Some people say the aches and pains of middle age are all in your head. I’m here to tell you that they may very well be located in your neck.
I knew something was up—or, as it turns out, way down—while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean with my daughters-in-law last weekend in Maine.
Dang, this water is COLD, I told them.
Dang, you are weird, they told me.
We all laughed mightily at the fact that I couldn’t, even for one second, put my hands below the water. I had to walk around in the waves with my hands in the air like a freaked-out toddler. Meanwhile, my two 38-year-old companions were reaching for shells and pointing at minnows—enjoying their estrogen levels and the lukewarm sea.
My weirdness comes as no big surprise. I’ve been not enjoying the odd symptoms associated with being on the verge of 50 since I was 47. Energy so low that I have often felt like a Cro-Magnon woman with my knuckles scraping the ground. Fingernails splitting if I blow on them.
But each “thing” could be chalked up to another. I was living in Abu Dhabi when I realized my hair was a frazzled wreck. Of course it was! I’m in the desert in temps over 110. You bet my eyes are puffy, because everyone with the last name Bercaw has puffy eyes!
I bought a fancy skin lotion to assuage my dry epidermis, yet my arms and legs seemed worse off by the end of the day. I blamed the cosmetics marketing trade for selling me a fake bill of goods. Then I felt bad for blaming a whole industry and went back to blaming the Middle East. Besides, my hands were swollen, which meant they must be as hot and bothered as the rest of me.
Then there was the brain fog with which I had to contend, the most disconcerting of all my weirdnesses. Puffy eyes aren’t the only thing swimming in our family gene pool—Alzheimer’s disease is lurking under the surface too.
My neurologist father died of Alzheimer’s three years ago. Because of his profession and his ailment, I know when a brain isn’t working well. And I clearly needed a lighthouse to see beyond my brain fog. I couldn’t remember where my to-do list was—let alone what it even said. This is the beginning of the end, I thought, as I added a few extra thousand dollars to the life-insurance policy provided by my workplace.
Also added over the years was extra poundage around my midsection. Exercise didn’t seem to make a dent. I decided to quit drinking alcohol three months ago because I felt so endlessly tired and eternally pudgy, in addition to the fact that I was guzzling way too much white wine. But saying goodbye to about 2,500 calories imbibed nightly didn’t result in a svelte new me, nor did it bring renewed energy or joy. Weird, I lamented, I’m a recovering alcoholic who feels worse with each passing booze-free day.
I wrote all of my symptoms down—except the brain fog because I actually, really and truly forgot about it—before going to see my doctor. I remembered the brain fog at the last minute in the waiting room and added it in bold along with some other words I couldn’t decipher moments after jotting them down.
We reviewed the list, as well as my vital signs. High blood pressure. Low pulse. Belly fat. Dry skin. Swollen hands. Aches in legs. Dry, red, crusty eyes. Snoring, maybe even sleep apnea.
We also talked about a few symptoms I hadn’t put on the list: depression and rage. I was already on antidepressants—how could I still be sad? Rage? I chalked that up to being a woman in the world. What isn’t there to rage about? At least I found a way to justify my nonexistent sex drive: I must have had more than my share.
A simple blood test spelled out the underlying problem: T4 low, TSH high. My thyroid—a gland in charge of metabolic process, located in the neck—was underperforming. How did I not put two and two together? I have friends who’ve done battle with thyroid levels. I knew the signs.
Four days into my Synthroid med and I can feel myself slowly starting to morph into Homo erectus. It may be months before I get my thyroid leveled out, but I hope to have my hands back in the Atlantic Ocean before the water actually gets too cold to do so.