“I’m not a radiologist, but I can tell you that this does not look like a normal pituitary,” Dr. Marion’s voice pierces through my body. “I’ll need a proper consultation before confirming anything, but this right here,’ he points to the smidge of a white spot on the MRI, ‘that shouldn’t be there.”
If this were a movie, you should imagine that it’s at this point that my vision and hearing suddenly go blurry. The entire world fades into oblivion as life flashes before my eyes, and Dr. Marion’s words disappear into the ether around me.
Well, at least I wish that’s what had happened, I really do… because instead my entire body had just gone on high-alert. Dr. Marion’s visage was clear as day before my eyes and I was hanging on to every breath of air that exited his lips.
‘Tumor, tumor, tumor,’ was all I could think. I have a brain tumor. I have a brain tumor. This is it.
This is the other shoe-drop you wait for your entire life. Here you are all of 18-years-old and suddenly you have a brain tumor.
Moving away to college was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me: 8500 miles away from home, alone and scared for my life, but also beyond excited for this new phase I was entering.
Along with the newness came the inevitable hallmarks of American college. Frat parties, red solo cups and most imminent of all, The Freshman Fifteen. The classic fifteen-pound pack that incoming first-years tend to gain the year they enter college. The unlimited dining hall, lack of parentage, and lethargic student lifestyle make junk food the truest haven for higher learning. Yet coming from a society that tended to perpetually pass comment about one’s physical appearance, weight or otherwise… the Freshman Fifteen was something of a nightmare for me, and I was determined not to fall prey.
Now while cafeterias are an excellent avenue to gain those extra few kilograms, no one reveals how over-accessible healthy options are too. Entire spreads of purely raw vegetables, plant-based milks, free-range eggs, fresh fruit, drums of clear soup, barrels of steel-cut oats and a calorie count on EVERYTHING (I mean everything)! If you ate something in my dining hall, you best believe you knew exactly what you were getting into.
My determination to avoid weight gain devolved into paranoia.
The salad bar, the oatmeal counter, the fruit station, the yogurt stand, all became new homes. I found bizarre ways to spice up the blandest of foods, mix-and-match the weirdest nutritious combinations, and eventually I had convinced myself to fall in love with healthy eating.
It was kind of amazing.
I trained myself to have zero cravings for junk food, in fact, I was repulsed by it. I was eating extremely large portion sizes of at least forty percent leaves, always completely satiated, cutting out all forms of added sugar, and essentially doing everything I thought was good for my body. I never starved myself… I just made more of whatever had less. My skin was glowing, my body was as toned as it had ever been, and mirrors became a new best friend.
Everything was amazing…and then came the 14th of October. I was lying on my bed, bored out of my mind, opening and closing random apps on my phone, when completely absent-minded I clicked on a certain “My Period Tracker™”. The words “14 days late” burst up in front of me. My heart skipped a beat.
Wait! Had it not come this month? Holy crap! It didn’t come this month! But I’m as regular as they come! Twenty-nine-day cycle, four-day bleeding, light flow, no cramps, hardly any side-effects...the winner of the menstrual lottery. How hadn’t it come?!
After a panicked phone call to REM-sleeping transcontinental parental units, I somehow rationalized my body’s incontinence with the change in my environment. “You’ve literally moved across the world by yourself. It’s a new place, a drastically new climate, a whole new lifestyle. Give yourself some time! It’ll come back next month just watch.”
But November 14th- another no-show. December 14th- not even a sliver of a symptom. Not a pimple, not a breast tingle, not a spot of discharge. No sign that anything was even going on down there. I was growing more panicked by the minute. I had tried everything: meditating to relieve my stress, running every day to get my blood flowing, eating body-heat generating foods to stimulate contractions… nothing seemed to work.
I finally made an appointment at the university clinic. It took very little for them to weigh me and realize that a girl who had left India a hearty 117 pounds, had become a lanky 105. I had dropped twelve pounds without even realizing it. The doctor barely heard a minute of my diet before she concluded I was eating nothing more than 1000 calories every day, all while walking around a frigid Midwestern campus, participating in seven clubs, and rigorously studying late into each night.
Look, I really wasn’t trying to diet. I was never trying to lose weight or change my body. I was just trying to STAY as healthy as I was when I left home. But it turns out that eating too healthy can slowly kill you too.
I had fallen so in tune with the rawness and nature-y crunch of my new eating habits, that I had completely stopped taking in the complex carbohydrates and fats I needed to sustain my growing self. My estrogen levels were low enough that I had biologically regressed into pre-puberty. I had lost so much weight in such little time, that my body was struggling to allocate resources everywhere else and just didn’t have enough to give my uterus. Correction: I wasn’t giving it enough.
I was immediately put on a strict diet of more protein, more fat, more chocolate, more junk, just more anything! I had to eat and eat until I gained back 10 pounds. And God did that break me. I had so begun to love what I was eating, that I wasn’t ready to give anything up. I didn’t want to replace my spinach with pizza or my oats for sugary cereal. I just wanted to eat what made me happy, but I was told that what made me happy was making me sick.
But wait! Because that’s when things became a million times worse! Because being a student at a hyper-liberal school does a lot to a person, and one of the many things it did, was make me infinitely more conscientious about the environment. Reading after a rally, I slowly began to realize that the amount of meat being consumed around me was harming the Earth in ways I couldn’t even fathom, and slowly but surely the idea of animal flesh on a plate nauseated me. In the middle of an already mounting dietary crisis, I felt a powerful urge to go vegetarian. It was the hardest decision I’ve had to make thus far: the easy meat way out for my health, or the hard way out for my planet? If I chose to become vegetarian, after a lifetime of being a meat-lover, it would mean battling extra hard to get those calories and gain that muscle, and after much deliberation and mental rally, I knew I had to take the battle on.
