by Jennifer Crystal
Short-term memory loss, confusion, brain fog, and word repetition are just a few symptoms of Lyme brain experienced by many Lyme patients. How has Lyme brain affected you?
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I was recently talking on the phone with a friend who is expecting a baby. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call you back earlier,” she said. “I can’t remember anything these days. It must be ‘pregnancy brain’!”
I knew what she meant. I’ve experienced “Lyme brain,” and the symptoms are similar. Throughout my 20-year battle with Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses—eight of which were undiagnosed and untreated—I have wrestled with short–term memory loss, confusion, brain fog, word repetition, difficulty retrieving vocabulary, and a tendency to mix up words. Other neurological symptoms have included insomnia, hallucinogenic nightmares, migraines, burning extremities and mini seizures.
It’s hard to explain the neurological component of Lyme disease to people who haven’t experienced it. Most people know Lyme causes joint pain, and it does. But when it goes undiagnosed for too long, the bacteria can replicate and cross the blood-brain barrier, invading the central nervous system. A scan of my brain showed that the tick–borne parasite babesia was preventing me from getting oxygen to the left side of my brain. The scan also showed lesions caused by Lyme.
But that scan was done years after my initial tick bite, years after I’d first noticed that my hands trembled when I tried to apply eyeliner, years after doctors had written off my migraines as “altitude sickness” or “stress.”
Unfortunately, my story is all too common. The neurological symptoms of Lyme disease are some of the most confused with other illnesses. Besides the brush-off diagnoses I received, patients are often misdiagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and/or mental illness. Without proper diagnosis, neurological Lyme disease can lead to paralysis, schizophrenia and even death.
I was one of the lucky ones. My sleep disturbances were unbearable at times, but my day time neurological troubles never got worse than brain fog and word loss. So what did that actually feel like? Imagine molasses seeping through your brain, pouring into all the crevices until your brain feels so full that you wonder if it will explode right out of your skull. Imagine that thick substance sticking to the synapses of your brain, dulling your thoughts, slowing your ability to put those thoughts into words.
It became impossible to read or watch TV. Just skimming the opening paragraph of an article left me confused and frustrated. Sometimes I’d be telling a story to my family—something as simple as, “I ran into an old friend at the pharmacy today”—and I’d stop mid-sentence and ask, “What was I talking about?” I had no memory of what I’d just said or what point I was trying to make. I also sometimes mixed up the syntax such as, “I ran into a friend old at the pharmacy today.”
Other times, I couldn’t come up with basic words. While telling my family that story I might say, “I ran into an old friend at the…at the…at the blank today.” I knew that “today” came after the word I was trying to say, but I couldn’t fill in the blank. Usually whomever I was speaking with could fill it in for me, but I was nervous about that happening in public. I’d be at the pharmacy and suddenly not be able to come up with my zip code when prompted by the pharmacist. Sometimes the word or number would come eventually, as if my brain had done a Google search. Other times I would just try to laugh it off, saying something like, “Wow, I must be really tired today!” I wished I had the more obvious excuse of “pregnancy brain.”
As a writer, I have always been exacting in my vocabulary. Losing the ability to come up with precisely the right word was humiliating. Words are my currency, and I was broke.
Luckily, the antibiotics started beating out the spirochetes in my brain, and slowly things improved. Soon I could read an entire magazine, as long as I stopped in between articles to sit quietly and let my brain rest. Eventually, I could type multi-paragraph emails. The word repetition fortunately decreased. I worked my way up to attending graduate school, writing papers and essays —thinking again at a high level.
These days, I still wrestle with some neurological symptoms especially when I’m tired. Recently I was writing a chapter of my next book and called my mom to say, “I’m thinking of a word that sounds like ‘synonymously’ and means two things happening at the same time.”
“Simultaneously,” she quickly said. I smiled, filled in the blank, and continued writing.
While working on my book, I’ve been doing some prompts with a writing group to help generate material. Recently we wrote about things we’ve lost and found. “I’m writing about losing my mind,” I told my mother.
“How do you know you’ve found it?” she joked.
I know because I can write about my experiences with some distance, using exactly the words I want. I know because I can teach. I know because I can read student essays and newspaper articles. I know because I can read entire books—albeit slowly—and I’ve even written one, too. And in the rare event that I can’t think of a word, I know I can always call my mother.
Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. Jennifer Crystal is a writer and educator in Boston. Her work has appeared in local and national publications including Harvard Health Publishing and The Boston Globe. As a GLA columnist for over six years, her work on GLA.org has received mention in publications such as The New Yorker, weatherchannel.com, CQ Researcher, and ProHealth.com. Jennifer is a patient advocate who has dealt with chronic illness, including Lyme and other tick-borne infections. Her memoir, One Tick Stopped the Clock, is forthcoming from Legacy Book Press in September 2024. Ten percent of proceeds from the book will go to Global Lyme Alliance. Contact her via email below.