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November is the Cruelest Month

T.S. Eliot seemed to prophesy the events of 2020 when he wrote that April was the cruelest month in The Wasteland. Although his iconic poem describes the broken state of the world in the era of World War I, the psychological and social breakdown he charts could easily be about the era of COVID in 2020. And it was cruel this year, to see the earth coming alive again while we were all lying dormant, wasn’t it? I get the poetic resistance to renewal and fertility when one doesn’t feel it in one’s spirit.

But for me, the late Autumn months of October and November have long been my cruelest months, for the dates of death and loss are branded onto my heart within their confines. Starting with my grandmother and soul mate dog Brady in October of 2014, and continuing all the way through November with the death anniversaries of my uncle, stepsister, and mom—with Mom falling on the last day of November. I call it my season of Grief. Like Eliot writes, I do know “only a heap of broken images, where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter.” But only for a time. I let Grief humble me, and ice the hollow in my chest with sadness, as it has done since 1989 when my mom left us abruptly, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I have never quite grown skin over the crater her absence created in my physical and emotional hearts.

Yet, when I am rendered defenseless by Grief in yet another return to November, I start my own season of thanks giving that has nothing to do with the colonial history of the United States. I’m grateful for each one of the precious years I had with Mom who I loved with unabashed affection, for all that she taught me— from the names of the constellations and wildflowers, and even how to memorize piano sonatas. I’m grateful for Dad who has doubled as mother and father all these years with an enthusiasm that bolsters me every day, for my soul mate dog Brady who saw me through some of the most painful years of my life when I was sick with Lyme disease, and for the gift of health that came back to me unexpectedly. I’m grateful for the tiny family I have created with my husband. When I am so replete with thanks giving, the iciness in my chest melts, and I send Grief away again for a time. Grief can’t strip me of my hard-earned resilience, though, and I return to the woods to replenish it with long walks.

Nature theatricalizes the state of my heart with its falling leaves and quietude, so that when I look out from my writing desk onto the skeletal tree branches against a cloudy sky, the starkness mirrors the contents of my heart. This year, it wasn’t only nature that mirrored my heart, it was the surge of COVID death tolls across the world. It seems Grief has come for us all this year, whether we have lost loved ones, or whether we have lost our former lives. Any month this year could be dubbed the “cruelest.” Which one would you pick? What loss are you grieving that needs to be honored? And acknowledged.

As I murmured my thanks one evening this November while walking along the seashore with my family in Provincetown, Massachusetts—staring at the sun giving us yet another Impressionistic painting that disappeared as it fell—a rainbow rose up in the sky and curved down in a perfect semicircle. It reminded me that in the face of Grief, when even the beauty of a sunset is as fleeting as human life can be, we still have hope, we still have light, and we can cultivate resilience in response.

Resilience. I have been signing all of my letters, “with wishes for resilience,” since March. Yet another friend mentioned this past week that I remind him of Boris Cyrulnik’s case histories about resilience, because of my severe childhood losses. Cyrulnik writes: “When the word ‘resilience’ was first used in physics it referred to a body’s ability to absorb an impact. […] When it began to be used in the social sciences, it came to mean ‘The ability to succeed, to live and to develop in a positive and socially acceptable way, despite the stress or adversity that would normally involve the real possibility of a negative outcome. How do we become human despite the blows of fate?” We find our inner light, we find our thanks, and keep cultivating resilience as we walk through the final days of 2020.

To all of you: I acknowledge your grief, as we were all blindsided by the arrival of this virus that has been cruel to us all. May we all enter a season of thanks giving in spite of our collective losses. With wishes for continued resilience.

Peace, love, and light

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What my Radical Recovery from Late-Stage Lyme Disease can Teach Us about Immune Boosting

With over six million recorded cases of COVID-19 in the United States, it’s logical to think about boosting the immune system, since the potential for contracting the insidious virus is high. When stress is at record levels, though, the sympathetic nervous system gets overworked—secreting surges of epinephrine—making us more susceptible to corona virus droplets lurking in the air. I was once in the high-risk category for contracting a virus like COVID-19, so I empathize with those who have it, and those that fear it.

