By Mira Carroll
Image Credit: Elaine Mays
Lyme pounced when I was vulnerable, in 2011, a year when I did a little too much. My immune system surely faltered under the weight of my normal workload, plus that of publishing my first book, and three significant trips — one to each coast and a third across the pond.
The overt assault started with a bad case of “the flu” on the tail-end of a week at a California retreat where deer (and likely, ticks) were ever present. The significance of this timing flew under my radar. In the aftermath, the microbes surreptitiously installed a fortress inside me, using weakness and prior injury for cover.
Around the same time, I had landed in menopause, the life stage I was calling my “less extreme youth,” and my whole body was starting to deteriorate. The diet and exercise habits I’d honed to stay slim stopped working, and I gained weight for no reason. Not a lot of weight, but noticeable on my small frame. It disturbed me, so I mentioned it at my annual physical.
The doctor opined that the only thing that works for women in my age bracket is extreme dieting and exercise. But I couldn’t fathom such a plan — I’d noticed I was experiencing more fatigue lately, and the mere mention of extreme exercise set off sirens in my joints. Besides, “extreme dieting” sounded unhealthy. My suspicions chimed in: Maybe I was just aging badly?
Still, aware of many sparkling, energetic oldsters, I knew the “just getting old” hypothesis had to be wrong. Until recently, I had enjoyed vibrant good health that I credit to several good habits. I kept my weight down, gave up smoking and drinking many years before, and exercised regularly. I had been a vegetarian for more than 35 years, and had stopped consuming most processed foods. I made sure to consume food and drink that also gave me pleasure — no cardboard food substitutes and nothing solely because “it’s good for you.” You could call it a dynamic, sustainable diet.
My work was fulfilling, too. As a massage therapist and spiritual counselor, I had the privilege of helping others find their way to feeling better. I was spiritual and had cultivated positive mental habits. I had close, supportive friends and beloved animal companions.
“I knew the ‘just getting old’ hypothesis had to be wrong.”
And yet my body no longer responded to this nurturing. Instead, I slowly got worse, with stiffening muscles, roving painful joints, creeping brain fog, and a shrinking capacity for stress of any kind. Things I’d been able to take in stride became more irritating, and my fuse felt perilously short.
Soon other symptoms mushroomed: seasonal allergies, and an allergy to some preservative in multiple eye products. Persistent floaters. Difficulty fully emptying my bladder. My cognitive abilities also took a hit, as I had more trouble recalling words (especially when speaking), limited short-term memory, and less ability to learn and remember new things. Then came neuropathy in one arm, then one leg, and finally, a crashing fatigue with muscle weakness that materialized with customary (to me) exertions.
Eventually my entire body felt inflamed. I woke up tired every morning, mentally and muscularly. My eyelids looked like I’d just emerged from a 12-hour, face-down sleep. It got so bad that holding my body upright felt like work. Whatever I did wiped me out sooner or later.
Being self-employed, I couldn’t afford extended exhaustion, so I contracted my world. I curtailed all optional activities and stuck close to home. I drank more coffee. I quit my most strenuous and stressful work, expecting to recover in the resulting ease. I limited my schedule to only one client per day. I added or increased supplements for joints and overall health. I tackled my diet. Over a couple of years, I cut out carrageenan (a common food additive), wheat/gluten, corn, and peanuts, hoping I’d finally find the answer in food sensitivities.
These measures brought some improvement, but I still felt bad with a lot of pain. A pound or two came off, but nothing fixed my ailing mind and body. I skirted stressors like a water-phobic child evades a bath. It felt like there was three feet of clear, rubbery gel between the world and me. There was a hitch of pain and difficulty to little things: crouching down to pick up a cat, pouring from a full pitcher, going up and down stairs. Somewhere along the way, life had become hard.
But I wasn’t paying for my partying past; I was settling some bug’s bar tab. Undiagnosed chronic Lyme disease had conga-lined me into the clink with no notice or formal charges. It had been happening for six years. The cell door was swinging shut, yet I didn’t know what country I was in, much less the path to release.
