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December 20, 2012

In March of 2011, I was diagnosed with having Lyme Disease. I wrote the following shortly thereafter.

Yup, it’s Lyme disease
After three long years
Of not feeling myself
“You have a classic case”
Validation?
I guess I’m not crazy
I guess I’m not “out of shape”
I guess I don’t have a hyperactive thyroid
I guess we shouldn’t “take ‘er out”
I guess
Fatigue and weakness
Weakness and fatigue
Consumed the Energizer bunny
Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!
More! More! More! More!
STOP, said the tick
SLOW DOWN, said the tick
Aches at the nexus of my bones
Walking to the kitchen felt like a beating
Wears you down, ya know?
Lyme disease
Who wudda thought?
Posters on the wall, that’s who
On Day Two of the hitch
I pulled it off my back
The bull’s eye warning that never happened
No warning
Just symptoms
Not sure what’s worse now
Symptoms every six weeks
Or the meds I have to take

My job for the 2008 summer was as a member of the trail crew with the National Park Service at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I spent nearly every day that summer in the woods along Lake Superior, living and working on the trails. I spiked out with the Student Conservation Association crew at Chapel Beach and fell in love with the organization, signing up the following year to lead with them. I loved what I was doing, the life I was living.

Sometime in August I was out on an extended hitch somewhere east of Chapel Rock. It was day two, as the poem alludes to, of brushing; I was alone. Standing up to stretch out my back, I reached to relieve an itch between my shoulder blades. What the fuck is that? I ran my hand over my khaki NPS uniform again. A small, hard lump. I pulled my shirt over my head and, not wanting to know, slid my hand under my sports bra in that most hard-to-reach space. I pinched and pulled, my skin stretching as I tugged on the hard lump. I tugged harder and it snapped off. My heart sank as I brought the hard lump into view. A tick. I squealed in disgust and threw it into the brush; I didn’t want to know. Shakily, I returned to my work, trying to ignore my revulsion and fear.

That night when I got back to our cabin, I stole away to the bathroom, propping myself up on the sink to look at my back in the mirror. I breathed a sigh of relief as I could not make out any sort of blemish or red ring around the area where the tick had been. “No bullseye, no Lyme!” I recalled from speeches by other Rangers and from the PSA posters hanging in the shop. I was in the clear so I put it out if my mind and moved on.

Around that same time, I decided to quit playing volleyball for Northern Michigan University (fodder for another post). To channel my now-excess energy and give myself a goal to work toward, I signed up for the trail half-marathon just west of Marquette, running in September. For ten weeks as I trained, I was a runner. (This is a title I have since abandoned with no shame, regret or anything other than elation.) September and the race comes, I am feeling ready. But, as life would have it, the Wednesday before the Saturday race, I got the flu. As in, I got the chills, the voms, the shakes, the aches, the sweats and the images of sure-death. It was awful. I laid in bed on Wednesday and Thursday before attempting a run on Friday to loosen my legs. I got a block and a half before I doubled over, too weak to continue. But I had trained, ran miles and miles when I didn’t even like running. I had to race.

We rolled up to the race on Saturday morning, my measly breakfast hardly making it down my throat and into my uneasy stomach. Writing this now I see the absurdity in the way I was ignoring the “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” warning signs coming from my body. Yet I empathize with the potent mix of emotions I was feeling at the time: I had just walked away from a childhood dream when I quit volleyball. This race was my inauguration into a new life. And it was my means to make what I did palatable. There was plenty of other noise swirling around in my head.

So I ran. Within the first 500 yards, I knew that it was an awful idea to continue. I was in such a state of self-depreciation that I kept on; I was a mad woman trying to make things right. I stopped to help a guy with a sprained ankle, which tacked on an additional 15 minutes to my time but, without excuse or shame, I knew that any finish time within reasonable distance of my training times was not possible. Instead, I made friends with the old folks that were on my pace and settled into suffering. The trail would have been hard enough without the whole sick-as-a-dog thing. I finished at Little Presque and vowed to never do that again.

Not that I really had a choice as I was bed-ridden for the next two weeks. For one who is accustomed to playing at least one sport a day on top of school, extracurricularIinvolvement and being a social butterfly, this was quite a shock. I had/have never been sicker in my life. Every day I woke up, expecting to feel like I used to feel. It is only within these last few weeks, a full four years later, that I have started to regain that feeling.

My junior year of college was pretty rough in more ways than one but I am not one to wallow; I like to learn from my pain and let go. Underlying everything was how crappy I was feeling, physically. I went to the doctor over Thanksgiving break that year with lymph nodes the size of golf balls. He prescribed antibiotics, which were ineffective partly because I was allergic and partly because I turned 21 the next week. Time moved forward and I just could not shake feeling fatigued and achy and weak. I was sickly and kept getting infections – my immune system was tapped out. I went to specialists and naturopaths and doctors ad the Internet. Nobody could give me answers.

I returned to Pictured Rocks and my old position but had a hard time keeping the same pace I had the year prior. BUT, GOOD NEWS: I HAD MADE THE NMU VARSITY BASKETBALL TEAM. I had played intramural basketball for a few years, and the basketball girls were hassling me about, “playing a real sport.” I spent the summer playing pick-up games with the team. They talked with Coach, I talked with Coach, he stopped by to watch a game, and later that week called me saying, “What jersey number do ya want?” I was back in the world of college sports and all returned to balance.

There was just this one thing: for three or four weeks, I would feel fairly healthy and energized, but then I would hit a one-week wall of awfulness, pain, fatigue, weakness, dehydration. That does not bode well for anyone with a non-sedentary lifestyle but for a college athlete, it can be devastating to your potential success. Now, I am not at all going to contend that I ought to have had more opportunities to see the court or that I was even good enough to be running with those girls – they are incredibly talented. In this case, I measure success in my being able (or not able) to physically feel well enough to play up to my potential. Like a jock talking about a bum knee keeping them out of the big leagues (or Uncle Rico saying, “Coulda been state champs if coach woulda put me in fourth quarter.”), I could very well always wonder ‘what might have been’ had the Lyme not been kicking my ass.

Yet I think it ultimately did as much good for not just me but for the team as anything else: because I felt so awful, I could focus on other things like loving on my teammates and making sure that I was doing all of the right things outside of what I physically fell short on. I had the crap scared out of the “I’m still immortal” me when, during a shoot around, I was close to passing out as my heart raced and palpitated; I ended up spending the evening in the ER. It was also a good learning experience for our wonderful trainer, Mike, who was there for me through every “What the heck is wrong with me?” and “Why am I drinking six liters of water every practice?” and “Why might my heart being trying to exit my chest?” and “What makes my legs so weak that I can’t jump during warm ups?” and “Could you just tell me I’m not crazy?” I ended up giving him my medical file from the Lyme Disease specialist who made the diagnosis so he could prepare himself for future student-athletes experiencing similar symptoms.

And I learned a lot about myself: I am not immortal, I need to listen and take care if my body, sometimes I need to slow down, I can still do good when I am feeling not good, I have more to offer a team than my physical talents, I can play two sports in college, I can feel proud about what I have done knowing tat I did all I could, and I can live with Lyme Disease.

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