“I don’t know what to tell you. You’re doing everything right,” the physician’s assistant told me as she looked over her notes.
“It’s just really frustrating,” I said. I could feel the dejection wash over me and settle over me, where I knew it planned to stay for a while. Another disappointing session with the scale that never seemed to move at all sucked away my motivation to keep trying.
“Hey, at least you didn’t gain anything,” she said in an upbeat tone, as if that was supposed to make me feel better. “I want you to schedule another appointment in three months,” she said right before she left the room. I nodded as the door closed, even though I knew that I wasn’t coming back.
For the past year, I’d been seeing my mom’s PA to try to figure out why my body was not doing what it was supposed to be doing. So far, I did not have any answers.
It was not like I was sitting around at home all the time, eating whatever I wanted, and expecting the pounds to just drop off. Most days, my workout regimen consisted of a high-level Jillian Michaels DVD combined with either a thirty-minute run or a weight lifting routine created by my friend, who happened to be the personal trainer for Miss Universe. And p.s., Ms. Michaels does not mess around with her workouts. I regularly do insane free weight/jumping combinations, crazy yoga moves, and intense cardio exercises like burpees all in one workout.
On a daily basis, my plates consisted of foods like lean proteins, plenty of vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. If my body were normal, I would probably be a size 2. Unfortunately, PCOS had something different to say.
PCOS, or Polycystic ovary syndrome, messes with the hormones in the female body, often reducing the amount of female hormones and increasing male hormones like testosterone. This can affect the monthly cycles and cause ovarian cysts. About 1 out of every 15 women has it, but the symptoms are not always so obvious. Basically, this disorder causes a hormonal disorder that leads to issues with insulin resistance. Because the body cannot process insulin like it should, PCOS can eventually contribute to diabetes and other serious health issues.
I never got my period regularly. My first one came when I was 12. After that, it never returned on a monthly basis. There were even some stretches where I went six months without it. I went to a few different doctors, but they didn’t seem too concerned—especially because I wasn’t yet sexually active. But it was always something in the back of my mind and made me wonder, even at 14 or 15, if I would one day have trouble getting pregnant.
Working out became a serious part of my life around freshman year of high school. My dad, who was always looking for a new way to lose weight, ordered the Tae Bo workout series. I tried them out a few times and quickly got hooked. I liked feeling my blood course through my veins as I pushed my body past where I thought it could go. Punching and kicking came naturally to me and gave me a natural kind of high that I had never really experienced.
With my lackluster periods, my doctor of the time said that once I started having sex, I was basically playing a game of Russian roulette, pregnancy style. According to her, I might not even know I was late because my cycle didn’t abide by a schedule. She suggested that I start taking birth control. The pill regulated my period for the first time in my life, and even though I was not very active sexually, I made it a point to take the pill at the same time every day. My workouts became more effective during the next few years, my skin was better than it had ever been before, and I finally felt like a normal girl who had to buy tampons on a monthly basis.
When I was twenty-four, I moved to Scotland for a year to go to graduate school. I stocked up on my birth control before I left the States just in case they didn’t have the same brand across the pond. For seven months, I kept taking the pill on a daily basis and getting my period each month. Although my eating habits were not great, especially since Scottish food is very fried and very greasy, I walked everywhere.
I felt normal during the day, but sometimes I woke up with excruciating cramps in my legs. For some reason, I figured it was a problem with my circulation. I did not take advantage of the free healthcare and go to a doctor, though. By June, my birth control prescription was running low, so I made an appointment for a women’s checkup and expected to get a refill without issue.
“Your blood pressure is a little high, love,” the nurse said on the day of the exam. “You’ll have to see a doctor before you get a new prescription.” I had never had an issue with high blood pressure before, but she tested it after giving me a shot and a women’s exam, so she said it was probably just from stress. I was moving back to the States in less than two months, and I figured I would wait until I got there to go back for another prescription.
I did not have insurance when I first got back home. I made an appointment with Planned Parenthood and once again expected to leave with a prescription in my hand. The day did not go according to plan, though.
“Your blood pressure is 170/110,” the nurse said. “That is extremely high. You should stop taking birth control immediately and make an appointment with your regular doctor.”
