January is Thyroid Awareness Month. This is my story.
One day in early August I stopped being me. At the end of a normal day, work and kids and standing at the kitchen table preparing dinner, I exploded into fragments of myself. It was a cosmic detonation that scattered all the recognizable bits of me to the wind and left a hollowed shell in my place.
Except my will. That survived in my broken body and propelled me to the Emergency Room three times over as many days looking for answers. It kept me advocating for myself when I suggested through my tears that I was reacting to the synthorid, a drug prescribed for my hypothyroidism, I had started only four weeks earlier. Faced with a bloodtest that placed my TSH in the “normal” range, the doctors were quick to attribute the symptoms I was experiencing to anything other than the synthroid. My will kept me searching for help when the ER doctors and my family doctor ignored my instincts and wrote out more prescriptions that would mask the symptoms but ignore the cause of my suffering.
It was my pharmacist that first told me that the symptoms I had corresponded to the adverse reactions that accompany an overmedication of synthroid. Except I saw very little improvement from week to week as the drugs left my body. With a long half-life of six to nine days, it took about six weeks for my body to be completely free of the drugs. I watched myself closely for any improvements. There were some. After two weeks the insomnia disappeared, the heart palpitations ended and the tremors stopped. After five and a half weeks the diarrhea was finally gone. The paralyzing anxiety slowly lessoned. But as long as I had any synthroid left in my body I continued to be ill.
Ten weeks into my recovery I saw an endocrinologist. She said the reaction I had to synthroid is rare. Her comments started with “If you told another endocrinologist this story they wouldn’t believe you”. It was simply luck that she had worked with a doctor who had a patient that had a similar reaction to the drug. While I was thrilled, and shocked,. to have my experience validated, she had very little answers as to why I had reacted to the drug or how to recover.
The profound sense of abandonment I felt during that first week of my crisis from the medical professionals has been slow to abate, despite finally finding a doctor that believed me and surrounding myself with a team of alternative health care professionals that approach my recovery with compassion.
I spent most of the first two months of my recovery in bed. I climbed out from beneath the covers for appointments and at the end of each day to kiss the kids goodnight. “Mommy is still sick,” I would remind them, waiting until I was back behind the closed door of my room before letting the tears spill freely.
I was pale and tired, but to the kids I didn’t look sick. I wasn’t throwing up. I didn’t have a cold. Nothing visible was broken. My pain couldn’t be seen.
In five months I have retreated to my bed on and off. When I am exhausted. When I am overwhelmed. Because of the drug I was detoxing from. Because of the new drug I am trying. Sometimes just because.
“My mommy is very sick.”
The boy’s voice stopped me, the open door allowing the brisk autumn breeze to swirl around me. I turned back towards the dinning room where he sat with his speech therapist, a board game spread out in front of them.
“Oh,” she said. “I hope she feels better soon”.
The boy’s words surprised me. He spoke them with such honesty and, as much as I searched for it later, replaying the sentence over and over in my mind, no fear. He told the facts just as we have been saying them to him and his sister. “Mommy is very sick. That’s why the door to her room is closed/ she needs to rest/ can’t join us for dinner/ isn’t walking you to the school bus stop.”
All of our lives changed when I became ill. On the first day of school we signed the kids up for an after-school program because we realized that our routine from last year, me putting them on the bus in the morning and the husband leaving early to pick them up, was no longer possible. My mother-in-law has lived with us on and off, taking over the running of the house and providing critical emotional support.The husband missed weeks of work to care for me early on when the anxiety made me too afraid to be left alone. He has been the primary caregiver to the kids and my cheerleader on the days when recovery feels impossible.
We struggled. We adjusted. I relied heavily on my friends for support, comfort, and when possible, child care. The kids ate more boxed mac and cheese, and watched more television than they ever have in their lives.
“I miss you mommy. I wish we could spend more time together,” the boy tells me as he once again leaves the house accompanied by his sister and dad. But not me.
I cringe inwardly at my son’s words even as I open my heart to acknowledge his longing. I have become resigned to the present. That this is my here and now. “I miss you too,” I tell him. I hug them both tight before watching them walk out the front door.
It took me months to acknowledge just how sick I really was. The first eight weeks I deluded myself into thinking, Just one more week. One more week and I’ll be better.
I searched for cures. I surfed the Internet to learn more about the thyroid. I consumed books on anxiety and healing. I looked for that one health care professional that would give me the answer that would hasten my recovery.
I tried to project manage my recovery just like I would an assigned task at the office. With very little success. I couldn’t control the time it took for me to detox from the synthroid, just like I can’t control the way my body is now reacting to anything more than the smallest dose of the desiccated thyroid my doctor has started me on. The biochemical workings of my body will not bend to my will.
It turns out I don’t have the right tools in my tool belt to assist me in my recovery. When I turn inward for help I feel the familiar shapes of my life companions; shame, doubt and fear. They have guided my choices for years and now, when I call on them, I find that this trinity fills me with negativity and impedes my healing. I feel shame over what has happened. Doubt that I am improving. Fear that I will ever get better.
