The Butterfly Effect: The Thyroid and Mental Health

butterfly

It’s been a while since I have written. And that’s mainly because I just haven’t had the energy; which, it turns out, happens to be the point of this post!

I’ve mentioned before (see previous post “OCD, medicated and fat”) that I have, for some time, been struggling with my weight. The truth is, I have always struggled with accepting my body, but over the past couple of years it has become increasingly difficult to look at myself in the mirror without wanting to cry. The main reason for this is because I have gained so much weight – I am talking a serious amount of weight, I’m talking being the biggest I have ever been in my life, shopping in plus size clothes shops and still not finding stuff that fits properly. I’m huge. When I take a shower I avoid looking down, I don’t want to see what it all looks like. I wear clothes that are as baggy as possible and try my best to avoid taking pictures that show anything below my neck. It’s out of control. Aside from the weight itself, the thing that has upset me the most is the feeling of not being in control of my own body because, no matter what I do, the weight just won’t budge. I have even started working with a personal trainer to try and get this mess under control.

Over the past year or so, there have been a number of other symptoms that have started to surface; symptoms which, on their own, don’t mean a great deal but, when pieced together, paint a picture of someone who is far from healthy:

Steady and consistent weight gain

Depression

Irregular and heavy periods

Extreme fatigue

Oversleeping

Dermatitis

Pains in my ankles and in my legs (so much so that, sometimes, I struggle to walk)

An extremely slow digestive system

Dry/brittle hair

Difficulty concentrating/remembering simple things

Swollen hands/feet (I recently had to cut a ring off my finger)

The list goes on.

It is because of this combination of symptoms that my partner has, for some time now, been trying to convince me to go and get my blood tested, to check that there wasn’t an underlying cause for all of this. It took me 6 months or so to pluck up the courage to go because, shockingly enough, as someone whose OCD centres around a blood-borne illness, I wasn’t exactly skipping to get my blood tested. Generally, I try my hardest to avoid those situations that might prompt an OCD freakout – which means that a doctors’ surgery (and, specifically, the room of a phlebotomist) is never going to be up there on my list of Places I’d Most Like to Visit. Also, after being on medication for 5 and a half years now, I certainly wasn’t relishing the prospect of potentially being put on yet more medication. My medicine cocktail seems to get bigger every time I pay a visit to the GP these days…

It all came to a head in recent weeks, when I have generally just been feeling very down and have found myself getting more and more frustrated with the way my body is behaving. It would be fair to say that, sometimes, it has felt like my body has been betraying me; and not just because of the weight, but because of all of it – the constantly wanting to sleep; the horrendous periods that just leave me exhausted, drained and in so much pain; the depression; the digestive system that seemed to not be working. All of it. I think I just got fed up of feeling so shit.

So I went to the doctor and he arranged for a full blood screening, which really wasn’t fun. Watching the nurse just casually handle the vials of blood; wondering how sterile that arm strap is (the one that they use to get at veins, at least I think that’s what it’s for); feeling embarrassed as I asked her why she wasn’t wearing gloves. My body was rigid as an ironing board when she stuck that thing in my vein, so much so that I ended up with a nice juicy bruise where the needle had been. One vial, two vials, three vials, four vials, five vials of my own blood. I wanted to be sick. The results came back a week or so later and it turned out that I was showing signs of hypothyroidism, a form of thyroid disease. So I would have to go back for more blood tests. Hurrah.

Off I went for more blood tests. Again, so much fun. Particularly as this nurse had left the vials of SOMEONE ELSE’S FUCKING BLOOD on the desk. Again, another bruised arm. I really hate blood tests. This time the tests confirmed what the doctor had suspected – I have a form of thyroid disease. The doctor was very nice (I have recently switched GPs) and explained the whole thing to me, he even drew me a diagram to illustrate exactly what my mischievous little thyroid has been up to. So, as far as I understand it, my thyroid has become oh so confused by its own existence and has resorted to basically attacking itself. Now, as a result of this chemical self abuse, it is failing to make enough of some special hormone that is the key to eternal health (okay, slight exaggeration, but it turns out that your thyroid is pretty fricking important, and kind of acts like a mini brain that controls the goings on of the body’s hormones. Pretty big stuff for a little butterfly-sized piece of tissue that sits in your throat). So my thyroid is broken, which means I will be on a replacement treatment for the rest of my life, literally for the rest of my life. Gutted. I am beyond gutted. And really sad. First, my brain is broken because I’m crazy and I have to take pills for that, and now my thyroid is packing up which means yet more pills (on top of that I have also learned that I have insufficient levels of both vitamin D and iron, which means supplements for the foreseeable future – but at least that is only temporary).

When I initially learned that it was suspected hypothyroidism I sent a text to my friend (who herself has been to hell and back as a result of a hyperactive thyroid, which is a different form of thyroid disease) who promptly reminded me of the positive of the situation – i.e. at least I now know what has been the cause of all of these things and I can move forward with the treatment. I won’t lie, there was a part of me that almost felt vindicated; all this time I have been feeling so ashamed of my weight, so embarrassed by my lack of energy to do anything, so baffled by the permanent brain fog that has just been suffocating my mind. Not being able to concentrate on the easiest of tasks, not being able to remember the simplest of things, hobbling like an old lady down the stairs whenever I got the pains in my legs; all of it had just made me feel so worthless and so pathetic. Now, all of a sudden, it made some sense. And it was kind of liberating to know that I wasn’t doing this to myself, that it was something beyond my control. My partner, who is a doctor, also said that there was a possibility that the thyroid disease had contributed to my falling into depression in the summer of last year. Apparently, the issue with the thyroid could have been building up to this point for years, which would certainly explain the weight gain at least. Either way, I hope that the treatment with help.

I am currently on day 3 of my new meds (thyroxine). My GP said that I should start to notice a slight difference in my tiredness levels after a week or so which is definitely good news and I am looking forward to that! The other day I felt so exhausted after I had taken a shower that I had to lie down; I ended up falling asleep for five hours. So, as far as I’m concerned, the prospect of having more energy is definitely one I can get on board with. As my Dad put it, hopefully I will start moving again soon – I really hope so. In a couple of months I will have to go back for more blood tests to see how my thyroid is reacting to the treatment so far; if necessary, the docs will adjust the dose. So it looks like blood tests are going to be a feature in my life from now on. But I’m trying to hold on to the positive – my friend is now referring to us as the ‘T Birds’, owing to our shared thyroid related issues. Well, I always did love Grease.

So, what’s the point of this post? Basically, I wanted to post this to encourage anyone with any of the symptoms that I have mentioned above, to go and get your thyroid checked. It’s so important to be aware of what your thyroid is up to, especially for those of us that live with one of the many forms of mental illness, of depression, of anxiety. To think that this little piece of tissue has the power to do so much to our bodies and to our minds; to think that it has the power to plunge a person into a deep depression – this is a powerful little butterfly-machine, and if it’s not working properly, the effects can be horrible and they can be debilitating. I am not saying that the thyroid has caused my own depression, I can never know that, but I am so glad that I am now aware of the connection between thyroid health and mental health.

So, if you do one thing this week, book an appointment with your GP and go and get your thyroid checked!

You can find more info about thyroid disease here: http://www.thyroiduk.org.uk/tuk/index.html

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