Stalled

I been holed up lately, because there’s not much to say right now. Yes, I’m still sick. No, I don’t know if I’ll ever be completely well. No, there’s really no clear path or prognosis for me. Yes, it sucks. The uncertainty and grind of being sick for so long has started to wear me down a bit emotionally. Since I can’t change the fact that my future is not predictable or stable, I have to change the way I look at it. This is euphemistically called ‘adjusting my expectations. What a loathsome phrase. We all know it really means ‘tough shit, your life is not the same, it’s never going to be the same, and you’d better fucking get used to it’.  After four+ years of Lyme, I am stuck in the ‘almost well’ category. Why? Who knows. Maybe I’m not trying hard enough. Maybe my body reacts to things differently. Maybe there are other factors in my environment. Maybe I’m one of the unlucky few that just can’t quite get well.

It doesn’t really matter at this point, the adjustment has to be made. I’ve been working on accepting that I managed to get a serious illness since the onset of Lyme. Lyme keeps moving the bar and fucking with me. I get better, something pops up, I get sick again. What is truly mind-boggling is how obtuse I can be to the cycle.

It’s a level of stupidity that I can only ascribe to both Lyme and my own inclination to turn a blind eye to bad things. The signs are all there: I forget dates, I’m exhausted, I cry at nothing, I can’t concentrate, my neck hurts, my hands throb, and my teeth hurt. The same damn things every time and still I’m blindsided when I have another relapse.

After that, I accept the fact that I have to hoard my energy, and always plan for the worst. It makes my social life unpredictable and my working life difficult, but I do it, and without too much fuss. Emotionally, though, I struggle every day with adjusting. This is where I stamp my foot an scream “but I don’t wanna!” Lyme doesn’t give a rat’s ass what I want.

Picking which adjustment has been the hardest would be impossible. Is it that I can’t work full-time? Or maybe that I can no longer just up and do something. Perhaps it’s the uncertainty that if I DO do something, I might not get out of bed for a few days. It also could be how weak and puny I feel about myself when I get sick once again, as if my body is betraying me again. Maybe it’s the guilt I feel about constantly cancelling out on friends, or ignoring their emails, texts or phone calls because I just can’t summon the energy to talk to them like a normal person. It could be all these things, but I think the main thing is if I adjust, I am admitting I am an irrevocably changed person from Lyme disease.

For one thing, my life is much quieter than it was. It is amazing how having to parcel out your energy gives you a laser focus on what you want or need to do. I suppose I could blow off taking care of the house for a more active social life, or I could give up everything else and work full-time. Or I could simplify my life until I only have the essentials and free up time from maintenance for something else. Most people have to make some of these decisions, but not to the extreme that I do. When I decided to celebrate Thanksgiving and my birthday, it took four to five days beforehand devoted to resting and taking care of food and cleaning. Even then, I was knocked out the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving and my birthday party. It is ridiculous, and I hate it.

However, hate is an emotion that wastes a lot of energy. In fact, all extreme emotions use up energy. Love, hate, sorrow, anger, all suck the vitality right out of you, so they are best doled out in tiny portions. Bonus: I don’t have the energy to sweat the small stuff.  It’s been tremendously hard to wrap my brain around the various labels ‘adjusting’ conjures up: disabled, chronically ill, and malingerer come to mind. Once I get over that, I might be, no, I will be in a better place. If I know this to be true, then why is it proving so difficult?

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flabby

My mind, body and spirit have grown flabby from Lyme. I had good news from my doctor this week. I am, metaphorically, sprinting down the backstretch. Only I’m not sprinting, I’m lackadaisically strolling, the one pace Lyme allowed. This is supposed to be good news, and it is. I haven’t figured out what it means for me yet. I was warned that this isn’t an immediate return to health. My body is more than flabby, it’s a toxic waste dump. It’s worn down and tired from three years of illness. When I was out of town with Dad the last few weeks, I got compliments on how good I looked. What a cruel paradox. I’ve never looked healthier or been sicker.

