(Reposted from my blog with some additional details specific to my PCOS diagnosis.)
Things started really unraveling Thanksgiving 2008. I was back home in Central Florida visiting my parents and brothers. I was about to turn 25. I was not happy with my life. I was married to Sumul, running Studio Shah, and living in California. We had just started working full-time for Aviary. I was stressed out about that all the time. I was stressed about pretty much everything. I was certain I was a failure in business, marriage, life, etc. My self-confidence was at an all-time low.
Sumul tattled on me the first night we were home. Mom asked how things had been, and Sumul sort of glanced sideways at me and said, “Not great. Maudie’s not in a good place.” I was pissed as hell at him. I had been hiding my anxiety and depression so well from my parents, I thought, and now he had ruined everything. Damn him.
We had a nice visit despite my mom’s constant nagging about taking me to the acupuncturist and trying to relax. I continued to get more and more tightly wound about anything my brain thought might be worry-worthy. Then I blacked out in my parents’ kitchen during breakfast. Whoa. Scary.
I decided to get some help. I had flirted with getting help back when we first got married, weeping in my gynecologist’s office about my horrible mood swings. She prescribed birth control pills and an anti-depressant. I took the birth control pills and shunned the anti-depressant. Psychotropic drugs gave me the willies.
This time, I was in it to win it. My 2009 resolution was to beat my mood disorder or my depression or whatever the hell it was keeping me down. I made appointments with my general practitioner and found a Traditional Chinese Medicine healer. I was going to leave no stone, East or West, unturned.
The GP listened to my sob story of sadness, anxiety, sleep problems, attention problems, apathy, etc. etc., diagnosed me with moderate depression, and prescribed anti-depressants. The TCM healer listened to my story and explained that my body was holding on to external sources of stress unnaturally tightly and was unable let that stress go, that I had Liver Qi stagnation with Blood Deficiency, and recommended cod liver oil supplements, warm food, hot baths, relaxation exercises, and taking gui pi tang tea.
So I did both, and I started to get better within days. I was suddenly supercharged with energy. I auditioned for a play in February and was cast in the lead role. I started working on a novel. I was awesome. Life was awesome. I stopped taking the anti-depressants after six weeks because I thought my improvements had been so fast they couldn’t possibly be related to the citalopram.
Then about four months later, my energy started slipping away. Desperate, I re-filled the citalopram prescription and upped my already considerable workout schedule, made new appointments with my GP and TCM healer. My energy continued to disappear. I started finding it impossible to sleep at night or wake up in the morning. I couldn’t focus. I felt irritable and despondent all the time. I abandoned the novel. I stopped going out to see friends. I stopped working. I could barely brush my teeth in the morning. It was bad.
I started gaining weight rapidly: 25 pounds in three months. I’d never put on weight like that before. I felt hungry all the time, with incredible food cravings. I waged a constant battle with food cravings. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. I overate a little bit, mostly carbohydrate-rich whole grain foods, but my weight gain seemed disproportionate to what I was eating. Anything I ate seemed to turn directly into fat. I also started noticing that my hands were swelling up, frequently when I was out exercising. I stopped being able to wear my wedding ring. I stopped fitting into my jeans. I didn’t feel depressed about the weight, but it sure didn’t help.
Sumul’s Dad had a heart attack June 15th, about two weeks into my sudden decline and two weeks after I resumed taking citalopram. We went to stay with my parents-in-law in Texas during that time, and it was hard and scary. I was having bizarre side effects from the citalopram: painful tingling in my arms and legs, involuntary trembling, insomnia. The worst part was that I could not be there emotionally for Sumul or his mother or his father. I was so wrapped up in my own pain I was just checked out. I couldn’t deal with it. It was the worst moment of our marriage so far, hands down.
I decided to start talking with a therapist as soon as we got back home, convinced that all this bad behavior on my part was some personality problem or character flaw. I hated the idea of seeing a therapist even more than I had hated the idea of taking anti-depressants.
July. August. September. October. End of October, I looked back at my first email from my TCM healer and noticed a book recommendation I hadn’t seen before: The Mood Cure, by Julia Ross. I downloaded it on my Kindle, skimmed the first two chapters, and thought what she was saying about the link between amino acid digestion and mood made sense, and I went out that day to my local health food store for some 5-HTP and tyrosine. I started feeling better again half an hour after taking the first amino acid supplements. My focus started returning. I was ecstatic! I told my parents all about it, and they tried the aminos too.
The mental clarity I got back after taking the amino acids helped me refocus on solving this health puzzle life threw at me. I felt much better mentally. My depression was gone. The weight gain was still creeping up on me (I had gone from a 115 pound low around March to a 140+ pound high by November), but I thought I could live with that if I could just fix the problem of my chronic fatigue. Over the next few months, I consulted more doctors, got a “diagnosis” of polycystic ovary syndrome, and finally ended up in the office of an amazing nutritionist who, after hearing my whole health history, said something no one else had said before. “I think you may have low stomach acid.” Huh? How does any of this relate to stomach acid?
She turned out to be right. Diagnosing the low stomach acid was key to getting closer to the underlying diagnosis. After a week on Betaine HCl supplements, the weight was coming off at a rate of about a half a pound a day, and I wasn’t even exercising. My food cravings and constant feeling of hunger stopped. I felt much calmer and better. My energy started climbing.
To help with the PCOS symptoms (I have a history of dysmenorrhea, and my period actually stopped for over six months in the midst of this), I had started taking saw palmetto and milk thistle, as a result of reading a 2007 study (“Too much sugar turns off gene that controls the effects of sex steroids”) relating blood hormone level modulation to liver toxicity. The milk thistle was supposed to help with the liver toxicity, which I guessed though didn’t understand why I might have, and the saw palmetto was supposed to have an androgen- and testosterone-modulating effect. I cleared the use of these supplements with my nutritionist after I met her, and she said they were both safe and effective for what I was trying to do.
I swung back up to the energy level I had experienced in early 2009: I was nearly manic. I felt an anxious fluttery energy in my chest almost all the time, and it made it difficult to calm down. I kept seeing the nutritionist, and the result of a saliva cortisol test she ordered showed that my body was producing WAY too much cortisol. Over three times as much as is normal in the morning, and climbing during the day rather than declining as is normal. So this is some kind of an elevated stress response.
I called my friend Jesse to talk about all this after I started getting better. He and I have had a lot of subtle health problems that have required holistic approaches to address, and he’s a fantastic listener. It turns out he’s now teaching the Buteyko method, so I decided to try that too for its help in creating a deep state of relaxation. Days after I started that under Jesse’s guidance, I was able to cut my dose of Betaine HCl from around 4200 mg per meal to about 600 mg per meal. I’m now down to about 600 mg per day.
The nutritionist and I are working now on visualization therapy, “talking” directly to my adrenal glands and reticular activating system, checking in to see what’s up with these amazing organs and how the hell I can get them to calm down. Seems to be working. I’m feeling amazing.
Still waiting for normal menstrual cycle to return, but I have finally had some bleeding and expect to get to some sort of a norm as I continue with all my nutritional and stress-relief therapy. I’m back to my healthy weight and looking fit, and there are plenty of other wonderful side effects from the improved digestion and metabolism I’ve been able to cultivate with the help of my Eastern medicine practitioners.
So for all you depressed/manic/PCOS/food addict/insomniac/etc. peeps out there, keep the faith! Try Eastern medicine if Western’s not working for you. I’m thanking my lucky stars I did.
Want to connect with me? My name is maudieshah on the SoulCysters Message Board.