Most illness tales follow a familiar arc.
They start with mysterious symptoms. They continue with misdiagnoses, doctors’ indifference, and rock bottom bodily collapses. The climax often involves a diagnosis that someone in the medical establishment finally dug deep enough to uncover, or the discovery of food as medicine.
My illness story is a little different. It’s tame compared to the ones you’re used to. I took the scenic route down health mountain, and even though I was aware of my condition from the beginning, it took me far longer than it should have to start the trek back up.
One of the reasons why biopic movies—even the best ones like Ray, Walk The Line, and The Aviator, to name a few—leave me partially unsatisfied is that they tend to be overly long and repetitive. Instead of having a clear arc like most narratives, in biopics you can end up feeling like the main character gets stuck making the same mistakes over and over again.
That’s because life, of course, is a loop—a long series of setbacks and climaxes.
And the same is especially true of real life illness.
Prior to starting The Wellness Project, which streamlined my approach to health, in addition to the actual narrative of it, my journey involved many doctors, diagnoses, stops and starts.
There were things that should have been wake-up calls and lightbulb moments. Things that might make someone say: but why didn’t you do anything then? Why did it take 7 years to start your project? In fact, these questions were what many of my editor’s comments revolved around!
In real life, though, I was blind to my own loops, and could have used some track changes commentary in the margins.
A truth that you have probably encountered in your life is that we only hear what we want to hear. We are only capable of making the changes we are truly ready for. And for much of my twenties, I wanted to heal but I didn’t want to change.
Since I only started telling you bits and pieces of my experience with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis in recent years, I thought I should take the time to lay out all the facts of what I went through over the course of those 7 years, until I decided to finally exit the loop and start the wellness project.
Hopefully it will help put your own struggles in context, or make you feel better about the rinse cycles you’ve been caught in, the messages you missed, or the change you weren’t ready for until it was too late.
Read on for my Hashimoto’s story in 3 acts!
p.s. The Wellness Project book is available for pre-order at the following retailers: Amazon / Barnes and Noble / BAM / IndieBound / iTunes / McNally Jackson. Send your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org for a FREE e-calendar that has all my experiments scattered throughout! April is Skillet Skills month :
I. The Beginning: Deliberate Denial.
My diagnosis happened as soon and as early as it could of.
A year post-college graduation, after some routine blood work, my childhood doctor told me I had Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. I had never heard of it before, and was immediately unnerved. My doctor told me not to worry: Hashimoto’s was fairly common in women my age, and completely treatable with a daily dose of Synthroid, a widely-prescribed hormone replacement drug. But I’d probably need to be on it for the rest of my life.
This last piece of news did not sit well with me.
I grew up with a mother who was an early adopter of the organic movement, in a home where “medication” really meant “remedies,” in the form of small white homeopathic balls that dissolved under your tongue. I may have taken my morning birth control tablet and the occasional Z-Pak, but being dependent on a daily dose of drugs for the next sixty years was a different story.
My body didn’t seem like it was in any sort of distress. So I did what any super-mature 22-year-old would do in my situation: I pretended like the conversation never happened and went on living my life.
Of course, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have gotten this diagnosis in the first place.
Most doctors don’t routinely check for thyroid antibodies. And many of the symptoms of hypothyroidism—digestive issues, weight fluctuations, depression, anxiety, and fatigue—are things that can feed or be attributed to each other.
The weight piece was one reason why it was so easy to ignore my other symptoms.
During my initial descent, I dropped a few dress sizes almost immediately. This was amazing at first, when it meant saying goodbye to the four years of late-night pizza that had gotten lodged in my midsection during college. About a month before my diagnosis, I had gone through a painful break-up (which I blamed for my depression), and I was deeply grateful for the revenge body that I seemed to acquire overnight without putting in any effort.
In the years that followed, though, skinny was a great perk that came at the price of a lot of misery. If my stomach hadn’t stopped behaving—and if I hadn’t had the flu all the time and felt exhausted even on the days when I didn’t—I might have continued to embrace this weird health loophole of eating whatever I wanted while wasting away.
Skinny was the reason that I didn’t tie any of these other symptoms to my autoimmune disease. An underactive thyroid, which is the main symptom of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, typically makes people put on pounds. I was reluctant to rock the boat with my metabolism, lest I end up in that camp.
Eventually though, when the intestinal pain got too intense, I decided to see another doctor—this time someone with a more integrative perspective.
II. The Middle: Feeding on Fads.
Thus, began the next stage of bouncing around between functional medicine doctors, heeding some advice, ignoring others, and feeling guilty for any of my choices that didn’t fit within their organic-minded protocols.
