Rollin’ With the Flow

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Enjoying an on-water day in the great wide open.

From my third birthday until present day, I’ve consistently been involved in various types of athletic training. And I was good. First-place-gold-medal-get-yourself-on-the-podium good. Key word being “was.” Over the past several years, I’d noticed a rapid, steady decline in everything. While I initially chalked the changes up to age and/or early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s, it was eventually discovered that I had a full-blown case of (stage three) Lyme disease.

Lyme disease? In the Southeast? Seriously? Seriously. So seriously that I didn’t even know what “normal” was anymore. I was told that I’d likely been dealing with Lyme for years. I also found out at that time that current research indicates that ticks aren’t the only vectors. And oh yeah… Only about half the folks eventually diagnosed with Lyme have the lovely telltale bulls-eye rash. Me? I was one in the half that didn’t.

Where I’d once been able to consistently and easily run 5 or 6 miles up to 5 times a week, walking even one mile became virtually impossible. Ten-mile paddles were afternoon regularities, and I knew many of the local fishermen by name from being at the boat ramps at the same times. I honestly can’t say I’d recognize any of those same folks today.

Loss of motor function in my hands made it difficult for me to tie and untie cordage securing my boat to the truck racks; I switched to straps. Over time I couldn’t even manage those.

I’d come to live my life on auto-pilot, desperately hoping and praying each time I set foot out my door or sat in my boat that my body would remember what it was supposed to do because my brain sure as heck couldn’t. I’d not remember routes I took, and would regularly get lost going mundane places that were part of my regular routine, places like the grocery store or work.

Rolling my boat? Successfully executing anything beyond a basic forward stroke? Forget it. Between my balance being so off that simply walking flat ground made me nauseous, and the general disorientation of being upside down in a boat in the water, I couldn’t make any of that work.

Add to this jumble a decimated appetite, and the result was lack of strength, and loss of energy, muscle mass, and general endurance. Oh yeah, then there was the daily bout of hair loss by the hand-full, rampant insomnia, loss of vision, and neurological issues such as short- and long-term memory loss, as well as unexplainable mood swings. All of this together slowly became my “normal”, and I gradually came to accept the fact that I was over 40 and dealing with life. This past autumn, after working off of reserves, tenacity and pure dumb luck for years, I realized it wasn’t because I was getting older that I had hit bottom.

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Dealer Summit 2015: I knew something just wasn’t right, but I could still manage a basic forward stroke. photo: Chris Funk

The final straw for me was at the 2015 Jackson Kayak Dealer Summit this past October. As I was taking my Journey off my truck, I dropped it. In 30 years I’ve never dropped a boat in that way. I also remember being out on the water that same day terrified because I literally could not remember how I’d gotten out there. I didn’t remember launching. My brain shut down, and I was at a loss for even the most basic vocabulary. Scared as hell, I took off the water and somehow got my boat to the truck. I remember slinking away and sobbing until I was able to pull myself together enough to at least think that I was acting normal. I still couldn’t tell you how I got my boats back on the truck, nor much of anything about the two-hour drive back home. Again, I simply thought I was dealing with early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s or something. In my mind it made sense. My grandmother was diagnosed with dementia; maybe I inherited that gene…

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Chris Funk unknowingly captured the exact moment it registered with me that I’d hit at or at least very near the bottom.

After many visits to I don’t know how many doctors and specialists, I finally had answers. With those answers came a flood of relief. Those answers also included a deluge of confusion, and quite honestly, anger. Confusion because Lyme is so deceptive and sneaky; it mimics so many other diseases. Anger because there are so few health care specialists that are familiar with Lyme and all that it entails. Finding a Lyme literate medical doctor (LLMD) to diagnose and then provide effective treatment is maddening. The CDC will tell you that the only way you can get Lyme is compliments of being a restaurant for a tick. Other sources out there will tell you that ticks are not the only vectors, and that there are myriad ways you can become infected. Researching Lyme to figure it out will definitely drive a body up countless walls; the information available in print and on line is overwhelming. What I can say for certain is that my initial testing confirmed the presence of not only Borrelia burgorferi, but also 18 other co-infections frequently seen in conjunction with Lyme. I also know that after over 5 months of treatment, I’m one of the lucky ones.

So where to go? What are the next steps? Well, the way I see it, the only way to go is up, so guess what? I’m goin’ up!

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You’ll always find love in the rivers and lakes.

What, exactly, does “up” look like? Simple: it looks amazing. While I definitely have a long way to go to get back to where I was, I can’t tell you how excited I am to again be able to load my own boat. Will I get back to my consecutive 10+ mile days on the water? Absolutely! Right now, however, I’m all about the lazy days. I’m choosing to focus on the feels: of the boat; of me in the boat with a paddle in my hand; of a current under the hull of my boat.

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First time out post-Lyme. Playing with edges and balance and fit and such at the put-in. Photo: Colleen Smith

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More playing and readjusting at the put-in. Not the most technically proficient or graceful, but it sure did feel amazing to be back out on the water with my paddle in my hand! Photo: Colleen Smith

I’m also choosing to focus on being outside, and on not letting a little corkscrew shaped bacteria scare me away from living an incredible, adventure filled life. Sure, I had Lyme disease, but here are too many precautions available to ever let the fear of becoming re-infected keep me from the things and places I love. Common sense being the first and most important precaution, there’s always insect repellant (that I now use religiously.) Now I have baby wipes, a change of clothes, and a plastic trash bag waiting on me at the end of the day. Before getting into the vehicle, I wipe down any exposed skin. I also change clothes, tossing my grungy adventure clothes and gear into a plastic trash bag before loading up and heading home. Oddly enough, simply knowing how I felt and knowing what Lyme can masquerade as, I feel more confidant that ever going into the great outdoors.

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Lunch break on my 2nd time out post Lyme. Building back is not easy, and I’m finding that it’s in the quite moments like these where the pieces begin to come together and make sense for me. Photo: Allison Stowers

 

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Taking it slow and building back. Focusing on walking longer distances and maintaining my balance with a shifting load. Photo: Colleen Smith

In regards to boating, I’m back at square one. Slowing down is cleaning up both my stroke and my general boat control, and I’m enjoying relearning everything that I once took for granted. Every day is clearer than the last, and each day I become stronger.

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As of a week ago, I still was too weak to even get my skirt over the coaming by myself. To say that I was frustrated would be an understatement. Photo: Colleen Smith

Paddling fast is easy, and muscling your way through a river – any river – can definitely be done. However, speed frequently hides slop, and unnecessarily muscling through anything can get you hurt. Ultimately, it’s technique and finesse that moves you longer and further, be that through life or on the water. While I work my way back to where I want to be over the next bit, I’m going to be just rollin’ with the flow and taking a slower, more deliberate approach to kayaking and life in general. In the meantime, here’s wishing you safe boating, and I look forward to seeing you out in our big backyard!

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Finally! Back on the water with my bow pointed miles ahead…

Samantha

 

If you would like to explore Lyme disease and all that it entails, here are some of the sites I spent way too much time on. Obviously this list is not exhaustive, but it’s enough to get an interested soul started:

https://www.lymedisease.org

http://steveclarknd.com

http://www.cdc.gov/lyme/

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