Last summer I spent four incredible months in the south of France, interning and teaching yoga at an international Buddhist meditation center.
Surrounded by pristine natural settings and a slew of hyper-mindful people, the obvious assumption (or so I thought) was that I would return home from this adventure with some marvelous level of self-awareness; that through my meditational diligence I would finally be rewarded with that ever-elusive absolute understanding of the world I’d read and heard so much about.
Four months of work, two hours of meditation daily—this was surely adequate time to sort everything out, right? Absolutely, I thought. Definitely. Enlightenment was mine.
What I returned with, however, was not some innate understanding of the processes of the universe, but a nasty spirochetal infection transmitted by the bite of a spider I got during my stay instead: Lyme disease. That lovely and increasingly common disease also sometimes affectionately known as Life Chaos, or, if you like, Absolute Goddamn Physical and Emotional Insanity.
In early September I finished my internship, and traveled north from the center to stay a night in Paris, all set to fly out to Chile the next morning. The plan was to go complete an extended apprenticeship with a shaman in the Andes, and although I was excited about this potential for new adventure, I had begun to feel very strange in the couple weeks prior. Restless sleep, knee pains, eye inflammation—odd symptoms started to pop up that I had never experienced before, and while I was doing my best to ignore them or chalk them up to shaky nerves, they just kept rising in both intensity and frequency.
And then that night in Paris, drinking wine on a patio overlooking the city, I felt an intense burning sensation crawling up the left side of my body. Pulling up my pant leg in slightly drunken curiosity I discovered a scary tell-tale ring around a bite I had procured over a month before: a large bulls-eye rash had formed around the entire side of my left calf, leaving the whole leg red, inflamed and extremely painful.
To put it lightly, I lost it.
I knew clearly what this symptom—coupled with the others I had been having—meant, and it was not good. Like, really not good.
You know that feeling you get right before you know something horrible is going to happen? That sinking, sickly sensation of doom, even if you can’t quite pinpoint what it is you’re anticipating? Uh-huh… right then that took over every cell of me. Every part of my body was filled with dread.
And so: flight changed, life altered, plans adjusted. Enlightenment? Forget it. This was a full on freak out zone. Every ounce of zen that had been meticulously accumulated and pocketed away over the last four months was obliterated in an instant.
I immediately switched my ticket to fly back to San Francisco instead of Santiago and canceled the apprenticeship, unsure of what that choice would bring but certain that it would be a more logical one than heading south where I neither spoke the language nor knew just about anyone. And yet, I had no visa to reenter the states when I got back there, no plans, no job, no home left in San Francisco. I suppose it was just an automatic reaction to head back here where I had friends and support when faced with the scary proposition of such an intense disease, but I can’t even begin to tell you how lost and afraid I was; how unsure everything in my world had suddenly become.
I knew people who had been infected with Lyme already—people who dealt with mind-numbing pain on a daily basis, perpetual emotional imbalance, mental sludge, full-on life disability, even the potential of death. I began to run the Google gamut on a French keyboard with a huge glass (bottle) of Pinot Noir as my companion, freaking myself out further with pictures of those paralyzed by the neurological symptoms, mountains of medications, never-ending suffering. The plane ride home consisted of eight hours of worst-case scenario exploration, coupled with the obvious stress of not knowing what life would hold for me once I arrived back in the States. By the time I landed I was an utter and complete mess. As if to give my ego the one-two punch it deserved, I landed in North America with exactly the opposite to that which I had assumed would happen.
Enlightened zen hero? Um, no. Basket case.
Somehow—quite incredibly—I found a place to live, was given a visa, and tracked down a job all before the symptoms really started to set in. What I thought might be the extent of them—that which I had been experiencing in France—turned out to be just the icing on a very big cake of crazy. Within weeks my knees and joints were swollen and sometimes entirely unusable, I was experiencing chronic migraines and dizziness whenever I moved too quickly, and sleep—that which my body and mind wanted more than anything—gave me the runaround nightly, leaving each day an exhausted, foggy and miserable experience.
This was not just any disease, I soon realized; oh no, this was a whole-body multi-angled intelligent assault, one that would seemingly stop at nothing to unbalance the entirety of my body and mind and spirit.
You see, Lyme bugs have this amazing ability to massively mess with just about every hormonal pathway and neurological function in your body. Amongst their many and diverse talents, they prevent the creation and use of thyroid hormones (so you’re cold and low all the time, and you get to gain weight too. Fun!), reduce the availability of serotonin and dopamine in your brain (so you can’t focus and kinda hate people all the time. Super fun!), and then release a ton of ammonia and acetaldehyde into your system (so your joints swell, your brain swells, your eyes swell, and when you cry it’s like bleach is coming out of your retinas. This was not fun. This was absolutely goddamn awful).