My autoimmune system was suppressed as a result of battling late-stage neurological Lyme disease for years, and I had developed a raging autoimmune disorder. Thanks to a radical treatment that took me to the remote mountains of Siberia, the death knell that sounded for me is in the past. Now I boast about my immune system more than I talk about boosting it. I’m eager to share my story as people across the world suffer from acute and lingering symptoms from COVID-19 that remind me of where I once was.

Over the years, Lyme disease had sucked all the marrow out of me and spit me out like an enervated double of my once effervescent self. I could no longer endure the Sisyphean battle of waking up feeling depleted as I struggled through the most basic tasks before repeating the cycle the next day. I could not play my musical instruments, could not hike, could not teach. Reading, writing, analytical thinking—former sources of great joy and part of my routine as a professor—had all been stripped from me.

Despite countless visits to specialists, modern medicine just left me to accept a “new normal,” that was grossly abnormal. In constant pain and deeply fatigued, I didn’t recognize the person I had become. By the look in his eyes, I could tell my husband did not either. I had fallen into another epic Lyme flare-up in the winter of 2017. Things just started falling apart in my body, more than ever before, and I couldn’t live in it anymore. I found a clinic in Switzerland that offered assisted suicide.

But I didn’t believe in suicide; I was a carpe diem kind of a girl that trekked through the Scottish highlands from Glasgow to Ben Nevis when I was a teenager, hosted champagne brunches at Dartmouth that earned me the nickname “champagne Miche,” and played alto saxophone sonatas on the Pont des Arts in Paris for fun on Sunday afternoons. I was on my way to becoming a tenured professor, proud to arm my students with critical thinking tools and stoke their creative intellect, when—quite suddenly—the quality of my life deteriorated to the extent that the day had seized me.

I wasn’t the first to contemplate suicide in the face of Lyme.  Researchers estimate that at least 1,200 suicides a year in the U.S. can be attributed to Lyme disease. Chronic pain, decreased mobility, and depression (induced and exacerbated by the disease’s inflammatory cytokines) eventually become intolerable. From what I have read, suicide rates in the era of COVID-19 are skyrocketing, too.

But I wasn’t about to go into that good night, even though I had taken every medicine, every herb, every allopathic and alternative treatment available to me. I had become my own doctor after medicine failed me. I had read every health study, every health book, every medical journal. I had experimented on my own body as if I were a laboratory animal. I had nothing left to try. 

Desperate—immobilized and covered in psoriasis rashes—I launched my millionth Google search one summer afternoon. In bed, clutching my phone with claw-like hands, I came upon a Siberian doctor that purportedly cured patients of serious diseases through a method of extreme fasting that “incinerated diseased cells in the body” and “drained the swamp of inflammation.”  This was the most intriguing sentence I had ever read; if it were true, I had a chance to save my life.

As I write in my (heretofore unpublished) memoir, Starving to Heal in Siberia: My Radical Recovery from Late-Stage Lyme Disease, I took an arduous odyssey to Siberia, where I underwent a radical treatment that led to a complete recovery, one that doctors said would never be possible. It’s a story about hope and resilience, and one that paid off. On October 1, 2017, I stepped off from the plane in New York feeling as if I had reincarnated back into the same lifetime, but in a new body.

I want to pay it forward. I now practice this treatment at select intervals throughout the year on my own, for it’s a remarkable tool that can be used not only for a multitude of serious illnesses but also as a regimen that maintains health and increases longevity. In the era of COVID-19, when nearly every individual on the planet must be thinking about how to stay healthy, I believe this is the ultimate way. It left me feeling like I was “shining and bouncing,” something I never thought I would feel again. I’m eager to share it with you, and I’ll leave you with a little clue: it’s about autophagy.

–Michelle Slater

This is the first blog post in a series of posts to come about the author’s recovery from Lyme disease.