Hypothyroidism, TSH, and a really bad night in January

In May of 2017, after hitting a physical wall and going over the edge with overtraining, I got my first blood test done in years.  My doctor had a suspicion that part of my problem could be uncovered by checking my testosterone and TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels.  Along with extreme physical distress from training, the basis of the flat and apathetic feeling I was overcome by could be largely explained by a taxed adrenal system, if that were the case. Well, my tests proved that chemically and physically I was indeed taxed, and this doesn’t even account for the mental side of the equation.

Hypothyroidism is basically defined as an abnormally low activity of the thyroid gland, resulting in retardation of growth and mental development in adults.  My remedial understanding of the condition was that if the thyroid is not properly functioning, then the body doesn’t get enough natural hormone, among other things, to repair itself, as well as aiding in elevated states of depression.  Given the amount of miles I was putting in back then it was no wonder that my body hit the wall.  My system was not getting what it needed to properly repair itself.  Hence, my body shut down and rejected any further training until my system had a chance to recover.

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A graph of my TSH levels over the past year

When I first got tested in May my TSH levels were normal, it was my testosterone  (T) levels that dipped well below normal.  My T levels measured at 144 nanograms per deciliter (normal range for guys my age is 300 – 600 ng/Dl).  Luckily those levels rebounded throughout the summer, mostly due to a significant decrease in training volume coupled with a litany of herbal remedies.  Eventually the levels got back into a normal range, although it was still a bit on the low side.  I was just grateful that something was balancing out. However, my TSH levels were going in another direction.  By December I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which meant that my thyroid was operating at a small percentage of  its capacity.  It was at this point where I began to seek help by way of some sort of treatment plan, under a doctor’s consent and supervision of course.  Partly because of the condition of my thyroid, coupled with my predisposition for depression, I entered into two prolonged and severe month-long bouts of staying in bed.

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A graph of my testosterone levels over the past year

The confusing part to these bouts was that I had never gone through a period of “gray,” for more than just a few days, in my life.  Then, all of the sudden, there I was, in bed for an entire month, twice, wondering what the hell was going on.  They were very dark times, scary enough that I was willing to do whatever it took to understand the why behind their severity.

Thankfully, I finally got in with an Endocrinologist at OHSU.  The work that my local Corvallis doctor and I were doing to figure out what the hell was going on just wasn’t enough to really understand the affects and the details of my hormonal and adrenal situation, hence the depression. During the appointment, after the doctor took a look at my TSH levels over the last several months, he made a very point blank comment: “Spence, you have a problem that needs to be fixed.”  It was at this time that I began a medical treatment plan to get me back to baseline.

*****

The following story captures the apex of one of the more acute depressive circumstances that I’ve ever witnessed in myself. I have not shared this story in a public forum yet.  Just a  few friends and family members know about this chain of events.

January 18th, 2018

The sun was just setting on the west coast when, out of nowhere, the urge swept over me to get in bed. It was 5:30 p.m. in the afternoon.  I had no idea where this urge was coming from.  As I lay by myself, with the shades drawn, staring at the ceiling, the overwhelmingly dark thoughts began to pour into my already-swirling mind.  I had no way of controlling their persistence.  I had become accustomed to “wading through the gray,” as I call it, but this episode was very different, more poignant.  For one hour, while gazing at my colorless surroundings, I began to develop a plan and fantasize about how I would take my life.  The plan involved me just casually and nonchalantly walking into the forest, with a suitable means, to end it. 

After playing the scenario out in my head I began to ask the then-tantalizing questions:  Who will be at my funeral?  What would they say? Who would find me in the woods?  Would I finally feel loved enough to garner attention and admiration?  I was soaking up the long and sought after attention that I had always wanted. Certainly, the negative self-talk was rearing its ugly head.  

Scenarios like this are not a common occurrence for me.  One time in particular stands out. The last time I had had a suicidal tendency was back in 2007, when I was drunk and steeped in a destructive relationship.  Before Brian found me in the stairwell of my home, I was ready to end my life with a bottle of Percoset and a gallon of wine.  Immediately he put me in his car and brought me to a psychiatric center so that I could receive proper help.  

