Holding a steady course: Reflections on learning how to heal from Lyme disease

 "Early spring on the Peakamoose trail, the Catskills" LV

"Early spring on the Peakamoose trail, the Catskills" LV

As spring blooms and we bask in the energies of rebirth, I want to share some recent experiences with my health in hope that it is helpful to others. I learn more and more every day that while we can feel separate from each other, alone with our thoughts and experiences, we do share so much.

 

So here it is. In February I hosted a Women’s Circle gathering to honor Imbolc, the cross-quarter holiday that marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. During the Earth holidays, where the seasons pivot, I take the opportunity to pause, assess where I am at and to set intentions for the changes that are needed in my life.

At Imbolc I set the intention that I was ready to heal the struggle with my body that I been engaged in for many months. At the beginning of the gathering, as women were bustling around and settling into their seats, I was sitting quietly on the floor when the words, “You need balance” came clearly into my head. Over and over again throughout the evening I received the message: “balance”, “balance”, “balance”. At first this seemed so simple I nearly ignored it. In the following days I rattled and rolled the word “balance” around in my brain. What is balance? I realized I really didn’t know what balance looked like, it wasn’t guiding my life and indeed it was the medicine I was looking for.  

 In the fall of 2017, six months prior to this February evening, after a busy spring and summer that included a stressful personal event that I barely stopped to process, I started experiencing physical symptoms that were mysterious. They were varied but they included: a slight rash on my stomach; insomnia and waking up in the middle of the night with a pounding heart; itchiness that would come and go; histamine reactions to foods that I could not identify a pattern of; dizziness; feeling mildly hot, flushed and feverish in the afternoons.  Most distinctly, I was feeling a high level of anxiety and an underlying sense of dread. I felt gripped by circling thought patterns that I could not climb out of. I did not feel myself. Two months passed before I made the choice to stop haphazardly willing these symptoms to go away and to turn and face them.

 "Self-portrait, feeling overwhelmed" LV

"Self-portrait, feeling overwhelmed" LV

In the summer of 2016, over a year earlier, I had found a tick embedded in my chest and had experienced a classic set of symptoms that I knew well at that point, having had Lyme disease twice before: heart palpitations, severe joint pain, fever, brain fog, exhaustion.  I took herbs, then decided to take three weeks of doxycycline, then continued taking herbs for about four months through the spring. I had felt “better”, was busy with my business and my life, and put Lyme disease mostly out of my head.      

When I felt this new set of symptoms in the fall of 2017, even though they were not the classic Lyme symptoms that I knew, I assumed that my Lyme disease had not been fully resolved. I did not take the time to consider what was going on in my life nor the stress I had been through. I started taking a full protocol of Lyme’s herbs  as well as several other herbs to treat symptoms.

 I had also recently read a case study in the American Herbalist’s Guild newsletter where an herbalist reported that she had been working with a client who had debilitating Lyme’s symptoms and that while the herbs had helped him, his symptoms cleared completely when he adopted a ketogenic diet. A ketogenic diet is high in fat, moderate in protein and extremely low in carbs, with no sugar or grains. I decided that I wanted to try this diet.

I was feeling desperate; like a victim of Lyme, that there was a foreign force interrupting my life, and also that I was failing to manage it. My job was to rearrange my life, buckle down on myself, throw every herb and everything I had at it to force this disease out of my system and free myself. 

There are plenty of people (like my husband) who get a tick bite, start getting symptoms and/or get a positive Lyme test, take a few weeks of doxycycline, and feel better without a second thought. Then there are those of us for whom it gets more complicated. In the 8 years since I had my first bulls-eye rash working on a farm in Pennsylvania, I never really felt fantastically well. I would get better and symptoms would reside, but I lived with an underlying sense of exhaustion and discombobulation, not quite running on all cylinders.

