. In 2012, my counselor at the time tried to broach the subject of anger or hurt that I might be harbouring from my past and I shut it down. Emotionally, I felt fine until this horrific illness and all I’ve needed and wanted was help dealing with the abrupt loss of life as I knew it. Who cares about my parents’ divorce when I’m trying not to die every day and I want to die every night? But I’ve come through the acute stage of ME and have accepted where I am. My fear is justifiably about the future and the present feels pretty… matte. But the damn past has started gurgling up in my dreams. Last week I drempt that my old boss instructed me to open a bunch of restaurants in quick succession and I was too sick and ineffectual to do it. I woke up in a cold sweat of anxious panic and blunt anger at a job that always asked too much. There are demons in there.
So, today I’m starting with an email — or at least the contemplation of an email — to my old friend. Maybe I don’t need to go into the extended rant that always surfaces during those half-awake moments when I start to compose the letter. Maybe I just need to find my voice and say, for the record, I didn’t do it.
I have had an itch under my jaw, deep in the tissue of my neck for years. In 2009, I decided to mention it to a doctor one day and, although she didn’t feel anything abnormal in the area of the itch, she did casually say, “You do have a lump on your thyroid, though.” I had a thyroid nuclear test done and a radioactive iodine uptake test which showed two toxic multinodular goiters.”Toxic”, meaning thyroid hormone was being produced at an increased rate, which is why my thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) tested so low. “Multinodular” because it was a late-stage goiter, meaning it had been around for a while and had a chance to grow and become lumpy. In my case, I had been hyperthyroid for at least 7 years ~ my first abnormal TSH result was in 2002, but my doctors never pursued it and I didn’t know enough to insist.
This was my first experience with specialists. I had only ever dealt with general practitioners and emergency room doctors. The research doctors that diagnosed me were bizarre. They came into the room and peered at me like I was a specimen, their faces frozen into pensive seriousness. I started cracking jokes to break the tension, but they didn’t respond in kind. They asked me questions with long quiet pauses in between, during which they would look at each other and mumble and nod: Do you have flushing? Are you intolerant to heat? Do you shake? Stick out your tongue. Hold out your hand. Have you experienced any anxiety symptoms? I finally stopped them and asked what they had found ~ they had told me nothing! Do I have cancer? No. Do I need surgery? No. Okay, now you can ask me more questions.
I had to do both nuclear medicine tests twice because too much time elapsed from my first round of testing to go forward with treatment ~ radioiodine ablation. After you have radiation treatment, you must stay away from people and animals for a few weeks, use different cutlery, use a different toilet and/or flush twice. It seemed like a big decision, but the doctors told me it was a terminal problem. I’ll never forget that. They said there wasn’t a very long life expectancy for people with untreated hyperthyroidism. Huh? Seriously? I didn’t seem to have a choice. So, I did it. I killed the whole thyroid and started taking hormones every day for the rest of my life. I never missed a day of work through this experience. During the segregation weeks, I holed up in the restaurant office, alone. I remember encountering a pregnant lady on my way to the rarely-used toilet in the basement and leaping back out of her space as if I’d been electrocuted… high-tailing back into the office so she wouldn’t be exposed to radiation. What must she have thought? 😉
Interestingly, I never felt like the symptoms abated. The flushing and hot flashes (my most visible symptoms, which I chalked up to oddly increasing self-consciousness) and the anxiety (which I blamed on my job) ebbed a little, but not much. And, of course, this was undoubtedly part of the priming of my body for ME. Hyperthyroidism and my anaphylactic episodes started about the same time. It was the beginning of the end.
Below are the photos and email that I sent to friends and family back then, hoping that it might open someone’s eyes to thyroid problems or make them listen a little bit more to their bodies. The fact that I thought I was having “devastating” and “debilitating” symptoms then strikes me as funny now… and sad. What was happening to my body because of my thyroid problems was NOTHING compared to what is happening to my body with M.E. They’re not even on the same planet … in the same universe. Can’t I go back to my old serious health problems?
I have attached 3 pictures that I took before I got radiation treatment (ablation). The first is looking at my neck as I stand relaxed, the next is with my head back and the third was taken as I swallowed. I can’t believe I never noticed the lump on my thyroid. I can’t believe nobody else did. I can’t believe, with 7+ years of abnormal TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels, neither a doctor nor I, myself, looked any closer at my neck or my symptoms. [The radioiodine must have swelled my thyroid, however there was definitely a visible lump before treatment that I never noticed until it was pointed out -and it is unforgivable that no doctor ever took the time to look further into my bloodwork or palpate my throat.]
