Category Archives: disease

My Body Doesn’t Lie

Living with late stage Lyme disease is like being on bad drugs. I hear phantom sounds, smell phantom scents, get paranoid: Everyone hates me. Everyone thinks I’m weird or stupid. People say words to me. I hear them. I don’t always understand.

It’s excruciating to be a writer and to hear words floating by, and to be unable to grasp them.

In a meeting this week I said, “I’m having trouble following the thread,” which is a poetic way of saying, “I have no clue what all of you are talking about.” And I thought I saw someone in the room make a suck-it-up-stop-complaining-face at me. I don’t know if I imagined this, or if it’s part of my Lyme paranoia, but I felt shamed and embarrassed. Like I was being weird again & weirding people out. Like I should minimize my own needs for the sake of other people’s comfort.

There is another story of who I am.

That other story goes like this: I am a good friend and a patient teacher. I am smart and strong. If you tell me something hard, I will listen to you. I will protect your confidence. I will help you. I will not judge you or manipulate you with fear or anger.

Even on my bad days, I get a ton done. I support my students because they are everything to me. I take pride in the fact that I’m an overachiever, even as I recognize the multiple problems in that sense of pride. I don’t want to tie my self worth to my achievements, and I have been conditioned to tie self worth to achievements.

Lyme disease took away friendships, child bearing years, energy, hope, trust.

But it didn’t take away my ambition.

Ambition kept me going. Ambition made me fight hard for myself.

________

In December, I started one course of long-term tetracycline antibiotics. My primary care physician added another antibiotic at the end of that month, and I improved drastically. My Lyme specialist added a third antibiotic in February, and this is standard: late stage Lyme disease requires treatment from separate classes of antibiotics. Nothing has helped me more than multiple antibiotics and eliminating gluten from my diet.

Seeing myself respond to treatment is reassuring and counters the effects of gaslighting I experienced in other medical settings, where doctors dismissed and disbelieved my symptoms.

And I can’t stop talking about this shift, which I suspect is starting to annoy to some of my friends. Because I was silenced for so long, I have become the person who can’t stop telling the same chaotic story over and over again. I can’t stop talking about myself.

My story goes something like this: When my symptoms first presented in July 2013. I went to the emergency room, and I was not seen that night even though I could not stop vomiting. I never vomit, like not even when I have a fever. I kept saying something was desperately wrong, but a nurse said I probably just had “a little virus” (in the middle of July).

Staff placed me in a hallway so I would not distress other patients. I fell asleep. I stopped vomiting. I went home, and felt like Hell for weeks. A blood test showed irregularly shaped red blood cells, which I now know is a telltale symptom of my most pervasive Lyme co-infection: Bartonella.

I took four lessons away from this experience.

Lesson 1: Women who vomit uncontrollably are not sexy. We must, therefore, be hidden, ignored.

Lesson 2: Authority figures who dismissed my illness made me question my sanity, my sense of reality. I believed them at my peril. I believed their myth of okayness because I wanted to be okay, and on the outside I looked okay.

Lesson 3: My body doesn’t lie. I’m learning to listen to what my body needs to tell me. My body can be trusted.

Lesson 4: There are excellent doctors & there are super shitty doctors. Do not excuse or minimize the behavior of a super shitty doctor. Believe you can do better. Believe you deserve better, and you will find better. Get out of that practice, and don’t look back.

________

When I wake up and run three miles, when I vacuum my house after working all day, I know a somatic shift has happened. I know I can trust my perceptions of reality. My narrative is valid.

Right now, I am having more good days than bad days. I can grade a big stack of essays, and I can focus my full attention on my students. They get my best energy. And this is why I meditate regularly. I need to bring attention and compassion into my classrooms. My students deserve my best energy. They deserve patience and compassion and generosity.

But, when classes are over, my brain is fried. I am frazzled.

If I rest, I bounce back.

If I don’t rest, my brain melts down.

Resting isn’t always an option. I work in the real-world, and I care about doing my job well.

So I’m learning how to “rest” inside the jumble. I’m learning how to bring my meditation practice into every area of my life. And this is another story that is true about me, a story of resilience and adaptation.

One of my friends is a Yoga instructor, and he has been kind enough to practice Yoga with me each week. He gives me instructions, and he knows I don’t always understand what he’s saying. He knows when I’m not following the thread, and he supports me until I figure it out. He never makes a mean face or rolls his eyes or mutters something rude. He doesn’t gossip about me.  Sometimes he has to stop his practice in order to help me, and each time he reassures me that it’s okay for me to not know what’s going on. He trusts that I’ll figure it out, and I figure it out.

