Deciding to write this post has been a struggle. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of these types of posts when other people write them and I’ve been obsessing over whether or not to inflict it on you. To make this process easier for all of us I’ve put this post in a question and answer format so you can skip to any questions or answers that interest you. If none of it interests you, well, I don’t blame you.
Q: Jaime, what’s going on?
A: I worked out yesterday!
Q: ok . . . why are you telling me this?
A: Well, I’m actually kind of excited because the first time I’ve worked out in a really, really long time.
Q: If you’re into CrossFit now then we can’t stay friends.
A: No. Never. I did a very gentle workout designed for people with pelvic floor problems and back problems.
Q: Okay, if you don’t have CrossFit fever then why are you excited?
A: Because I was able to do a full 30 minute workout for the first time in over two years.
Q: If I can’t stop you from talking about this then tell me everything.
A: In February I finally found a doctor who diagnosed me with hypothyroidism instead of just telling me I was fat and should lose weight. As soon as I started levothyroxine I started sleeping better. The next thing I noticed was that my arms and hands stopped falling asleep. My mood improved too. On top of all that, very slowly, I started noticing that I didn’t hurt all the time. Yesterday I decided to try a workout video series that I purchased in December or January. I did all 30 minutes and I wanted to cry!
Q: Wait. What? Why would you want to cry?
A: Because I remembered trying to do this same video in January and not making it though and hating the workout for being too hard and hating my body for not doing what I wanted it to do. Then I thought of the time I signed up for a friend’s class at the community center and had to cancel at the last minute because I felt like shit. He, rightly, asked why I would sign up for something if I didn’t feel well enough to go and there was no way to explain to him how badly I wanted to feel well enough to go. I believe there’s this thing about being sick that we don’t talk about enough and it’s the other side of people telling you that your illness is all in your head. I’m not sure people who don’t have a chronic or undiagnosed illness get how badly a part of you wants that to be true because if it really is all in your head and you can figure out the “key” to fixing that part of your head then you can be well again. It’s a very perverse form of hope, but it is a type of hope. Buying workout videos or signing up for classes, at least for me, these were attempts to get “out of my head” and force myself to be well. Of course, it never worked. My body just wasn’t up to it.
Q: So working out yesterday felt like. . .
A: Victory, relief, and, just nice.
Q: What have you learned from this experience.
A: A bunch of things. (1) There are good people in the medical community but you have to fight a seemingly never-ending swarm of bad people to find them. (2) Fat phobia is the literal worst. (3) Grad school hides chronic illness, particularly thyroid disease. (4) Advocate for yourself.
Q: Can you go into a little more detail on those?
A: Of course. Let’s start with point three. Graduate school hides chronic illness because graduate students are told that they are going to be kind of poor and miserable for a little while as part of their apprenticeship. The fact that this is a bold-faced lie is a topic that has been well-covered by others (see: The Professor Is In). Still, what were the symptoms of my thyroid disease? I was tired, I was gaining weight (for no reason, but we’ll come back to that in a second), I was depressed, I had anxiety, I craved carbohydrates, I was sore, I was cold all the time, and my arms and hands would go numb a lot.
Here’s the explanation I got:
Everyone is tired in grad school because grad students have to work too much. This work also leads to less time for exercise. Combine that with a very restrictive food budget and it’s no wonder everybody gains weight in grad school. You’re depressed and anxious because you’re poor and stressed. Your arms go numb because your shoulders are so tight from stress that they are pinching your nerves leading to numbness.
The solution I was given by several doctors and friends who work in healthcare professions was to exercise more. Because see point 2: Fat phobia is the fucking worst. People in care professions, whether I knew them through professional or personal relationships, repeatedly viewed me with suspicion as if I must be lying about (a) how much I ate (b) how much I walked in a day (at the time I was walking 2-5 miles a day between my different jobs on campus) because if I was gaining weight then I must be doing something “wrong.”
I can’t tell you how much of a relief it was to finally find a doctor who said, “You are the expert on your body.” I almost cried. That is to say, there are good people who will support your journey but the overwhelming majority of folks have a fat-phobic bias they may not even be aware of.
Q: Do you have any advice for anyone that thinks they may have thyroid disease?
A: Yes. You are the expert on your body. Take all the naps you need and, when you can, keep advocating for yourself until you find a doctor and friends and partners and a circle of people who support you.