“Focus on what you can control”, I am told. “Focus on your responses to your recovery.”
I try. I turn myself inside out. I challenge the shame, ignore the doubt and devalue the fear. I introduce the foreign concepts of hope and faith and belief to my mind and heart. I swallow three small doses of desiccated thyroid each day and pray that my thryroid will accept the new medicine willingly.I stretch myself to become the person that can, in the midst of the pain of her recovery and acceptance of a chronic illness, let it go. All of it.
I knit every day. I can do it sitting on the couch watching a movie. I can do it without thinking or feeling. I can do it even when I lie in bed exhausted from nothing more than bearing witness to my body’s attempts to heal.
The thick multi-coloured wool runs through my fingers as I loop it over the needle. I inch the right needle back slightly before grabbing the looped wool and pulling it free. I do this over and over until the repetition provides a peaceful retreat for my mind from the last five months.
Some stitches are tight. Some are loose. When I picked up the needles and ball of gray wool two month for the first time in ten years I had forgotten everything my friend Alison had taught me. I dropped stitches. I unpicked rows. I struggled to relearn something I had never really mastered.
As I knit I take comfort in the tactile feel of the wool and the clink of the needles. I look contentedly at the growing pile of the scarves and hats and feel momentarily that I capable of creating something beautiful from a tangled mess.
The next time we have cupcakes, the boy says, I am going to unwrap all three of them and shove them in my mouth at the same time. He is gleeful at the prospect and I cringe remembering the mini cupcakes he has just inhaled one at a time with barely room enough to close his mouth and chew. His sister took great care to eat them bite by bite from the bottom, saving the icing for last, but the boy is more intent on experiencing the cupcakes than tasting them.
Why is there an empty box for cupcakes in the kitchen?, the girl asks me while I fold laundry in our bedroom.
It isn’t empty, I reply.
But we ate them all ,she informs me, reminding me of the dinner we had a friends two nights before.
These are new ones, I tell her. For dessert. For our anniversary. I bought them today.
I dish out the lasagna onto four plates. A blue plate for the boy. Always a blue plate. A purple one for the girl. The stoneware plates are heavy and I pass them carefully to the girl to be carried to the dining room table. Two hands, I remind her.
I serve the husband’s meal on a purple plate. A small chip along the rim reveals the white of the plate hiding underneath the dusty purple colour. We’ve managed to break five of our bowls, lost suddenly when a box fell during a move across the city. A salad plate is missing from both our shelf and our memory. But most of the dishes that we registered for at a small kitchen store over thirteen years ago remain.
I serve the husband’s meal on a chipped plate because it reminds me of our life. Of us. Imperfect and flawed. Sturdy and strong. Still beautiful when filled with love and surrounded by family.
We could have had it all, Adele croons over the sloshing of the dishwasher to my right and the whirl of the dryer to my left. Rolling in the deep.
The sound is lower than last night when I flipped pancakes to the blaring sounds of Rumor Has It. The music was loud enough to provide accompaniment to the boy and husband upstairs and the beat drew the girl from the living room long enough for her to close her Geronimo Stilton book and for me to teach her how to disco.
We could have had it all I echo in my head as the leftover pizza gets put in the fridge. I push the fridge door closed tightly with my hip remembering when my all was the uncertainty of youth and the tumultuousness of young love. Now it’s classroom photos of two-dozen smiling kids, paper bag puppets dressed in shades and a unibrowed Freyda Kalho magnet brought home for the girl from a recent trip away with friends.
At the top corner of the fridge door, held in place with a simple black magnet, is a column of four photo booth snapshots. My hair is short. The husband’s glasses coke bottle thick. Over fifteen years have passed. We smile into the camera, living in the now and never imagining where it would all take us.
There are moments when I am lost in my day. Words are typed on the computer. Meetings are attended. Ideas are pulled from the air and shaped into tangible projects ready to be launched out into the world beyond my cubicle.
Then there are times during the day when I miss my kids so intensely that their absence feels like a phantom limb. For years they were close by; within arms reach. Now their presence bookends my weekdays spent sitting in an office.
I feel a kinship with the giant, old wooden apothecary chest I remember seeing in the recreated pharmacy of the replica turn of the 20th century town in a museum in Winnipeg years ago. As tall as an adult, the gold knobs ordered in rows allowed for multiple drawers to safeguard the many powers and pills to cure aliments that were hidden inside.
My drawers squeak as the warped wood resists being opened faster and faster in a frenzy to keep up with demand. The drawer for the morning bus routine is pushed closed as I pull open the drawer holding the report that needs to be written. Quick, close the door with the high priority meeting because it is the school calling on the phone about a sick child. Which drawer is the one that holds the the two-minute phone conversation with the husband about which of us is able to abandon work for the remainder of the day with the least consequences to our colleagues? Oh yes, that drawer up at the top. The one that never seems to want to open without first greasing it with guilt. Guilt that I am no longer the stay-at-home mom whose only job is the care of her children and guilt that I fall short of being the dedicated employee I was years ago.
