by Jennifer Crystal
Tick-borne illness and sleep disturbances
One of the most difficult symptoms of neurological tick-borne illness is sleep disturbances. In addition to insomnia, I battled detailed, fast-paced, hallucinogenic dreams and nightmares that often left me more exhausted than I had been before I went to sleep. I wrote about the cause and meaning of these dreams in my previous post “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”. Medication, coupled with adjunct therapies such as neurofeedback and integrative manual therapy, helped bring these crazy dreams under control, but sometimes when I’m having a Lyme flare-up or am especially tired, they manifest again.
Many of us like to interpret our dreams, and often we can find meaning directly related to external factors in our lives. For example, while I was at my sickest during my late twenties—the prime of my life—I would have dreams that it was the end of summer and I’d want to water-ski but had missed my chance because the season was over. A therapist helped me to see that this dream represented my fear of missing the “summer” of my life.
Symbols in other dreams clearly represented the way in which the illness was violating my body. I even had dreams about people in my life who had passed away, who gave me important messages of healing.
These particular dreams had deep meaning, but what I’ve come to learn is that not all dreams do. Sometimes it’s not the content of the dreams that we need to interpret, but the derivation of them. Now, when my dreams start to get detailed and wild, I realize they’re sending me a very simple message: Rest.
Here’s how I learned to look at the bigger picture of my dreams instead of analyzing their details: I realized that the content of my dreams was no longer matching up things going on in my waking life, as it once had. Earlier this year, I went through a breakup that came as a complete shock. My personal life was heading in one direction and then, suddenly, it wasn’t. I was disoriented and bereft. My waking days were marked by grief.
But I was sleeping just fine.
You would think that during this stressful time, I would have had terrible nightmares. Instead, I hardly remember my dreams during that period. I napped well. I slept soundly. I woke before my alarm every day.
I slept well because even though I was emotionally drained, I wasn’t physically tired. And because I happened to be on break from teaching, I wasn’t overwhelmed with reading and other work.
As soon as I started teaching again and returned to my hectic schedule, the crazy dreams came back. Emotionally, I was doing better; time had passed and I was making progress with my healing. But now I was tired, and that fatigue caused an uptick in my sleep disturbances. In my healthy days, (before Lyme and other tick-borne infections) the more tired I was, the better I slept. But neurological symptoms of Lyme disease disrupted that normal pattern. Now when I overdo it I sometimes get too tired to sleep or nap. Or I sleep fitfully, with non-sensical dreams and body spasms that indicate an overtaxed nervous system.
On the flip side, I’ve gone through stress-free periods when I’m very happy and doing fun activities—when you’d think I’d sleep really well—but instead, I’ve had horrible nightmares. A few summers ago I went to a lake for a week with some friends. Every day I canoed or swam. My body loved the activity but wasn’t used to the frequency of it. I was smiling but exhausted by the end of each day, and my brain responded with nightmares about fatigue.
When that happens, I know it’s time to slow down—to rest. I examine what’s going on in my waking environment, not to see how it might be reflected in my dreams, but to see what level of fatigue it’s causing. As soon as I back off my physical or neurological schedule, my sleep improves.
If you are a Lyme patient experiencing intense dreams, instead of analyzing your dreams it might be better to examine why you’re having them. The answer will probably be simpler than you think!
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.