For as long as I can remember, tiredness has been a defining feature of my life. As a child I was a keen dancer, but I struggled to maintain stamina at two hour dance sessions alongside other children. PE became a torment and I was always last to be picked for everything (instilling a lifelong wariness 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 of mine and we enjoyed a quite harmonious relationship until my kids were born and I got too tired to even try.
Somewhere back in my early twenties I was diagnosed as 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 8 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. 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 putting on my well honed bright and breezy outward facade (oh, I can do bright and breezy very well). I continued to take my thyroxine throughout my two (very sleepy) pregnancies, through two traumatic births, breastfeeding struggles and sleepless nights. I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise the health of my children, so like the good girl 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 afternoon napping or 10 hours sleep to get me through the day. 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 so 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 20 people in the UK, many of whom can go undiagnosed for years.
But knowing what was wrong with me and being able to do something about it were two different matters, and as the years progressed, my symptoms only started to get worse. The most severe of these was fatigue – the type that goes down to your bones, that stings your eyes all day and renders you exhausted upon waking after a full night of what should be re-engergising sleep. As my little 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 little ones 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 legs which I fear spell the start of rheumatoid arthritis – digestive problems, palpitations, mood swings, dry hair, flaky nails, foggy thinking, poor memory and ironically, on/off insomnia and an inability to get to sleep. And then there’s the skin problems – at the age of 40, 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 have a wife and mother 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 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 quite a healthy person on the outside, and don’t suffer with the weight issues that many thyroid patients sadly experience – in fact I’m actually pretty slim. ‘But you look so healthy!’ people often say to me, 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 it’s been something of an endurance test to make it through the day. 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 really ever stop. When I do stop I only realise just how tired I am – but even I can see now that never stopping might just have to stop. 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, as well as 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 medication). 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 making all this up. 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 you one of my usual blog posts today with 10 reasons to do this, or that, or with a list of Pinterest-friendly pointers to cure your thyroid problems in several easy steps. Twenty years have taught me that it just isn’t going to be that straightforward. I can’t do bright and breezy today – bright and breezy will be back tomorrow. What I can do is tell you 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 well be worth getting your thyroid function checked. Or if you already know you’re suffering with a thyroid problem that isn’t getting better yet, 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.