Letter: To Family and Friends of those suffering with Graves Disease
Thyroid imbalances of any kind, but most notably Graves’ Disease, have a profound effect on every cell of the body. One of the aspects most noticeable to others is its effects on the brain and emotions. Graves’ Disease can turn even a mild-mannered, loving spouse into someone who is at best often irritable, angry, emotionally unavailable or self-absorbed. Graves’ patients don’t necessarily understand that their feelings originate in out-of-whack brain chemistry, and sometimes blame others for their difficult emotions. These factors contribute to the high divorce rate for people with Graves’ Disease. Sometimes the patient leaves the marriage, believing the spouse is responsible for everything that’s wrong, and other times the spouse can’t take the abusive behavior or lack of normal marital relations, and ends the relationship, not understanding that the problems are a manifestation of an illness.
It is quite impossible for someone who has never experienced the attack of Graves’ Disease on the body and brain to understand how difficult it can be simply trying to function or get through each day. Graves’ Disease is the emotional equivalent of an earthquake, a tornado, and World War III. When the disease is stabilized, many people experience a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Relationships are damaged, sometimes permanently, and careers are destroyed. People tend to view the erratic behavior of the Graves’ patient as part of their personality, or in terms of character defects. Many people with Graves’ have had it a long time before it was diagnosed, and a lot of damage may have been done already without anyone having a clue that an illness is responsible.
To complicate matters, “thyroid problems” are viewed as minor by the general public, since for a time before sensitive tests became available, anyone who was a little fat and tired may have been told it was a thyroid condition. Many people mistakenly believe that hyperthyroidism is a free ticket to weight loss, not knowing that it’s a dangerous illness. True thyroid problems are serious and can be fatal when untreated. When treated, the journey to wellness is not necessarily fast or smooth. Since every cell and organ in the body is negatively affected, symptoms develop ranging from extreme fatigue and sleeping and digestive disturbances to nerve, joint, and muscle problems, as well as hair loss and fingernail breakage, not to mention the menstrual cycle, fertility, and sexual function. Miscarriage is the heartbreaking result for many pregnant women. While the body will usually heal in time with proper treatment, permanent heart damage and osteoporosis can occur.
Anxiety and depression are common, and because of the myriad of unexplained physical symptoms, the patient focuses on health issues. Friends and family usually have no idea what’s involved or why the patient is behaving the way he/she is, or how to deal with it. The result is that the thyroid patient may be treated as a hypochondriac or as emotionally “weak”, and berated by others or left alone to deal with life at a time when support from others is needed most of all. The final whammy is when the spouse, one who has promised to love, honor, and cherish for better or worse etc. can’t understand or be supportive either.
But there can’t possibly be a more difficult task than giving support to a spouse who isn’t necessarily sick in bed, doesn’t look particularly ill, but very likely has stopped functioning in many areas of the marriageoften including household duties, parenting, social activities, and most likely the bedroom as well. On top of that, how do you support someone who seems irritable or angry much of the time and might not even have any of the positive qualities left that attracted you in the first place?
It’s not going to be easy, nor will the return to good health be fast. You may already be tired of hearing the word “thyroid”, but if you’re not, you probably will be. It can take 6 months to several years, depending on treatment method and individual response, for thyroid levels to be stabilized and for the healing process to begin, and it could be many years before full recovery takes place. It’s common for some psychological and cognitive effects to remain for many years.
A few suggestions are that you learn everything you can about this disease, and recognize that your partner has a very serious condition and is not able to be the kind of spouse you need right now, perhaps even less than with most other serious illnesses, because of the psychological inward war to deal with as well as physical illness. This may be the greatest challenge your marriage ever faces, and if you survive this, you should be able to get through anything together. She/he may not understand right now that it’s just as difficult for you right now as for him/her, but someday he/she will, and will love and honor you even more for standing by him/her through this.
It’s important to take care of yourself too. Spend some time with safe people who can meet some of your needs for stability and friendship that may not be met in your marriage at this time. Talk to other spouses who are going through the same thing if you can. Talk to your spouse about your feelings and develop a mutually agreeable way for you to protect yourself when his/her inner state boils over and threatens to affect you negatively. For some people it helps to get out of the house for awhile when necessary. She/he can work on trying to recognize when the bad spells are coming on and give you warning so you can protect yourself while he/she deals with it, but it’s not always possible. I could tell you not to take it personally, but that would be trivializing it==-what could be more personal! It may take some time for you to completely forgive and trust again. Try to remember that this is temporary, and that it’s an illness beyond his/her control.