I joked with my friends in Dad’s retirement village in Tucson (yes, I’ve spent so much time there that I have my own friends there) that I live the lifestyle of a five-year-old. I also joked (but not really) that I’ve gotten a preview of the ravages that age brings. A preview, not the big show. I hope I make it to the big show. I’ll at least know how important taking care of yourself is.

That was one of the best parts of my doctor’s appointment. I have passed into that strange relationship doctors and patients have when they are brought together through serious illness. Not-quite-friends, he knows too many intimate details of my body and life to be merely an acquaintance. I see his wife, also, and I was delighted to hear from each of them that because I work so hard on my health (italics mine, because I am pretty fucking proud of myself) they think I’m going to make a full return to health. Yassss!

One of the secrets to coping with a long, drawn-out illness is surrendering to the illness. Not surrounding as in giving up, but giving in. It is, however, quite possible that I have gotten too comfortable with this skill. It’s ironic that the coping mechanisms I used to get through the last three years might be liabilities on the road to wellness. So what do I do now?

I consider myself an athlete. I have never gone more than eight weeks without working out. Whether it’s tennis, swimming, pickle ball, weight-lifting, Zumba, Jazzercise, running, hiking, or yoga, I am always doing something. I have continued this as much as possible during Lyme; in periods of relative health I swam, played pickle ball, walked and lifted weights. Each time was hard. I’ve had no stamina for two years. Getting back into shape is always a pain in the ass. I’ve done it after each of my surgeries and I will do it again now. Five minutes today, ten minutes next week. One day I’ll wake up and be working out at my normal pace.

Maybe that’s what I need to do in other areas of my life. I’ve never lost my mind before, but I’ve been working crosswords, playing Words with Friends, writing, reading again—getting my mind back into shape. Now I have to turn that mind-play into mind-work. I’ve shied away from mental work because I couldn’t handle the inevitable failure trying to perform a challenging job while I had Lyme. Now that’s changed. First step will be to devote an hour or two each day to a new, online writing job. It will seem unbearably difficult to me at first, like that first time I swim after a long layoff. I feel like a beached whale the first three or four times, my limbs flailing through the water and lungs gasping for air. Then there is a day where I slice through the water, pushing the last fifty of a two hundred without dying. I will gradually work more hours. One day I’ll wake up and realize I’m doing it easily and happily.

It’s the time between now and one day that is daunting. I’m sure I’ll push too hard, or beat myself up for not pushing hard enough. I’ll cry and get angry and wish things were different. I’ll bitch and moan to anyone who cares to listen (anyone? anyone?) how hard it is. There will be days where I feel strong and sharp and in control. There will be many more days where I want to crawl under the covers. I don’t ever want to be this sick again. Never, ever, ever.

My spirit is the weak corner of this triangle. This is one of the few times I wish I had faith in something. How easy it would be to fob it off on “god”. That’s not for me, though, I’ll have to figure out how to get my joie de vivre back on my own. It may surprise me, what makes me happy and replenishes me. I don’t have a clue at this point. Or maybe I do, but like my mind and body, my spirit has also atrophied, the energy Lyme took far exceeding my resources. What if my spirit doesn’t come back? I’m scared I don’t have what it takes to make it down the final stretch. I know, I’ve made it this far, blah, blah. If I can’t figure out how to rejuvenate my spirit, all of this will feel insurmountable.

I look at the people in Dad’s community. Some of them face what seems to me to be unimaginable hardship. They all cope with their changes differently, that’s expected, but they all share an unquenchable spirit, a thirst for life. That’s what I want. I just want it to be easier to get. Not only that, I find I really want to hang around for awhile. The world is an endlessly interesting place to be. I’ll find out what my spirit is made of, and what revives it. I’ll use that knowledge when I graduate to the big show and I’ll stay thirsty for as long as I’m able.

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dad

Yes, my dad is alive and kicking. I want to take the opportunity to embarrass him while I can. It’s not often we get our own personal heroes, but I have one, a fact that has become even more emphatically clear during my struggle with Lyme. Dad and I are extraordinarily close, our relationship uncomplicated, unlike the relationship I had with Mom. Maybe that’s the nature of fathers and daughters, but more likely it’s because our personalities simply mesh. His 89th birthday is next month. He hates his birthday. His office once threw him an unbirthday party because he assiduously and purposefully withheld the date for years. He is going to kill me for writing this. I know it. That’s okay, Dad. You know you love me.

