Attack of the Ticks

Deer tick, a vector of Lyme disease

by guest writer Kimberlee Smith

You will seize up with fear when your children dive into piles of leaves in autumn.

You will holler at them to stop that right away, because they know better. They know about the ticks. They are taught about Lyme disease in school and at home.  They live at ground zero, one of the densest areas of Lyme disease documentation anywhere.

You will bark at them again for sitting on the century-old low stone wall that you know makes a perfect launching pad for the pernicious arachnid, no larger than the size of a period at the end of a sentence in newsprint. The nearly invisible pest. Nearly, until you undress to soak in the bath and feel an angry, hot burn on your lower hip.  You touch it; it feels like a third degree burn.  It looks like there is a ruby red grapefruit fused to your hip.

You scratch and scratch until it turns purple and furious and now has raging nail marks on the grapefruit skin that is your own body.  You slap at it, the stinging of your flat palm eases some of the searing itch.

You don’t have time to tell anyone.  You race to the town walk-in clinic, a triage center. The elfin doctor with the wide grin might be a woman or a man, but you do not care.  You suggest to the doctor the super-welt might be a spider bite.  The doctor’s frozen smile stays pasted to the doctor’s face.

 The doctor suggests it is a poison ivy rash.  You are highly allergic to poison ivy and know this is not it.  Because you know it well, having taken shots to desensitize your system to the ivy oils since you were a teenager.  Since you went to the bathroom in the woods because you were drinking beer with your friends and wiped yourself with poison ivy.  You did not get a tick bite up your ass, but you did get a severe allergic reaction to poison ivy in every orifice—every one--and a trip to the hospital and weeks of antibiotics. 

So you know it is not that. The doctor prescribes a five-day pack of Zithromax and Prednisone, which you do not, cannot, take, because it makes you crazy angry like a television wrestler with roid rage.

You are staple-gunning plastic sheeting to the frames of the screened in porch.  It is several months since the grapefruit has left your hip. But you are infected. As with most diseases, the symptoms are the alarm bells, and you are at a well-advanced stage of illness that takes aggressive treatment. But you do not know this, not yet.

 Your muscles ache, your joints feel as if all the fluid has drained out and bone rubs against bone, that after 42 years, you might well now begin suffering from migraine.  That you might have the flu.  Mononucleosis? Lupus? Epstein-Barr?  That you should put down the staple gun and have a hot tea. You do, and you sleep. And it hurts.

You call the internist from Yale, referred by one of your many friends who have suffered from Lyme disease. You drive to see him.  He is a specialist. He runs all the tests, vial after vial. He does something called a Western Blot test.  Across the board for autoimmune illnesses.  You think maybe it is AIDS. That you are dying. But it is not, thankfully, and you are not.

The wonderful doctor who is young and handsome and most definitely male puts you on a month of antibiotics and declares without waiting for the test results, that you most probably have Lyme disease.  You want to hug him, you want to cry.

You spend the next two weeks with your children tending to themselves and your home is not unlike a scenario from Lord of the Flies.  You wave from the kitchen window as your children get on the school bus.  You go back to sleep and wake when they come home.  The dogs haven’t been fed, but they shit on the floor anyway because you did not have the energy to let them out.  Your kids eat instant macaroni and cheese and microwave hotdogs.  You assure them you will be fine, but still everyone is scared, and now and then you all cry.

Two weeks later, your mouth is doughy and bleeding from thrush from the antibiotics.  But you wake up. Feeling better, but that feeling better is relative, because you felt like you were run over by a Boeing 777. Slowly.

The test comes back inconclusive.  But it often does, the wonder doctor assures you.  You have Lyme disease, but we will get you better.  We will, together. You love this doctor almost as much as you loved your obstetrician who brought your babies into the world.

You are better. Ish.  But there are cases of relapse.

You are afraid of grass. Bushes. Trees. Shady, verdant spots at which you used to daydream and count clouds, carefree.

You are afraid of outside your own back door. You hate grass and springtime and the great outdoors.  You are furious with it for being a breeding ground for the deer tick, this arachnid that spreads Lyme disease to you.

Your dogs will whimper and whine and dig deep holes in your yard because they are bored. You will cuss at them; maybe give them too many treats.  They will get thick in the middle and become despondent. They miss the hikes in the woods, they miss you kicking the ball in the meadow to them.

You will make sure, if you ever again get up the nerve to hike through the woods right out your back door, you will wear long socks and tuck your pants in to them. And high boots laced so tight your feet go numb. And long sleeves with rubber bands around your wrists so those sneaky little bastards cannot invade you again. A hat.  Gloves.  Head-to-toe DEET spray.  But chances are you will never hike again.

The dogs are immunized against Lyme.  You topically apply a liquid that kills the tick if it latches on your dogs. For you? There is nothing.  Nothing prophylactic, no preventative.  Only treatment once you are infected.  You will always feel afraid it will happen again, you are always going to be vulnerable.  You have so many friends who have contracted Lyme, you know more people who have than who haven’t, living here in rural Connecticut.  You think you should move to the city. 

Instead you worry, you inspect your children, and they, you, looking for that tiny dot that could render you paralyzed and neurologically impaired—potentially irreversibly. You are paranoid, and you should be. Lyme disease is sneaky, and relentless. It rides on the backs of deer, it travels on mice, it lives on dogs.  Mainly, it lives on blood.  Yours, because you know it was there, firsthand.

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  1. Wow! What a great piece- funny, informative and well written. I will be looking for more from ms. Smith who was able to tell me something about deer ticks that I didn't know-which is surprising since I live on Martha's Vineyard where we all live under the shadow of Lyme. I didn't know that a tick was an arachnid.Yet another reason to detest the little buggers.

  2. Down here in Oklahoma, I have seen more ticks than I ever have before. Luckily most of them are dead, thanks to whatever oil-based stuff we glop onto our dogs every month or two. But some are still crawling--often on my husband when he and the dogs come back from a walk. I wonder if this is because we never had a real winter down here when everything would freeze for at least a couple of weeks.

    What do you think?

  3. Betty, the experts are saying exactly that--mild winter=lots of ticks. Another side-effect of climate change.


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