I’ll start by telling you that I suffer from latrophobia, fear of going to the doctor. Though I haven’t undergone counseling to figure out the root causes, I think this fear took hold during childhood. Growing up in a tumultuous household, I was a bedwetter, and I found it humiliating that during my annual physical, Dr. E felt compelled to “examine” my nether regions, looking, I assume, for signs of rash. In those days you didn’t question doctors and parents didn’t ask kids about their feelings. Even though for many years, on the eve of my check-up I would parade around the house with homemade picket signs which read:
I HATE DR. E!!!!!!!
my mother didn’t pick up on my discomfort or, if she did, didn’t think it was worth alleviating.
It was the mid-1960s, after all.
(You’ll be happy to know this is one of the issues we resolved on her deathbed. Dr. E was apparently a celebrated pediatrician and my mother thought she was acting in my best interests).
When I became an adult, I dreaded going to the doctor for a different reason: the weigh-in. In some crazy, retro, pre-feminist way, I managed to transform what is supposed to be a partnership caring for and maintaining my body/machine into a self-created moral test of my character.
Even though I’m older and wiser now, I still avoid going to the doctor unless I am in desperate need of a Z-pack of antibiotics, have a sports-related injury or am having my annual Pap smear or mammogram (they don’t weigh you for those).
In other words, I don’t get an annual physical.
When I first started noticing that my body seemed different, I assumed the ravages of age and perimenopause were taking hold.
Certain friends who shall remain nameless here have gained a bit of weight around the middle, many have joked about forgetfulness (including my dear friend C., who forgot to feed my cats over Labor Day weekend. They were hungry for more than just affection when we got home). Broken nails, my friends have seen a few. Let’s face it, we’re not as young as we used to be.
Reference material nerd that I am, earlier this year I felt compelled to purchase Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book The Wisdom of Menopause and keep it on my bedside table for a little light reading about hormonal changes. As I read through the section on mid-life weight control, something in Step Five: Get Your Thyroid Checked jumped out at me.
My feet are always cold, even in summer. As I read through the rest of the possible signs of hypothyroidism, I realized most of them could apply to me. (It kind of reminded me of one of those quizzes in Cosmopolitan: Ten signs that tell you he’s cheating. By the time you finish taking the quiz, you are convinced that he is).
I added getting my thyroid checked to my mental medical to-do list, along with the colonoscopy I should have had last year, but of course, I didn’t do anything about scheduling either one of these important, potentially life-saving tests. (No, JDM, I have not had a shingles vaccine. No, sister-in-law D., I have not had a flu shot either).
On vacation this summer, I awoke each morning, more bloated than the next. It felt like more than an excess of tequila and tortilla chips, and, as I thought about it, the problem had been worsening for months. Was I suffering from cellular inflammation or an overabundance of fat-accumulating hormones, such as insulin? Was my thyroid the culprit?
There was only one way to find out. Feeling very mature (in a good way), I called my Ob/Gyn’s office to schedule my annual Pap smear and mentioned that I also wanted my thyroid checked. The young receptionist wanted to verify my insurance coverage and gave me the name of an insurance carrier we haven’t used for years. ”No,” I said. My carrier is C**, the same one I had last year. ”You haven’t been here for three years,” she said coldly.
I felt like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.
I had to wait till I got home to comb through my insurance documents, call my insurance company and check all of my calendars for the past three years to prove that I had seen that doctor last year and the year before that. When that turned out to be fruitless, I called the doctor’s office again to ask them to check my physical file. This time the receptionist was more understanding when she informed me that there were no notes in my file after 2009. ”I know how you feel,” she said sympathetically. ”I was born the same year as you.”
I was not surprised to learn that a faulty memory is another symptom of hypothyroidism.
The plot and my waistline thicken
The weeks I had to wait for my appointment felt interminable, but I tried to make them productive. I gave up alcohol, tried to stay away from carbohydrates and made sure to adhere to a regular exercise regime in spite of my achy joints (another symptom).
I researched doctors and made an appointment for a physical with one who looked promising (in my own latrophobic defense, apart from my Ob/Gyn, whom I have seen for seventeen years, I haven’t been able to find a doctor or a practice that impressed me with professional, high quality care).
One day while out for a run, I tried to pinpoint what had changed over the past six months to make my symptoms, especially the weight gain, worsen. I’d started making and eating granola on a regular basis, but it seemed hard to believe a cereal mix could be so potent. Then I remembered. Around six months ago, after being diagnosed with a herniated cervical disc, I received two epidural steroid shots and also took oral steroids. Because I have trouble remembering things, I made a note on my iPhone to do some research.
At home, a quick search on the Internet suggested there could be a link between the steroids and my thyroid. (Searching for things on the Internet reminds me of writing high school essays: combing the available research materials for snippets of information to support my thesis).
Next week I will see my Ob/Gyn and hopefully be that much closer to figuring out what, if anything, is wrong with me. Who knows, my symptoms might just be the normal by-products of aging, which require a change in my behavior, nothing more.
But at 51, I think I’ve finally learned my lesson. Now, more than ever, it’s important to stay on top of your health, if for no other reason than to have a baseline to work with if something is really wrong. Perimenopause and menopause can cause some surprising symptoms (remember pregnancy nosebleeds?). It’s worth talking to a doctor about them, instead of suffering in silence.
Check back with me in a few months to see if I’ve scheduled that colonoscopy.
This week, four diplomats were killed in Libya and my nephew was deployed to Afghanistan. As a proud former member of the Foreign Service, who served in the Near East and South Asia bureaus, my heart is with those who dedicate their lives to promoting international understanding.
In their wonderful new book Jerusalem, chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a Jew and a Muslim who grew up in the western and eastern part of that city, talk about food’s ability to break through religious and cultural boundaries.
Twice this week I made Ottolenghi’s recipe for Figs with basil, goat cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette from his book Plenty.
Historically, figs have been revered as a symbol of peace. I can’t think of a better thing to eat. And they’re good for you too.