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Today’s post comes from Nina Thornton. Thanks for sharing your amazing strength with us, Nina! You can find this awesome gal here on social media here:
My story starts with a lump in my throat. Not the kind you get when you cry, one that knew too many doctors, tests, ultrasounds and show shirts that fit a little too tight around my neck.
I was seventeen and living my dream of being on an NCAA Division 1 equestrian team at Baylor University. They say ignorance is bliss and it was, for a little while.
It started in workouts, not being able to breathe, thinking I was just out of shape. Then it was clumps of my hair in the shower drain and napping three times a day. By winter break, I would sleep 16 hours some days and simple tasks like brushing my teeth exhausted me.
At first, I was told I probably had Lupus or cancer. I remember exactly how heavy those words were, how they fell out of the doctor’s mouth. After that, I felt helpless, like doctors were just taking shots in the dark with tests and needles. My illness had become circled numbers and blank spaces on medical notes, a question doctors couldn’t seem to answer.
When I turned eighteen, an endocrinologist finally diagnosed me with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis – a progressive autoimmune disease of the thyroid. At eighteen, I became very familiar with the phrase “It’s not curable but it’s manageable.” I had to learn my limits, all the ways my body could say “no.” I struggled to cancel plans, disappoint my friends, and make polite excuses because I didn’t want to acknowledge I wasn’t healthy enough to live like the person I used to be.
Things got better for a while, once I was on the right medication. I started to feel like myself again and my hair stopped falling out. But my medication had to be adjusted as my body continued to kill my thyroid.
I graduated from Baylor after four of the best, hardest years of my life on the most amazing equestrian team, but my health started to deteriorate again that May and I was sicker than I’d ever been. After months of tests and new doctors, I was diagnosed with PCOS, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, insulin resistance and reactive hypoglycemia, on top of my existing autoimmune disease.
I won’t bore you with medical jargon but I won’t lie to you either. Most of the time I feel like I’m trapped in a body that’s not mine, a tangible example of the phrase “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” Some days are really, really hard and I’m still learning how to live with a lot of chronic pain. It has deeply affected my personal life and it affects my riding as well.
My way of coping is by trying to live my life the way I would if I wasn’t sick (even with all the medications, doctor’s appointments, labs, diets, preventative measures, etc.). I push myself to stay active and go to the gym every day (after riding too), even though some days it’s too much. That might not be good advice, but I refuse to live a life that revolves around my illness, even though some days it feels like I do.
My barn here in California has been my rock and my sanctuary. My trainer, John Berney, has shown me so much love and support and has created a barn that is nothing short of family. In a lot of ways, I think the barn is the healthiest thing in my life when I’m really sick because it gives me hope and something to hold onto. Every time I step into the barn, I feel so loved by horses and people and I think something about that is healing.
My struggle with chronic illness has mostly been something I’ve kept to myself or only told close friends about. I am not ashamed of it and I don’t mind educating people, but I don’t like being treated like I am less of a human being because of it. I’m not writing this for your sympathy or your pity, I’m writing this because I went through this alone, and you don’t have to.
If you are struggling with a chronic illness, my advice to you is to get help. Don’t settle for feeling like a shell of a person, do your research, know your options, know what questions to ask your doctor and don’t give up. There is hope, I promise.
If you know someone with a chronic illness, be supportive and be understanding. Don’t compare them to your cousin who has the same thing and “just takes a pill every day and is fine!” Please understand no two people are the same and chronic illness affects each person differently.
The hardest part of my journey has been not fitting the textbook profile of someone with these conditions, because they got progressively worse as I went undiagnosed. I had doctors who wouldn’t test me for PCOS because I wasn’t overweight, or wouldn’t examine my thyroid because I appeared healthy and fit. My point is, chronic illnesses are often called “invisible illnesses” for a reason – just because someone looks normal or healthy does not mean they are not suffering. Someone else “having it worse” does not invalidate their pain or lessen their struggle.
Being the youngest person in waiting rooms, surrounded by very sick people, often reminds me what my chronic illnesses have taken from me, but I don’t want my story to be about loss. I’m sharing my story because I know what it’s like to search every corner of the Internet for better doctors or treatments, for hope.
To the girls who are suffering, looking for a cure or just wanting to find a story about being happy again: it gets better. I can’t promise you’ll be completely healthy again, but I can promise it will get better because you will get stronger. You will realize what’s important in life long before your peers. Loss won’t be a stranger anymore but you’ll learn why they say the people who have lost the most have the most to give. There are people who have gone through what you’re going through and lived to tell about it. There are people out there who go to bed with the same pain, the same chronic illness, who wake up still believing life is beautiful. And it can be, I promise.