When I was young, I believed in all kinds of God. God in the lakes and trees and rolling farmlands of Western Michigan, where I grew up, and in the wilds of all the world; God of the Old Testament, and of the New; God of the Hindus; God of the New Age. I had so much faith I was able to do dumb things quite fearlessly, as adolescents must, I believe, or doom the species to stasis.
But as I began to come down from youth–somewhere, say, in my mid-twenties–that faith began to wear thin. I don’t think I am alone in this. As we age, we become more reasonable. The wilds of the world begin to look more like a tapestry of competing self-interest; the faith traditions of humanity unpack themselves as pretty myths.
Faith is a fraught subject. If you challenge someone’s faith, it’s akin, maybe, to breaking and entering. Because faith is a fortress, a refuge in the storm.
I’ve been thinking lately about something the author George Saunders said in the course of a recent interview, to the effect that his work is informed by “the mild ass-kickings” he suffered or witnessed in his adult life “that had the effect of politicizing and tenderizing” him. It’s a statement that strikes me as a challenge for any writer, and a worthy one.
What made you who you are? To what have you borne witness? What has made you sweeter, less arrogant, more humane? And really–you who would speak–what do you know?
Much of what I write is fiction or poetry. Forms that reveal truth, you could say, by obscuring it. But to answer this challenge, I believe, I must speak clearly: I have come through illness. And it has changed me.
In the fall of 2004, the little magazine I’d worked for since graduating college was on the brink of folding. It had always been a gig, and I another gig going at a local nonprofit where I lived in Prescott, Arizona. But I’d hung my hopes on this magazine. All my life, I’d been told that you had a greater chance of being struck by lightning than making a living as a writer. Here, at twenty-five, I was doing it. Sort of.
Our publisher was a mysterious woman of catlike, Barbie beauty; rumor had it she’d worked as a Las Vegas escort, and the magazine was her way of trying to create the respectable career she believed she should have had, using other peoples’ money. But the mag, it seemed, had failed to break even, and other peoples’ money dried up. She decided to throw a concert as a last-ditch attempt to save the publication.
The concert, which arrived hot on the heels of the presidential election, was a colossal flop. I remember riding my bike home from our offices downtown wondering why my left knee was aching. By the time I woke up the next morning, my hip was hurting too.
After this came a series of symptoms I recognized as more extreme versions of those I had already been experiencing, on and off, for the last four years: stiff neck; heart palpitations; swollen lymph glands; brain fog; headache; fatigue; and joint pain.
There are people who would have called their general physician at this point. At thirty-six, I may now be one of those people. But there are some crucial differences between the person I am today and the person I was then. First, I have far more trust today in the American medical establishment, and Western medicine in general. Second, the person I am today has health insurance, and a relatively stable source of income. The person I was then had neither.
The person I was then did a whole lot of praying, and meditating too. I was possessed of the naive notion that if I knocked, the door would open; if I asked, I would receive. So I did a lot of asking–while paying for a whole lot of natural medicine, out of pocket–for around five years, with no discernible results. While other people my age were stressing about their relationships or jobs, I was wondering if the day would ever come when I didn’t wake up in pain. At twenty-seven, I felt seventy-seven.
The faith I’d had as a kid now seemed hopelessly misguided, the product of a life untested. How easy it is to believe in God when you have no reason not to. Pain changed this for me. Pain reminds us that we are not angels, but animals. That animals are subject to brutal, sometimes random forces, governed, it seems, by no higher pattern or intelligence.
Then one night, something happened. Something I cannot, with all my reason, reduce. I dreamed I was in some sort of volunteer-staffed medical clinic. A man and a woman were telling me–calmly, kindly–that I was sick because I had been bit by a tick.
The only sickness I knew of that was caused by a tick was Lyme disease. So I looked it up online. The easiest way to recognize Lyme infection is by the telltale red bull-eye rash that tends to immediately follow a bite (though in many cases, this rash never appears at all). Sure enough, I remembered this tick, and this odd rash, from the summer following my high school graduation.
If I had indeed contracted Lyme that summer, this meant that by the time I’d experienced my first real symptoms, in 2004, I’d already been carrying it for nearly ten years. Research told me that antibiotics usually wiped out the infection in its early stages, but that if you’d had it for over a year, the primary course of treatment was intravenous antibiotics, and chances of relapse were high.
Again, maybe the person I am now would simply have bit the bullet. But a factor then, as now, is the fact that my mother has a chronic illness falling somewhere on the spectrum between chronic fatigue and lupus. I’d done a lot of research on this because, as you might imagine, I was afraid that’s what I had.
In my research, I’d found longterm antibiotic use indicated as a factor in lupus. Most of us, as we grow into adulthood, fear that we’re turning into our parents. I feared this perhaps more literally than most. What was the point of recovering from Lyme, only to set up the conditions for another debilitating illness later on?
And so I persisted in what some would call my faith healing. It was, at the very least, a faith in healing. Because I had knocked, had I not? And some higher intelligence–if only that of my own body–had answered.
It took another three years and at least as many naturopathic doctors to arrive at a cure. And, contrary to my hopes, there was no single solution–rather, it was a constellation of natural antibiotics (garlic, grapefruit seed); supplements that interact with one of Lyme’s amplifiers, heavy metals (cilantro, chlorella); and finally, critically, a common weed called teasel.
Lyme disease is caused by the Borrelia burgdorferi spirochete. Like syphilis, another spirochetal infection, Lyme may affect several organ systems and proceed through several stages. The medicines I’d discovered, up to that point, had managed to halt its progression, and control my symptoms, but not to eradicate them.
Different people believe different things regarding Lyme’s persistence, but one line of thinking holds that this corkscrew-shaped spirochete simply drills itself into safe places to hide (organs, bones). According to the herbalist Susan Weed (yes), teasel essentially flushes Lyme out of hiding, allowing natural antibiotics and the body’s immune system to clear it.
It was this common weed that finally broke the back of the infection I’d had for nearly fifteen years. And as I learned to recognize its distinctive shape in the wild, I realized it grew virtually everywhere I’d ever lived: in Michigan, by the sides of those long country roads; in Arizona, along the mountain trails I’d hiked; and in Oregon, along the path beside the Willamette River I’d been walking for the better part of a year. Like so many of the herbs most useful for modern ills (such as detoxifiers like dandelion and milk thistle), teasel grows best in disturbed areas.
And this, finally, is something I take with me as adult, as a statement of faith: that the thing I need most desperately, whatever it is, is right beside me, if only I can learn to see it. That the higher intelligence in this world is not nearly as simple as those pretty myths, old or new, would have us believe. But it does, in fact, exist.
In this, I cannot speak for anyone currently suffering the brutalities of illness. I cannot even speak for others with Lyme, as each case of infection tends to respond to differently to treatment.
But for myself, waking up each day feeling, physically, the way I did at eighteen–that is, at home in my body–after nearly a decade of pain, this is my fortress. This is my faith.