This time, the feelings of desperation, vulnerability, and utter shame reached a climax when the vision started to look and feel like a genuine act of sorrow, anger, and selfishness, a true need to feel love.  After stewing in a pot of darkness I slowly began to dig out and decipher what was reality versus what was just an illusion.  Logic eventually took over and I lay in shock because of what had just happened and the road I imagined that I had just gone down.  For the next few hours, maintaining my fixated stare on the bland white ceiling, I couldn’t come to grips and understand where this rush of depression and anxiety came from.  It was a dark and lonely place.

The next morning, after conversations with two of my closest friends detailing the events that had occurred the evening before, things began to sort themselves out.  Why did this happen?  What triggered these emotions?  I had work to do to figure it out.  Time to do some digging. 

Just a day before this episode, a particular event took place that I believe set the stage for  my potentially disastrous situation.  Mike Parker and Jon Warren, the hosts of the Joe Beaver Show, KEJO 1240AM in Corvallis, were discussing the suicide of a PAC 12 Conference freshmen quarterback that tragically happened.  The radio show serves as the sports beat for the Oregon State University Beavers.  Being as though the suicide happened within the PAC 12 Conference Mike and Jon brought the discussion to the table to talk about suicide and depression throughout the NCAA athletic world.  Having a friendship with Mike, I felt compelled to call the show and tell my story of depression.  

After being on hold for just a couple of minutes Mike patched me into the show to ask me what was on my mind.  For the next ten minutes, in front of their expansive audience,  I spoke explicitly about my history and experience as it relates to depression, even going into a bit of a description of what had happened to me back in 2007 when I first considered suicide.  The conversation was good, pertinent to the discussion of athletes that suffer depression.  Once I hung up with Mike I felt good about what I had just shared over the radio airwaves.  My hope, in calling into the show, was to let others in the community know that they were not alone with their own individual struggles.  I felt that by sharing I had also lifted a veil from the dark cloud that had recently been following me around.  However, the experience of me telling my story in an open and honest forum, proved to be the dagger that took my already-persistent vulnerability into overdrive.  My phone call into the radio show set the tone for me to collapse in bed the following evening and begin down a dark road. 

Karen, my therapist, said it best:  tales of suicide can sometimes be evocative for people that live in a depressive state.  I had not thought of it that way before.  Her position on the subject seemed to make perfect and clear sense.  

*****

A few weeks ago I had my blood retested to see how the medication for hypothyroidism was taking affect in my body.  Even though it took a couple of months for my body to metabolize the meds I was taking to help repair things and get back to baseline, I still had some anxiety around how the numbers would look.  Thankfully, once I got back my test results the numbers revealed that I was entirely back to even with both my TSH (measured at 2.6 ng/dL) and Testosterone levels (519 ng/dL). Everything checked out as normal.  Hearing this news was a huge relief.  I am thankful that today I am finally operating at a normal functioning level, adrenally speaking.  Perhaps, now that I’m balanced out, the prolonged and overly-acute depressive episodes might just be a thing of the past.  Certainly, I’m not immune to the fact that anything can happen, however my team of medical professionals is pretty confident that if I keep up the due diligence on my end then I’ve got a good chance at not experiencing a year like I had in the last year with depression.

During my acute bout in January I truly believe that I would have never actually done the unthinkable.  As bad as it gets I really do know that I have so much in this world to live for.  I also tell this story to reveal that this type of thinking is not uncommon for folks who deal with depression as I do.  So, if there is anyone out there that reads this post who feels that by sharing it with someone else who may be fighting their own battle with depression, please do so.  And if they ever want to reach out to me, just call, 541-207-7199.

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Enough with the injuries….switching gears (pun intended)

Since the release of Appetite for Addiction I’ve been in funk with writing, not feeling inclined to put pen to paper as much as I have in the past.  Perhaps it’s a hangover effect from AFA. However, I’ve recently met someone that inspired me to pick it back up and get writing again.  My friend Tracey, who keeps a blog of her own was also in a funk.  Interestingly, after we shared our funks together we both picked it back up.  So, here we go! Thanks Tracey 🙂

Several weeks ago, in February, the flu bug got to me which forced me to stay in bed, like everyone else who caught it around the country.  Luckily the bug passed on a Friday and I was able to get out and hit the trails over that weekend.  The runs were uneventful, easy, and relatively benign.  I felt no twinges or tweaks over the two easy efforts.  Then, the following Monday morning I woke up to my left foot being the size of a softball.  I have no idea what happened and I blew up with tumult. I had fucking had it with injuries.