My life is a series of unrelated and interlinked activities. My apothecary chest has grown so big that it has a compartment for everything. After ten months I still feel like I fail at knowing how to successfully compartmentalize.
All the chairs around the square table are taken. Voices fill the room as the documents spread out on the table are discussed. Questions are asked. Positions are defended. I sit back in my chair listening, waiting for my turn to raise my concerns.
I also stare. I stare at the long, thick hair of the woman leading the meeting and wonder if she has ever had lice. Her hair is so lovely. It falls past her shoulders with a straightness I decide is assisted. I try to picture her hair damp with lice treatment and wrapped up in saran wrap. What a shame, I think.
I glance around the table and find myself wondering how many of the people sitting with me have combed eggs out of their own hair. Were they calm about it, maintaining the poised attitude I see now, or did the presence of lice cause them to freak out like it did me all those months ago.
A misdiagnosed lice sighting in the girl’s hair recently has me on my guard. I check her hair nightly. The boy’s too. I scratch my head absentmindedly throughout the day, always aware of the slightest twinge of my scalp. The tea tree oil shampoo has a place of prominence in the shower.
I multitask throughout the day. Going to work. Reading to the kids before bed. Thinking about lice.
My hand hovers over the row of paper cups. The stainless steel mug I sip from every day has been left behind on the kitchen counter this morning and so a choice must be made.
I reject the orange cups. I don’t need that much coffee. Not so late in the day. I free a red cup from the stack but it looks pitifully small. It won’t hold enough coffee for a Wednesday afternoon. I finally settle on the green cup. Just right.
I search the coffee pots for the French Roast label stuck to the arm. As I eagerly pour the dark liquid I calculate the volume of the cup against the decreasing quantity left inside the pot. Satisfied, I replace the pot for the next person to drain.
The carton of 1% milk is already open at the coffee bar. I am transfixed as the white milk disappears into the black coffee, waiting for the tipping point when it all turns a caramel shade of brown. Then I sip the hot coffee. Burning my tongue, but not minding.
The soft whirl of pages emerging from the printer fade into the background of jumbled conversations drifting down the hallway while I lose myself in thought. For a moment I am free of tasks, waiting emails and the long to-do list scratched out in black pen on the lined note paper on my desk. I turn my head back and forth quickly, all for the feel of the dangly silver earrings swinging from side to side.
I stare at the outdated map hanging on the beige wall, calculating distances from here to there. I marvel at the vastness of our country and bemoan the friends that are too far away.
I am antsy. Nervous about the meeting starting soon and worrying about the phone call that just came. The school called me, the husband said. The girl says she is sick and insists on going home.
I am full of gratitude that the husband can leave work to get her. And guilt that it isn’t me.
The map is gone suddenly, leaving behind the shadow of decades old tape. I have nothing to stare at, to distract my mind as the machine beside me churns out the words I have written. Instead I shake my head from side to side, comforted by the familiar feeling of the heavy silver earrings.
I pull back the top stands of hair with my right hand while reaching behind to grab the rest of the shoulder length hair with my left. I twist and twirl until one hand is free to grab the brown clip lying waiting on the desk. I drag it tight against my scalp and pull it across the mass of hair that is increasingly threaded with white. My hair secured into my workday version of a ponytail, I release the clip.
My computer hums as it loads. The Blackberry vibrates from where it rests on top of my notebook.
In the kitchen, the fridge is already full but I squeeze my food saver full of leftovers on the bottom shelf.
I peer at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My hair is still smooth; no stands have yet to slip free. I squint. My face seems pale. My eyes are bloodshot. From the exhaustion of herding two kids out the door and onto the school bus on a cold winter morning or the recycled air of the office building, I never know. I contemplate a smear of red across my lips in an attempt to revive my complex but I am too lazy to hunt down the lipstick at the bottom of my purse back at my desk. Later, I tell myself.
The flakes fall around me as I trudge onward. Swirling and whirling, the snow whips through the air. I lean in, sometimes I lean back, but my feet keep moving. There is no time to stop.
I replace my black boots with black heels. I hang my black coat in the small closet. The world outside my window is blindingly white.
The white lights of the tree sparkle from within the green branches. I can’t smell the scent of pine from where I lie cuddling the boy on the couch nearby. The lingering cold has morphed from hacking cough to congested sinuses over the last three weeks. But at least the stomach flu that ravaged all four of us over the period of a week is gone. The girl has my eternal awe for beginning and ending the week hunched over a bowl.
On the other side of the black coffee table the husband sits reading to the girl. The large book was part of the girl’s present to her brother. She seems to like the superhero stories as much as he does. I watch her following along in the book, imagining that she is searching for words she recognizes.
The presents that spilled out from under the tree have all been put away or taken back home by our visitors. Despite appearances the gifts were not excessive. Just enough for each of us to feel thought of and remembered by those we love.
Our couch is narrow but the boy and I manage to squeeze close together. I close my eyes and listen to the husband’s voice. Thinking about this last year and the new one to come.