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Reflections on Lyme Disease

Living with Lyme Disease can be a brutal burden.

This is her story:

Lyme has done some awful things to me. I think the worst are the feelings of despair, anxiety, loneliness. The physical symptoms are not permanent. And although it is sometimes hard to believe, the emotional and psychiatric symptoms are not going to linger forever either. No one can understand how disabling this can be if they haven’t walked this path. If I said I had cancer or MS, I think people would relate (“oh, so and so has that”). We’ve made those illnesses a part of our vernacular. Chemotherapy is almost universally understood. As a society, we know what to expect when someone gets those diagnoses. We are compassionate, sympathetic. I know when my dad was diagnosed with cancer, people came out of nowhere with cards, meals, time.

Lyme is not yet seen the same.

Late-stage Lyme is debilitating. But it is invisible. There is a great website called “But You Don’t Look Sick” that has some great stories about perseverance through invisible illness. I’ve been called a hypochondriac by people who claim to love me. That’s heart-breaking. I sometimes don’t have enough energy to get out of bed to make dinner. I certainly don’t have the energy to convince someone that my whole body hurts and that I have fatigue that can only be temporarily overcome by several large cups of coffee. I’ve realized that putting on that front though only makes it less obvious that something is wrong.

I don’t want to be a burden to those I care about, so I try to minimize my complaints. But truly, I feel very alone. When my dad was sick, I felt there was no other choice but to move in with him, make sure he was cared for, that healthy food was on the table, that he didn’t have to worry about driving home from chemo. Where is my caregiver? I don’t mean for that to sound desperate or clingy. I guess I just don’t understand. I would do anything for friends and family. Quite frankly, I have, sometimes to a fault to where I haven’t left anything for myself and my family.

I am ready to be healthy again. I want to have non-caffeinated energy. I want to be able to work out without feeling crushingly fatigued from lifting ten pounds. And I want a social life back. I know it takes time to maintain friendships, and I feel like I have lost my ability to do that. Mostly I’m just tired of being alone.

And being sick is just one more reason for me to feel distant from others.

Lyme Disease Updates

This is her struggle with Lyme Disease and a happy update!

I’ve been on some version of antibiotics since late last fall, first killing Bartonella and then working with a combo of drugs to attack the Lyme bacteria.

A year ago, I had no idea why I was sick. Each month brought with it an unknown set of new symptoms. I would cycle through the month with a flare up every 35-ish days. I often predicted when I would get sick again because the cycles were so regular. No one wants a diagnosis like this, but at that point, I just wanted to know what the hell was wrong with me!

I have had several people question whether I was legitimately sick and then a few more question the Lyme diagnosis since it is far from fool-proof. But a year later, I have to say, I feel SO much better and am so thankful for the doctors who risk their licenses to treat this disease. I may not be 100%, and I certainly still have some neurologic deficits, but compared to a year ago, I am so much healthier.

The shooting electric shock pain is gone.

Where I used to be tired from doing nothing, I now am only tired from doing. I may still get more easily fatigued than I used to, but at least I can be somewhat productive. (And this week has been a record for energy I think since before I got pregnant TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO!)

My joints feel much better and are only stiff momentarily in the morning.

The all-over body pain is gone.

I still get dizzy, but it’s becoming more and more related to over-stimulation and florescent lights, as opposed to just being dizzy because I’m awake.

I still forget how to spell words sometimes and can find myself lost in a conversation. My eyes still get tired. And the Bell’s Palsy isn’t fully resolved.

But I am better, and that’s a reason to be optimistic that I will make a full recovery!

My Lyme Disease Story Part II

Click here for Part I

Everyday I feel like I am going to die.

It’s pretty difficult to sleep at night when you are afraid that you won’t wake up in the morning, leaving your 18 month old motherless. And in the *capable* hands of your husband who, when it’s his night to make dinner, relies on boxed Mac and Cheese. Without me he’d probably revert back to Kraft, leaving organic Annie’s behind.