Over the last two years, while I’ve keenly focused on training for ultra-marathons, I’ve had sixteen different injuries that forced me to sit out from training:  Left quad strain, right quad strain (twice), strained achilles, banged up right calf (twice), banged up left calf (twice), left hip strain, strained lower back, sprained left ankle, a dysfunctional thyroid, etc., etc., etc.  When I woke up that Monday with a swollen foot, after freaking out for a bit, I began to laugh and say out loud: “even when I’m not injured I get injured!”

Injuries are very common in our crazy sport.  The mileage we run in training for ultra- marathons from 50 kilometers to 100 milers and beyond tends to provoke certain common injuries.  Largely, I’ve been relatively patient in dealing with these injuries as I began to look at them as challenges to figure out what happened and how to fix it.  But with this new injury, one that I have no idea how it happened?  I’d had enough and threw my hands up in the air in disbelief.  My patience was lost, and I was no longer in the mood to find the silver lining with this latest episode.  Enough was enough.

After I calmed down, I took the next few days to reflect on what the sport of ultra-running means to me.  Look, I love it and will always have a passion for running long distances in the woods!  However, this time, the mysterious injury brought out another consideration for me to ponder:  my mental stability.  No longer was running helping me wade through the mental challenges I face from time to time.

Running is a way for me to express myself, to push myself, and to explore my mental and physical boundaries.  I’ve learned so much about myself by pushing the limits to states of mind that I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing in other ventures.  But, with the constant interruptions in my ability to run, my mental stability began to wane.  No longer was it about loving a sport that I’ve grown into over seven solid years.  Now, it was about strictly maintaining my sanity, the consistency of being healthy had become fleeting.

For me, fear is not necessarily an effective motivator for doing anything.  However, the few months leading up to the latest injury, I found myself in an utter state of fear, wondering when the next injury would occur.  It was awful, having fun while running was elusive.  One of my friends and mentors, Ian Torrence, gave me a simple formula to the fun factor in running.  His sentiment was that 90% of running should be fun; admittedly my fun factor was a tiny fraction of his 90% rule.

Given the personal issues that I’ve been through, especially with depression over the last couple of years, running was largely my way to cope, until it wasn’t.  What I hadn’t realized was that running, along with the accumulation of the incessant injuries, was adding to the depression simply because I couldn’t stay healthy.

Today, a couple of months removed, I’m really bummed that I let it get to this point.  I mean, it took about 6 weeks for me to not look up into the forest without a feeling of disdain for the trails.  Ridiculous right?  Maybe not.  Now I can safely admit that before the last injury I had once again become consumed with pace, Strava, and results, constantly comparing myself to other runners.  That formula had not worked in the past when I began training full time;  unfortunately I had let those external drivers take over again.

So, now what?  Well, fortunately my foot healed after taking a month off from running so I can start up again although this go-around will look a little different.  Enter a swim cap, a dusted off time trial bike and a pair of road shoes. I still want to be the best athlete I can be and compete at a high level.  I won’t stop the pursuit of a child dream just because I am putting aside the sole focus on ultra-marathons.  At this point in my life I believe that swimming and biking will help add to the sustainability of my athletic endeavors.  I’m willing to try it, for I absolutely love competing and training for endurance sports.  My first triathlon is in just a few weeks, the Blue Lake Olympic just outside of Portland.  I’m excited to see what happens!

Even just a few weeks ago I was in no frame of mind to even consider being around an ultra-marathon, even just as a spectator.  However, things have improved and today I find myself in a better place, having gone through the grieving process of not being able to compete this year like I had hoped. Plus, my buddy Andrew is heading back to Western States 100 this year for the follow-up to his victory in 2016.  There’s no way I’m going to miss out seeing him race in the Super Bowl of ultra-running next month.

My take-away from this bout of injuries:  listen to your body because when it speaks, it speaks for a reason.

 

 

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