I’ve been thinking about the day I went hiking in a gorgeous old chestnut forest in Southern Maryland that is protected by a local land trust. Volunteers keep the trails beautifully manicured, with small limbs trimmed back and mulch on the paths.
I felt I was relatively safe from ticks there, keeping out of underbrush, not brushing up agains branches. My boots and clothes were treated with bug-killing permethrin. I really looked forward to rambling about for an hour or so of fresh air, soaring trees, and bird song. Judging from the way he pranced along, my dog Mo was pretty excited, too.
When I got home I did all the necessary things: Stripped, threw everything in the dryer on hot for 20 minutes to kill any ticks, took a shower, washed and dried my hair, checked my body.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I found a tick sucking on my leg. Who knows where it came from. Perhaps from Mo; my vet tells me no tick-killing products are 100% effective.
It’s a myth that it takes at least 48 hours to become infected. So I knew enough to call my doctor, who immediately increased my antibiotics (I was recovering from a tick bite more than two years before and still on meds). But it was already too late.
Within days I was right back where I’d been when I crashed the first time from a tick bite, bedridden with pain and fatigue.
Now I’ve been sick for a total five years. After a second terrible struggle, I think I’m finally getting my life back.
But I’m afraid.
I think of my friend who does not step off pavement and does not have a pet, so great is her terror of getting sick again.
I think of a lovely woman I just met who told me she thinks she’s been reinfected many times because she lives in the woods—she’s been on disability for years because of so many symptoms, including the loss of her voice.
And that brings to mind science writer Pamela Weintraub, author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic. If memory serves, she and her family ultimately left the suburbs for the city to reduce the chance of re-infection.
What can I do? Environmental conservation is my passion and my life. Outdoor activities have always been at the heart of my lifestyle.
I was recovering but not in remission when that second round of infection hit. I picture my body, with my immune system straining to gain the upper hand. At last it seemed to be taking over the job antibiotics had been doing for more than two years. I was doing much better.
But when the new onslaught of new bacteria from that tick swarmed through me, my immune system just collapsed. That’s how I see it, anyway.
I do know people who are in remission and hiking again. They are super careful. Who’s to say they won’t be infected again? But so far, so good. Perhaps the risk is smaller once the body is strong again. Perhaps.
I still don’t have energy to walk far. But I think I’ll make it to remission and get back to having more normal stamina. And when that time comes, I can’t imagine not getting back outside.
I’m not sure yet how I’ll manage the risk, but it will involve adapting. Just as right now my only outdoor experience is on tick-free sailboats where I feel safe.
Because we can never escape the danger. Not in today’s world. That’s the sobering thing about ticks; they aren’t just in the woods, they’re in suburban yards and city parks. They cling to our pets and our clothes and come inside. We’ve got nothing that provides 100% protection.
So what I know for sure is that I’ll be on high alert about ticks for the rest of my life. Because, quite frankly, I’m not sure I could survive a third hellish go-round.