Neurologic disorders are their own beast, I think. The symptoms are literally all in your head, and yet you feel them everywhere. My feet tingle. Sometimes I can’t stand the feeling of pants on my legs because my nerves are hyper sensitive. My hands go completely numb some nights. Just a minute ago I was pretty sure that my tongue had stopped working and that maybe I was having a crazy allergic reaction. When I touch the skin of another person, sometimes it feels like it’s burning.

I’ve been to the ER too many times this last year. At first it was chest pain, which was treated with Ativan. Turns out I have chest wall inflammation. Advil was much more helpful than the anxiety drugs, but I’m a woman so must be crazy. Then I went to a doctor for what felt like the flu in the height of the swine flu outbreak. She listened to my heart, which had become tachycardic. She thought I was having a thyroid storm. Nope. Just Lyme disease. (It would have been helpful to know it was Lyme then.)

Lyme is also extra special because it causes psychiatric changes. Remember IRENE from the Real World? Don’t you wish you were my husband? I swing between uncontrollable anger to lying on the floor thinking about death. Suicide is actually the leading cause of death for people with Lyme. When I was first diagnosed and reading about the disease, I couldn’t figure out why there were links to suicide prevention lines. I get it now.

And then there’s the memory deficits. I’ve always had a really sharp memory. My mom hates me for it. Pray that your children don’t remember every phrase you ever uttered to them! I’m also a word freak and can kick some serious Scrabble ass. But now, I have trouble remembering the word for “countertop” (yep, happened the other day). I don’t know how to spell things. And I often just stop in the middle of a conversation unsure of what we were talking about or what I was saying or what I want to say next.

My stomach hurts. My knees ache. I lose my sense of taste sometimes. I can’t sleep, and yet I’m profoundly exhausted. I get night sweats. Bright lights bother me. And low lights bother me even more. I feel jittery and can’t sit still. But I’m too tired and sore to move. And I constantly feel like I’ve just gotten off a Tilt-A-Whirl, that’s how dizzy I am.

This is my life. I don’t tell you this for sympathy. I tell you it because it’s real. And frankly it scares the shit out of me.

My Lyme Disease Story – Part I

I was bitten by a tick when I was ten. It’s the only tick bite I remember, though a large number of those with Lyme don’t remember a tick bite. There’s no way to know if this bite or another was the culprit. I do remember a rash on my hand the summer I was pregnant, and I now wonder if it was from a tick, but there is no way to know. I always had weird medical things happen as a kid though, so we have wondered if maybe it’s been dormant for many years. Your immune system has an amazing ability to keep things in check (even if you’ve been given a taste of that forbidden formula).

And your immune system is amazingly susceptible to stress, which arrived on my, well, ashy, crumbling doorstep when I was eight months pregnant.

I had Kellen and went into my six week checkup, where they did a pap, which came back abnormal (yeah, my fall pretty much sucked), and gave me a flu shot.

Four days later (and four days after returning to teaching) my face stopped working. I was home nursing Kellen (or trying) and tried to smile at him, at which point I realized I couldn’t move the right side of my mouth. Earlier in the day I had noticed that it felt like I was talking with braces on, like my lips were having to make way for an obstruction on my teeth, despite not having had braces in well over a decade. That morning I drank orange juice that tasted dull as well as had a Starbucks sandwich that made me question their place as a food establishment.

It turned out that my taste buds were not working on the right side. After I finished nursing Kellen I decided to go back to school to finish teaching. I was really scared but didn’t want to deal with it at the moment (because the only two options I could think of were a stroke and brain cancer). As I was driving down the road I lost my ability to blink my right eye. I turned around, and we went to the hospital.

