priorities

I am bouncing back from a particularly shitty relapse. I’m feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, like I can’t manage my own life anymore. The worst part of this relapse and aftermath has been mental. If you haven’t heard from me in a while, you are not alone. I prefer to be wiggy in private. To add to all this crap, it’s been four years since I was bitten by a tick. FOUR YEARS. I’ve read anecdotal evidence that people have relapses around the same time they were bitten. If so, it makes perfect sense that I relapse now. On top of that auspicious milestone, heat causes some Lyme patients (me included) to feel much worse.

This one blindsided me. I was, I thought, on the road to real recovery. And so began valuable lesson #1 with Lyme ‘recovery’: plan to relapse at any time whether you like it or not. The hallmarks of any valuable lesson is suffering, humility, pain, and a bunch of other emotions I avoid. Denial, my old bitch of a friend (denial is female in my world), came for a nice visit until I dragged my ass to my LLMD. It seems that my bugs like my brain. It’s where they hide when I’m feeling good. He announced the return of bartonella. YUCK! Bartonella is the worst. Sore feet, sore teeth, ear pains, headaches, neck aches, muscle aches, creaky joints, muscle cramps, watery, itchy, achy eyeballs, and mental problems. I love a good euphemism, and “mental problems” is right up there with “small setback” and “not too bad”. Why is it so hard for me to admit to depression, anger, anxiety, hopelessness, lack of motivation, and obsessive compulsiveness? Everybody has some of these feeling sometimes. If anything, I should announce them like a badge of honor, because I have bugs in my brain.

Denial left the house and self-pity moved in. I wallowed around with him (of course self-pity is male!) like a pig in a mud bath for a few weeks. I cleaned. I cooked. I slept a LOT, walked the dogs and gardened very early while it was still cool. That was all I could manage. Self-pity is that friend who doesn’t like any of your other friends. After that, I had hours to fill with all those fab feelings of worthlessness, sadness and guilt. I was able to read some ‘beach read’ books, and the sheer mindless entertainment helped a little.

It wasn’t until I found Downton Abbey that self-pity had a challenge. I know, I’m late to the party. At this rate, I’ll probably start GOT in 2022, and Breaking Bad in 2024. What can I say? I was hooked. Katie will remember this as the summer her mom sat in the cool dark of her bedroom at midday, the sunlight cracking the edges of the blackout curtains, lost in the delicious machinations of the Crawley family.

My relapse was also worse because I had four months of relative clarity and sanity. Is it harder to bounce back mentally each time my brain becomes inflamed? Is it harder for anyone else in this situation? I meet so few people who suffer from episodes of an inflamed brain. Is the quality of the crazy different if it’s a chemical imbalance, rather than an illness-induced debilitation? These really aren’t the kind of questions I can ask most people. There is the possibility that I won’t ‘work through this phase’. What if I never truly get well? What if I have to live a different kind of life than I thought? What would that look like and would it be so bad?

In a sense, I’ve been given the gift of getting my priorities straight. What adjustments am I willing to make to concentrate on what matters most to me? And what matters to me the most? At the end of the day, how do I want to have spent my time? This is not an easy task. The options all have good and bad sides.  What irks me the most is the adjustment I am struggling with now: the loss of endless possibilities. The emphasis is on ‘endless’. That part of the equation is simple. I can’t do it all. I have to make the hard choices in order to stay healthy. This must be what makes Dad worry so much—he is far more aware of the implication of limited possibilities than I am.

What I must do is what I have always done, and that is to find the positives in relapsing. In that, I have boundless confidence. It’s what I do best, even with an inflamed, fragile brain (and for me, my brain is my vanity, my Achilles’ heel) and low, low self-confidence. As with all things Lyme, this will pass and I will feel better, at least for a while. If I can figure out my priorities and can handle my new levels of expectations, then everything else should be gravy, not the other way around.

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toil

It has been almost six weeks since I began to seriously participate in my own life again. This sounds rather pathetic, but after three years of unrelenting illness, this is a major accomplishment. The problem is, what is my life? There is nothing, outside of staying in Denver, Katie, and my Dad, that is the same. Let me backtrack to when I would define my life as being on an even keel, way back in early 2011. That was the year my mom died, and the year my ex quit his job. I started graduate school in January of 2013, five weeks after we decided to divorce. Since 2011, I have hit every major life stressor (death of a loved one, loss of income/job, divorce, move, school, and major illness) except for pregnancy and marriage. Wow. It looks pretty grim when I list it all. I’m tough. I know that, I’ve always known that. I’m resilient, something I didn’t know until recently. I mean, I knew I didn’t react to calamity like other people, but I didn’t define that as resilience. I defined that as life.