The start of recovery was excruciating. I was gaining weight, but at a glacial pace. My estradiol fell down to a critical 9, and I could feel the density physically escaping my bones. Somedays doors became too heavy for me to open, I lost control over my moods, and slid deep into a chemical depression. Nothing and no one mattered to me but lying in a dark room, away from the rest of the world. With the coming of spring in Michigan, I was slipping deeper into my own polar vortex winter.
When the semester finally ended, I flew home to the two worried parents who finally saw their waning daughter before their eyes. As my family believed, I wasn’t sick. I was obstinate and responsible for what had happened to me. How do you explain to the people you love that you are actively trying to be well again, but it's just so hard when food has become something of a chore rather than a joy? How do you explain that your mind has become a natural calorie counter, literally afraid of consuming the slightest bit of grease or artificial sugar?
Such tribulations aren’t problems where I come from. Unemployment, domestic violence, homelessness...these are the problems. What I had was privilege.
When someone finally realized I needed a doctor, the doctor ascertained it was an endocrinologist that was required. “She needs a brain scan. It’s been too long. I think there’s something in the pituitary,” was his resolution.
“Something, as in…?”
“A growth of some kind.”
“You mean like a… tumor?”
“Let’s just wait and see okay? Just go get the MRI.”
The entire car ride home, tears kept uncontrollably falling from my face: not a sniffle or crying inhale, but just a constant stream of silent tears exiting my eyes. Ready for the twisted part? These weren’t exactly tears of sadness or fear of a mass growing silently in my skull, but rather a gross, debaucherously, sick sense of relief that maybe, just maybe, this whole period thing wasn’t my fault after all. Dark, no?
And I had a complete plan, locked and loaded too! If I needed brain surgery, I was ready to fight. If I had cancer and needed chemotherapy, I was prepared for battle. If it was lifelong medications, then so be it! For the first time in months, my health was something that happened to me instead of something I did to myself, and I was thrilled to finally be the hero in my story.
“Okay so I’ve spoken with the radiologist, and what you have is a Rathke Cleft cyst. You’ve probably had it your entire life, it’s barely 3 millimeters and not causing whatever is going on with the period.”
“Wait, what? But you said…”
“We’re just ruling out things here. There’s nothing we know for sure. But I’ve spoken to the gynecologist and our neuro guy and we’re thinking maybe it is the weight loss after all. Let’s have you meet the dietitian, maybe take birth control for a few months to trigger your flow, and then take a call after?”
I was wrong in the beginning, dear reader. When you get that life-altering diagnosis, your vision does kind of blur out. Your hearing does go to the wind and you very much do lose your sense of grip on reality. There I sat, corrected and defeated, on so many levels.
It was back to being my fault, and this time I had heard it from not just my parents, doctors in America, extended family, and friends, but from the fancy radiologist, double-board certified endocrinologist and specialized gynecologist across the globe. I really didn’t realize what was psychologically wrong with me at the time, so I never knew that I could have possibly sought out help. All I knew was that I was tired and I wanted so desperately to not be.
The journey I started the next day was a painful, but imperative one. I was so depleted, I was ready to give up! But that meant I was ironically ready to fight the side of my brain that refused to let me be healthy and love myself at a diet or a size that didn’t conform to its notions. I wanted to be happy, successful, and confident, and this part of my brain was just making me insecure, arrogant and exhausted. I was too tired to listen anymore!
It started by adding the extra half-tablespoon of peanut butter to my morning oats and choosing the full-fat milk instead. It meant looking at rice like the relish it is for my people instead of the devil I envisioned it to be. It meant looking at my face in the mirror and verbally convincing myself that a little fat around my eyes would feel just as fabulous as prominent cheekbones.
I lived from one day to the next.
The day I ate a slice of pizza for the first time in a year. Then the day I gobbled a burger in the food court. Then the day I hogged a sandwich for breakfast. Then the day I chose not to be culpable as I devoured three servings of ghee-blanketed Indian food to satisfy my stomach.
The days are easy to write down on paper, and they may seem plain to you as you read them, but every one was a challenge. Each one involved me arguing with myself to say “No! You do not get to win today. You get to feed your body and you get to be strong so you can do all the things you deserve to do in this life.”
It’s been three months since I decided to turn my life around, and the crusade continues. Some days I still feel gross after eating an ice-cream, others I still watch out for sugar labels on everything I eat, and every now and then you will still find me skipping a meal because I feel like I’ve cheated too much.
But how do I know I’m healing? Because alongside all those bad days there are those beautiful, perfect, divinely good days where I’m the one that takes my friends out for ice-cream, or craves the Indian sweet and downs it in one go, or adds the extra raisins to my cereal because I love the taste, or eats the random midnight snack, because life is too short not to!
And when I look at the mirror, I see where those extra pounds sit. On the insides of my thighs, the little skin hanging over my bra, the cuddle buddy that’s growing underneath my lower-jaw… and even when I wish they weren’t there, I recognize that they are a sign of my evolution.
I’m falling in love with myself all over again dear reader. Today is Day-291 of my body not producing my period on its own, and that’s still a loss… but I weighed a solid 112 this morning and I’m thankful for every pound.