The week that I started college, in September of 1967, I got sick. Physically sick. I developed palpitations, shortness of breath, rapid pulse and dizziness. The symptoms got worse during my first year in college. I started taking my pulse and it went from 100 to 140, every day. I was exhausted all the time. That kind of exhaustion is called asthenia.

Fortunately, I went to Barnard College, which is part of Columbia University, in New York City. So I lived at home. I could not have managed on my own in a dorm or at an out-of-town school.

I had the energy to go to school, do my homework and very little else. I slept most of the weekend, when I wasn’t studying. I took frequent naps. I had a few friends but not much of a social life.

I went to a doctor who tested my thyroid and found that it was high but in the normal range. He decided to put me on a thyroid suppressant anyway because a hyperactive thyroid could account for my symptoms. It helped at first but then it stopped working altogether.

The symptoms started to get worse again and I started to lose weight. My breasts went down a full size (thyroid problems can do that). I was diagnosed with hypoglycemia and put on a low sugar, low carb diet. My symptoms got better but were still making a normal college life impossible. Then I started running a low-grade fever. I remember going out on one of my rare dates. My Mom had to put my make up on for me because I was weak and shaking, but I wouldn’t cancel the date.

The doctors we went to couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They ruled out thyroid because the medication had stopped working and because thyroid issues don’t cause fever. I was often told the problem was “in my head”.

I went into therapy but my therapist dismissed me. My life was so limited that I couldn’t bring her enough “material to work with” for psychotherapy to work. So I was too physically sick to be helped mentally, but the cause might be mental?

After my third year of college I told my parents I wanted to drop out of school. I said that it was obvious that I couldn’t go to graduate school or have a normal life after college. So why bother finishing school? It was pointless. My parents panicked and went on a frantic search for a doctor who could help me.

They found a doctor who decided to go back to treating the problem as an over active thyroid. He put me on a different thyroid suppressant and this one did the trick. I felt much better and finished college.

Many years later, I realized that there was more going on with me than just hyper-thyroidism. In law school, I was diagnosed with an atypical urinary tract infection. The only symptom I had was frequency of urination and a low-grade fever. We realized that the low-level fevers in college had been from undiagnosed UTI’s.

Jump ahead a few decades. Over the years in therapy I was told that I was chronically depressed. But in those days, there was no safe medication for me to take. At age 40, I developed a more severe depression. Fortunately the anti-depressant Prozac had just been put on the general market. It was a miracle cure for me! I can’t tell you how dramatically I changed, on so many levels. My whole perception of myself and the world changed. My self-esteem improved, my chronic worrying and self-doubt stopped and my pathological indecisiveness disappeared. I wasn’t overwhelmed by everything anymore. I saw everything in a more positive light, including myself, and I related differently to others. I don’t have room here to fully describe my transformation. I started to become the person I am now, which is light years away from the person I was before Prozac.

When the psychiatrist saw the earth shattering changes in me, he came to a realization. He realized that my illnesses in college were actually symptoms of a severe depression. My physical symptoms are not uncommon in cases of depression. In addition, it had recently been learned that depression can also affect the functioning of the thyroid. This explained why thyroid suppressants eventually helped alleviate my symptoms. I am absolutely certain that depression was at the root of my college issues.

I feel bad for my young self. I missed out on the wonderful and formative experiences that most people have in college. I have no life long college friends and few happy college memories.

But without that dark place, my coming out into the light wouldn’t have been such a miraculous experience. Now I am grateful for every day that I feel good about myself and my life. I don’t take ‘normal’ for granted. In fact, I met my second husband because in his online profile, he used the word ‘normal’. I figured that anyone who understood the importance of normal, is my kind of guy! I wouldn’t trade a minute with Tom for anything. So this story had a happy ending. We lived happily ever after – on anti-depressants!

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9 replies

  1. It’s that whole mind body interaction. The depression could cause the physical issues and then again the physical issues can cause the depression. We are very complicated beings. I’m glad you found some balance in your life Ellin.


    • In some ways I feel that my life really began at forty – when I first started taking antidepressants. It took years of therapy and adjusting to find a new balance within myself. And now I am in the perfect place with the perfect person. but the struggle took a lot out of me.

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  2. Prozac worked for me until it began to give me massive migraines. I tried using it anyway, but it turns out migraines are symptomatic of potential strokes, so they put me on something else, but ALL of them gave me migraines. Even taking it for a little while showed me what it felt like to NOT be depressed. When you’ve been “low-level” depressed your whole life and suddenly, you are NOT depressed — there’s a new world out there. EVEN without the drugs themselves.


    • Feeling what it’s like to not be depressed for the first time is miraculous. It’s as if you were wearing sunglasses indoors your whole life and suddenly take them off and see things as bright and in full color for the first time. There are other CATEGORIES of drugs now that work differently than the Prozac family. Maybe you should ask your psychiatrist about them. They may not cause migraines at all.


      • I do take other things. They don’t do exactly the same thing as Prozac and its cousins, but they do help. I’ve got that kind of depression that’s like a permanent downer. I thought everyone was like that. No one was more surprised than I was to discover it was actually possible to NOT be depressed. It thought it was a permanent condition. For everyone.


  3. Prozac sounds like the answer for someone in my family who is being treated for anxiety/depression, but Prozac isn’t prescribed much anymore. I’m going to suggest that my family member ask the doctor to let him try it. Thank you for your post. It’s exactly what I needed to read right now. I’m glad your life turned around. If it makes you feel better, my lifelong friends didn’t come from college (those friends and I drifted apart); they came from childhood, amazingly.


    • Prozac is only one of many similar drugs that can work for anxiety depression. Some work better for different people or for different types of depression. You may need to try one or two before you find the one that is right for you. There are fortunately many options out there now. Also, make sure you go to a real psychopharmacologist, not your GP. There are so many drugs out now and so much sophistication in the field, you need to deal with someone who really knows what they’re talking about.

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