I passed out in Whole Foods one day.
I started speaking backwards and mixing up my words even though it all sounded relatively fine in my head (if you count a brain full of cotton balls as ‘fine’).
I lost the feeling in my hands and feet quite regularly, and sometimes couldn’t feel the entire left side of my face.
Yeah… I got—to put it lightly—really, really sick.
Because I had been diagnosed almost two months after getting the actual bite, and Lyme needs to be treated in the first couple weeks with antibiotics in order to be successfully eradicated, the options for treatment were either years and years of antibiotics (according to conventional doctors) or a combination of the allopathic route for a short time with herbal and homeopathic concoctions to finish off the job. These are no regular bacterium you’re dealing with here though—Lyme has an intelligence to it that allows the spirochetes to avoid destruction when they sense a hostile environment, meaning that treatment often will be required for 18 months or longer in order to see change, as you have to wait until the suckers come out of hiding so you can zap ‘em. So I took the antibiotics, I took the herbs, I took the vitamins, the detox support, the homeopathy and the mushrooms—you name it, I ingested it. I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars every month on various potential healing aids, some of which seemed to temporarily help for a bit, but none of it seemed to really stick. I was exhausted, frustrated, miserable, and completely confused. There seemed to be no end in site for any of it either, and that awareness was almost enough to make me give up.
And then something changed.
No, you know what? Not something changed, everything changed. My whole world flipped upside down in a single night, two months in, sitting at my computer crying bleachy tears and lamenting my bad fortune.
Lost and despondent amongst bottles of pills and potions on my kitchen table, I stumbled across a quote from Einstein on a site somewhere. In his incredible brilliance, he had apparently once said:
"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."
Perhaps the time was just right for me to hear it. Perhaps I had been blown so wide open by the pain and distress of the disease that I was finally ready to incorporate this knowing into my experience (cause I’m pretty sure that I had read that quote before, but it never had near the effect that it did in that moment). Whatever it was that made that statement so profound, instantly everything in me shifted. Every part of this, every aspect of this disease—of my life as a whole—evolved into a place I couldn’t quite yet understand, and this profound sense of ease came over me, ammonia streaming down my face and all.
What if this was a miracle? I quite obviously (as most of us do, I think) associated miracles with something positive, and the time I was having with Lyme so far was about as far from positive as I could imagine. But, just hypothetically, my brain seemed to be trying on this idea for size.
What if me getting this disease—being this low and ill and pained and absolutely wasted—was actually something for my benefit, something that was meant to happen, something that had greater meaning than it first appeared to have? What if these little Lyme bastards aren’t something bad or terrible that has happened to me, but rather some kind of goofy gift from the world that I can’t quite yet understand? Could I believe that? Would it help this process at all to do so? What would that even look like to live that way with this?
There was a bizarre lightness to these thoughts, though their appearance was coupled with intense internal emotional and psychological resistance. It’s not an easy feat to believe in the benevolence of the universe when you can’t stand up without incredible pain or make a complete sentence, and yet I knew that this was the only way out of it all for me. I had to find the miracle in it.
Now granted, this was not an entirely new thought. Anyone who’s been to a yoga class has likely been exposed to such a perspective, and I’d tried to live this truth as best I could up until then. I had been able, historically, to appreciate that view for most things in my life that had already happened, finding great comfort in choosing to believe that my crappy ex-boyfriend or failed job were blessings in disguise, and even in the present moment I could find appreciation for mildly difficult things or situations on most days (sometimes in retrospect), thinking myself ever so enlightened for being able to do so. But what Einstein was implying is that there is no grey area in this approach, and no 20/20 hindsight in your life experience: either you’re in with both feet, living that truth and trusting that everything—everything—is miraculous as it happens, or you’re not doing it at all. You don’t get to pick and choose to say that these nice things over here get to be miracles while that junk over there or back then doesn’t cut it, and you don’t get to do this after the fact. This is the place your mind stays in, every day, forever, no matter what comes your way. Even if Lyme disease comes your way. Even if cancer comes your way. Even if the worst thing you can ever imagine comes your way. Everything is seen as a miracle.
And so then, what does that mean?
According to the dictionary (cause, you know, I live my life by dictionary definitions), a miracle is defined as “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is considered to be divine.”
Um… surprising and welcome? Divine? Lyme disease?!?
You’ve got to be kidding me.
However, after that night at the kitchen table instead of spending all my time reading horror stories about the pain and damage caused by Lyme, I began exploring other blogs and experiences people reported from an empowered perspective; writings on how they too had reached this point of experience and then utilized the situation as an opportunity for growth and awareness.
