The Release of the Butterfly
by Aliza Marton
As a child, I was very shy and timid. I couldn’t find my voice. I have memories of singing quietly to myself under a desk and drawing on the walls in my closet behind the hanging clothes, where no one could see. Over the years, I doodled constantly in school. We never had an official art class, but I was always sure to have a pen or pencil and some lined paper. I drew on everything! It was always the wrong thing to do, and I was always reprimanded. “You’re not meant to doodle in class, draw on your uniform skirt, or anywhere else.” I was silenced.
Eventually, I left the dream of becoming an artist, written in my eighth-grade yearbook. Realizing that becoming an artist was just a dream, I continued on with other things. I graduated from UCLA in Psychology and Education, and without ever taking an art class. Once married, and after having children, my creativity was channeled into cooking and teaching, but never producing art myself. Of course, I wanted my children to have what I wasn’t able to have, so I signed up my two young daughters for art classes.
Over the years, I kept getting heavier and heavier. Struggling with my weight, I tried different weight-loss plans. It seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I could not lose weight. I would gain and lose the same two pounds throughout the month. It seemed to be more related to my cycle than anything else. I would continue to work out at the gym each morning and eat according to whichever meal plan I was on at the time, and nothing! The scales wouldn’t budge! I hated it when people would ask, “What are you eating when no one’s looking?” I kept a journal of everything I ate and weighed myself anything between every day to once a week, depending on which nutritionist or weight-loss plan I was on.
One day a supportive workout buddy at this all-women’s gym I worked out in explained to me how she had insulin resistance and that it caused her to have difficulty losing weight. She suggested I see her doctor and find out if I had the same problem.
I went to a doctor, and he did some bloodwork and told me that my calcium levels were too high. At first, I thought, Okay, I guess I don’t need to eat food with calcium, not realising it was a sign that something was wrong. After many tests, it became apparent that I had something called hyperparathyroidism. There was a benign tumour growing on my parathyroid and it was extracting calcium from my bones, leaving me with osteopenia (the early stages of osteoporosis). It seemed a bit unfair since the only benefit of being overweight is that one usually has better bone density. For some reason this wasn’t the case for me.
After more tests it was decided that I should have the parathyroid removed, and hopefully, the three other parathyroids would begin to work correctly. (A parathyroid is as small as a grain of rice. Most people have four, and they sit right on the thyroid. They keep your calcium and phosphorus levels in check.)
After surgery I remember the surgeon waking me up, saying, “You must see an endocrinologist right away! You have Hashimoto’s disease and twelve nodules on your thyroid!” (Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid.) He also explained that he needed to biopsy the rest of the parathyroids and that I should start taking medication right away. He was a top surgeon, and I was in one of the best hospitals in the country. I took what he said seriously and made an appointment with an endocrinologist covered by my insurance. The endocrinologist said my TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone) levels looked normal and there was nothing wrong with me. I explained what had happened and what the surgeon had told me, but nothing I said could convince him to check further. I saw another endocrinologist who suggested I do the lap band (a procedure to help with weight loss). I couldn’t understand how this would help with my thyroid. The next two endocrinologists thought that maybe I had imagined the whole scenario. The scar across my neck and the surgeon’s words, I guess, were not enough evidence to take me seriously.
By now a little over a year had passed since my surgery, and I decided to pay out of my own pocket to see an excellent doctor. With all the blood work done (more than anyone had done until now), we began getting real answers. He discovered I had Hashimoto’s disease, and I began taking the necessary medication. I immediately began to feel less pain in my shoulders, and thankfully I wasn’t crying endlessly anymore. You see when your thyroid isn’t functioning properly, many things can be affected, such as cholesterol levels, body temperature, metabolism, heart function, and much more. What was most difficult for me was how much I wanted to cry during this period of time. I would cry, and my husband would ask me what was wrong. Baruch Hashem, I had the wherewithal to realise I was okay. I would answer, “Nothing. I love you. I love the kids. Everything is good. But I just feel like crying.” Stopping these crying episodes was probably the best part of taking levothyroxine for my thyroid.
This whole experience made me realise how difficult it is to diagnose Hashimoto’s disease. I first had an inkling there might be a problem with my thyroid after giving birth to my last baby. It was the same pattern I shared with my other births, but this was the most extreme. Apparently, pregnancy can cause one’s thyroid to expand and possibly trigger other thyroid complications. It seemed odd to me that I wouldn’t gain much weight during my pregnancy, then I would give birth to large children. Then I suffered a tremor and during these first two weeks after giving birth I would lose at least a pound a day! And as soon as those two weeks were over I would gain at least a pound a day. I remember that after the first week I asked my OB-GYN to check my thyroid, and she sweetly said, “Honey, we all want to believe it’s our thyroid. You just have to work on losing weight.” She reassured me everything was fine. Looking back, I never pushed for tests of any kind; I just nursed my babies and continued with life.
I noticed throughout the years that many doctors seemed to hold a bias against me because I was heavy. I actually still believe most people hold this bias. I believe these types of biases make it difficult to get the proper care we really need. If something doesn’t seem right, try to push past your timid self, find your voice and stand up for proper testing and treatment! You are your best advocate!
TSH levels are not the only thing to check for. Push for them to check your T3 and T4 levels and thyroid antibodies, and most importantly, A GOOD DOCTOR LISTENS TO THEIR PATIENTS. Sometimes symptoms speak louder than numbers on a test. People with Hashimoto’s disease tend to experience the same symptoms as other patients with hypothyroidism experience, including low energy and fatigue, weight gain, cold intolerance (feeling cold when others are comfortable), constipation and depression. It’s easy to mistake these symptoms for other problems.
A few months after my surgery I asked my daughter’s teacher if I could sit next to my daughter and learn to paint as well. It was such a wonderful experience. Although already 39 years old at the time, beginning to paint opened up a whole new world for me. Maybe this little butterfly-shaped organ called the thyroid, which covers one’s voice box, was silencing me. Maybe I needed to release the butterflies that were being held captive. Since I began to paint, I haven’t been able to stop. My paintings became my voice. What I couldn’t articulate with words began pouring out of me with paint. There seems to be an endless supply of ideas in my head. Finding the key and opening the doors to our minds is sometimes as simple, or truly difficult, as getting the right care.