A High-Functioning Person’s Insight on Living With Thyroid Symptoms

As we close up International Thyroid Awareness week, it seems a good a time as any to consider just what living with a thyroid issue looks like, especially when you’re a high-functioning, overachieving dreamer and doer.

Learning to live without a thyroid was a little bit like learning how to walk all over again. Granted, at the age of 7 months, I thought crawling was a waste of time and decided to skip that step, so to speak. One day, I just got up off my derrière and used my chubby legs to wobble over to my mother.

It would seem I’ve always been eager.

As I grew up, my innate ambitiousness was amplified by external expectations to succeed at school, extracurricular activities and life. I went to a school that praised academic excellence above all else. I then went to a university that also held those values dear.

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

When thyroid cancer struck, there was a moment of “this can’t be happening” followed by “how am I supposed to finish my Masters degree and continue working when I have to have surgery?” I was in my early twenties, and in my mind, this was the time to be doing as much as I could.

In hindsight, it’s ridiculous that I was so wound up and focused on work and school that one of my first thoughts was about how was I going to continue being a productive person. My identity and in some ways, self-worth, was tied to these outward roles and achievements.

Whether I was truly aware of it or not, there was pressure to do everything and be brilliant at it all. We’re also expected to exude effortless success, while shoving our increasing stress into the deep recesses of our mind because that’ll only slow us down and anyway, there’s no time to think about how we’re feeling. Today, I have a sneaky suspicion (more like conviction) that all that stress contributed to my thyroid cancer.

There’s no right or wrong way to go about dealing with a health issue. It’s a personal decision. Some people continue working and doing the same things straight through symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

With some thyroid issues, like Hashimoto’s, Grave’s Disease or regular old hypothyroidism, it’s harder to make the case to ourselves and society for taking time off. At least I had the scary word “cancer” as a fallback.

Photo by Josh Adamski on Unsplash

Chronic illnesses, especially those that are invisible and not well-understood, are not seen as legitimate reasons to take time for ourselves. Having hypothyroid symptoms like fatigue and brain fog are vague concepts, sometimes seen as excuses to many of our peers, loved ones and employers.

After my diagnosis, I took a step back to focus on my well-being and while it would seem that I was taking time to heal, I was anxious and unhappy and frankly, bored. Losing my thyroid and going through radioactive iodine treatment meant I was so hypothyroid that I couldn’t take a shower without needing a nap afterwards. I missed being my active, productive self.

As soon as I was able, I started to once again do the things that I thought defined me and went back to work. But there were a number of challenges I didn’t anticipate:

1. I wasn’t able to function in the same way (because of course, I was missing a vital organ), but I hid it.

As much as I wanted them to be, my body and mind we’re quite back to what they were pre-thyroidectomy. I was still trying to figure out the right dosage of thyroid replacement hormone and was experiencing fluctuations in energy, chronic pain and mood swings to name a few.

But at work, I was meeting deadlines and exceeding expectations. Putting up a front takes a toll. Others don’t see the consequences of striving to be your “normal” or regular self.

2. I hadn’t dealt with the underlying problem — my desire to achieve and succeed versus having a mindful and healthy relationship with my work.

Perhaps most damagingly, I had reverted back to my old habits of trying to perform well. This was because I re-entered a workforce where personal well-being takes a backseat. We often underestimate how much of an influence the predominant narrative has on our lives, it is the status quo and so we accept it internally as what must be.

Learning to consciously recognize this desire to over perform and be “successful”, has been an ongoing challenge and will continue to be a process for me. We unconsciously mimic the mentality that we’re constantly exposed to.

Now, I question what makes me feel fulfilled. I am practicing mindfulness in my work and other areas of my life. I remind myself of Deepak Chopra’s words “pursue excellence, ignore success.”

3. I had to learn how to set boundaries and advocate for myself.

So when I seemed to be working productively and contributing meaningfully, it came as a surprise to people when I asked for modified work hours. Not all employers are understanding and that’s a whole other issue for another time.

But advocating for modified hours or time off, was something I had to learn how to navigate. These can be challenging conversations, with not just employers but with health care providers as well. It was a hard thing to admit I needed because it is accompanied by a false but very real sense of weakness.

“Nobody else is taking time off.”
“Others are dealing with worse things, and they’re still working.”
“Mark came back to work the day after his surgery.”

I had to remind myself that I know my body best and nobody else, nobody, would ever have my best interests at heart the way I would and should.

So here’s what I’m learning NOT to do:

  • Be busy. It is one of the most overrated states of being. There is nothing fruitful, sensible or even productive in being busy. You can have a full life, but a busy life will wear you down.
  • Be reactive. I used to push myself until I burnt out and then had to deal with the consequences. Now, I try to stay mindful of my body, tune into how I’m feeling and what I need so I can be proactive. Being reactive is just asking for thyroid symptoms to get out of control again, and be caught in a vicious cycle of burnout.
  • Be accountable to others. Your biggest responsibility is to yourself. Only by being your best self can you show up fully for others. Be accountable to yourself first.

So I’ll be honest, I still wobble from time to time but I am so much more in tune with myself than I’ve ever been in my life. I try to stay conscious of what I’m doing and why and I remind myself that it’s okay to crawl before I walk.