I was adopted on the sixth day of my life. I didn’t know until this year that mom and dad adopted me because I was a “hard to place” child, because I am half-Hispanic. This fact rattled me a bit. Hard to place? Moi? That’s because Mom never shared this tidbit with me, and I don’t think it ever occurred to Dad to even mention it, until I asked.

Dad was raised in a world of women. His dad traveled for work, and eventually divorced his mom when Dad was twelve. Dad credits his decidedly egalitarian views towards women (an anomaly for his generation) to this upbringing. I realized he was different from a lot of other dads early on. Other kids weren’t canoeing with their fathers. Other kids weren’t playing ping-pong, tennis, or just talking to their fathers. I rarely heard of friends’ fathers vacuuming, cleaning windows, or washing dishes. He did all these things and more without complaint. I complained enough for the whole family. Mom went back to work full-time when I was in the sixth grade with his blessing (I hesitate to state it that way, because he fully supported her choices). In his mid-fifties, he moved to Memphis for her job and commuted to Denver two weeks every month because she had interrupted her career to move for his. He took care of Mom for the last ten years of her life, putting aside nearly everything for her.

One of the things I love most about Dad is his absolute, unwavering unconditional love for those fortunate to be in his orbit. He wants nothing but good things and happiness for you. This used to intimidate and frighten me: could I live up to such a fierce love? Now I see that I do the same to Katie. There are worse things in life to know you are someone’s sun, moon and stars. He spoiled me a bit, but again, there are worse things. He has supported me unequivocally throughout grad school (he used the proceeds from Mom’s cello and bow to pay for it) and through my ordeal with Lyme disease. I do the same for Katie, and we do what we can for him. It’s a happy circle of unconditional love that I wish everyone could experience.

Dad was not a pushover, however. I tested plenty of boundaries. My brothers didn’t know what boundaries were. Dad has questioned his (and Mom’s—they were a team, 100%) choices on how he raised us. This is both endearing and annoying, because there were maybe four or five times, tops, where the punishment was unwarranted. He likes to remember differently, but some of his punishments were downright genius. One of my favorite stories (and his least, probably because it reflects poorly on me) is the time I was caught completely bombed on Quaaludes (thank goodness the guys’ parents came home, because we were literally on our knees howling with laughter because we couldn’t get the car keys in the door to unlock the car). Dad grounded me for six months. He said we were going to be spending a LOT of time together and signed me up for tennis lessons with Kingwood’s new tennis pro, Jim Rombeau. To this day Dad and I share an abiding love for tennis. This didn’t solve all of my misbehaving, but it brought us much closer together.

There was a time when it used to irk me that old boyfriends (really, all of my friends) always asked how Dad was doing, to the point where I suspected they liked him more than me. Now I see it for what it is, a huge compliment to him. He’s nonjudgemental and listens, no matter your sex or age. I remember discussions about news, books and life as early as nine or ten. When I was twelve, or maybe thirteen, I announced I was atheist. He asked me how I came to that conclusion and we began a discussion on belief and faith that continues to this day.

Dad won a lawsuit against an oil company known for stiffing independent exploration geologists who’d done work for them, largely because the jury found him an impeccably honest and moral witness. He once told me he’d rather see an honest F than a cheater’s A. He embarrassed me and my cousin Ginger at the movie theater by doing a spot-on imitation of Tevye singing “If I were a Rich Man” during intermission. He got thrown into the pool regularly because he was that dad, a good sport who liked to have fun. He likes to solve the world’s problems over a few drinks. He makes his granddaughter feel like she’s the center of his universe.

Whew. All these compliments! Lest you think he’s perfect, he can’t dance. His singing is abysmal. His ‘cooking’ is utilitarian at best, popcorn and wine at worst. He hates to wait. He can barely sit through a movie. He hates most holidays. He never feels like he gives good gifts (this is nonsense, he gives the BEST gifts).  He gets mad when Katie and I fuss over him. Too bad, Dad. We will fuss over you forever. Many friends who know him joke about letting him adopt them, too. He picked me, a hard-to-place monkey-faced baby. I’m not nearly as nice as he is, so too bad, he’s mine, and I’m not sharing.

