In the summer of 2016, mysteriously and without warning, my body seemed to go on strike. Minor aches turned into chronic swelling and pain; even the smallest movement was agonizing. I felt sure I was dying. A few times, I wished I was dying. Twice, I prayed for death. Once, I thought about helping it along. But, remembering my son and the ever-present trauma of his having been emotionally and physically abandoned by his father, I thought better of that.
I went through a series of doctor visits and gave eight vials of blood to try and get to the bottom of this mystery illness. Finally, it was determined that Lyme Disease was the cause. The doctor wanted to know where and when I may have been exposed to ticks. Three possibilities came to mind:
The first seemed unlikely, however, I reported having had a tick embedded in the crack of my ass at age 16, likely a passenger I’d picked up while lying in the grass along the banks of the McKenzie River during my first sexual encounter; a date rape. Almost as traumatic as the rape itself was the office visit to have the tick removed, because my doctor was also a family friend. “That looks like a tick,” he’d remarked as he lifted the sheet to survey my swollen derrière. There was an awkward silence then, during which I chose not to reveal any additional details. I bit my lip hard as he lanced the wound and extracted the unwanted inhabitant. “You’ll be fine now,” he’d said before leaving the room, “And tell your folks I said hello.” I wasn’t fine, of course, but I couldn’t tell him that.
“That’s intense,” the doctor said, and I saw her type the words “emotional trauma” into her chart notes.
The next tick encounter may have occurred during a particularly tumultuous summer holiday in Old Lyme, Connecticut, in 1994, when my then-husband and I had travelled for a reunion with some of his musician pals from college. We had been married for five years and I’d become aware that I felt completely alone in the relationship. I’d thought I might leave him when we returned home, but a few months later I became pregnant with our son and decided to stay.
“Did you have a bullseye rash?” the doctor asked. No. She said it was possible the spirochete had been lying dormant in my body since then, which would upgrade me to the even more dire “Chronic Lyme” diagnosis. I saw her type the word “disappointment” into her notes.
I thought the most likely exposure had occurred just a couple of years before the symptoms surfaced, during an emotionally stressful month spent in upstate New York with my former partner, another narcissistic musician who related to me more like a mother than a lover. To acknowledge my part in that dysfunctional relationship, I had volunteered to help him sort through a house full of dusty memories as he prepared for his mother’s death. A few months later when I was seriously hurt in a car collision, my self-absorbed love chose to pass the evening with another woman rather than coming to my aid.
After typing the word “grief” into her notes, the doctor explained that the symptoms of her own Lyme disease had been triggered following the birth of her third child; she attributed the trauma of childbirth as an older woman, together with chronic exhaustion, as factors that weakened her system and allowed for the disease to take hold. “You’ve had quite a lot of physical and emotional trauma in your life,” she said, seeming to suggest that the accumulated effects of trauma, disappointment, and grief had played a significant role in the dramatic manifestation of my disease process.
She sent me home with a bag filled with prescriptions and remedies and pages of instructions, as well as this sober directive: in order for my body to fully heal and return to its natural vibrant state, it would be necessary for me to care for that body with the same sort of gentleness and love I had previously only offered to others. I wasn’t sure I could do that, but I promised to try.
In the past, I’d never been able to see the beauty beneath the accumulated weight in my belly or the cellulite on my thighs, or that disgusting fungus that once took up residence on my toenail. Not until I was chronically ill did I begin to put things in perspective. When the act of turning over and sitting upright requires the whole of one’s energy and attention, things like cellulite and greying hair and belly fat and nail fungus no longer matter the way they once did. They no longer matter much at all, actually. Most corpses probably have at least a few of those things, but that’s not what killed them.
So, along with several daily trips to the kitchen to down numerous medicines that promised to heal my Lyme disease, I began a practice of writing nice things about myself, to myself.
It felt quite foreign, but I did it anyway.
Day by day, energy and ease of movement began to return to my body. Gradually, I began to remember who I am beneath my physical imperfections and disease symptoms. Ever so slowly, the silent suffering of a broken heart began its transformation and reclamation. A new story emerged.
And so I’ve learned that, if one allows it, serious illness can give as much as it takes, rearranging priorities and bringing one instantly and fully into the one moment that is certain. From there, anything is possible.