Lyme disease, one of several common stealth microbe infections, is enemy territory. Symptoms can flare and recede as the bacteria dart around the body using guerrilla tactics. If, like me, you tend to minimize what’s not happening right now as well as tune out routine impediments, it can sneak up on you. I found myself infiltrated and surrounded.
Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme’s stealth microbe, punished capriciously. It poisoned my food, starved my body of energy, and hooded me in brain fog. It sabotaged my sleep. It sprinkled pain dust on my insides. It let me out on a short tether only to work, leaving me spent and wondering how long I’d be able to keep it up.
By the time I was sure something was wrong, a single explanation for my many diverse symptoms was hard to come by. No one looked at all of them as possibly related, including myself. I thought I was full of arthritis, but imaging showed it was “mild” and “age appropriate.” I worried about my numb arm and leg, but EMG testing asserted my nerves were fine. Aside from my usual high cholesterol, I had normal blood values on standard tests.
If you judge me by my symptoms, I’m infected with Borrelia and Mycoplasma>. Considering my history of cat scratches, I should also have Bartonella, but physical manifestations have not specifically suggested it. I haven’t had a positive Western Blot assay for Borrelia or any coinfection. By the time I was tested, my body may have lacked the ability to produce enough antibodies to trigger a response.
“Like a shrewd abuser, Lyme disease punches where it doesn’t show.”
My gamma globulin — immune proteins that generate antibodies — was low. Borrelia and coinfections hack the immune system and turn it to their purposes; disrupted antibody production is one havoc these masterful bacteria can cause. I did have some laboratory results associated with Lyme disease — low CD57 and high TGF-Beta 1 — but these are not diagnostic in themselves. And how can a body be full of inflammation, yet C-reactive protein values are normal?
It is in this sense that my good health almost cost me everything, because standard lab tests didn’t yield results that prompted my doctors to consider infectious disease. Instead, these tests also functioned as a cover for Lyme. Like a shrewd abuser, Lyme disease punches where it doesn’t show. I was sick, but from the outside my life looked normal.
The stories you read about Lyme don’t typically portray an undramatic decline like mine. Most medical information streams seem preoccupied with the bulls-eye rash, doxycycline, and new ways to “eradicate” Borrelia with antibiotics. The popular press loves dramatic, life-and-death Lyme stories. Rightly so — they’re compelling because of the terrible consequences, and it’s important for us to understand that Lyme et. al. (coinfections) can be both highly debilitating and fatal.
But there is a vast sea of lesser suffering. Due to poor diagnostics and unsuited treatment of stealth microbe infections, many of us are more quietly sick. Countless lives are severely limited, and millions of healthcare dollars are wasted on treatments aimed in the wrong direction. And then there are the sick people offered nothing but dismissal, often with a psychiatric referral.
Enter my liberators, the gifts of nature and Dr. Bill Rawls.
Rather than fling my shrinking resources at the sieve of a positive laboratory test, I chose to invest in my health. By then I’d had undiagnosed Lyme for at least six years; to wait longer for proof that might never come while getting sicker made no sense. I began Dr. Rawls’ herbal protocol, tailored for symptoms like mine. It has been my core protocol for almost a year and a half; I’ve also added other herbs as appropriate.
The first chains to loosen were the dastardly brain fog. I’d been taking Dr. Rawls’ protocol for three months when I added chlorella for detox. Around the same time, I also added chia seeds to my diet, one tablespoon per day. Three weeks into this expanded protocol I had a moment of mental clarity. Standing in my kitchen that morning I thought: This is how I used to feel. Clear-headed. Brain power rumbling and ready to roar.
It didn’t last, but it lifted me. This tiny event could have been strung with lights and announced by fanfare, it was so foreign to my experience the past many years. In the next several months I had more and longer clear-headed periods until, at about nine months on continuous herbal therapy, the cloud around my mind was gone.
My health on herbs has leapt from caged to free. It’s the difference between store brand instant decaf coffee with lukewarm non-fat milk and a fresh, coffee-bar, full-fat, turbo-charged latte. I wake up with energy for life. I no longer hold the walls to protect my knees while descending stairs. The stiffness caused by being still is all but gone, and so is the bent-over crone who used to hobble up from sofas, chairs and bed.
