About a year ago, on a regular Thursday at home with the baby, I thought maybe I was having a heart attack. The heart palpitations had started at about 9:00 in the morning, and by 3:00 that afternoon were starting to freak me out. I’d become sweaty and nauseated, my hands were tingly and I decided not to wait around for neck and chest pains; I treated myself to a trip to the emergency room.
Weeks earlier, I’d called my regular doctor’s office with a laundry list of symptoms that was beginning to rain on my new-mom parade. I had headaches for the first time in my life, I was enduring 36-hour stretches without a wink of sleep and had become forgetful, confused and disoriented all the time. My eyes had always been predisposed to getting red, especially if I hadn’t slept enough, but they had become so perpetually red, they practically glowed. Move over, Rudolph, for a weirder, creepier kind of sleigh guide. When I told Alex that my heart was fluttering and my arms and legs shaking during and after a leisurely walk to the neighbor’s house down the street, he said, “That’s because you’re not getting enough exercise, of course.” Later, I would smite myself on the forehead for even asking him what he thought; Alex isn’t exactly the king of health sensibilities. I’ll stop there before I call him its village idiot. Too late.
I guess I was irritable, too.
I’ll admit that my fears started getting the best of me then, which didn’t help the insomnia. While I was up so late that MTV was playing music videos, I argued with myself over whether something awful was happening to my body, or if I was just making the whole thing up. Maybe the constant trembling of my extremities was Parkinson’s; the thinning hair and peeling nails impending dermatological catastrophe, and the headaches, complete with aural flashes, was an alien implant that had instigated the growth of a giant brain tumor. Screw you, aliens!
If there's an upside to every situation, and I'm not saying there is, the upside to the changes I noticed in my insides and outsides included the way my voice changed. Although I had to work to make myself heard, my voice took on a smoky, hoarse quality akin to Stevie Nicks'. I had also unintentionally adopted Warren Zevon’s philosophy on life and mortality. “He said ‘enjoy every sandwich,’ not enjoy every sandwich in existence,” Alex said as I was polishing off the rest of the lunchmeat in the fridge. And, in a decision to take Warren’s sage advice a step further, I was also regularly enjoying every French fry, every gallon of chocolate ice cream and every meatloaf. I didn’t care what anyone said, including my mother-in-law, who commented while watching me open a frozen lasagna that said, “Family-sized,” “You’re not going to be able to eat like that forever, you know.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, considering that I had just gone to the trouble of memorizing Wendy’s entire value meal menu. But I was certain that I was losing weight at the speed of light despite eating lunch three times a day and dinner twice because I was awesome. “I’m awesome!” I’d say to myself mid-casserole, and then I would collapse into a pile of mood-swinging, wailing woman. I'd become profoundly depressed most of the time, without being able to identify a reason. “Maybe I’m Goth and never knew it,” I told my friend Lisa after she’d asked me how I’d been. Lisa looked me up and down and said she’d never met a Goth who wore a size 2.
"I know," I told Lisa. "I'm awesome. Are you going to eat that?"
I’d started eating, but I had stopped making my bed. I’d stopped showering and getting dressed in the morning. I’d stopped writing. I couldn’t keep up with the MomsTown Guide to Getting it All; there was simply too much. And then one day I was in the middle of a silent monologue about how I was a slacker, when a novel thought jumped to the fore: Maybe I should see a doctor. I began making my list of symptoms and complaints, then shoved it into the drawer and promptly put off making an appointment for two weeks. “We can see you in four weeks,” the receptionist said. I’d put on my tinfoil hat to prevent the aliens from listening in. That’s all I needed was for one of them to disguise himself as a nurse and probe me during my physical. I said fine, I’d wait.
Two weeks later, I was hooked to an EKG machine and an IV at the Boulder Community Hospital Emergency Room. I was the only patient there. While I waited for the test results, I prepared myself for the worst by imagining the ER doc flinging the curtain back and saying, “I’m afraid it’s extremely serious.”
“What is it?”
“Your visible panty line, it just killed our receptionist, Belinda.” In fact, the daytime staff of Boulder Community Hospital hadn’t seen a deadly case of VPL like mine since Isaac and Gopher dared Charo to replace the Solid Gold Dancers’ g-strings with Wonder Woman Underoos just before show time. “I’m writing you a prescription immediately.” I heard him say. “There’s a thong-a-thon going on right now at Target. I beg you, if you want to save lives, including your own, spend everything you’ve got—stat!”
What he said instead was, “It’s your thyroid.” I could tell from the way he practically yawned when he said it that he couldn’t have been more bored with the whole thing. He’d been sitting around all afternoon, in the loneliest ER in three counties, and his big case for the day was a woman with a baby and a goiter. Forget gun shot wounds, I hadn’t even paper cut myself. “I’ll refer you to a good endocrinologist here in town, give you some medication and send you home.”
The good news is that I had Grave’s disease, a serious-ish but totally treatable condition that, with medication and good vibes, virtually disappears into remission within a year for twenty to thirty percent of patients. The better news was that I had an official disease that I could use as an excuse for any thing at any moment. Was I going to nap all day? Yes, as a matter of fact, I was. I have Grave’s disease. Did I have to watch “I Love the ‘80s” on TV again? Dude, come on, I have Grave’s disease. Had I been driving with the emergency break on all day? For heaven’s sake, give me a break already. I have Grave’s disease.
And now, after about a year of monthly visits to the endocrinologist who checks my throat, my eyes, my heart and blood, it looks like the aliens have lost. My Grave’s disease is in remission; my goiter is, to quote my doctor, much less “generous” than it was a year ago. Remission from Grave’s doesn’t last forever, but I’ll take what I can get. I am making my bed again, I’m writing again; I’m more cheerful and less hungry, but I still don’t always shower. It’s OK; I’m also trying to be nicer to myself. Hey, I have Grave's disease. It’s been a good year and a hard year, because, while Grave’s is a fantastic excuse for my behavior, it cost me about a year of sleep. And not only did I stop dreaming for that year, I stopped dreaming, which, as I’ve decided, is worth a trip to the ER in itself, in whatever kind of underpants I happen to be wearing at the time.
To a large extent, it seems we are chemical beings, and a good portion of our physical and mental health depends on good chemistry. In fact, it’s hard to put into words how strange it was to become someone I didn’t know, and then return to the person I used to be because of one pill in the morning and one at night. So, I’ll just tell you that I’m going to be ever vigilant to take care of my chemistry, and every other little component of this thing that constitutes Me.