Bali, Hashimoto, and other things with foreign names shaping my life


I’m on Bali. Bali is one of over 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia. Yes, that’s 17 thousand and not a typo. Did you know Indonesia is the 4th most populated country in the world with 245 million inhabitants? I did not. Bali is about one and a half times the size of Mallorca. Unlike most other places in Indonesia, it is predominately Hindu, rather than Muslim. What do I do here, you ask? I am staying in what one might call the cultural capital of Bali, Ubud. The city is nestled in the rice fields that line the beginning of the island’s central mountain terrain.

I spend my days soaking up the afternoon light, eating all the vegan, sugar-, gluten-free deliciousness the place has to offer, lounging on lounge chairs reading books, riding my scooter through the lush green rice fields and polluted streets, indulging in yoga therapy classes, visiting art museums, taking a trip to the nearby Gili islands to swim with friends and sea turtles (!), and engaging in a variety of other soul-searching activities. I’m fortunate I get to be here. I had gotten to a place in my life that wasn’t bearable anymore – neither for me, nor those around me. A place in my life that asked for some type of change.

DSC02622{Picturesque horse posing before sunset on nearby island Gili T}

Introducing, Hashimoto Thyroiditis

So what’s going on? Four years ago, I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease called Hashimoto Thyroiditis. What these words mean is that my immune system slowly but surely destroys my thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is a tiny, butterfly-shaped endocrine (that means hormone-producing) gland that sits in our throats. What a cute thing, you might say – butterfly shaped! Why is your immune system destroying such a fun organ? No one knows. That’s the mystery of autoimmune diseases. No one really knows why for some of us, our body starts to attack part of itself.

Besides being all butterfly-shaped and cute, the thyroid gland is also crucial to a long list of bodily functions. Our metabolism, brain health, gut health (think digestion), mood and many more all depend on the hormones our thyroid gland produces. Under attack of the immune system, the thyroid gland starts over- and underproducing hormones. This isn’t exactly fun. When the gland overproduces hormones, it’s like having a metabolism on steroids: in my case this meant that I lost weight, my heart was racing, my hands were shaky, my sleep was restless. When the gland underproduces hormones, on the other hand, the metabolism slacks off: there’s depression, irritability, digestive problems, bacterial overgrowth of the wrong bacteria in the gut, cold hands and feet, weight gain, missing periods, proneness to infections and other very un-fun things. The thing is this – once one hormone in your body is out of tune, this affects all other hormone-producing glands in your system: the ovaries that produce our sexual hormones, the adrenal gland that produces the hormones that let us deal with stress, the pancreas that produces insulin, a hormone regulates blood sugar. Mess up one, mess up all. 

What happened after the diagnosis? – Uhm, I forgot about the diagnosis

The symptoms that had initially brought me into the doctor’s office in the summer of 2010 lessened. Later I would learn that the coming and going of symptoms is very common in the beginning of the disease. The thyroid gland shifts from under- to overproducing hormones, no longer fully functional, still not fully destroyed. And then, quite frankly, I forgot all about the diagnosis. Looking back, I think part of me simply didn’t want to be sick, and so I pushed the thoughts of the disease to the side. I literally forgot all about it.

And so I lived these past three years or so with symptoms coming and going. I noticed, but I never made the connection to the diagnosis I had once received. The disease had an ever more crippling effect on my well being and my life, but I was looking for reasons in other places. Maybe it was the work I did or the city I lived in that meant I felt unwell and not like myself anymore. But surely nothing was really wrong with me. Or was it? On the face of it, everything was so great: living in beautiful San Francisco, with the man I love, doing a well-paying, fast-paced job in the fashion industry. Despite it all, I felt unwell. More than unwell. I think my behavior hurt many people in my life during this time.

DSC02655{Depicted here in front of the sunset is an Indonesian guy who not only was our very friendly boat guide, with whom we shared laughter, drinks, snacks and a generous tip, but who also took us snorkeling far enough from the boat so that his co-worker could steal money from all of our purses in an undisturbed manner. But that’s another story, to be told another day.}

Stumbling over a random book in a random book store 10,000 miles from where I lived

How this story continued: This summer I flew from San Francisco to Germany to be with my mother. I ended up staying so long that I lost my US visa, but that’s yet another story. Sometime this summer, I visited a city close to my hometown in Germany to do some shopping. In a book store I stumbled over a book written by a German breakfast TV host, who described her experience with a disease called Hashimoto Thyroiditis. She wrote about her journey of trying to find out what was wrong with her, of why she felt unhappy, depressed, why she couldn’t handle stress anymore, felt overwhelmed by everything, put on weight, and screamed and shouted at the scale and the people in her life, until she was diagnosed with Hashimoto. I read the entire book on the 2 hour train ride back home. When I got off the train, tears were flooding down my face. An overwhelming sense of relieve filled me. I remembered my own diagnosis. Finally, there was an indication of what was causing all the suffering.

Turning points, many small turning points

While still in San Francisco, I had started changing my diet quiet a bit. Basically overnight I quit coffee, which resulted in two days of probably the worst headache in my life. Turning point! Mind you, I partially grew up Spain, and nothing could have come between me and my two double shots of espresso a day. (Hence espresso themed banner of this very blog, which might have to be changed eventually). I discovered Deliciously Ella and experimented with recipes free of gluten, refined sugar, dairy, meat, fish and eggs. Turning point! Later I would find out that many of these dietary changes are recommended for people with autoimmune diseases. Now I think it’s pretty cool that my body knew this was good for me at the time, even though I hadn’t figured out what was wrong yet.

And now – my new visa situation gives me space to take time off. To be with myself for a while. To do yoga therapy and participate in workshops on hormonal balance on a tropical island that is so close to the equator that the moon appears upside down. Very importantly, it gives me time to indulge in everything vegan, gluten-, sugar-free I can find. I visited a few doctors in Germany already, and shall continue to do so upon my return. (Appointments are hard to get by, and some are not until December of this year.) But for now, I am my own healer. Kris Carr once said that cancer is her guru. It tells her how to lead her life in a way that is good for her and her body. Maybe Hashimoto can be my guru for a while.

The importance of letting go has become more evident to me here than ever before. Things are shifting. A whole new world of possibilities is opening up before my eyes.


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