From Struggling to Striving – Embracing My Life and My Body

Let me preface this by stating that I don’t generally write in this type of format. As an academic and a professional, the majority of my writing is unbiased, fact-based content. Sharing personal information is a particularly vulnerable act – one with which I am not entirely comfortable in most situations. However, with that being said, I feel that sharing this particular experience may potentially be beneficial to those suffering from an eating disorder and other types of body-image issues. So, with all vulnerability aside, I’d like to share a personal story regarding the paradigm shift that I experienced regarding the way that I feel about my own body.

In the summer of 2017, I became life-threateningly ill. In retrospect, I had been experiencing the physical symptoms of thyroid disease for several years (e.g., heat intolerance, excessive sweating, excessive hunger, heart palpitations, daily headaches, etc.). But, at that point in time, I had a tendency to minimize and dismiss such symptoms. I was also completely unaware of the fact that the symptoms I had been experiencing could be related to my thyroid. For those of you who may not be aware of what the thyroid is or how it functions (as I was until it became absolutely necessary for me to understand), it is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the throat that regulates every cell in the human body. So, as insignificant as this very small glad may seem, it has the potential to cause significant damage if it malfunctions.

I became aware that I was critically ill upon going to the emergency room in the summer of 2017. My heart rate was near 200 BPM, my blood pressure was through the roof, and my thyroid levels were immeasurable. When thyroid levels become too high, something called a “thyroid storm” can occur. When this occurs, the body is flooded with toxic thyroid hormones and the individual having the thyroid storm usually does not survive. If a thyroid storm occurs, there is no medical intervention that can be done to reverse it. The fact that my levels were beyond measurement was indicative that this was what was happening to me. The doctors told my spouse to get my affairs in order, contact my friends and family members, and wait to see if I made it through the night. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with two opposing thyroid-related autoimmune diseases – Graves Disease and Hashimoto’s. The former is hyperthyroidism, the latter is hypothyroidism, and they very rarely occur simultaneously.

My thyroid specialist prescribed medicine meant to reduce thyroid production, and my endocrinologist prescribed a beta-blocker to regulate my heart rate. I ended up having an allergic reaction to what my thyroid specialist believed was the thyroid medication, so I was taken off of the only medicine that was keeping my thyroid from overproducing these toxic hormones. After a couple of weeks of being off of the thyroid medication, my body was telling me that I needed to start taking the medicine again – which I did. Of course, deciding to take a medication that a physician has discontinued is not necessarily the wisest medical choice, but I had to listen to what my body was telling me. As it turned out, it was the beta-blocker to which I was having a reaction – not the thyroid medication. 

I was scheduled to have my thyroid removed two months before the physicians had originally planned to operate. According to my thyroid specialist, emergency thyroid surgery doesn’t really exist, but that was ultimately what I had to have. As aforementioned, the thyroid gland regulates every cell in the body, which also affects an individual’s weight and emotional disposition. Throughout the few months after having my thyroid removed, I had gained over 70 pounds. This is a significant amount of weight for anyone to gain, and as a woman of 5’3”, the change was drastic. In addition to the weight gain, one of my thyroid levels was low, which caused a visible amount of hair loss. My face broke out in hive-like acne; I felt exhausted all day, every day; I was an emotional wreck, which caused a strain on my marriage. But, I had survived something that most people do not. 

I spent well over a year hating the way that my body looked and resenting it for what I believed it had put me through. In the depths of this darkness, I had the thought that it might have been better if I hadn’t survived at all. It was at this point that my paradigm shifted. How could I hate my body after all that it had been through? I had been sick for years, but never realized it. I almost had a heart attack before age 30. My heart had been in cardio for years, but test results indicated no heart damage. I went through a thyroid storm that I shouldn’t have survived. I had an allergic reaction and was taken off of the only medicine keeping me alive. I made it through a surgery that could (and should) have been much more complicated than it turned out to be. How could I resent my body for looking a certain way when it had the strength to overcome these odds?

I began to exercise and eat more healthily, but it was no longer because I wanted to change the way my body looked; rather, I wanted to reward my body for its resilience. After this shift in thinking, I began to actually lose weight and feel healthier. I was able to discontinue the majority of the medication that I had been on for the residual effects of my thyroid disease (blood-pressure medication, prescription vitamin D, water-retention medication, etc.). So far, I have lost over half of the weight that I gained after surgery. I am still heavier than I would like to be, but I have realized that bodies change over time – especially after going through something as traumatic as mine had. This experience was life-altering, to say the least; but, it taught me some of the most valuable lessons I have learned in life thus far. It taught me how to listen to my body, how to nurture and respect it, and how to love it for its strength and resilience regardless of how well it may fit into socially-sanctioned ideals of beauty. Ultimately, it taught me to view my body not as something to be presented to the world, but as my own.