So, I guess I’m hoping this email influences everyone to pay closer attention to their bodies. Look closer: know every line and lump so you’ll recognise changes. Listen closer: if your body is constantly telling you it’s way too hot or way too cold or way too tired or way too hungry, don’t ignore it. Don’t wait for a doctor to find out what’s wrong with you ~ question everything that feels wrong.
It turns out I wasn’t overheated & flushing because I’d become suddenly self-conscious. It turns out I didn’t just “get lucky” with an amazing metabolism. I wasn’t having floods of anxiety that caused my heart to race & skip beats because my job was stressful. I wasn’t debilitatingly exhausted because I worked too much & didn’t sleep enough. Well, at least not entirely.
It’s still going to be a long road ~ my doctors say we could be tweaking my medication for years. I still vacillate between feeling ok and feeling dizzy and wasted… I eat about half what I used to… I’ll have to take hormones forever…. But, it’s not out of the question to go to a movie after a day’s work and I don’t spend my weekends crumpled in a ball, sobbing, asking what’s wrong with me while my husband wonders what to say….
I’m angry that I spent so long feeling that way and just explaining it away. I hope this inspires everyone to take a minute to think about your body and your quality of life. It’s all too short! Take care of yourselves!
Tomorrow is International M.E. Awareness Day. There are many events happening around the world, both online and in person. You can google your area to see if there is anything going on, but what I ask is something simple:
Please make an effort this month to talk about this disease. Look for opportunities to raise awareness. Don’t worry about being a “downer” or bringing up an awkward, depressing subject. Let people know that there is an illness that stops life in its tracks and has no approved drug treatments and very little funding for research. Explain that this has nothing to do with laziness, depression, tiredness or burn-out. Explain that there are test abnormalities, but doctors aren’t taught about the (possible/probable) etiologies of this disease so most do not recognise it and certainly don’t know what to test for or how to treat it. Make it known that patients languish in their homes ~ or, more likely, a family member’s home ~ are passed from dismissive specialist to thieving charlatan and back again, use up all their resources, and usually reach a point where they are trying to just survive because it is too exhausting to research treatments and search for medical help. Warn people that ME is often accompanied by crippling neurological issues, autonomic dysfunction, new allergies and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), chronic migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia (FM), mast cell problems (MCAD), sleep dysfunction and, of course, the depression and anxiety that would be hard to avoid with a diagnosis like this. These are all debilitating conditions in their own right, so drawing awareness to them is just as valuable.
As with many awareness campaigns, ribbons are worn to show support – blue for ME/CFS, purple for FM, and green for MCS. What I like about this is, it might bring up the conversation. Most people recognise the pink ribbon representing breast cancer awareness or the yellow Livestrong wristband which supports cancer survivors, but perhaps you will encounter someone who asks, “What does the blue ribbon stand for?” And then you can launch into your educational lecture. 🙂
A few things going on around the world:
Niagara Falls will be illuminated in blue tomorrow, May 12th, from 9:45-10:00pm EST to raise awareness to M.E. From 10:15-10:30pm EST the falls will be purple for fibromyalgia (FM) and from 11:00-11:15pm EST the falls will be green to draw attention to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). You can watch it on their live webcam. Or try: http://www.earthcam.com/canada/niagarafalls/
In London, there is the “All Fall Down for M.E.” protest outside the Houses of Parliament at the Old Palace Yard.
In Victoria, Australia at Melbourne University, there is an ME/CFS Educational Fun Run.
Bob Miller is skydiving to promote ME research in Lodi, California.
Read this article by Mark at Phoenix Rising to get all the details about these events and many more.
Finally, consider writing to your local paper to raise awareness. Read this post by the ME/CFS Self-help Guru for inspiration.
Thank you to everyone in my life that has talked about this baffling illness, raising awareness one person at a time. Thanks to my father for talking to his staff about this disease and to my mother for talking to her dog park friends about it and to Z. and E. for explaining my situation to other people I know and to my husband for constantly making excuses for my absence, trying to educate others on what is going on and raging at medical professionals’ and society’s ignorance, allowing me to be angry by proxy since I don’t have the energy for it.