 "Three trees on the farm in spring" LV

"Three trees on the farm in spring" LV

 I don’t believe that the answer for why this was happening to me was because my body couldn’t clear the disease, or that I had it particularly bad case, or that I didn’t take enough of or the right herbs/antibiotics. I believe that the root causes of this lack of complete healing and reoccurring symptoms were that:

 1. My digestion has been compromised for decades and was not running optimally on a high carbohydrate diet and thus could not mount a full healing response

 2. I had underlying unresolved emotional issues around self-worth, productivity and being “good enough”.

 I have always pushed myself very hard to achieve. Having Lyme disease and being “sick” gave me a reason for why I couldn’t be superwoman today.  I needed my body to force me to rest, slow down and relax.  I was living my life out of balance, expending too much energy without filling up, saying “yes” too much, berating myself, feeling like I was not enough, that I didn’t get enough done with my days.   

The tactics that I adopted in the fall of 2017 when I treated my new symptoms, though my intention was to “fix myself”, were in line with this self-punishing tendency. Following a ketogenic diet and removing sugar, grains and most carbohydrates out of my diet has been a powerful healing answer for me. I continue to gain strength, clarity and energy eating this way.

I wonder now, though, if I needed such an intensive herbal protocol, and whether it benefited me or kept me off balance longer that was necessary. I wonder if changing my diet alone would have been enough of a shift for my body to restore itself. While at first I felt that the herbs were helping me, after a couple months, they weren’t making me feel good. I would get nauseous and my digestion slowed. Yet I continued to swallow this kitchen counter-top's worth of herbs thinking, “Oh, I don’t feel good after I take them, they must be working!”. Lyme’s herbs are strong. They are antimicrobial. They are cooling energetically. They are extremely helpful in fighting an active Lyme infection but they also can also over-influence the body. Taking herbs in this way is exactly the opposite of what I would ever advise my clients. It illustrates the depths to which I am a self-punisher and why herbalists should not treat themselves!

It wasn’t until the evening of the Imbolc Women’s Circle, where I was struck down by the radical concept of “balance” that I was able to start walking my current path of ease, relaxation and comfort in my body.  As I absorbed the lesson of "balance" I realized that feeling better wasn’t about what herbs I was or wasn’t putting into my body, or what I was or wasn’t eating. It was about working through the emotions and obstacles that were preventing me from tuning into and honoring the natural rhythm of my body. I have always been good at being compliant, willful, disciplined, full of research and knowledge. But I wasn’t abiding by my own mantra: The body heals itself. Our job is to create to the right environment for healing (and get out of the way!).

These days, I truly feel well. I recovered fully from my symptoms by deeply wading into the land of underlying negative beliefs I was holding about myself. I came to understand that these negative beliefs were dictating my everyday actions and that I was responsible for keeping my body out of balance, not Lyme disease. I turned and confronted the tangle of emotions I was holding onto around trauma and untied them, piece by piece, until I could let them go. I learned that I needed less stimulation and more meditation and stillness. I needed to go to bed earlier. I needed to say “no” more. I needed to feel that I already was enough. I needed to listen to my body rather than telling it what I thought was right. I needed gentleness. I needed space, emptiness, time to process, time outside in nature. Less judgement about myself. I needed to let go of impossible standards. I needed more joy and more beauty. Importantly, I needed to know that I deserved to heal (this was a big one).  

It is very difficult to admit that we are subconsciously holding ourselves in patterns of imbalance or disease. But the reality is that the experience of an illness is, on a soul level, always needed, always here help us work through emotions we are holding and to bring us home to ourselves. The only way out is through.

 "Squinting through the phragmites toward the ocean" LV

"Squinting through the phragmites toward the ocean" LV

One definition of “balance” from Merriam Webster is, “a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportion.” When it comes to our lives and our bodies, how do we know what that recipe is? What are the “equal and correct proportions”? I don’t have the answer to this, but intuitively my experience tells me that we live in a culture that practices a lot of excess: stimulation, consumption, thinking, doing, sharing, comparing, competing, shaming. If the rhythms of our activity and our basic beliefs are grounded in these excesses, no combination or number of herbs, antibiotics, cleanses, oxygen chambers, infrared saunas or any other therapy can bring us back into true balance. We have to let go. We have to get quieter. We have to listen. We have to do less.