This is what compassion looks like.

In order to have faith in ourselves, we need others to place faith in us.

________

This week, I had a terrible day. Most people around me did not know I was suffering. My friend Anne knew, and she helped me. I made it home, and Carl was there, and he helped me. And my amazing Mayo clinic trained Lyme doctor saw this coming. He had already shifted my meds, so that as soon as I needed them, I had them. Carl ordered dinner, and we ate. I took my meds. We watched Netflix. I fell asleep. And the next day, I was okay. I bounced back.

Writing those words terrifies me, and makes me uncomfortable. The image of a person “bouncing back” is inherently ableist. I am not cured or recovered. I will always have this disease, and it sucks. When I write, “I bounced back,” what I’m saying is that my treatment is working, and I am functional. What I’m saying is that setbacks are not permanent. What I’m saying is that recovery is also impermanent.

And there I go again, repeating the same story.

I’ll stop telling this story once medical communities, once society, starts listening to women, starts listening to the stories we tell about our bodies.

I’ll keep telling this story because it matters, because it needs to be told.

To All the Attention Seeking Drama Queens

In January 2002, my mother learned her transplanted kidney had begun to fail. She began dialysis. We spoke on the phone each night, and I visited her as often as I could. The mother I had known, the jubilant mother, grew depressed and fearful.

I offered to undergo a test that would determine whether one of my kidneys could be transplanted into her body. I was 20-years-old. She begged me not to have this test. She didn’t want to do anything that could compromise my chances of becoming a mother.

That is how much motherhood meant to her. She was willing to die in order to prevent me from making this decision. And she had hope. She hoped someone else in her family would come forward.

To my knowledge, no one did.

I write those words with tremendous anxiety of how they will be read: No one did.

My mother’s story is complicated. Perhaps someone came forward and she never told me?

Even so, she could not survive another transplant. Her death was inevitable, and within months of undergoing dialysis my mother began to accept this reality. For the first time in her life, she rejected the false narratives of cure and recovery so often projected on the seriously ill.

But I still harbored delusions. I called delusion hope. I pleaded with members of her family to understand the seriousness of her situation. I wasn’t ready to give up, to let her go. I believed she could recover, as she had recovered so many other times before. Others did not believe my mother was actually sick.

A relative told me my mother was exaggerating.

She said, “Your mother is a drama queen.”

She said, “Your mother likes attention.”

My mother was not a drama queen. She lived with a debilitating chronic autoimmune disease from adolescence through middle age. She was beautiful. She was sick. Because she was beautiful and sick and female, she fell prey to cultural biases that fail to acknowledge serious illness in young women. When people looked at her they saw pretty. They saw young. They saw stylish.

As my mother’s health deteriorated, I ignored her pleas. I had the test done. It was a simple blood draw – I barely remember the needle prick. In the blur of her multiple hospitalizations, and my struggle to perform normalcy as our lives collapsed, the test was not a big deal. Just one more errand.

My results came back after she died: I was not a good match. My kidney would not have saved her.

I was off the hook. I’d tried. She’d known I’d had the test. She’d known I was willing to give her a vital organ, even if that choice compromised my ability to become a mother. She knew I believed her. I had not abandoned her.

I’ve been remembering this time in our lives recently because of my own experiences of not being believed about illness in the past few years. I have also felt abandoned by friends and family who do not communicate with me in meaningful ways about Lyme disease, for which I am still being treated  — and this treatment takes a physical and emotional toll. To many, it is as if I am not sick at all, as if my illness does not exist because I present as able-bodied.

Is my illness easy to erase because I am young and female? Or because I am capable of holding down a job and publishing writing, so I cannot have a serious illness at the same time? Or is it because I typically do not perform a sick identity on social media?

Or maybe, I’ve just needed too much, and my needs are exhausting. Autoimmune disease. A miscarriage. A broken foot.  And then, out of nowhere, Lyme disease?

Maybe I am now perceived as the attention seeking, drama queen.

But I am not an attention seeking drama queen. Attention gives me anxiety. And drama?  Who has time for that?

Fatigue from Lyme disease and my current treatment plan means a lot is changing in my life. I cannot engage in relationships in ways that are expected of young women. No late nights. No long drives. I have to say, “No” a lot. Perhaps my “No” is heard as disinterest and not as self protection. Perhaps people think I don’t like them.

