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.

The Weight in the Mirror

Letting Go #16

I look in the mirror these days and see a stranger. Cliche, I know. The twist is that I see a DIFFERENT stranger every day. Sometimes I’m bloated so much that I’m reminded of Graham Greene’s Toad. Sometimes I’m dehydrated enough to have lots of wrinkles and lines from where I slept the night before. Before you think that I suffer from mental delusions, let me just say that although therapy might still be a good idea, I’m also knocking on the Crone’s door of the big M, and my mafia immune system has put out a hit on my thyroid.

And nearly fifty years spent loving food and drink doesn’t help, either. I grew up in a family of foodies. We may not have enjoyed much else, but we always indulged in the best and freshest food we could find, much of it homegrown and homemade. I was lucky to have a very high metabolism as a kid–there are pictures of me in miniskirts with toothpick legs. In fact, I was painfully thin at times. Since I’m 5’8” and like to breathe when I wear clothes, I could camouflage from myself a good deal of the bloating and weight gain during bouts of depression and the postpartum polka.

I had a wake-up call in my mid-thirties that motivated me to join a gym and take up running. Then I moved to the country to work a 3,000 square-foot garden and maintain three acres of very healthy weeds/grass with a walk-behind mower. All was undone on the eve of my fortieth year when the first vague symptoms of my thyroid disease reared their ugly heads. It would take years to diagnose, but after dutifully chugging down my thyroid med every morning, I’ve been comfortable with my weight, although it’s been steadily creeping up every year.

Unfortunately, avoiding mirrors and photos won’t work anymore, now that I’m video chatting with my college daughter every week and taking my own profile photos for the internet. The camera (and webcam) doesn’t lie. A recent high school reunion that I couldn’t attend had me wondering whether anyone would look in my face and recognize that painfully thin teenager from thirty-one years ago?

I’m always shocked at how different my mental image is from a real good hard look at myself in the mirror, or on the computer. Is that really me? It’s a puzzle. The answer, I suspect, is once again the theme for the blog this year. I’m working on letting go of the old images rattling around in my head, and embracing the baby steps of self-care and healthy habits. If I can stick to it, we’ll have to see what I look like as a healthy person. I hope I’ll recognize me.

Something about the eyes, perhaps?

Health Insurance Rage

Letting Go #5:

Let me start off by clarifying that I’m grateful to have health insurance. And that I’m grateful to still qualify for this insurance through my husband, because otherwise I’d only get enough back from my own paycheck to pay for some aspirin (the store brand). In this day and age, good health insurance is becoming a luxury. That said however, I am also really struggling with the fact that our insurance company (which shall remain nameless) KNOWS full well that we are some of the lucky few and takes advantage of this situation at every opportunity.

Recently, after no less than five calls by both my husband and me, the latest debacle is no closer to resolution than it was three weeks ago. Oh, and this isn’t even one of those deals where we are protesting a claim. This is the deal where all involved have admitted that there’s a mistake, but nobody in the whole cyber-medical-plan maze has the authority to fix our deductible so that we don’t keep on paying and paying and paying like the Energizer Bunny.

Medical insurance and the act of “going to see the doctor” just pushes my buttons. I grew up in a family without medical insurance. And what made matters worse, we were a farm family where the risk of injury on the job is extremely high and there is usually no cash handy to pay for any livestock medical bills much less human ones. “To go to the doctor” meant there was something really wrong with you—there had to be massive blood loss or a raging fever or something about to fall off that needed re-attachment. To this day, even with Medicare my parents refuse to seek medical intervention in a timely fashion (Example: my dad waited five days before driving himself to the hospital for a ruptured appendix. Yes, he lives to tell the tale).

No doubt, I come from hardy stock (or at least from kin with high pain thresholds) but I am no match for the stress of waiting for the medical claim to arrive in the mail—the one that will ruin our lives. By that I don’t mean just the financial strain, but the psychological fallout of maneuvering the intricate chess game of co-payment and deductible hell. Given my history, it is very likely that I will put off or avoid treatment until I feel like I’m in the before-mentioned hell (that isn’t even considered in-network, darn it!). I will go in only when I feel really, really bad. Wellness checkups? Bah! Yearly physicals? Wimps!

And if I don’t change my attitude, it will catch up with me one of these days. As I get older, I must remind myself that it’s in my best interests, as well as the insurance company’s, for me to get in those check ups so that they won’t have to foot the big bills of medical catastrophe and I won’t be living in a medical hell that I created by waiting too long for treatment. From what I’ve seen, self-care is not at the top of the list for most caregivers, for most people, really. And the more phobic I become in dealing with the insurance company, the less I’m taking advantage of programs that will provide early intervention. After all, my health and the health of my family members are the most important factors in this equation, no matter how difficult the settling of the medical bar tab can become. One thing’s for sure, the fees will be resolved one way or the other, and I’ll be that much wiser in the ways of the insurance world.

Funny, I don’t mind going to the dentist. But that’s a whole other story.

Live in good health—know that it is within your grasp.