Progress not perfection

I am just back from the climbing gym. Once again, I am suddenly climbing significantly harder than I have been: harder grades, more climbs in a session and a longer session. It is so exciting to move this fluidly and freely. Not just because I am progressing and progress is awesome (I am definitely a part of the “Aim for progress not perfection” camp!) but because, for so long, I couldn’t progress. For years, I never got beyond beginner level at anything: I could not learn anything new and I had forgotten much of what I had once known. This is your brain (and body) on Lyme. No forward progress. Having to learn the same things over and over and over. And the body, too. It doesn’t heal well, recover well and doesn’t build muscle memory. Lyme, besides the obvious reasons, is an incredibly frustrating disease to have. Everything I wanted to do, I plateaued at, but at the very initial stages of learning it. I don’t know how many beginning salsa, Spanish and guitar classes I took in the time that I was really sick.

Over the past year, I’ve been steadily getting better, in leaps and bounds, rather than in the meager and bitter steps forward I had been used to before. And climbing progress is a huge way of knowing just how much better I am. I have a few climbing trips coming up and I can not wait to see how I can do on the rock.

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Running in the rain

Running in the rain used to be one of my favorite things to do. I start out and it’s cold and the drops are like cold spikes against your skin but as I go, I warm up, and the drops are soft and cooling against my skin. There is something to be said, too, for being out in the rain without layers of clothes against getting cold or wet, with my legs bare and shoes soaking wet and to still be running in it.

I say it running in the rain used to be one of my favorite things to do but then I got Lyme and couldn’t withstand getting cold, much less wet. My doctors ordered me to stop running because the blood-brain barrier becomes permeable to the Lyme spirochete with cardio. I didn’t run for eight years. I wrapped myself up in 700 fill down vest in 90 degree weather. I lived small and tight and cautious.

I started running again, a year or two ago, but I’ve been running as sporadically as I’ve been writing this blog. Then the rains came. The first storms had me running to buy rainbows, umbrella, rain gear to bike in. Clothes that would make me impermeable to the wet and cold. The next storms came rolling through and I went out walking in it, hesitantly. Would I get sick? Would my body collapse under the strain of cold layered over illness? Would this be the one thing too much that would knock me by the wayside? Nope. I’ve apparently tip the scale back from collapse to resiliency.

Then storms came through again this week and I went out running in them, without layers of ranger. Just me, shorts and the rain. Rain soaked my hair and ran down my back, my legs were spattered with mud and my shoes go so wet that I didn’t hesitate to run through puddles. I heated up and the rain was a welcome cooling.

My shoes are still drying in the hallway from yesterdays run and my tulips are blossoming in my window box.

Catching the Heart Up with the Body

When I was 24, first diagnosed with Lyme, suddenly living in suburbia with my parents and swallowing down more pills each day than I had taken my entire life, I couldn’t let myself fully know how sick I was. If I did, I wouldn’t have been able to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So I told myself, daily, that I would be back to life on my terms in a few months, six at the most.

Nine months later, I had a P.I.C.C. line in and was on I.V. antibiotics. I ate breakfast and dinner with my drip going. Still, I told myself that I would be able to pick up where I had left off from my life in NYC. Ok, I had told myself a year in to living back in suburbia, I’ll be back to life in six more months, in another year, tops.

But it takes time to get as sick as I did and it would take another decade to get fully better. Over the years, I spent most of my time and money and energy trying to get better. Over the years, I slowly stripped away symptoms as I unraveled the layers of illnesses. I lived a half-life out of necessity. My health, or my approximation of it, was in delicate balance. If I pushed too hard in any aspect of my life, my health would collapse. I felt like a house of cards and the slightest thing outside of my routine—a missed meal, a forgotten hat and scarf on a cold day, a too late night, relationship strife—would knock me down.

I spent a lot of time in bed, waiting. I held myself back from living as hard as I wanted to, telling myself that once I was healthy, I’d have everything.

During that decade of living small and contained, I told myself that I would have everything once I had my health. I told myself that it wouldn’t matter how little I had done over the years; once I had my health I could approach everything in life with the vigor I wanted to. Now I am where I once only dreamed of being and feeling. And though life without illness is so much better and easier and thought I am doing everything that I want to be doing, I am surprised to find that the underlying emotions for me are a dull sadness and defeat. It is because, only now, in being healthy, do I understand just how very sick I was and can I know just how much I missed out on.

I am surprised to find that I am not just living in a state of elated joy, which is what I thought that I’d be doing once I got better. I’d have everything, remember? Of course I have to work through the dull sadness of loss. I fill the time that used to be filled with taking care of myself with meditation and long walks and fostering friendships. I am taking it easy and gently this winter and making sure to cook up soups and stews and ciders that are rich in color, scent and taste.

Gaining Strength and Getting Better

Last night I climbed 5.11a* and b at the gym, grades that I never thought I’d be able to climb. Grades that I thought of as the gateway levels to solid outdoor climbing. Two months ago, I was just breaching 5.10a and two weeks ago, I began solidly climbing 5.10d. I am gaining strength and ability rapidly and it feels so good.

One of the classic tells of Lyme Disease is the inability to learn anything new or to be able to gain strength. When I had Lyme Disease, I felt like I was running in place. No matter how much I tried, my life was stagnant. I was too sick to go out so my social life was whittled down to a very few friends; I never took on a full-time work load, and; while I took salsa dancing lessons and Spanish classes and started yoga, I never got past a strong beginner level. I’d repeat beginning level classes over and over, never retaining anything I’d been exposed to before. It took months to learn the basics and I formed no memories of the things I was trying to learn beyond the basics.

Lyme Disease also challenges the body to such an extent that it doesn’t recover from workouts or injury and doesn’t build strength. I had no idea what I was missing until the past few months where I have flown through climbing and yoga levels. In the past, it would take me three or four days to recover from a never-too-challenging workout; now, I feel recovered and refreshed in half a day.

I’d started rock climbing several times during my decade of Lyme disease. I loved it but never climbed past 5.8. Two years ago, when I started climbing again, once I got to 5.9, I stayed there for well over a year. Now, suddenly, I climbing a level that had seemed forever barred off to me. Being well is incredible.

*and for those of you who don’t know, climbs are ranked from beginning at 5.6 and 5.7. after 5.9, they add in letters: 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c, 5.10d then 5.11a-d and so on