We all have our limits, though, and when I started trying to do what I once considered normal activities, I got depressed and anxious. I felt hopeless for more than a few hours at a time, a rarity so foreign to me that I didn’t recognize what it was. Who was I trying to kid? I couldn’t do life anymore. I was so out of practice that keeping things together felt impossible. In some ways, being sick was easier. I was stuck. There was no way I would go back to being sick if I could help it. I didn’t know what I was moving towards, but I had to move forward anyway. This is the classic definition of cognitive dissonance. I was being flung outside my comfort zone (whatever that was) to an unknown future. I had four choices: Ignore and deny (of course I’d like this one!), dwell in being nearly well and redefine well (yuck!), accept where I was and make small, real changes (hmmm…), or act like I was well and jump in (okay, but…). I didn’t like any of the choices, really. I wanted everything to fall into place magically, without the awful, churning middle phase. I figured I would make small goals and keep at it, and something would happen.

Nothing much has happened. I’ve had false starts and setbacks. I’ve redefined the goals. One thing I didn’t do was stop. Gradually, (well, maybe not gradually, I didn’t have this epiphany until today) a daily satisfaction set in. The beginnings of schedules and structure appeared, by simply doing it over and over. I found I was working eight or nine hours a day, doing all sorts of different things. Applying for jobs, writing cover letters, researching companies, working part-time as a lifeguard, working part-time from home, cleaning, cooking, reading submissions for a literary review, writing my blog, fixing my website, learning technical writing, and refreshing copy editing skills. Whew! I have become busy! Some days I have to accept that I can’t return fully yet, and I can’t beat myself up for that. Other days I can charge ahead and do everything on my list, and then some.

I haven’t gotten my dream job. I haven’t finished my book. My website still has bugs that I haven’t figured out. I’m only a quarter-way through the copy editing book. I’m half-way through the technical writing book. What I have gained is the intangible. The satisfaction of a day well-spent. My brain is slowly returning to normal, much more slowly than I’d like. The challenges are immense: am I able to retain what I’m learning? Am I making mistakes that I can’t see? There are still cognitive gaps that aren’t apparent until I’m confronted with them. For instance, a friend asked if I’d read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Of course I had, I’d read the prairie trilogy years ago, then reread My Antonia again. I’d written about the book in grad school, for Pete’s sake!

I couldn’t remember a thing about the book, except that I’d read it. Another time, I went to a play with a new friend. They were playing 80s music before the play. I couldn’t remember lyrics I used to know by heart. The whole cognitive deficit part sucks, but the stimulation of learning new things has been restorative. We’ll see how successful I am at retaining what I’ve learned. I hate my sorry-ass brain at the moment.

I don’t like this phase. I don’t like being in limbo in virtually every aspect of my life. Oh, I know. It will make me a better person. It’s another fucking opportunity for growth. I’ll get there. Blah, blah, blah. I don’t think about those things. I can’t. The unknowns are too big. Maybe the way out of an existential crisis is simply doing things and moving forward every day. My mind, to paraphrase Camus, must stop watching itself and start acting.

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bumbling

A new chapter, turning over a new leaf, rising from the ashes, rebirth, starting over; the sheer number of maxims boggles the mind. The facts are usually the same. Person has a setback, person begins life with a new purpose. I might argue this is one of the most basic facts of life. It smacks of redemption, courage and strength. There are many levels of this type of renewal. From “tomorrow I’m going to start to get to work on time” to “I’m going to recover from cancer and live my life differently”, we all understand the concept, just as we realize the difference in magnitude.

For me, my own personal rebirth begins with “the good news is I’m nearly well from Lyme disease” and “the bad news is I’m nearly well from Lyme disease.” How could getting well be bad news? Let’s look at the word ‘nearly’. Being nearly well means I can’t quite begin a new life, but I have to try anyway. ‘Nearly’ means I will fail often because I will try to do either too much or not enough. ‘Nearly’ means still picking and choosing where to put my energy, and getting it all wrong. ‘Nearly’ means napping almost every day, not because I want to, but because I have to. ‘Nearly’ means doing work that is not challenging just in case I have bad days where my brain isn’t functioning.

There is no other solution than to carry on. I make modest daily goals in hopes that one day, I will be well. On good days, I get everything accomplished and feel like perhaps I’m getting my life back. On bad days, I have to decide what to let go and find a way to be happy about it.

I’m still trying to figure out how to explain that I’m mostly well. There are days when I think, I’ve got this. Where I make a new Plan A. Those are the days I forget I have Lyme (Had? Another thing about ‘nearly’—is it ‘have Lyme’, or ‘had Lyme?’). Other days, I am overwhelmed to the point of giving up. That’s when I think about selling the house, moving into an RV, and disappearing.