Yes— we get tick bites, we get infected and the body must take on the challenge to right itself from this invasion from outside. We work with medicines from the physical world to help us: herbs, food, antibiotics, and they do, and we are blessed to have them. Yet what I am trying to circle around is that getting Lyme disease, or any disease, is our life asking us to go deep.  It is asking us to take our partnership with our bodies to a new level. It is asking us to confront the programs we have been operating under (many of them from birth) and to determine for ourselves whether they are in service to our vitality. Through healing from disease we learn to make the choices to feed our own life force, whatever those choices may be.

I have been a sailor from a very young age. My husband and I have a sailboat that we spend as much time on as we can from June to November. One of the most important skills to master when you are steering a sailboat is to not over-steer. This is particularly relevant when you are sailing upwind. "Upwind sailing" means that you are steering the boat as close as possible to the direction that the wind is coming from without actually steering into the wind.  We sail upwind frequently because we have a destination in mind and the direction that the wind is blowing from is the direction we need to head in to get there (quite frequently, around Cape Cod, that is to the southwest).

The wind is constantly shifting. To stay “on the wind”, to hold a steady course with good boat speed, you actually have to do quite a lot of work. If you over-steer toward the direction that the wind is coming from—"into the wind”—the sails will flap and the boat will lose its momentum and slow down. If you over-steer away from the direction of the wind, you’ll never get to where you are trying to go. You “fall off the wind”.  And of course, the more you over-steer in one direction, the more you have to jerk the wheel in the other direction to compensate. It can become a cycle of unsteadiness.

To an onlooker, the captain of a sailboat might appear to not be doing much. But a good captain is riding a fine edge, constantly making microscopic movements with her fingertips on the wheel, her eyes fixed on the water ahead of her reading the wind and what its next move will be, anticipating which direction the oncoming waves will throw her in. Most of her movements are quite small. In each moment, in her pursuit of a steady course, she is fiercely alert yet at ease, flexing her wrist just so, readjusting her weight, bracing herself, gripping her toes, letting the steering wheel glide underneath her fingertips of its own will just a couple inches. In her best moments she leaves herself entirely behind and relaxes into a unity with boat; the motion of the wind, the waves, the clouds and the current flow through her own body.   

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I write this because I think that it is relevant to the work we all do every day of “steering” the body; being the captains of our own vessels, so to speak.  The winds of life are constantly blowing and changing direction. Waves rise up and batter our hulls. The current changes direction. So often when this happens we lose our momentum or get headed off course. We over-steer. We stall. We feel like we are going to tip over. We think it’s our fault. We decide we can’t keep going on the journey. That we were wrong to set out on this course. Something must be wrong with our sails. But no, this is just how life works. It’s what we signed up for.

I am learning that I don’t have to over-steer so much. I am learning to ask myself, “what is the gentlest action I can make to hold my course?” I am learning how to stay fierce, focused, poised, vigilant, awake, relaxed and responsive so that I don’t get caught off guard. So that I can anticipate my next move before the wave hits so the boat never even rocks. The waves aren't my fault; they are just waves. The wind shifts because that it what wind does. 

I think it takes a certain amount of bravery to live this way. To live in the balance and hold a steady course. Because it means you have good boat speed. You are moving quickly along your path. You are showing up. You are gaining power. You are evolving, growing, seeing new sights, moving into new waters. You have given yourself over to the journey. You are getting far from the shore.

“Long have you timidly waded
Holding a plank by the shore, 
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, 
To jump off in the midst of the sea, 
Rise again, nod to me, shout, 
And laughingly dash with your hair.”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

 

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