What Illness Tells Us

My old friend Hashimoto’s has come for a visit. I have to admit, it has been a while. He’s evidently here for an extended stay, because he’s brought a lot of baggage along this time. The contents are comprised of a good many things I didn’t want to see again. So far, he is persistent with his little gifts for me, even though I try to refuse them.

My particular thyroid disease (named after the Japanese doctor who discovered it in 1912) is a common autoimmune disorder of mostly middle-aged women, affecting about 10% of the population. The cause is not known, although genetics and environmental exposures are suspected. There is no cure, even though this disease has been identified for 100 years.

In a nutshell, my immune system has decided to attack my thyroid, the central command of all bodily functions. Why?

With very little to go on, I’ve tracked down which side of the family has given me this interesting little gene. I’ve become vigilant of the triggers — cold, stress, lack of sun and exercise, bad diet, an encroaching sense of doom. And I know that the racing heartbeat, slow metabolism, acid reflux, mental confusion, tremors, goiter, muscle and joint pain, bloating, insomnia, depression and other delights are not far behind.

When my cuckoo’s nest of crazed antibodies breaks out into the endocrine system and wreaks havoc on my day, I try to remain calm, take my medicine and wait it out. I also consider what is going on in my life, inside and out.

I’m a big believer in listening to what the physical body is trying to tell us on other levels. In my self-help wanderings, I’ve come across healers such as Louise Hay and Christiane Northrup, who interpret what various ailments indicate in the spiritual, emotional and mental realms. This line of thought is considered “wacko” by western medicine, but even its practitioners can’t deny the mind-body connection anymore.

The loudest indictment against a holistic view of chronic disease and cancers is based on the notion that we cause our illnesses. That these afflictions are our own fault, and we are responsible for bringing health troubles on ourselves by bad living and poor choices.

This argument can’t be very healing, and blame does no good in the end. In the process of living, the best therapy points us to the areas of our lives that need to be acknowledged, nurtured, or sometimes released through grief work. The body often knows what the mind overlooks or dismisses.

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of the neck. It covers my throat and by its very position controls my voice, physically and spiritually. When it’s inflamed, the words I utter will become low and cracked. On its bad days, the gland pushes against my airway, and chokes back my requests for a good life. It becomes hard to swallow and take in the joy of the moment.

By force, I realize the need to relax into breath and search for the nurturing that eases my antibodies’ overly protective instincts. I have to coax out and address the fear my body holds to itself like a shield.

I’ve had a hard time speaking up over the years. During the first major visit by Hashimoto’s when I was almost 40, I saw many doctors, trying to find an answer for all my bizarre symptoms. Even when I intuitively suspected my thyroid as the problem, my hunch was dismissed by one doctor because I didn’t look like I had thyroid problems. The typical blood tests kept coming back normal, which wasn’t helpful.

No one in the medical profession would really listen to me, and I spent several winters in misery convinced that I was going nuts.

Finally, I found a nodule in my neck one cold winter night, and the blood tests confirmed hormonal imbalances. A biopsy followed. Within a week I was facing cancer, an oncologist and removal of my thyroid. At this point, I began to speak up and say the magic word: NO to messing with my neck, so close to my vocal chords and trachea; NO to irradiation and its aftereffects. YES to the inner voice.

I went to see a specialist, the top endocrinologist in the state. It was there that he introduced me to Hashimoto’s. Welcome to your chronic disease, lady, you’re one of the lucky 10%. Here’s some free samples of the synthroid you’ll be taking for the rest of your life.

I’d like to say that I’ve found my voice since then. That it’s loud and clear. But that wouldn’t be the truth. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve had plenty of periods when I’ve thundered out my stories, when I’ve sung to my own happy tune and found harmony with other voices.

But the butterfly in my neck is trapped in a cocoon of inflamed scar tissue of my own making. (Perhaps that’s why it is always worse in the winter.) My visitor is slow to leave until I find the strength in my words to tell him when to go.

Meanwhile, the chrysalis waits for spring.

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9 thoughts on “What Illness Tells Us

  1. Vera and I are sorry to hear that your Hashimoto is active. If cold and stress are two of your triggers, this certainly is the winter for it. I don’t know how it is in Indiana but our winter in Maine has clearly entered a less cold phase. That means the beginnings of spring are not too far off, even up here.

    Vera is hypo but she is doing OK at present. Our best to you, Gary & Sydney.

    1. suburbansatsangs

      I appreciate your message, Mike and Vera. I’ve always had some trouble during Indiana winters, maybe because of the lack of sun and winter air pollution. This year is particularly bad, but like you, it’s warming up finally. We still have ice, believe it or not. Glad that Vera is holding steady. I’m working on a new normal these days. 😉

  2. I’m sorry, Tamara, that your Hashimoto’s is active again. This post is so beautifully written… You do have a voice; believe in it! Be kind to yourself, as well. And yes, here, too, spring seems to be making an appearance. Hopefully, that is the case where you are.

    1. suburbansatsangs

      Thanks so much, Sweepy Jean. It was cathartic to write, selfishly. But I hope others who suffer from Hashimoto’s may stumble upon this and know they’re not alone. It’s a most frustrating disease. As for the writing, I’m inspired by what you are creating–beautiful stuff going on at your website and facebook. Here’s to spring!

  3. Moey

    Thank you for your writings. I have Hashi’s too, and winter seems to be when its symptoms are worse. For the last 7 years, every January, sometimes February – right before spring, the fatigue is debilitating. I have wondered why there is this pattern.

    Recently, in the height of summer, I have also had another bout of Hashimoto symptoms – possibly due to excess work (>50 hours a week). I am a graduate student trying to complete my fieldwork hours. Unfortunately, unlike a paid employee, interns have little recourse or protection. I have had to formally go to my school’s disability services to request a reduction in hours.

    I hope the accommodation helps.

    Thank you again for your sharing.

    1. I appreciate you taking the time to relate your experiences with Hashimoto’s. I have found the excessive heat this summer to aggravate my thyroid problems as well. So hot or cold, it seems the body has a harder time adjusting to the extreme temps while the war goes on inside with the ol’ immune system. And stress is always a villain, isn’t it? I, too, hope that reduced hours will help with your symptoms, Moey. Fifty or more hours are a lot, even without the added responsibilities of grad school. I wish you the best of luck and health.

      1. Moey

        Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my response. Yes, I agree with you that the extreme temperatures make it harder for the body to handle the stresses created by an overreactive immune system.

        The reduced hours are somewhat helping but I am still cloudy-headed, and my fresh-out-of-school clinical supervisor still lacks an understanding as to why I get fatigued, light headed and sometimes forget certain details (she forgets details too).

        She also busily pull me into various side topics in her efforts to improve my “multi-tasking” ability – her words. In my 25 years of working, I’ve never had a supervisor try to help me to multi-task better – which fatigues me even more. In fact, most of my previous supervisors encouraged focused activity.

        As an adult woman, my brain, while it has powers of plasticity, is fully formed, and efforts to enforce ‘multi-tasking’ in her specific terms, are fruitless. Regardless, I multi-task all the time. Sadly, there is little understanding of the effects of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

        I wish for all of your readers the support we need to accomplish our goals and enjoy our lives to the greatest extent we possibly can.

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