By Katie Bambi Kohler
The mirror, which reminded me daily I was not the fairest in the land, started to tell an even grimmer tale. My face became moon shaped, the wisps of upper-lip hair -- an Italian rite of passage -- became darker. Acne speckled my face. Most noticeably, I got fat. Like when people pretend to be pregnant and put a pillow under their shirt.
Eight years ago, I was 24. Like most people in their early twenties, thought I was immune to any type of disease or catastrophe. I went five years without medical insurance, only visiting the doctor for severe colds and forgoing the important annual OBGYN appointment required for women of a certain age.
"We are going to be married this year, and then I will be on your health insurance," I reasoned to Tom, my fiancé.
I attributed the weight gain and the erratic menstrual cycles to stress caused by still searching for that perfect fit post-college job, student loans, purchasing a house, a paltry bank account and impending wedding.
After our nuptials in 2005, equipped with the Golden Ticket to health care -- a health insurance policy with $15 co-pay -- I scheduled a full physical at my family doctor.
"You are clinically obese, bordering on morbid," the doctor informed me, as if he were revealing test results out of the manila folder.
"I'm dead fat," I said to myself, thinking this educated doctor felt he was telling me something I didn't know. "And it's my entire fault."
After going over my diet, which did not consist of a trough of fried food washed down with an IV of soda, the doctor was puzzled at the extreme weight gain and ordered a full panel of blood tests.
Later, he revealed the results.
"We got your blood work back, and the numbers show you have polycystic ovary syndrome," he told me. "The symptoms are irregular periods, acne, hair growth, oily skin, weight gain and mood disorders, mainly depression and anxiety."
Those were all symptoms I experienced every day. "Do I have big cysts on my ovaries?" I asked him.
"Actually, they are more toward the size of rosary beads, and that is how they sometimes form, like a rosary around your ovaries," he answered pointing at a diagram.
For eight years in Catholic school, I prayed decade after decade of the Rosary to get the poor souls out of purgatory, sending them from the equivalent of an afterlife of a cheap motel to the heaven of a Four Seasons. And this was my thanks?
"I'm angry," I told the doctor when he asked me how I felt. Angry that I was fat and sick. Or sick and fat. The chicken or the egg. What difference did it make? My eggs were rotting out of the womb.
My family doctor referred me to an endocrinologist who equipped me with birth control pills and Metformin to help with my insulin output. He also told me to avoid carbohydrates.
According to the research I did after my diagnosis, 10 percent of women of childbearing age are affected by PCOS, but less than half are diagnosed. PCOS is responsible for 70 percent of infertility issues in women. Like myself, millions of women right now have no idea they are affected by this disease.
Genetically, my body should be a nirvana for unborn babies. An Italian Catholic whose family still values building a home over a career, the question asked by relatives wasn't, "What do you want to major in?" but "When are going to get married and start a family?" After their honeymoon, couples began popping out a child a year, aiming for four but settling for three.
Sunday dinner began to feel incomplete without someone announcing a pregnancy. "Would you pass the grated cheese?" I requested.
"We're pregnant!" my cousin shouted, unleashing a high-pitched scream, leaving me to shower my pasta with Parmesan snowflakes.
Six years after the original diagnosis, my PCOS is more under control than it has ever been. Through trial and error with drug treatments, my symptoms are now managed. The path to get here has been filled with "feeling sick" as only a woman with reproductive issues would know, and everyone else feels uncomfortable hearing.
"Whenever it happens," I answer now when asked when we are going to have kids. I am tempted to tell them about the disease that may deny me motherhood, but I decide against it. They will feel sorry for me, I think, and there is nothing to be sad about. I am going home to a wonderful husband and for the first time in a while, I don't feel sick.
If and when I do decide to conceive -- although it will be difficult but not impossible -- a different type of doctor-ordered treatment plan will be needed to aid the process. And a new reserve of inner strength I try daily to cultivate.