Sickness & Health

Volkan Olmez

Brienne was rather sick, but not quite dying. She wanted to die though, more often than not. She was tired, exhausted really, and often felt like she could never take another step. Her arms ached and her legs felt like two sheets of tissue paper. There was a time in life when she remembered being a cross-country runner, good enough for a scholarship, until one day the disease came rearing its ugly head.

It arrived right when things seemed to be falling into place. She had received a Master’s degree at a great school and interned at a company in San Francisco for the summer. Upon returning back home, she found a good job. She had friends, so many friends, and eventually fell in love. He was smart and sweet and caring. They were happy together and made countless plans. They wanted to travel and buy a house and have two or three kids. Why not? The future was a runway to open skies.

Not long after starting her new job, Brienne felt like she was gaining weight. Her boyfriend reassured her and said he loved her, no matter what.

“It isn’t right,” she said, in a confused tone. “Something’s not right, I swear.”

Her boyfriend, Tim, said maybe she should get checked out. But Brienne was afraid of doctors, of blood and pain and broken bones, of whooping coughs and cancer scares and problems with the brain. So she waited and then waited some more.

Eventually, secretly at first, she began to buy new clothes. Tim didn’t notice until she brought it to his attention. Not because he was a guy, but because it’s hard to see changes when you see the same person day after day. Brienne grew increasingly frantic. She wanted to exercise like she used to, but could no longer muster up the strength.

Soon, she began to spot subtler, more pervasive things. Her fingernails, once her pride and joy, began to undouble and chip and break for no reason. Then, a few eyelashes began to fall out. Lethargy gave way to constipation, which in turn gave way to pain. She bought a huge tub of lotion because her skin was constantly dry. Her mood grew increasingly darker.

“I’m a monster,” one day she declared.

“No, you’re not,” Tim said, affecting a gentle tone.

“Yes I am. Look at this!” she took a chunk of belly between two hands and squeezed it with disgust. “I hate my body.”

“You need to see the doctor, dear, to see what can be done.”

Finally, she raised up the courage to go see someone. The doctor, a short bald man named Dr. Coughlin, felt around her neck and ordered a battery of blood tests. Tim accompanied her because she hated the sight of needles and would faint at the sight of blood. Later that day, the results came in. Dr. Coughlin invited her back to his office.

“You are suffering from an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Unfortunately, I’m afraid there is no cure. However, there is a treatment that you will need to take every day for the rest of your life.”

Brienne was floored. Her autoimmune system had determined that her thyroid gland was a threat and needed to be destroyed. One day out of the blue her body had declared war on itself and didn’t bother to tell her. Sure, the signs were there. They had been there for some time, but strangers always wanted to explain them away by saying she needed to sleep more, or have less stress. Live healthier. A healthy mind is a healthy body, except when it’s not. Very often, the opposite is true.

Dr. Coughlin prescribed a lower dose at first, 50 micrograms to see how that affected her levels. “It’ll take time,” he warned, “before you will feel it taking effect.”

Weeks went by with no change. She felt despondent and cried, sometimes apropos of nothing. Tim tried to comfort her, but felt increasingly distanced from his someday bride.

“You don’t understand. No one gets it. I have a disease. Two diseases, in fact.”

“But maybe if you got out more, tried to exercise, it’ll build up your energy.”

“I can’t. Okay? I’m just…done. You should find someone else. I’d understand.”

“Stop talking like that. Let’s wait for the medicine to start working. Okay?” He looked at her wet red eyes and wiped away some tears, but not all of them.

Gradually Dr. Coughlin increased her dosage. 75 μg, 100, all the way up to 125. Still, the symptoms remained: the lethargy, the extreme sensitivity to cold, the dry skin, the volatile mood swings.

Tim adapted to this new reality as best as he could. Brienne had changed, but he still loved her. Their life became a ceaseless rollercoaster of crises. They slowly came to realize she’d never be one hundred percent healthy again. In her darkest moments she talked about jumping off the balcony or swallowing a bunch of pills. She again implored him to leave her, to find another girl to be happy with as her self-confidence and self-worth plummeted through the floor.

Tim and Brienne weren’t married, but he believed in the vows all the same. He woke up early every morning to prepare her medicine with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. He researched her illness and suggested trying out a gluten free diet when she complained of feeling bloated all the time. When she couldn’t find something to wear, he said everything on her looks great. That’d cause a fight more often than not, but he kept on trying just the same.

Some diseases are a continual battle, and though Brienne felt she was losing, Tim was prepared to fight. Through the good days and bad, the ups and the downs, Tim let Brienne know he’d love her, in both sickness and health.

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