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.
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.
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.