When I got outside, I called my mom as the tears started to flow. She ran over to meet me and we went to her doctor’s office. When we finally got in to see the physician’s assistant, she was horribly rude.
“I can’t help you,” she said snidely, “I don’t have anything to test your kidney or your liver functions. You have to go to the hospital.” Needless to say, I left the doctor’s office in hysterics, which was probably not helping my blood pressure situation.
“You have to be honest. Are you on any drugs?” the triage nurse asked while he did my initial check up at the hospital.
“No. I’ve never done any drugs,” I said, near tears again with the thought that he didn’t believe me. I was so scared and confused and just wanted someone to help me, but it seemed like everyone was talking to me like this was somehow my fault.
By the time I finally saw an ER doctor hours later, my blood pressure had stabilized, but it was still high.
“They should never have sent you over here,” the doctor said calmly. “They should just have had you monitor this at home,” she said. Even though she did not give me any answers, she was the first person to make me feel any kind of relief all day.
I know that I should have made another appointment with a doctor on a normal day. I should have gone back in and started the process of figuring out what was wrong with me. But that day was so needlessly traumatic that I foolishly stayed away from any kind of doctor for months. I moved to Boston to start another graduate program. The first year was rough and I turned to food to ease my loneliness. These bad eating habits and the absence of birth control allowed the weight to creep back on. My skin got really bad and I had acne along my jawline and shoulders for the first time in my life.
Months later, my mother finally convinced me to go to the school’s health center to get checked out. The first day I walked into the room, the doctor listened to my story, took a look at my face, and said, “I think you might have PCOS.” In all the years that I’d been having problems, she was the first one to ever suggest that. She put me on some medicine that cleared up my face instantly.
The second year in Boston was much better. I actually started to lose a lot of weight. The thing is, I was insanely active there. Almost every day, I did two Jillian workouts, ran a mile and a half, and sometimes walked up to five miles on top of that. Since I didn’t have a car, and I lived a mile away from the train, walking became second nature to me. When school ended and I returned home to Tucson and back to a life of driving, the weight came back.
For a long time, this struggle was so frustrating that I started to lose myself. I moved back into my mom’s house because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I worked at a job that only required a bachelor’s degree even though I had two masters. I felt isolated from my friends and from myself. Each time I went to a doctor and left with no more answers, I fell even deeper into the pit.
I started telling my story to a friend over dinner one night.
“The doctor in Boston gave me an IUD to try to control the PCOS without adding any hormones,” I said.
“What? Oh My God, Beth! You have to get that thing taken out immediately,” she said. She had worked in a natural health food store for a long time and knew a lot about herbs and other homeopathic remedies for the body. “There is a supplement that you can take, it’s called Chaste Tree. I’ve taken it and it has totally regulated my period. I’m serious. Take the IUD out.”
A few days later, after a trip to the farmer’s market, she took me to the store to show me which supplement to buy and I started taking it the next day. Later that week, I made an appointment to get the IUD taken out.
“If you don’t get your period within three months, you’ll have to come back in so we can force one,” the PA said to me after the exam. I ended up getting it a few days later. It’s been almost a year, and I have gotten my period every single month since I started taking the Chaste Tree supplement.
After all of the doctor’s visits and frustrating appointments, my friend was the only person who had ever told me anything that really helped me with my PCOS issues. All it took was that one little victory to start to feel better about myself.
Working out became more of a mental release for me than a struggle to lose weight. I’m not going to pretend that the weight just dropped off, but I feel differently about my body now. I take pride in my physical accomplishments and continue to lead an active lifestyle. I’m still trying to find the right combination of foods and exercises that make my metabolism snap into place, but I finally feel like it is something that is attainable.
When I first found out that I had PCOS, I was kind of ashamed of it. Once I started opening up about it, though, I realized that it was nothing to be ashamed of. And I also discovered that a few of my close friends also struggle with it. My journey has been a long one, with plenty of tribulations along the way. But I also feel like it has made me stronger. Years of working out harder than anyone else I knew did not give me the results I expected. Eating healthy did not seem to help my situation, either. Friends just had to stop drinking soda or cut back on eating out and had huge weight-loss success.
No matter how much I struggled without success, however, I kept fighting. And I intend to continue fighting until PCOS becomes an insignificant aspect of my body’s makeup.