by Susan Pogorzelski
When you’re finally diagnosed with Lyme disease there’s a feeling of hope. That hope can turn to pain and desperation as new treatments induce Herxheimer reactions.
“Does she have Lyme disease?” I remember my dad asking as he, my mom and I sat in the tiny exam room of a small brick house three hours from home.
My face was ashen. All I wanted at the moment was to layer my legs with wet paper towels to keep them from burning; all I needed was a few minutes of sleep, even if it meant curling up on the crinkling paper of the exam table. My ears were buzzing and my heart was racing, but I gathered what little energy I had to turn to my new doctor, silently begging for some confirmation of our suspicions.
“Oh, yes,” he replied. “And at least one of the co-infections.” He reached for a paper outlining my new treatment plan while my parents and I exchanged relieved smiles. Tears welled in my mom’s eyes; I could see the weight visibly lift from my dad’s shoulders. At last, we had answers. At last, I could start on the road to recovery.
“It’s not going to be an easy journey,” my doctor warned gently. “You’re going to feel worse before you get better.”
I nodded and listened as he explained what he meant, but I didn’t care. All I could hear were those words: “You’re going to get better, you’re going to get better.”
* * *
I should have listened to my doctor. Or at least, tried to understand what he was telling me. But I was so eager to start medication, so eager to get better—to get my life back—I didn’t care to consider what he meant by “worse.”
I’d learned all about the Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction—where the Lyme bacteria release toxins during die-off that cause an inflammatory response, worsening symptoms—during my initial research of Lyme disease. But I didn’t fully realize what that meant.
The herx reactions started almost immediately after I began my cocktail of antibiotics. Where before the fatigue made it impossible to exert energy for long, now I was sleeping 18 hours or more a day, too tired to even lift my head from the pillow. Where the joint pain and muscle aches in my legs were once barely tolerable, now I woke up crying in the middle of the night, clinging to the walls as I made my way to the Epsom salt bath because I could barely walk. Where the physical sensations were unbearable, the neurological and psychological symptoms became tortuous.
My memory seemed to float away like dandelion seeds on the wind. I couldn’t remember the words for postage stamps (“that thing you put on envelopes”) or doorknobs (“you know, that thing you use to open a door”). When I saw my best friend in the grocery store parking lot, I thought she looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember her name, never mind what she meant to me. When I read, large passages of text blurred into blocks of letters that didn’t make sense, like a foreign language I’d never learned; I remembered what a stop sign meant only after I was through the (thankfully deserted) intersection.
It only worsened.
Depression turned to desperation. Anxiety became paranoia.
I was afraid to fall asleep, the nightmares becoming so vivid. I couldn’t tell the difference between what was real and what was just a dream, and I spent half the morning trying to calm my racing heart and remind myself that I was real and the rest was only a figment of my imagination. Anxiety poured into my waking life. On the rare day I was able to make it into work, I stood huddled in a corner of the elevator, frozen by inexplicable, irrational fear when a kindly-looking man stepped in after me. At night, every creak and groan of the house sent me into a panic. I had my dog, who’s always been quick to alert me whenever someone so much as passes on the other side of the street, but there wasn’t anything he could do to dispel the fear that paralyzed me.
The knowledge that another unavoidable herx cycle was just over the horizon kept me suspended in anxiety. As the days and weeks passed, I kept reminding myself that I was killing the germs, that I was, in fact, getting better. It was cold comfort, but I was grasping for comfort wherever I could.
For six months, I fought through the deluge of symptoms each herx brought on. I tried to calm my mind through meditation and distractions. I took Epsom salt baths twice a day, and I altered my diet according to the best detox methods. Eventually, the pain began to ease and the fatigue let up. Slowly, words returned—there when I called for them—and though the nightmares lingered when I woke in the morning, I knew they were just fading dreams.
* * *
It took six months for those heavy herx reactions to abate. Even now, nearly five years and one relapse later, it’s hard to think about how I ever got through those days. When I relapsed, that same fear plagued me once again. I wondered if it would be that bad again, wondered if I could survive it a second time.
It was. And I did.
My herxes now seem mild in comparison: a few days recovering in bed, some muscle aches that are soothed with baths, words that still don’t come easily but aren’t lost completely. I recognize it now as the price to pay for eradicating the germs from the body—germs that desperately try to cling to their host with everything they’ve got, the herxes serving as one last moment of triumph, begging us to give up and give in.
We’re stronger than that. We’re stronger than the Lyme.
Looking back at what I went through those first six months, I’m reminded how brave we are for enduring such affliction, with only the scant knowledge that we’re getting better despite the pain to keep us going.
“It’s not going to be an easy journey,” I can still hear my doctor saying.
No. But we’ll be braver for it.
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.
Susan Pogorzelski is the author of “The Last Letter,” a semi-autobiographic novel about her struggle to find a Lyme diagnosis and subsequent journey through recovery.