I’ve lost 10 pounds without dieting. I can do gentle yoga without triggering pain. Overall, pain is greatly decreased and manageable — most days I forget about it most of the time. Viral nerve pain still comes and goes, but may be settling down. What a contrast to the achy, roving pain of active Lyme disease.
Dr. Rawls’ herbal protocol works best with his supportive diet — the notion that diet is irrelevant to healing is naïve at best. The raw materials (and detritus) from what we eat can’t be separated from health, so diet is the other key part of my protocol. I choose foods that support my healing, and avoid those that are problematic, especially highly-processed fake foods and engineered components the human body doesn’t recognize as nutrients.
It bears mentioning that even though I’m gluten- and corn-free, I still get to eat pizza, thanks to the tasty cauliflower crusts available in the freezer section. All this said, my diet isn’t perfect and probably never will be. I choose to be at peace with that. The perfect part of humanity isn’t in how well we do what we do, it’s in what God created. That perfection is an intrinsic gift we each can choose to cover up or let shine.
I’ve been able to use an obsessive-compulsive energy, a common facet of chronic Lyme, to my benefit. Like many others, I obsessively read about Lyme disease. (In our defense, people with Lyme are in critical need of information most doctors don’t have — yet. I was confused until I found Dr. Rawls’ comprehensive and readable book, Unlocking Lyme, which became my core resource.)
“Due to poor diagnostics and unsuited treatment of stealth microbe infections, many of us are more quietly sick.”
Unlike some other methods, Dr. Rawls’ protocol doesn’t require me to devote all my waking hours to the healing protocol. I’m in control of my treatment, which gives me more control in life. I’m able to stay at home, see clients, handle important responsibilities, and care for my two cats. (Had I known the future, I’d have named them “Bart” and “Ella.”)
Although some days were very challenging, I’ve been able to work throughout my illness. Herbs haven’t caused such bad side effects that I had to give up and just be sick for weeks, months, or years. I can safely stop any of them at any time. Being in charge of my own schedule is important to my life working while taking treatment, but the gentler nature of herbal therapy is key.
Herbs are one of God’s gifts to humankind, for our healing, comfort, and pleasure. We can choose to embrace this gift, or insist that our own creations are better. With pure, high-quality supplements, we can benefit from modern technologies that make herbs even more effective, easy to use, and accessible to inhabitants of the concrete jungles and far away corners.
I’m grateful for the steady, reassuring voice of Dr. Rawls in Lyme’s swamp of complexity and contradiction. All the information and resources his team puts together for our use is a priceless gift.
The improvement in my health over 18 months is amazing! My digestion is fully recovered from the ill effects of five weeks of antibiotic treatment. My biggest sleeping problems are bedtime (my bad) and when I wake up (my indoor kitty’s one fault). Before, my body woke me up because all comfortable positions had expired after six hours horizontal.
My hands don’t hurt when I play the piano anymore. My memory may be sub-par, but an ease has returned to my writing process. If I’ve lost a word, Google is easy to find. I start each client session full of energy, and no longer fear that I’ll crash before it’s complete. My “oomph” is great!
“Without the wise and kind healing of herbs, life as I’ve known it would have been over.”
My stamina is still precarious, though. Too much of any kind of stress can cause a major crash. At least now I recognize some warning signs. If I feel sleepy during the day and a little movement doesn’t erase it, I’m wise to take a nap. Another early sign I’m close to the edge of exhaustion is weakness in my thigh muscles.
I use this information to not push myself, and soon my strength will return. The stealth microbe takeover didn’t happen overnight, and I don’t expect such a formidable foe to let go overnight.
Without the wise and kind healing of herbs, life as I’ve known it would have been over. I was on track to be ruined financially while my mind and body painfully crumbled. I know now that the devastation of loss is surmountable. Loss always comes with gifts we can choose to claim. Nonetheless, I am grateful beyond words that I didn’t have to experience the sweeping losses of unchecked Lyme disease.
Author bio: Mira Carroll is a writer, spiritual counselor, and massage therapist, and author of the book Healing Loss: Choose Love Now.