My mother gave me tools I would need to navigate chronic illness in my own young life.  She taught me I could say the word ill and the word did not have to be a negative, a reduction, something to resist or erase. Even now, she is present. She is parenting me when I need her the most, showing me the way.

Long ago, she told me illness would distill my relationships.

“You will know who your friends are,” she said. And she was right. I am figuring out who I can depend on and who I should let go. I am asking myself new questions.

Who will I become? How will illness change me?

That’s the keyword. Change. Lyme disease has remapped my body. I have no delusions of cure, of going back to who I was before. Healing is a complicated idea, not a portal to our past selves.

As Cheryl Strayed has written, “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do.”

What I have to do now is be honest. Be real. Set boundaries and hold tight to them.
Rearrange a life where I’d once felt comfortable. Advocate for what I need. And then, let go of stories, people, goals, relationships, identities, and expectations that no longer support the person I am becoming because I am ill.

This is not about needing attention or being a drama queen or even pessimism. It’s about surviving and reclaiming and persisting.

On Not Forgiving

 I had every intention to read Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness this summer. I carried it with me on trips, and on two 12-hour train rides. It sat on shelves and desktops and bedside tables, alluring me with its cover image of a flower blooming from a tree stump. But between May and August, I did not, not even for a moment, crack open this book. You’d think I’d have no trouble with Desmond Tutu or forgiveness. I meditate. I practice Yoga. I’m married to a minister who has preached from this very book. In fact, it’s his copy that I’ve been toting around all summer. But I just can’t do it. I can’t open this book, and I’m not sure why.

At its core, I’m okay with forgiveness. I understand that sometimes forgiveness is more about the person seeking forgiveness than it is about the person offering forgiveness. I understand that forgiveness can be a first step toward moving on. I understand that certain things are difficult to forgive, and others are impossible. I agree with Cheryl Strayed, who as Sugar wrote, “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.”  Yes, this is more how I see it, and I know I’ve spent years hauling my own old fat guy up and down hills that felt like mountains. I know there are many things I’ve forgiven, and a few I simply cannot forgive. And I’m finally giving myself permission to let the Desmond Tutu book go, to be okay with not reading it, to be okay with not forgiving.

Disease is one thing I’m not forgiving. Disease has taken too many people I love, too many bodies, too many unfinished lives. My husband and I both lost parents young. We know loss intimately. We are both sad this weekend because we are sitting with some bad news. We are sitting with the knowledge that disease is out there in the world, claiming lives, hurting people, eviscerating families, destroying dreams. And I’m not forgiving it. Not today, not tomorrow, and maybe not ever.

And I think I’m being more true to myself about this one thing than I’ve ever been in my whole life about anything. Allowing myself to be angry, allowing myself to feel the power of my heart clamping down on itself, is more liberating than saying I forgive you.

Years ago, I took a graduate class in liberation theology, and I read Beverly Wildung Harrison, who in “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” argues that anger can be a radical act of compassion toward ourselves and others. Our anger connects us to injustice. Our anger resists oppression. Our anger harnesses energy toward change. I remember the night I first read Harrison. I was sitting in an armchair at my mother-in-law’s house, and I started to shake, as if my body were opening to a glorious new truth. Harrison granted me permission to hold onto anger, to interrogate it, to investigate all its endless shapes. She allowed me to get angry, to be angry, and not to rest until I understood where my anger wanted me to go.

This summer I’ve thought hard about a few things I am not comfortable forgiving. These things are, not surprisingly, charged with anger. I’ve questioned this anger’s roots. I’ve questioned who forgiveness belongs to and what power it has in our lives. I’ve questioned what forgiveness can actually change. Maybe that’s why I’ve carried the Desmond Tutu book around like a map, as if it could lead me to answers where I know none presently exist. All summer long, I’ve also encountered the same words by Ranier Maria Rilke. I’ve found them in essays and articles. They have followed me to dharma talks and conferences and lectures. I cannot escape them. These are the words that won’t leave me alone:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. … the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Maybe the Desmond Tutu book feels too much like an answer, too reductive and too easy. Maybe I don’t like the idea of books about forgiveness. Maybe they feel too commodified, too capitalistic. Maybe I am completely wrong about this whole thing, and would only know how wrong I am if I read the book. Maybe I am clinging to anger, and to not forgiving, because I’m intoxicated by a false sense of control. Maybe I am more in love with questions than answers. Maybe questions feel like hope, and a life unfurling toward all its dreams. Maybe answers are not really answers at all. Maybe they’re just dead ends.