Spend enough time in the woods, and getting bit by something is almost inevitable. And I can recall always having been told to check for ticks after leaving the woods. Did I ever? Nope. It never concerned me. I never feared them or what could befall me if I wound up getting bit by one. Then, it happened.
It was at the end of August, just one day after hiking Pack Monadnock Mountain in New Hampshire for the first time. I noticed a red bump on my right ankle. It felt like a bruise, and I wondered if I just hadn’t hit something along the way. But it was stiff. Something didn’t feel right. I originally noticed it on a Sunday, watched it swell through Monday, and by Tuesday morning it had formed into the definitive answer to the question “is this a tick bite?” I had been secretly asking myself.
The doctor’s were amazed it progressed so fast. They were even more amazed that I never saw a single tick. When I called and was asked to describe the bite and pain that was starting to radiate from the bite and travel up the side of my leg, they told me to come in immediately. Underscoring just how rapidly the swelling happened, I was placed antibiotics without a single test. It was officially unofficial. I had Lyme disease.
Within four days of the bite I started taking the medicine, and overnight the swelling went down almost completely. But within that first week, I felt a severity of fatigue the likes of which I’ve never known. Food shopping and walking up stairs was now exhausting. I was feverish, which was always a signal that I needed to eat. Food helps the healing process. The other question was exercise, and whether I could do some while being treated. I wasn’t even sure how much rest I actually needed. I consulted various practitioners, from doctors to the holistic sect to personal trainers. The medical community told me to exercise if I felt up to it. The trainers said absolutely no physical exertion, that exercise would open up the pathways in my body and could allow the Lyme to spread faster.
I decided to take a week off of working out to see how I felt. It had been years since I had done so. At the end of the first week, I noticed another bite taking shape. Naturally, I freaked the fuck out and flew back to the clinic. Despite how similar this bump and surrounding red spot was to the original bite, which was healed by this point, I was told this was not a bite. According to my doctor, it was phlebitis, a common condition associated with inflammation of the veins in woman as they start to get older. It was around my ankle, which is where these blockages of superficial veins commonly occur, which sounded like bullshit, as I’ve never experienced anything like it before. I was asked if I had been on my feet a lot and I responded it had been just the opposite. She recommended I go to the gym and do some cardio, something she said would work the blockage out.
And it did. In spite of feeling like I was dying in the morning, an afternoon trip to the gym made the worst of the symptoms go away. The fever was gone, the bite area wasn’t as sore, and the fatigue was dissipating rapidly. The only symptom that seemed to reappear was a mispronouncing of my words (imagine involuntarily switching the first letters of a word or phrase around … like sudden onset dyslexia). My best friend and I now lovingly refer to it as “Lyme brain” And I don’t think we’re too far off. As a writer, it’s horrifying.
An intense brush with Lyme has made me take stock of the way I take care of myself and the pace at which I live my life. Facing this disease means the need to totally reassess my activity level for just about anything. It’s de rigueur for contemporary health writers to talk about needing to slow down, but I never realized just how constantly I operated in full-boar beast mode until one of nature’s tiniest, most formidable opponents took me down in a single bite.
Lyme disease is real, folks. And if for some reason you think you fall outside of its truly evil grasp, consider this: The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that 95 percent of all confirmed Lyme disease cases were reported from 14 states in the nation in 2013. And every state within New England’s borders are on that very list.
So if you see even the most slightly questionable bite, get it checked it out. Immediately. Don’t wait. I caught mine within four days. That’s record time. I got it so fast, and got it treated just as quickly, pretty much resulting in a full recovery. But in line with all of the research out there (and lingering symptoms people often report) it’s still unknown whether or not you ever truly get rid of it. Even so, some people go undiagnosed for years, and I can’t even wrap my head around what life has become for them.
Take the antibiotics you’re given from your doctor religiously, and rest as much as your body and mind tell you to, because not resting now will prove to be much more painful later, and you don’t get to choose the convenience of an attack of the Lyme-sleepies. The disease itself could be nature’s most eye-opening slap of reality about the the power of the small to outweigh the large. If nothing else, it serves as a not-so-gentle reminder that we are at the mercy of the elements, so just use some goddamn bug spray, and always check yourself after leaving the woods.
With so many inconclusive tests, and disease cases being misdiagnosed often compiled with symptoms persisting even after professional treatment, the battle to combat and cure Lyme disease rages on. The good news is it seems to be advancing, albeit slowly and with the general public even further behind on the realities and dangers associated with it. But, with advancement comes different benchmarks of success. And hopefully, the chance for anyone living with this disease to one day fully recover.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THE PREVENTION, DIAGNOSIS, AND TREATMENT OF LYME DISEASE, VISIT THE AMERICAN LYME DISEASE FOUNDATION