After months of being severely limited by Lyme – worn out by an hour or two of daily activities and resigned to holding court on my red sofa for most of my waking hours – I am enjoying a period of respite from herxing between treatments as I build up my immune system for the next big round of IV antibiotics. Mind you, at the moment I still only have maybe a quarter of a tank of gas per day to run on, but that’s enough to get me a fraction beyond just the basics. It’s enough to allow me to drive myself to the weekend house all by myself on better days when I’ve planned well, which means an incredible sense of freedom. The first day, I settled in to read a stack of library books and a bagful of New Yorkers and simply…rest. But yesterday I was seized by the exuberance of the season and went to the hardware store to pick up a small shovel and hot pink petunias. I’d been itching to enjoy a rite of spring I first learned from my mother: turning over the sun-warmed earth and pressing annuals gently down into the dirt to thrive and cheer me all summer long. It’s something I’ve not had the energy to do for two years. There’s something different now: an incongruous element of terror. That’s right, terror. You may have felt it yourself if infections from ticks are ruining your life at the moment, or have in the past. In fact, I have a dear friend who has resolved never to step off of concrete again. After the hell we’ve been living through, I get that. We must each decide for ourselves about whether, when, or how we risk tick exposure. Because—make no mistake—the risk is always there. We have no foolproof method for preventing tick bites except total avoidance. We can only reduce the risk; we can’t eliminate it. I grew up on a Virginia farm with a father who was an outdoorsman and a mother whose supreme passion was digging in her extensive flower beds; the choice to remain on concrete seems untenable to me. But I know full well that these days it’s quite possible I’m stepping out into the garden of evil. So while I was at the hardware store, I asked a salesman to show me where I could find the permethrin, a tick-killing chemical you spray on your clothes and shoes (never on your skin). Once it dries, put on those clothes and you’ve reduced the tick-bite threat considerably. The puzzled salesman asked, “What’s that? I never heard of it.” I replied, “I have Lyme disease; permethrin kills ticks.” “Oh yeah,” he says, “Frank will know about that. You should hear how sick he’s been with the Lyme.” Indeed, as Frank showed me to the aisle, he had a story of suffering to tell like those I hear almost every day, everywhere I go. Another reminder of how prevalent tick-borne illness is in my Maryland and Virginia haunts. Chastened by the encounter, I took my plants and tools and went back to the house. I gazed at the yard and decided to wait a day to put them in. To get more energy. And to get my nerve up. Good thing I turned in; I crashed in bed at 8 p.m. and didn’t rise until 11 this morning, after waking many times in the night because of aching legs and knees. How easy it is to do too much when your body is fighting infection and you just want to be active. The sparkling sunny day called to me, though. Bolstered by three cups of strong coffee
made in the French press—I know, I know, but take away sugar and alcohol, and what vice is left?—I went outside and set to work, pushing the shovel into the earth and bending to put each petunia in its place. I paused frequently, feeling or imagining itching spots on my legs… and feeling panic that ticks might be climbing on me. I know that black-legged ticks are the size of poppy-seeds. But there were none that I could see. On the other hand, I did find immense, pleasure in being outside. I reveled in the primal energy of spring surging through me as the sun touched my skin and the smell of rich, life-giving earth rose up around me. Stepping back after tucking in the last of two dozen petunias, I experienced such a deep sense of satisfaction for a job well done. And astonishment when I recognized how seldom I’ve felt that way in the past several years. That hour of gardening gave me one of the biggest psychological boosts in recent memory. But at the same time, a thread of fear ran through me, and I was eager to ditch my clothes and shower. I went inside and stripped in the laundry room (not upstairs, lest any ticks fell off my clothes to lurk and climb back onto me later). I popped my clothes into the dryer; a high school student recently reported that just five minutes on high annihilates ticks. Then I went upstairs to check myself all over. Nada. I got in the shower, scrubbed down, rubbed myself dry with a rough towel I hoped would rub off any crawlers, and checked myself again. Still nothing I could see. Into the dryer went the towel. Now I’m lying in bed, worn out for the day but more content that I have been in ages. I’ll admit it, the nagging little thought that I missed one hangs over me. Every now and then I feel something on my skin, and throw back the covers to look. But I am at peace with my decision. For me, life isn’t worth living without being outdoors doing the things I love most in this world. When I feel well enough, I hope I will resume regular gardening and hiking and birding. Nature plays too big role in my well-being to step back from it. I don’t want to think of my garden as a place of evil. I don’t want the bad bacteria carried by ticks to win. I can’t be sure, but I’m betting on the chance that a smart, careful approach to prevention can trump the evil in the garden of my life. If you are struggling with the question of whether to garden or hike or otherwise be out in nature, share your thoughts in the “reply” box. UPDATE: I look back on that day often and think of the joy I experienced, but now believe I ventured into the yard much too soon. I’ve seen so much suffering that I no longer believe the benefits of “enjoying” the outdoors while still sick is worth such risk. It is, however, worth the wait til wellness comes.