The good news is that it wasn’t a stroke or brain cancer, though the way the doctor told me it was *just* Bell’s Palsy made it seem so benign as though I hadn’t just lost full functionality of one side of my face and now looked like this:

“Are you sure nothing else is wrong?” I asked the ER doc. I just couldn’t fathom that the nerves in my face would stop firing just because they felt like it. The doctor assured me that nearly all cases of Bell’s Palsy are spontaneous and have no other underlying cause than a small virus. (Had I lived in the Northeast, it is likely I would have been tested for Lyme then as Bell’s Palsy is common in Lyme and the first symptom of it moving into your brain, when things get really dicey.) They gave me anti-virals and steroids. (It was because of this I stopped breastfeeding.)

Dan and I decided to head down to San Diego. I had taken a leave of absence from work because I was overwhelmed. The stress of the fire and the rebuild was compounded by this new development, and I knew that I was spread too thin. It has always been hard for me to walk away, and while it was sad, I am proud of my ability to say, “I can’t.” We left the day after Thanksgiving, a trip that was nearly thwarted by an incredible and overwhelming sense of anxiety. I couldn’t sit down at all because I felt so antsy and uncomfortable. It was one of the only times I’ve ever had the urge to scrub a floor. It’s unknown if this was a natural progression of the Lyme or because I had been prescribed Zoloft to deal with the PTSD. It’s been posited that SSRIs may actually exacerbate Lyme symptoms in some people (many also find them helpful).

That was also the day that the dizziness set in, and it’s kept a firm hold on me for over a year. I spent the entire trip in San Diego sleeping. When I wasn’t, I was scared. I truly thought I was going to die but was afraid of going to the ER because I didn’t want them to think I was crazy. I wish I had gone while in California.

I made a deal with myself that I would make an appointment with my neurologist in January if I was still sick after Christmas. I scheduled an appointment. That week I woke up and felt fine, nearly canceling the appointment to see the doctor. At that point being dizzy was the biggest issue; it was debilitating and frightening. The symptoms came back strongly the day before I went to see the doctor It would be the first of many cycles but also the clue that led another doctor to Lyme disease nine months later.

At first I was diagnosed with Benign Positional Vertigo, which is caused by ear crystals shaking loose. The test for this is tilting your head back to see if it gets worse. It did. But the exercises didn’t work. So an MRI was ordered. While I passed the muscle tests with the neurologist and chiropractor I was seeing, I drop things a lot (more than normal), so I worried a lot about MS, especially because I was told that mid to late 20s was typical for age of onset. With every click on the MRI machine I just hoped that I didn’t have MS and if I did that the test showed it. I didn’t want to be sick, but I also wanted an answer to why I felt so badly.

Click here for Part II.

No One Wants Me

Lyme disease is one of the hardest infections to treat.

This is her story:

I saw my neurologist today. She told me “no one wants Lyme disease.” She was referring to doctors, though it is an appropriate statement on many levels. I’ve been trying to get in to see the infectious disease doctor here. The infectious disease (ID) society is the overriding medical body who makes Lyme recommendations for diagnosis and treatment.

When I call the receptionist at the ID doc’s office (his name is Sky Blue, he he), however, she makes even getting into see him a nightmare. I have been trying to make an appointment for two months. *They* aren’t sure he treats Lyme (uh, he should). *They* told me to get a referral. I did. *They* still weren’t sure the doc could see me. *They* told me someone would call me after talking to him.

*They* didn’t. My neurologist said no doctor wants Lyme.

I can understand.

Lyme disease is so full of controversy. On one side is the IDSA (Infectious Disease Society of America- though don’t let the “America” fool you; many other countries follow their guidelines). They post that Lyme is an easily diagnosed and treated disease. They believe that even if you have late stage Lyme (which causes neurological problems and arthritis-like symptoms), it is treatable with four weeks of antibiotics.

On the other side is ILADS (International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society). They believe that Lyme is much more complex and is very difficult to diagnose and treat. They argue that many people with late stage lyme are “seronegative” (meaning their bloodwork for Lyme is negative). They also believe that the Lyme bacteria is present in several forms (spirochete, cyst, L-form). They believe in long-term, high dose antibiotic therapy (meaning a year or more). The IDSA maintains that there are no empirically sound studies showing that long-term antibiotics are more effective than a placebo. ILADS and associated organizations say that those studies haven’t studied true long-term therapy (i.e. twelve weeks instead of a year or two).

