Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Lyme Warrior

(I'm still trying to get this published . . . )

About 15 men and women are stretched out on brightly-colored sticky mats in a carpeted meeting room in which chairs and tables are stacked in a corner. A woman with clear blue eyes and sand-colored hair pulled back with a head band speaks with a conversational lilt as she warms up the class with a few seated asanas.

It’s Monday at the University of Minnesota and this group of students and staff is releasing the stress of their day in a free lunch-time drop-in yoga class. Jeanne Bain, who has taught yoga here for five years, informs the class they will work up to a headstand today. The attendees look around uneasily, but Bain assures them they may only do as much as they feel capable of doing today, building strength and correct posture to accomplish the full pose . . . eventually. “The intention is to get to the full headstand, but that may be next week, next year, or in the next life.” Bain demonstrates how to “build the pose,” starting from dolphin pose. She quickly falls over laughing, explaining that she can’t actually hold the pose for very long, but assures the class it can be done. Bain then hops cheerfully from person to person, helping each one through various stages of the headstand.

By all appearances, Bain is a healthy, joyful, enthusiastic woman. This is a good day. But on a bad day, she can’t drag herself out of bed. Bain has Lyme Disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection that causes a seemingly endless array of symptoms, from muscle and joint pain to dizziness to disabling fatigue. Taken alone, these symptoms could signal any number of common ailments. But Lyme Disease victims suffer from a combination of these symptoms and more, which can compound and worsen if not properly treated. If one is lucky enough to find a doctor who will prescribe the needed antibiotics, treatment can stretch on a year or more.

Although Bain was only recently diagnosed, she believes she has been sick with Lyme for half of her 44 years. She has seen a slew of doctors over the years – an endocrinologist, a neurologist, a cardiologist, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and a hormone OB/GYN/menopause expert – to figure out what was wrong with her. They told her she was just anxious. “I had a major personality change,” she says, recalling the time when she was 20, when she believes she contracted Lyme. “I went from being totally bubbly and full of life and joy to being Goth.” On the bad days she describes herself as “Masha Jeanne,” after the dark, despairing character, Masha, in Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

Bain may feel dark on the inside, but from the outside people see light; she smiles often and moves at a clip from one task to another. She and her husband, Robert Haarman, decided not to replace their car after it was totaled in an accident, and Bain used her bike to get around for almost a year, logging about 15 miles a day. In addition to teaching yoga at several venues, Bain, with a theater degree and a master’s in human development, facilitates creative writing classes of 4th to 12th grade homeschoolers, and is a contributing writer to a Minneapolis women’s magazine. She also raises two sons, four and 12, with Haarman, who is a dancer, waiter, singer and clown. Both boys have Lyme, adding guilt to her burden, because she suspects she passed the disease to them in utero.

The clash of the drugs with the bacteria can be more painful than the disease. Known as a “herx,” (from Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction), Bain describes the die-off of the bacteria as going “backward through your life with Lyme,” experiencing all the symptoms you’ve had in your life in reverse. “There is a squeezing pain in random places. Then depression waves. Then anxiety. Then the ankle goes out. Can't put any weight on it. Then it passes. Then my blood hurts. Feels like it isn't flowing. Pains in my rib cage. Is it my heart? Then the hip seizes up and I can't walk.” She has been on the drugs for three months and doesn’t know if or when she will feel completely well.

Since being diagnosed, Bain has become aware of dozens of other people with Lyme, all who have faced similar obstacles trying to get to the root of the problem. Haarman calls Bain “the Erin Brockovich of Lyme” because she has fervently researched Lyme at the library and on “Dr. Google” and shares her findings through a Lyme support group. She recently arranged a screening of “Under Our Skin,” a terrifying documentary that follows a hand-full of Lyme sufferers for several years through their battles with the disease and the stonewalling of the medical establishment that insists their symptoms are all in their head.

Through it all, yoga has been an antidote to the sickness, which Bain practices at least four times a week. “I feel like I’m pulling a sled around, 24 hours a day, even while I sleep. And my arms are broken. On that sled are my two kids, my husband, all the doctor appointments, the supplements, the drugs,” Bain explains. “Without yoga, I wouldn’t have the strength or courage to continue.”

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