To my fellow lyme sufferers: please see the note at the end of this article before reading.
One year ago, when I left a firm and position I loved due to my struggle with chronic lyme disease, I would have never imagined myself writing about how this insidious illness made me a kinder and more compassionate person. But persevering through a year of such significant change forced me to deeply reflect about what got me here, face some difficult truths, and decide how to move forward.
What got me to where I am today was the same thing that got me to my position as Head of Human Capital, Chief Talent Officer and Partner at a highly-respected investment management firm: tenacity, grit, a strong work ethic, a well-honed ability to multi-task and make every minute of the day count, and an unwavering belief that through my own sheer will and force I could achieve anything my job and family required. I was a fighter, a fierce warrior searching for her next challenge to conquer, and I had a fearlessness that sometimes surprised me. I put on a coat of armor each day, commuted into New York City, and went to battle for the good of our clients, employees and stockholders. I felt alive, worthy, and purposeful. I believed I mattered.
My warrior persona slowly turned into an addiction, coming above all else, the only exception being my children. Yet even with them I was a warrior mother, fiercely loving them, always willing and able to address their needs, solve their problems and help them edit their endless stream of essays.
I took my health for granted, and fueled myself with caffeine, Excedrin and sugar. I exploited my adrenaline and abused my already weakened immune system. As my body screamed at me to give it a break, my mind told me to suck it up and keep pushing. I was a fighter, and I could not stop fighting the good fight. It became my identity, my false pride, and eventually my downfall.
I was diagnosed with Lyme disease in early 2013, years after actually being infected. I would have been diagnosed sooner had I acknowledged my growing symptoms of constant pain, sporadic dizziness, and brutal fatigue. But I had no time to be dragged down by an illness, so I refused to face my deteriorating health. My body eventually shut down, and I found myself sitting across from a doctor who was explaining to me why I would need to go on IV antibiotics for at least a year. As he was speaking, I thought to myself “OK, bring it on. I will kick this lyme s&@$ in the f&@&ing a&$!”
Yeah, so that did not happen. Lyme kicked my butt despite 4+ years (and counting) of IV and oral antibiotics, heat therapy, oxygen therapy, rife machines, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, herbal protocols – you get the picture. It seemed the harder I fought, the harder lyme fought back. We were at a standstill, with neither one of us giving up. It was a battle of the wills and I was absolutely convinced that I could count on my sheer will and force to eradicate the stubborn parasites invading my body.
Alas, it was not to be. I grew so utterly exhausted from fighting lyme while desperately trying to maintain my professional standards, that I finally did what I thought I would never do: I gave up fighting.
When I decided to embrace my situation (i.e., leave my job and focus full time on improving my health), I expected to feel anger and grief. And while I did feel those emotions, to my surprise the feeling that dominated my psyche was relief. Relief that the fighting was over. Not just the fight against lyme, but all the future fights that I would have gone after, whether they be challenges at work or issues at home.
The relief soon turned to anxiety when I realized I was lost without my fighter identity. Who was I if I was not fighting? The question overwhelmed me and I floated through a few months trying out new medical protocols and avoiding that question. I knew I wanted to have an impact on the world, even in just some small way, but I did not know how to pursue a purpose when I was so physically debilitated. If I could only handle a few hours out of bed each day, then how could I possibly have an impact on the world? How could I matter?
The answer came to me when I was in my car, waiting at a streetlight. The light turned green and the driver in front of me did not move. The old me would have blasted my horn, frustrated that I was wasting precious minutes in which I could be productive. But the new me was really in no rush, which allowed me a few moments to be present, take in the scene of a mother struggling with her children in the backseat, and feel compassion for her. I waited patiently while I watched her settle her kids, look up and see the green light, wave a thank you to me for not honking my horn at her, and then drive on. Her wave of thanks resulted in an epiphany:
If I took every opportunity I had to be compassionate and kind during my everyday interactions, I could provide moments of positivity to others, perhaps even moments of happiness.
I could make a difference in very small ways, but a difference all the same. That’s how I could matter.
This principle drove me to start pursuing the following small acts of kindness:
- Looking at people I passed by, and smiling at them
- Sincerely thanking cashiers, by name, the people who bagged my groceries, baristas, food service workers, and even client service representatives on the phone
- Seeking opportunities to help others in small ways, whether it be providing directions, getting bags to their car while they handled their crying infant, buying them a coffee when they did not have enough money, or squatting to meet a toddler’s eyes to comfort him after his balloon slipped out of his hands
- Talking to people while waiting on line, learning about their lives or sincerely complimenting them when appropriate
- Slowing down to allow drivers in my lane as soon as their blinker went on, or waving drivers to go first through a four-way stop
Here are the things I stopped doing:
- Getting frustrated with long lines and huffing and puffing in exasperation while the line moved
- Using my car horn to communicate my annoyance to another driver
- Being brusque with service providers
- Getting wildly irritated when faced with traffic
As my health improved, I started working part-time as an executive coach and trainer, and as my professional identify resurfaced, I started feeling the tug of making every minute count again. That tug sometimes led me back to my self-centered world, where small acts of kindness felt like a burden. As I fought the tug, I realized that being kind and making every minute count need not be mutually exclusive. My energies don’t always have to be channeled to the immediate task at hand – being kind reflects time spent wisely.
Transitioning from a world in which I believed everyone should value my time as much as I did, to a world in which I valued anyone with whom I interacted, was eye-opening and enlightening. Recognizing how self-centered and self-absorbed my behaviors were was embarrassing and humbling. While the purpose of being kind was to make other people happy, I realized being kind to others also made me happy. Indeed, I learned from a recent study that when people make a conscious effort to be kind, their happiness increases.
So while I lost some (OK, a lot) of my physical capacity, I gained a mindset that made me happier. Lyme fortified my conviction to matter to the world, even in just some small way, to find creative ways to have a purpose beyond myself and my family, and to be a more compassionate and kind person. And while I may not have won the battle against lyme, I finally feel like a winner.
A note to those with chronic lyme disease: Having lyme truly sucks (to put it mildly), and this article is not meant to diminish the negative, life-altering effects of this disease. We all experience chronic lyme differently, and we all know the emotional pain of being judged for how we manage it. This article relays my personal story only; it is not written with any intention of telling chronic lyme sufferers what to feel or how to act. Our battles with lyme have some similarities in symptoms, but each of our experiences is unique. If this article helps you in some way – great, but if it does not resonate – no judgment. I completely respect everyone’s lyme journey and have only the very best wishes that you find a level of health and happiness that makes you feel that you matter. Because you do matter, and you always will.