 

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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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time

If I were to characterize myself, I’d be the grasshopper in Aesop’s Fable #373, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” The grasshopper dances and frolics all summer, while the ant toils away, gathering food for the winter. When winter comes, the cold and hungry grasshopper begs the ant for food and shelter, and is refused. The moral of the story, of course, is the daily grind is a far worthier pursuit than fun and games. I have trouble with this concept. I’ve been content to drift along on the gentle waves of a privileged life. Being content is not a recipe for professional success, however. My friend Laura and I talk about this often. Neither of us would say we were ambitious, an almost shameful admission in America. When I was younger, I chose a path that suited me, that of corporate housewife. We moved every couple of years, so I worked part-time, usually at jobs that had some benefit to the family: free childcare, free gym memberships, or discounted clothes and gear. I took pride in being a good housewife. I drifted. Things changed.

Lyme disease, as in every aspect of my life, forced me to reevaluate. I am now in a big hurry to “do things”. And by doing things, I mean being true to myself and not being afraid. Life is short. I know that now, at the solidly middle age of 58. Maybe part of this hurry IS middle age, the tidying of loose ends that were neglected earlier. Most people toiled away and neglected friends, family and fun. I was fortunate to have the opposite equation. We could get into a whole discussion of whether the trade-off of marriage was worth it, but why? I can’t change my choices, nor do I want to. I have been able to experience life events fully without the interruption of a job. I was present during my mother’s illness and her death. I have helped my parents through surgeries and moves and have gotten to spend time with them. I was able to torture my daughter by being there for most of her life. Okay, there was that time I forgot her at her math tutor’s house and maybe I was late for a few things, but I was there. My not working allowed my ex-husband to concentrate on his career, and while that didn’t work out so well for me in the long run, I still don’t regret it.

What changed? There was no epiphany, nor was there one cataclysmic event. There were a series of small events. A marriage foundering slowly. An only daughter leaving the nest. A random afternoon spent watching the Westminster Dog Show with the daughter. The announcer told the story of the Hungarian Komondor, whose long, corded coat protected the sheepdog from wolf bites. She thought that was fascinating, and from that a germ of an idea sprouted. I started to write a book about Golden Retrievers. Believe me, if I had known how hard writing a book was, I never would have done it. I slowly dipped my toes into the waters of the writing world.

While I wouldn’t recommend a serious illness to anyone, I am once again grateful for Lyme, and especially for neuroborreliosis. The reawakening of my once inflamed brain has produced both an urgency and sharpness of thought that has been highly beneficial to my writing and myself. Man, the above sentences are a testament to silver linings. I can hardly imagine how anyone could benefit from losing one’s mind for an extended period (say, longer than an acid trip), yet I did. What I do with this newfound urgency is an ongoing struggle. I am not fully recovered. Energy and stamina are precious commodities in my world. Writing about my past, especially the physical and sexual abuse, is surprisingly exhausting. Dating is exhilarating and exhausting. Taking care of myself and my home is calming and exhausting. Looking for a “real” job falls to the bottom of the list for now. Lifeguarding will have to suffice as I put myself back together. I don’t have an old life to return to. There is no loved one, no job, no “normal.” I was in the throes of reinvention when Lyme hit.

It has taken years to discover my voice, and what I must write. I was my own worst enemy. When I think of all the time I have wasted doubting myself when I was younger, I cringe. Oh, I still doubt myself, often and with great energy. The difference is that doubt doesn’t stop me. I must write, and I must write about deeply personal things. Is this what ambition feels like? Or is this a form of self-therapy, or personal flagellation? I could have chosen an easier path. The arts are no way to make a living.

The metamorphosis from ant to grasshopper continues. I know I shortchange myself, it’s a problem. I work much harder than I let on. I also think waaaaay too much, as any friend of mine knows. As I attempt to embrace the thorny new normal, I will remind myself that I’ve survived happily for most of my life as a grasshopper,  dancing, frolicking, and experiencing life.

 

 

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