On one of those good stretches, I decided to redesign my web page. After all, I am no longer ‘finding joy while living with Lyme’. Surprisingly, figuring out a new tagline and a picture to represent ‘life after Lyme’ was harder than the nuts and bolts of redesign, or writing this post. Because, who the fuck am I now? I was already changing when I got sick. I should view Lyme as a delay, but that wouldn’t be correct. Lyme changed me. It changed my priorities and what I want for the rest of my life.

It took a discussion with Katie to figure out what best represented my life. The tick isn’t gone. The tick will never be gone. It is crystallized forever inside me, slowly fracturing into a million pieces as I struggle to become whole again. After we figured that part out, the tagline became easy. I don’t think bumbling is too harsh a word. I am bumbling, because I am still changing. Maybe that’s what ‘nearly’ is.

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comfort

This blog was originally about losing my mind and being sad when I got well enough to realize I lost my mind for a good long while. There is little doubt (at least to me) that my brain is returning.  I kept veering off the subject of crazy, though. and into grief. I had no idea that I was and am grieving right now. Grieving is  different than depression. Grieving the loss of something partially returned is different than mourning the loss of a loved one. Nonetheless, grieving overtly implies loss, and only now can I see what I’ve lost in the last three years. Only now that I am returning to health that I have the energy for such an indulgence. Perhaps ‘indulgence’ not exactly right—it seems unavoidable—but why can’t I use my returning energy for something useful?

I haven’t had a huge amount of loss in my life. Three of my grandparents died before I was thirteen. My Nanny died when Katie was young. I mourned, but I didn’t know profound loss until my mom died. That period of bereavement morphed into an outpouring of grief for all the hurts in my life. What purpose does this serve for humans? It’s never fun, always difficult, and the end result is, what? A blank exhaustion, a feeling that there are simply no more tears to be shed. That particular part of the journey is different for everybody.

What I really want to know was why I spend so much energy on grief. There are four stages of ‘normal’ grieving: Numbness/disbelief, Separation/distress, Depression-mourning (are the two inseparable?), and Recovery. There is something called ‘complicated grief’ (wtf? is that different from ‘simple grief?) and ‘infinite loss’. I hate having my journey so neatly compartmentalized, so pedestrian. On the other hand, knowing this is normal is comforting.  I found myself feeling much better just reading about  ‘Perpetual complicated grief’, aka, constant sorrow.

I am not a woman of constant sorrow. There are times when an inertia settles over everything, and that’s unpleasant. The grief is like a low-grade fever, not incapacitating but definitely a factor in my everyday life. Grief from chronic illness is different from acute or terminal illness. Those illnesses have  a definite end, one either gets well or one dies. Chronic illness is a series of losses, unending, and multiple. These are known as infinite losses. Great. Constant sorrow over infinite losses. Sounds Sisyphean, and it is.

The most difficult aspect of chronic illness  and grief is girding up for the next round. As I write this, it (finally, DUH!)occurs to me this is why I am continually battling exhaustion. This is why I nap daily and sleep eight hours a night. Maybe grief serves as a reminder to my body: this isn’t over, you need to rest, don’t get too excited, now. As if I need a reminder.

Sometimes I wonder when this (Lyme and grieving) will be all over. More often, though, I remind myself that the weight of my illness and grief are the only things I get to determine. So I bumble on, wrestling with keeping both loads as weightless as I can, while still trying to live. I need to be smacked in the face to recognize what is often right in front of me. Putting a name on what I am experiencing is what I need to recalibrate. Which brings me to comfort. Anyone who has gone through this process understands the need for comfort. Respite might be the better term, but comfort through the process is elemental.

I have time-tested activities that provide comfort to me. Some are mundane, like cooking and cleaning. The results of both are deeply soothing because they are concrete reminders of my usefulness and skills. Movies. Cocooning in a dark theater and entering another world, no matter how grim, is essential. Music. Because singing loudly and badly with your favorite songs never gets old. Walking the dogs. No explanation needed. Playing pickle ball. I love the game and the people. I don’t want to brag, but I’m popular with the over-65 men. Writing. For some reason I love spilling my guts to everyone. After the first time, it gets easier. Lifeguarding. Any work is better than not working. Besides, I like lifeguarding. I think deep thoughts staring at the pool.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize whether I’m grieving or relapsing. A friend who has battled a chronic illness for years told me that when he’s having a good day, for whatever reason, he lets himself enjoy it. Does whatever he wants and doesn’t feel guilt AT ALL. I tell myself to do that, but it isn’t easy. I have trouble gauging how much I can handle, and tend to beat myself up when I do too much. Maybe when I get to the recovery stage I can relax and enjoy life fully.