The first doctor I saw in 2011, on the recommendation of my homeopathic-minded mother, did bloodwork to test for food allergies and put me on an elimination diet to see if there was something that didn’t agree with my system. For two weeks, I cut out soy, corn, dairy, sugar, and wheat. And once that agony came to a close, with results in hand, it was clear that I had a serious gluten sensitivity.
The news devastated me. As a newbie in the food world, the idea of having allergies seemed like a detriment to not only my social life, but my career. As fate would have it, my debut cookbook was hitting stores just a few weeks after this revelation…and I could no longer eat half of the recipes in it.
I did my best in the year that followed to cut gluten out of my life. Once I made it through the five stages of grief and got used to my new dietary restrictions, it was clear that this one change alone was a big step in the right direction. I gained some weight back. As I did, the color returned to my cheeks and my eyes took down their vacancy sign. It made me realize that being skinny didn’t necessarily mean being healthy, and being healthy was far more important.
But I was far from perfect.
It would have been much easier to get on board with my diet if I had Celiac Disease, where the damage is cut and dry. For Celiac suffers, a bite of gluten causes antibodies to attack the villi of your small intestines. Even the smallest cross-contamination—a few breadcrumbs from an artisanal grilled cheese on the deli counter—can set off a reaction. But gluten “sensitivity”? That didn’t sound threatening enough to keep me from having the occasional slice of late night pizza.
What that first doctor never explained to me was how my relationship to gluten and my Hashimoto’s were intertwined. And despite much having been written about it in recent years, it was something that took until starting my project to learn.
Having a rotating list of medical professionals over the years in some ways was a crutch that prevented me from doing my own due diligence around my disease. I never took the time to research the aspects of my Hashimotos that hadn’t been properly explained in thirty-minute visits or one-off listicles on wellness websites.
And because of this I proceeded through my mid-twenties on the defense, just trying to get on board with the health hand I was dealt and throw pills at any problems that continued to arise.
III. The Homecoming: Finding Balance.
One of those problems was my skin.
About once a year, my face would get invaded by a small fleet of pockmarks around my nose and mouth. Perioral Dermatitis, it was called by the dermatologist (another doctor in my rotation). Every time it would flare up, I’d pop into her office for a few painful steroid injections and some medicated cream. If this front-line attack didn’t force my skin to surrender to its former (manageably flawed) state by morning, she’d upgrade to antibiotic warfare.
I had probably taken 5 or so courses of antibiotics over the years just for the sake of vanity. I didn’t, of course, entertain the idea that my skin could be an outward reflection of all the imbalances still lurking beneath the surface—a symptom of my Hashimoto’s hormone upheaval that hadn’t been righted.
For starters, I’d begun adopting even more lifestyle changes, thanks to another holistic doctor, my militant endocrinologist, Dr. A. She convinced me to go off hormonal birth control pills and finally start taking Nature-Thyroid—a hypothyroid medication made from actual pig’s thyroid, that has a better balance of essential thyroid hormones T3 and T4.
The rest of her solution, however, required a laundry list of dietary labor. No more soy, no more corn. No more cans, no more plastic. No more non-organic food of any kind.
The gluten change had been hard enough, isolated, all on its own. This protocol was just too much change all at once.
For a few months, I grabbed at straws. I spent more money on green elixirs and supplements than I could afford and felt guilty every time I indulged in a Bloody Mary at brunch or inhaled toxic fumes at the nail salon. The more obsessive I got trying to follow the rules that my doctor set for me, and the more failure I endured when I couldn’t, the less “well” I felt.
Perhaps this was one reason why I maintained the belief that my skin’s problems were something separate. I think I just wanted one solution to be easy. But of course, the antibiotics had only been undoing all the good that my expensive probiotic pills and grass-fed kefir had been doing.
Vanity ended up being my most powerful motivator. My bad skin was the push I needed to stop focusing on just one aspect of my wellness—food—and start making bigger changes on all sides of my life.
As I neared my 29th birthday, seven years after that initial diagnosis, the final and most powerful lightbulb moment hit. That’s when I exited my loop and set out to find a new approach. One that wouldn’t just make me my healthiest self on paper. But would help me do right by my body without giving up my life.
That pursuit of healthy hedonism, of course, became The Wellness Project.
You’ll have to order a copy to pick up where this story ends and the next arc begins. In it, I finally connect the dots between a lot of the symptoms I mention above (digestive issues, crazy skin, insomnia), and the lifestyle choices I was still making that acted against me. I uncover some other root causes that may have been behind my autoimmune disease in the first place, and try to heal them by making one change, one month at a time.
I hope you’ll join me for the next chapter. You can also listen to this interview here for more.
Also, stay tuned for more Hashimoto’s stories in my new HashiPosse series! I’ll be interviewing some amazing experts in the wellness space who are thriving despite thyroid conditions. Anyone you want to hear from? Let me know in the comments! First up is this babe.