There are many patients who believe that the IDSA is in bed with the insurance companies, denying treatment for chronic Lyme beyond the 28 day criteria. I find this argument to be a bit bogus considering insurance covers things like chemo without a grand conspiracy [this isn’t to say I don’t think there are legitimate problems with our insurance system!]. But I do think the IDSA has blinders on and seems unwilling to say that it’s possible that they don’t know. I think they should encourage more studies, more science rather than telling the other side (a very vocal side) to fuck off.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I believe in science. I believe in studies. I also believe in medicine that hasn’t been proven. My dad’s life was saved because of a clinical trial for recurrent lymphoma. The medicine did NOT get FDA approval. But it cured my dad. Above the science, above the controversy, I want to get better. I am 27, and I want to live a healthy life. While it might sound nice, sitting around my house while it gets messier and messier watching old Showtime television series isn’t the way I like to spend my time. My bed and I have a relationship that is frankly a bit unhealthy (which reminds me I should probably wash my sheets a little more often). I want to write. I want to build brands. I want to engage. I don’t want to curse my computer screen because it gives me double vision. Frankly I don’t care about the ILADS/IDSA bullshit.

I just want my life back.

Which means I have to care. I have to do a lot of research. I read a lot of journal articles and scientific papers (usually zoomed in to 200% or with the font on the internet increased). I try to make informed decisions. I come up with my own hypotheses. I’m pretty sure my doctors hate me because I have more theories than they do and seem maybe slightly crazy with a hint of medical OCD. My labs at the moment are fine. I look completely healthy on paper. Except I’m not.

And no one wants me. If the doctors treat without confirmed lab tests (which were supposed to be used for surveillance not diagnosis) they risk their medical licenses (google Dr. Jones). The doctors seem afraid of this as as a diagnosis (but are free to give me migraine meds without a confirmed lab workup!). To see my doctor in Seattle I had to sign a form that I understood this was an experimental treatment protocol. That doctor continues to treat me. And I probably shouldn’t have gone on this expensive medical dead-end. But the problem is when things happen here (maybe unrelated to Lyme) I don’t have anyone to go see, which makes me a thousand times more likely to go to the ER instead of just calling my primary care doc.

I know this is confusing. I tried to explain it as best I could, and I explained things as I see it (so if you disagree, this is how I view the controversy).

If you have more questions, I can try my best to answer them.

Seattle & Venus

We spent the weekend away in Seattle, our first real weekend away from Kellen. Although we missed him, it didn’t hurt to have a weekend away from the constant demanding needs of another human. The first night we were out to a nice dinner on the water, and another family came in with a whiny toddler, and I wanted to tell them that I had a No-toddler-within-50-feet-of-earshot rule while on vacation, but that didn’t seem fair! We have certainly caused our share of raucous at restaurants.

Our trip was mostly for my check-up with the Lyme doctor, and we decided to add on a couple days away. This was the view from our hotel room:

We watched cruise ships load and unload passengers as though it were a 24 hour cattle call. We made a mental note that if we ever went on a cruise, we’d arrive late and make sure we could afford to be a VIP.

On Friday, I had a PICC line put in. It’s a more permanent IV line that allows me to give myself daily meds that will hopefully penetrate the blood-brain barrier and kick these spirochetes to the ground. After I had it put in, I told Dan we needed to name it. When Dad was sick with cancer and we were being given a five year life expectancy (it’s been nine years thanks to a great clinical trial), we named his IV stand Freddie. Whenever it was time to walk around 4-south, one hand on the pole, the other closing his hospital gown, it gave us a momentary laugh to call for Freddie, the IV stand. I guess it personalizes medicine a little and makes it less scary or… medical.

Dan decided that we should name it Venus, the intravenous PICC line.