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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acceptance?

I fucking hate babesia. Babesia is one of my co-infections, a malaria-like parasite also called a “piroplasm”, whatever the fuck that is. It clouds my mind and saps my energy. I get angry and depressed for no reason. My eyes go wonky. All the normal boring crap, too, like fatigue and muscle aches and joint pain. For once, there is no anger at this flare-up. Am I being forced into accepting Lyme? Or am I worn down with fighting? I don’t think either is quite true. Acceptance, at least for me, smacks of giving up, worn down implies defeat. I’ll settle for the gentle euphemism of “learning to live” with Lyme.

My doctor shared his frustrations with his inability (another tricky word) to predict the outcomes of his Lyme patients. He felt I should be well by now. He wonders what factors we’re missing. So do I. We discuss my lifestyle. Am I drinking? Why, yes. I tried to drink twice in the last month. It didn’t work out too well the next few days. Alcohol is off the table once again. How about rest? My number one priority. I nap most days and get at least eight hours a night. I am like a four-year-old trying hard to give up naps but too sleepy to actually do it yet. What about stress? Yes, what about stress. Oh, you mean the stress of living? There is the stress of existing, which is essentially what I did for almost two years, and the stress of living. Existing is a sealed bubble of eating, sleeping, and being sick. Living is working, socializing, exercising, going out, traveling, and interacting with the world. YES IT IS STRESSFUL! I almost always feel behind the eight ball of my own life. Do one of the things and be sick. Do all of them and feel great. That uncertainty is stressful. So is deciding which one to prioritize on any given day.

I can accept that lifestyle choices and managing stress are all on me. My doctor accepts managing my protocol. What both of us struggle to accept is what we are missing. Was it the eleven surgeries I’ve had during my life? Perhaps all the antibiotics I took for acne in my late teens. The drugs I enthusiastically experimented with? Maybe something in the environment. It sure as hell isn’t my disposition. I’m fricking Pollyanna. We may never know for sure, and that in itself is a stressor.

Today marks the first day in weeks that my brain is working well. I had no idea how far down the slope I had gone. That’s the hallmark of Lyme brain (such a warm, fuzzy little description for losing your mind). It’s so subtle. I hope I can learn to recognize relapse symptoms more quickly. I don’t like the sensation of somnambulating through life. I may appear and act normal (well, as normal as normal is for me), but if you ask me to remember too much, or do something mentally challenging, like math, you’ll see the gaping holes in my speech, thought and memory.

I am ambivalent about this latest flare-up (relapse, setback, shitshow, whatever you want to call it). Overall, my symptoms are sputtering and losing steam. Either that or I am learning to live with my new normal. Is that acceptance, or is it defeat? I must confess I am satisfied with my current situation—lifeguarding, Airbnb, writing, exercising, and keeping the house together. I can control this amount of stress and chaos. I can adjust the intensity and frequency of all these activities when I need to, and I can push it, or I can take naps and rest. Of course this isn’t what I want. Like Veruca Salt I want it all and I want it now! I hate having limitations. Waaah! I know, cry me a river.

I guess acceptance means being content with the parameters of my illness. When I first typed this, I said “the illness”. I can scarcely admit even now, that it is MY illness, an illness that will be mine and belong to me until I die. This is just for now. I don’t want to be in this particular phase (which is basically the lifestyle of a five-year-old) forever. However, it is not merely existing anymore. It is a life, and not a bad one, either.

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