September 27, 2013

Big Dogs, Lyme Disease & Yoga: A Lesson in Perseverance. ~ Meryl Cohen

We all need something to hold onto in life—something that brings us peace and calm, hope in times of adversity, and balance in times of joy.

When I was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme Disease, my life changed forever.

I felt I was being catapulted off of a cliff, free falling into a pit of darkness and despair. When I hit rock bottom below, I fell onto a yoga mat. Yoga has become more than just a soft place to land; it has my wings, allowing me to fly up out of my pain and loneliness.

I was always extremely active. I showed my horses competitively, loved to run, play soccer, go for hikes with my dogs, and was very involved in school. I studied Animal Science at Cal Poly State University and concentrated on reproductive physiology and embryology. I bred horses and cattle, and managed the swine center on campus. My days were busy and full of passion. I had a strong foundation in life, and I truly loved every waking moment, both good and bad. I had a fantastic relationship with a man I loved, wonderful friends, and a promising future and career ahead of me. I had solid ground beneath my feet.

Everything changed in January of 2010 when that floor collapsed from underneath me, and sent me spiraling.

I woke up one morning with a horrible stomach ache, nausea, diarrhea and a fever. I was so violently ill, I went to the hospital and was diagnosed with stomach flu, given fluids, and sent home. What I assumed would resolve itself in a matter of days only worsened. I developed severe joint pain throughout my body. My mind, which was normally sharp and clear, began to cloud over in a way I can only describe as brain fogginess. I began to lose my memory, and I felt I was losing my mind. I couldn’t recall events from days at a time. I got lost driving in a town I had lived in for nearly five years. My depth perception disappeared and I was covered in bruises from walking into walls and door frames. Mornings, which had always been the best and brightest period of my day, became laborious as my fatigue became debilitating. My body burned, ached, stabbed with intense pain. My joints turned red, hot, and swollen.

Doctor after doctor reviewed my case with confusion. Nobody knew what was happening to my body, but it was clear something was very, very wrong.

I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease once when I was ten years old, and after seeing many doctors without any diagnosis, I decided to look into chronic Lyme Disease as the cause of my current suffering and rapid decline. What I discovered was a world of controversy surrounding tick born infections, especially in chronic form. The medical community was divided on whether or not persistent Lyme Disease exists, yet all of my symptoms made sense. They fit the puzzle.

A light bulb went off in my head: I just knew in my gut I had found my diagnosis.

While this was all happening, I was also graduating from college and moving to Alabama to be with my boyfriend of four years for the summer, prior to starting my Masters/PhD program in Mississippi. By the time I arrived in the south, I was so absolutely miserable. I cried on the phone to my friends and family, “there is something really wrong, I am so sick, just so painfully and utterly sick.”

I had found a doctor in San Francisco who is what is known as a Lyme Literate Medical Doctor (LLMD), but there was a five month waiting list, and by the time my appointment date would come around, I would be in Mississippi starting graduate school. I felt I had no choice but to stick it out to the best of ability, and attempt to start my graduate program in August of that summer, eight months after this all began.

I made it two weeks in Mississippi before making one of the hardest decisions of my life: to leave my dream program.

I was too sick at that point to do anything: to hold a water glass, to walk, to eat. I was riddled with intense pain. I spent those two weeks sobbing and grieving, because I knew the life I thought I had was dead.

I moved back in with my boyfriend and together we moved to Savannah, Georgia where he was stationed as a helicopter pilot for the Army. I then flew to California to see the LLMD I had been waiting anxiously to see. It was clear to him, I not only had Lyme Disease, but also Babesia, Bartonella, and Ehrlichia (all tick born infections). We began a long term course of intensive oral antibiotics, but I continued to decline.

As my health worsened, so did my partnership. The stress of chronic illness proved too much for our relationship, and it crumbled into nothing but the shell of two people who no longer loved one another.

I found myself feeling utterly alone and there came a point when I wanted to end my life. I loaded our handgun, walked into the bathroom, and decided to end it all. As I was sobbing, the weight of my decision weighing heavily on my shoulders, my dogs came into the bathroom and lay down at my feet.

I realized I wasn’t alone, and I needed to fight this.

My life was falling out of my hands, and I needed something to remind me of who I was. I was not the illness. I was still the strong willed, ambitious, driven, intelligent person, that I’d always been, but I couldn’t see or feel my own strength.

After my near suicide attempt, I realized I needed a resource. Something that reminded me of the person I’d always been, with or without Lyme disease. I began by doing chair yoga and stretching, learning to control my breathing and sync it with movement.

Something magical happened.

I could do all of these poses, and my mind went quiet. All I could hear was the sound of my breath. The pain never left, but it just became another thing, literally an object, and its power was gone in the moments I spent holding poses.

As treatment intensified with IV antibiotics, I began to slowly improve, and as I did so, I was able to do more yoga. It took two years of IV antibiotics to get there, but I got out of my wheelchair. I got out of bed. I got into the yoga studio.  My journey of self exploration on the yoga mat was remarkable. When holding the most intense postures, I controlled my reaction to pain, and it was empowering. Every chaturanga made me stronger. Every chest opener shined thanks for my abilities.  Every handstand gave me a different perspective. When in child’s pose, I showed love to my body, and remembered that above all, there is nothing more important in recovery than loving and respecting oneself.

Yoga gave me back a piece of myself I felt I had lost. 

It gave me back my spirit and hope, and with that came power, both physical and mental. I still had bad days mixed in with the good, and some days my body hurt, but for just that hour and a half on my mat, I felt a sense of stillness.

I am still treating intensely with IV antibiotics, as it seems every time we try to wean off of them, I relapse.

Even though I am battling to once again find the floor beneath my feet, the lessons I learned and continue to learn on my mat are guiding me through the hell that these diseases try to entice me into.

The stress of chronic illness continues to test me in every area of my life.

Relationships are a challenge, friendships have been lost, and I struggle every day trying to feel stability, to feel loved, to feel wanted, and to find direction in my life. This disease has pushed me to my limits and beyond, in ways I never knew I could survive, but I know I am stronger for each and every moment I do not succumb to sadness. I am stronger for every step I take forward, and am stronger even in the moments I slide backward.

At the end of it all, I know I have yoga as a tool.

It is not the magic bow tying my life back together, but it gives me hope that my life will once again come together, maybe not in a neat little package, but as a puzzle that I’m slowly piecing together.

In times of despair and loneliness, as well as in times of joy and peace, I can stretch, breathe, sit back into child’s pose, and for a moment, things feel settled and safe. Yoga is my lifeline, and will continue to be. When adversity hits me over the head, I simply pull out my mat, and take a breath.

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Assist. Ed: Jade Belzberg/Ed: Sara Crolick

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Meryl Cohen