It was a typical fall morning in 2011 when, on the last steep hill of my daily hike, I felt like I couldn’t possibly take another step without passing out. The sudden and intense onset of extreme exhaustion made me feel like I was dying. It felt as if all my life’s energy was leaving my body. I struggled to make it to the top of the incline and back to the house, where I headed straight to the couch. I spent most of the next three days there suffering with intense chills and flu-like symptoms unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
It seemed to pass, but for the duration of the winter I felt unusually tired. By springtime my hips started to ache. It didn’t matter if I was active or resting, my hips would ache off and on all summer. The tiredness developed into extreme fatigue. I went from someone who could work in the garden for hours, to having to nap after just one hour. I chalked it up to age and peri-menopause, but by fall all hell broke loose in my body. A multitude of seemingly unrelated symptoms plunged me into a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from. I was unable to do the things I needed to, let alone the things I loved.
After several visits to my doctor, the emergency room, a cardiologist, neurologist and infectious disease specialist and enduring multiple blood tests, x-rays and an MRI, my ailments remained a mystery. Finally, in March 2013, my naturopath diagnosed me with late disseminated Lyme disease–a horrifying prospect. Now, with over two years of treatments under my belt, I’m finally getting my life back. It’s not over yet, but the nightmare that was my life three years ago is becoming a distant memory. However, the trauma from contracting a life altering disease from activities that previously brought me health and happiness made it difficult to feel comfortable outdoors again.
I can still remember the feeling of exhilaration the first time I got back on my snowshoes. I was far from my old self, but just moving my body again among the snow-laden trees infused me with vigor. Gradually, I’ve been able to return to most of my old activities, like gardening and swimming, but getting back onto the wilderness trails was intimidating. The thought of being reinfected by a deer tick was always in the back of my mind.
I badgered friends and family about safe practices about insect protection. I became almost obsessive about using lots of bug spray, wearing Permethrin-treated clothing, tucking my pant-legs into tall socks and doing a thorough skin check after being outside. I avoided tall grass and bushes as much as possible, sticking to the middle of the path, which is not always possible on my un-groomed wilderness trails.These precautionary activities are, and will always be, a part of my new life, although I am learning to relax a little more as time goes on.
One of my favorite hiking activities is foraging, and chanterelle mushrooms are my favorite wild treat. The first summer after my diagnosis I barely had the courage–or energy–to go outside at all, let alone scour the underbrush looking the delicious fungus. But the pull to the woods and the apricot scented mushrooms stirred ingenuity. Donning painter’s whites works as a perfect tick “hazmat” suit, allowing for unhindered foraging. Although it can get pretty hot, the full-body getup gives me peace of mind.
Swimming is also a huge part of my summer life, and my swimming pools are all of the natural kind. My tiny home province of New Brunswick is replete with rivers, streams, lakes and seaside beaches. And all of these are prime tick habitats. Most of our swimming holes must be accessed by traipsing through tall grasses or overgrown trails.
Overcoming the fear of reinfection has been a tremendous challenge, but I’m determined not to allow Lyme disease to define who I am and what I do. Having a positive, hopeful outlook, physical activity, and exposure to the natural world are key to my recovery, and I refuse to allow fear to dictate how I live my life.
Becoming active outdoors again has been vital part of recovering my strength and energy. I’m back in my daily gardening routine, and some days I can keep at it for more than a couple of hours. However, I still need to pace myself if I want to be able to do anything the next day. I’ve always been a barefoot kinda gal, and I’m making sure to get out on the cool, morning grass as often as possible. I’m hitting the river as often as possible and have plenty of beach related activities planned for this summer, including a tubing trip down the Hammond River. It feels good to be back outside. The paranoia about ticks–I would go so far as to say a little PTSD–is diminishing, making it enjoyable to be active outdoors again. When nature is as big a part of your life as it has been for me, getting back on track is crucial for my mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.
For more information on how to protect yourself, your family and your pets from Lyme disease, please visit tickencounter.org for more info.