I’ve only recently become of fan of celebrity memoirs and this is without a doubt the most culturally important one I’ve encountered yet. The Sparknotes version of Bite Me: How Lyme Disease Stole my Childhood, Made Me Crazy, and Almost Killed Me is that the author Alexandria Hilfiger (Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter) contracted Lyme disease when she was seven years old but wasn’t properly diagnosed until she was 20. Hilfiger’s memoir recounts growing up with a disease that fogged her brain, made her joints ache, and gave her anxiety attacks. In a blunt, no-bullshit voice she tells her story about not knowing what was wrong with her for over 10 years: having doctors, teachers, and her parents think that she was exaggerating her symptoms; waking up in a psych ward at age 18; and finally gaining the upper hand over the disease. Besides learning the biology behind this infectious disease (which more than 329,000 people are diagnosed with each year), you need to read Ally’s book immediately for these reasons.
Hilfiger’s writing feels like a close friend is sharing a story with you over drinks. Lyme disease is an extremely complicated concept to wrap your mind around (it involves little corkscrew–shaped bacteria drilling into your insides and giving you crazy symptoms!?!) but you don’t need to take a single Bio 101 class to understand the way she explains it. Not only that, but you’re going to want to hear the tales that Ally has. She has dinner party stories that involve sneaking into a club underage, laughing while she was arrested, and demanding that the officer put handcuffs on her. You will immediately love her because she is off-the-walls funny: she wore an angel costume to a business meeting with MTV producers (pitching Rich Girls) at age 17 because they booked the meeting on Halloween. I mean, who wouldn’t?
Before Lyme, Ally was misdiagnosed with mono, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, ect. Being “the great imitator,” Lyme disease often goes undiagnosed and untreated because it walks and talks like so many other diseases. This is terrifying and sounds like the plot to a medical thriller novel, but it’s real and happens to lot of people. What else is crazy about Lyme? That you don’t constantly feel sick. Some days you feel like yourself; energetic, happy, and can think normally. But some weeks you can’t get out of bed because of the brain fog, pain, and nausea. This leads some people (and medical professionals) to think that you are exaggerating your symptoms and that nothing is really wrong with you. Lyme disease is an incredible villain.
Lyme Disease #lymedontkillmyvibe
According to the Global Lyme Alliance, more than 329,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year—and that number doesn’t even touch on the number of people that go undiagnosed. Imagine going through junior high (a stage that is sucky enough even as a healthy adolescent) battling brain fog that prevents you from thinking straight or remembering valuable class information. This is exactly how Ally felt as a student, but she was dismissed with a diagnosis of ADD. When her brain grew so foggy that she was no longer able to read, her teachers and doctors told her that she had a learning disability; when Lyme affected her memory, she was told to study harder. I cannot even fathom how frustrating it would be to constantly tell your parents and doctors your symptoms and have them be dismissed so flippantly. Her memoir reveals how this disease doesn’t just affect people physically, but socially and mentally as well.
Long story short: She is a Badass
Would you willingly take medicine that inflamed your symptoms in hopes that maybe after a few months—let me repeat: MONTHS—it might get better? When patients are treated for Lyme, many experience Herxheimer reactions, meaning that their symptoms get much, much worse before they begin to improve. In this sense, the medicine can be worse than the Lyme. Bite Me includes all of Ally’s strategies to remain optimistic despite setbacks and relapses—everything from focus wheels and written intentions to meditation and yoga. Finding the strategies that work for her took years and many sessions of trial and error. This woman is an incredible badass that will give you the confidence to tackle the problems in your life, no matter the severity or how long it takes.
Ally is also incredibly successful in her career. She produced a movie at 16, had a short MTV mini series at 16, and became a reality TV star at 17—all while battling Lyme. There is a very bitter-sweet moment when she decides to give up the fashion label she worked so hard to establish, because the amount of work required to maintain the label was compromising her health. It is sad and tears your heart apart to see her give up something that she had worked so hard for, but it is a choice that she had to make for her well-being. It will put a lot of your personal choices in perspective and make you more closely analyse whether the sacrifices you make in regards to your health are really worth it.
A Lesson in Perseverance
There are two “kinds” of Lyme: chronic Lyme and acute Lyme. Chronic Lyme happens if acute Lyme disease is not caught and treated early enough, because then the spirochetes (the scary corkscrew–shaped bacteria) can spread and hide in different parts of the body, making it incredibly hard to fully get rid of. Ally reveals that many people who work in the medical field believe that chronic Lyme disease is never totally eradicated. Dormant forms of the pathogen can rest in human tissue and survive indefinitely, which means that many people who have Lyme will live with this chronic illness and chronic pain for the rest of their lives, much like people living with Crohn’s Disease. After being diagnosed, Ally went through 12 (!) medical specialists and countless relapses before learning to effectively manage living with Lyme. If nothing else, Ally’s memoir is a great story of perseverance that you need in your life. Do you think that it is too hard to stick to your new healthy lifestyle / financial goals / university degree? Read this book.
It Could Save Someone You Know (or Yourself)
Reading this memoir will make you not only aware that Lyme disease exists, but also of the symptoms associated with it. Both Ally and I encourage you to keep the causes of Lyme disease in mind and to be aware of its existence in the world. Know that it can masquerade as many other illnesses and that less than 40% of those infected with Lyme developed the telltale bulls-eye rash. One of the good things about this disease is that is is preventable: the Global Lyme Alliance recommends educating yourself, dressing in light colors so it is easier to spot ticks on them, and wearing tick repellent. Your pets need protection as well. Animals can contract Lyme disease and carry ticks into your home, so be sure to talk to your veterinarian about how to protect your furry friends!
Whether or not you are a fan of medical memoirs, you should read this book both to gain insight into Ally’s personal experience as well as to become more informed about a prevalent yet under-addressed disease. Chronic illnesses affect so many people around us and it is important to be empathetic concerning what they are going through. Many Millennials prioritize career choices and sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to do so, but people living with chronic illnesses are forced to prioritize their health. This book is a great fit for both people who can identify with Ally’s experience on a personal level and those who have never/will never experience Lyme disease because the poignancy of her memoir is so applicable to other areas of life outside of the realm of health. I truly believe this is a book for everyone because we could all use more of Ally’s optimism and fighting-spirit in our everyday lives, no matter what it is that you are personally battling.