All of a sudden Lyme became a teacher, a great message from somewhere, here to help me on my path, not to damage me irreversibly. That arrogance with which I boarded the plane to France? That impatience and profound egotistical assuming nature?—that was its target, I soon realized. That was why it was showing up now: to pull my inflated head down to size, where it needed to be. To help me see the error of my arrogance.
And the forced slowing down the illness brought? The pain and mental discord? Well, quite honestly the level of impatience that I had operated with before getting sick would have astounded you. Even after years of yoga practice I still found myself rushing through life, perpetually unsatisfied with the successes and experiences I was having, as they just seemed too small, too slow, too insignificant. But now, crippled by this experience and with so much crazy pain and internal anarchy, I just couldn’t expect to go fast anymore.
… nor could I expect other people to go fast or accomplish prodigious things either, because the basic reality was that, if they spoke too quickly, I felt like I was having an aneurysm.
From this perspective, life with Lyme became a process of patience and compassion, both for myself and for the people around me. No longer could I approach the path I was on with aversion and hurriedness, because it just wouldn’t work. I had to take naps. I had to sleep in. I was suddenly forced to live day by day and to speak honestly and compassionately with both my body and mind as well as the world around me.
I became, in short, a much nicer person. A much more patient person.
An increasingly aware and balanced person, moreso than ever before.
And, not surprisingly, the symptoms started to fade. Not that I was concerned with the speed of them (now being all patient and compassionate and whatnot), but they faded pretty darn fast. That quantum-leap healing stuff you might hear about? Yeah, that happened.
And so, is it over yet? It’s almost a year later, so how am I now?
It’s up and down, honestly. I apparently don’t have an active Lyme infection anymore according to the healers I work with, but am now just dealing with the ongoing damages done to various systems of my body. On the days that I feel better, I am more balanced, conscious and energetic (but in a un-frenetic way) than I was before getting sick. And these, thankfully, are becoming more numerous while the rough days decrease. And while the rough days are trying—still tired, headachey and pained—they are no longer “bad” days. They are days that show up when I have usually tried to push myself too hard in the week before, or when I forgot to spend some time in nature or make art or just enjoy the beauty around me. I swear I’m not a masochist, but I see my symptoms now not as punishment or something wrong, but this loving, intelligent guidance that will continually inform me when I’m not living my truth. They don’t happen if I’m kind, if I’m calm, if I take care of myself and others with love and appreciation, and only get really difficult if I stray off this path. With that outcome in mind, how could they be considered anything but loving, anything other than benevolent?
This disease has been nothing short of miraculous. It has been a surprising and most welcome event.
I know, thanks to this experience, that every disease, every experience can do the same, and this is actually the point in everything uncomfortable that has ever happened: it is all here to show us where we’re moving off course, to remind us that the point of being here is to evolve into more compassionate, mature, powerful beings, and getting sick or having relationships fall apart or what have you are all just feedback from life, attempting to drive us in the right direction. Illness is like a big, red, scary, flashing traffic sign right before the road before us runs off a cliff, there to yell “HELLO BUDDY, WAKE UP!” to someone who has fallen asleep at the wheel.
Perhaps you approach this with skepticism and want to hold on to the belief that life is trying to actually get you down in certain circumstances; that perhaps you can believe in the potential of continuous miracles only with the good stuff—babies born, butterflies transformed, first bloom of spring—or maybe you can stretch that to even the slightly bad stuff—getting fired, bad breakups—but will go no further, and especially refuse to include the really sh*tty parts like sickness and death.
Well, that’s up to you. But I figure the reality is that you’re in charge of the thoughts that go through your head, and so why not just choose to believe that life is trying to build me up, not break me down? Either way, the outcome is going to be the same (illness, difficulties, death—can’t escape ‘em), so it seems silly to allow anything in my head other than good thoughts. Appreciative thoughts. Miraculous thoughts. Thoughts that empower my experience so that life becomes a process of opportunities and support rather than intentional pain and suffering.
People who have spontaneous remissions from cancer, who heal from terrible diseases or get themselves out of horrible situations collectively all attribute their success to a single thing: changing their belief system to incorporate a sense of trust and gratitude for the situation that they’re in. To see their discomfort or disease not as a random terrible occurrence or as punishment for choices made, but as a miracle. They are awakened from victimhood by an overwhelming sensation of divinity or acceptance, and then—poof—everything changes.
And you know, we’re all capable of this. You know you’re capable of this.
For showing me this way, this perspective, I am eternally grateful to my little spirochete frenemies, and indeed for every difficult situation or relationship that has ever shown up. From the wisdom gained in this experience not only do I get to spend my time counseling and coaching people through their own diagnosis of Lyme or other diseases now, but I have found myself kinder, more balanced and more aware in ways four months of meditation never came close to.
"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." - Albert Einstein
(Go for the latter.)