For as long as I can remember, tiredness has been a defining feature of my life experience. As a child I was a keen dancer, but I struggled to maintain stamina at two-hour dance sessions alongside other kids. P.E. became a torment and I was always last to be picked for everything (instilling a lifelong dislike of sports days which I now try hard not to pass on to my own children). My pale complexion drew comments, and as a teenager I recall being compared to a member of the Addams family with my long dark hair and pasty-looking skin. Fake tan became a close friend, and we enjoyed quite a harmonious relationship until my kids were born and I got too tired to even try.
Somewhere back in my early twenties I was diagnosed with having an underactive thyroid. I can’t honestly remember how this came about (memory lapses are no strangers to thyroid sufferers), but no doubt it had something to do with my quirky habit of falling asleep for the evening after having spent a perfectly normal eight-hour day at work. I was popped on to thyroxine – the standard treatment for underactive thyroid sufferers – and that was pretty much that. I ambled along for the next ten or so years, not feeling much better but coming round to the idea that the heavy weight of fatigue was just an everyday part of normal life for everyone. I learned that people don’t really want to hear about a young, childless woman struggling with tiredness (what could I possibly have to feel tired about?), and so mostly I just kept quiet, kept putting on the mascara and mainly, kept presenting my bright and breezy façade to the world (oh, I do bright and breezy very well). I continued to take thyroxine throughout my two (very sleepy) pregnancies, through two traumatic births, through sleepless nights and breastfeeding. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise the health of my children, so like the good girl that I am, I did everything I was told.
Except I didn’t feel much better, and with two small toddlers to look after, I no longer had the luxury of weekend naps or ten hours’ sleep to get me through to bedtime. For several years I went back and forth to doctors complaining about fatigue issues, mostly to be told that my thyroid test results were ‘borderline’, that I should think about drinking more water, and more recently, that I might be a little bit depressed. I spent time both on and off thyroxine – it seemed pointless to be taking a pill every day that wasn’t making me feel any better. And yet, I was one of the lucky ones – at least I knew what was wrong with me. According to the British Thyroid Foundation, thyroid disorders affect around one in twenty people in the UK, many of whom can go undiagnosed for years.
But knowing what was wrong and being able to do something about it were two different matters, and as the years progressed, my symptoms deteriorated. The most severe of these was fatigue – the type that goes down to your bones, that stings at your eyes and renders you exhausted upon waking after a full night of (what should be) re-engergising sleep. As my young niece said on a particularly sleepy day recently, ‘my eyes were so tired they wouldn’t let me open them’. You get the picture. That’s me on a good morning. And then there’s the 3pm crash just in time for my children arriving home from school. But fatigue isn’t the only symptom, and my thyroid sends me a myriad of reminders of its incompetence on a daily basis. These come in the form of muscle aches – painful knees and what I call ‘leg headaches’ – as well as digestive problems, palpitations, mood swings, dry hair, flaky nails, foggy thinking, poor memory and ironically, insomnia and an inability to get to sleep. And then there’s the skin problems – at the age of forty, I suffer from periodic cystic acne and have recently developed eczema on my eyelids. I won’t bore you with any more of this. Suffice to say, having thyroid issues isn’t super fun.
Neither is it much fun for your family, and there are the inevitable effects on a marriage when you are a wife and a mum who sometimes feels she’s running on a tank that’s very close to being empty. I am lucky to have a lovely family, supportive parents and close friends who understand my thyroid issues, but even with your nearest and dearest it can be hard to provide evidence that an invisible illness actually exists outside the confines of your head. I look like a healthy person on the outside, and don’t suffer with the weight issues that many thyroid patients sadly experience. ‘But you don’t look ill!’ people often exclaim, incredulous. Unfortunately, as most of us know by now, outward appearance doesn’t always mirror what a person is experiencing inside.
And on the inside there have been days where fatigue has got the better of me, where I’ve felt a bit desperate, and where making it through the day has been something of a test of endurance. This will come as a surprise to people who know me for being busy – as the sign says I’m an ‘outdoorsy mum’, I walk daily, I get through my to-do list, I don’t ever really stop. When I do stop, I realise just how tired I am – even I can see that never stopping might have to stop now. The turning point came a few weeks ago when it took me two hours to formulate two paragraphs for an article – it had got to the point where I couldn’t even begin to find the words. When I started to lose the ability to write – the one thing that makes me feel like me – I realised I couldn’t go on like this. I felt like I was starting to fall to pieces, slowly disintegrating, possibly going mad, and something had to change.
So over the last few weeks, I’ve been working with a medical herbalist to tackle some of my thyroid issues. With her guidance, I’ve undertaken private blood tests which show my TSH – thyroid stimulating hormone, an indicator of underactive thyroid, as being well out of range, show thyroid antibodies indicating Hashimotos disease, an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid gland gradually destroys itself over time. I’ve started to explore new treatment options, and made some lifestyle changes including switching to a gluten-free diet (there is some evidence to indicate that Hashimotos may be linked to underlying gluten intolerance). I’ve started to do my own research on thyroid problems and have discovered that the Internet is full of people whose thyroid symptoms do not improve while taking thyroxine (a 2015 research survey from Thyroid UK put this figure at 12.5% of those taking the drug). I’ve started to reach out to others with thyroid issues and have found immeasurable relief from talking to people with similar conditions, people who understand that no, I’m not just imagining this. Most of all, I’ve started to take control of my own health again. And that in itself quite simply feels really good.
I wish I could have written one of my usual blog posts today with ten reasons to do this, or that, or with a list of Pinterest-friendly pointers to cure all your thyroid problems. Twenty years have taught me that it isn’t going to be that straightforward. I can’t do bright and breezy today – but bright and breezy will be back. What I can do is say that if you are suffering in the way that I’ve been, or are experiencing any of the symptoms I’ve described here, it may be worth getting your thyroid function checked. Or, if you already know you’re suffering with a thyroid problem that isn’t getting better, or if you’re feeling a bit desperate or like you’re going crazy, then just know that you’re not alone. Find a fellow sufferer to talk to, talk to a professional, talk to me if you want to get in contact. Just talk.
For now, I’m a work in progress. But I have a plan. And that plan includes getting better. It may take some time, it may not be easy and some days I might feel like I’m still going a little bit crazy. But I’ll get there. And so will you. We’ll get there.
One day at a time.