Where does all this grieving and ruminating leave me? A little bit stuck, I guess. I am going to have to trust in myself (always dicey) and have faith that one day grieving and healing won’t be so hard. Meanwhile, I keep busy cleaning, resting, lifeguarding, writing, vegetating, playing pickle ball, walking the dogs, working from home, and above all, trying to get to that zen space of enjoying myself guilt free.

ps I started this blog before Las Vegas. The sense of grief over events in the world today is a daily battle. Comforting and being kind to yourself is more essential than ever.

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retired?

What’s the difference between being retired and being useless? Staying busy or taking up space? Is there a magical moment where one moves from one column to the next? I’ve been pondering these questions as I cobble together ways to feel useful and productive with the erratic uncertainty of Lyme. I am terrified of being seen as useless.

There is a lot of talk these days about “personal responsibility” and not wanting to pay for “able-bodied people who can work.” This presents me with a dilemma. Do I make myself sicker to assuage the scarlet letter of being useless? Or do I take care of myself and continue to chip away at my inheritance? I’m not costing anyone but my future self a damn dime. I don’t have insurance. I pay cash for all my doctor appointments and medications ($15k and counting). I am on no assistance. So why do I continue to beat myself up about this?

I do work. I lifeguard. It is low-key (except the .1% of the time when you’re faced with a medical emergency) and I can make my own schedule. I am an Airbnb host. Neither of these jobs pays the rent. They give me structure that I can manage and something to do for money. Cleaning, shopping, gardening, writing, socializing and working out take up the rest of my time, in that order. Some days I have to drop some or all of these things. Big deal. I deeply resent the idea that you have to ‘earn’ the right to be useless in America. First of all, being useless in America means not getting paid. Every  stay-at-home parent knows what this is like. We don’t value certain jobs as much as others. We vilify the working poor. We especially abhor people who don’t carry their weight.

Second of all, things happen. Illness, bad luck, poor choices, economic downturns, anything, really. Most of us are closer to the edge than we’d like to admit. Most of us wouldn’t last long if we didn’t have investments, savings, families, or access to a social safety net. Without my dad and Katie, and friends, I’d give myself two years, tops, after contracting Lyme disease. That makes me lucky, not worthy.

We all know people who, for whatever reason, have more trouble with this than others. I am far less judgmental than ever (not that I was terribly judgmental to begin with) now that I have Lyme. People post memes that say things like “You never know what someone is going through. Be kind. Always” on Facebook all the time. I know instantly that this person is saying, in code, that they are going through some kind of crisis. It’s important to realize that things happen to good people, bad people, and everyone in between. Sometimes it’s not their fault, and sometimes you know damn well it is. Then what?

It’s an awfully big job to decide who is worthy of your empathy and who isn’t. I know some people see me out and about and wonder to themselves ‘how sick can she be’, and I want to explain how Lyme works. When I turn 65 and still have Lyme I can consider myself ‘retired’ and not ‘sick’. Or can I? Maybe I can be sick and retired. Will I be worthy of idleness then? What if I get well and want to work. What if no one hires me because I’m too old and have been sick?

I’m not alone with these thoughts and fears. I am exceedingly lucky to not have to ask other questions, like  ‘will I run out of money’ and ‘do I have somewhere to live’. I am torn over solutions. On one hand, I don’t want insurance companies dictating my Lyme treatment, mainly because they are shitty at it. They deny and charge higher prices, so much so, that I’d rather pay cash (at much lower rates, I might add). If I was on Medicare or Medicaid, I’d have the same problems. Maybe Lyme is a special case, right now, with no consensus on how to treat, for how long, or what to do for patients who fall into the category of ‘chronic or persistent Lyme disease’, like me.

Meanwhile, I struggle to maintain a balance between self-care and usefulness.There are things I have let go without my knowledge. Through a stroke of luck (Jake, it’s Jake wanting all my hours at the pool), I’ve had some extra time. I hadn’t filed papers or gone through my files in a long time. I cleaned the refrigerator and the pantry. I went downstairs and cleaned long neglected corners of the house. The acts lightened me and gave me the sweet illusion of control. I was deeply disaoppointed, too, because man, I thought I was keeping up. It was a disconcerting peek into old age—the shocking ease with which things can get way out of hand.

There does come a time when you have earned retirement. Full retirement. The kind of idleness that means your biggest decision might be whether to put on clothes. My dad is there. At almost 89, he can do whatever he damn well pleases. At some point, I’m going to have to reassess where I am with Lyme, retirement, and usefulness. I’m putting it off as long as possible, because I might not like my choices. A lot can change in a short time, though, that much I know. And sooner or later, if I’m super lucky, I’ll get where my dad is. I don’t think I’ll wear clothes.

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