PANDAS & Lyme: My Recovery and 8 Years of Misdiagnoses

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The Truth About My PANS Recovery

PANS can mean losing your very self… And then trying to get it back in recovery.

The other day, while filling out forms for an appointment, I froze, as I came upon the medical history section. How could I even begin to explain it all? Moreover, how could I fit everything on two little lines?

I somehow managed to list all three of my psychiatric medications, along with the five antibiotics I rotate in my Lyme protocol. Hesitantly, I also listed Lyme disease as a current medical condition, mostly to explain the many antibiotics. But then I paused… Do I really need to list PANS, too?

You see, in all three of the major PANS exacerbations I’ve had in the last ten years, I’ve not only dealt with crippling OCD, anxiety, depression, cognitive problems, and movement disorders, but I’ve lost my very self; I’ve felt and acted like a different person that no one recognized. Contrarily, I’ve recently started to feel like my “normal” self. Does that mean I’m better now?

During my worst times, it was like an invisible wall had shut me inside my own tormented mind. I was trapped within my own thoughts, yet completely outside myself. I saw the world, but I wasn’t part of it. Life had lost its colors, and my days ran together in a blurry mass of the black and white of OCD, and the gray of depression. My body was alive, but the person I had been was gone.

While each episode could start overnight and suddenly take me away, coming back to life post-IVIG has always been such a long and slow process that I’ve never been able to pinpoint an exact time when I’ve returned; I slowly regain myself and watch symptoms die away at a glacial pace, and it eventually occurs to me that I’m fully present again.

By now, it’s been over a year since I caught Lyme disease and suffered my third major PANS episode, ten months since the high-dose IVIG that was meant to bring me back, and five months since I began Lyme treatment. And recently, I realized that I was finally myself again. So can I legitimately say I have PANS anymore? For that matter, do I really have Lyme?

I know too many people with PANS who are home-bound, yet here I am, driving around town and trying to meet new people just for fun. I know some with Lyme who can’t get out of bed, but I just ran my second half-marathon (albeit five days after an 103º fever herx). I know kids who would love to be able to go to school but cannot because they are too cognitively impaired from their illness—and then there’s me, with eight semesters of college completed and a 3.94 GPA. I know PANS and Lyme kids who literally want to die and can’t even bear to think about tomorrow, but I’m sitting here looking forward to a summer internship. How can I be sick?

Unfortunately, just because I’m “back” and appearing to function quite well doesn’t mean I’m better—far from it. My anxiety has gotten so bad that I’m now taking the anti-psychotic Seroquel each night to help make it manageable. Plus, I remain on Lamictal and Wellbutrin for other psychiatric symptoms. Most days, I continue to have a hard time walking, and I have so many (small) involuntary movements that I physically cannot be still. Oh, and quite often, my speech comes out nonsensical.

There was a time when I was that kid who wanted to die and couldn’t even manage to go outside—indeed, my severe anorexia meant I was slowly dying last summer. Now, I’m the walking wounded; I still get around and can put up a good fight, but I’m not completely okay, either. I have myself again, but I also have plenty of symptoms.

And so, I added “PANS/Autoimmune Encephalitis” right along with “Lyme Disease” on that form the other day. I’m so grateful to have returned to myself, but I’m seeing that healing a brain and an immune system is a long and arduous process (and there’s always the possibility of a flare or relapse). I await the day when my symptoms are finally gone.  So despite my apparently high level of functioning, yes, I really do still have PANS and Lyme—even though I also have myself again.

In Response to Your Lyme Questions…

Ever since I announced my Lyme diagnosis, I’ve been inundated with questions from readers. While I’m not qualified to give anyone medical advice, I’ll gladly share my own personal experiences.  Given the number of messages I’ve received, I figured I should answer the most common questions in a post for all of you, so here you go:

What tests did you do?
Igenex Labs. Insurance may or may not cover these Lyme tests, but the standard CDC Lyme tests are highly inaccurate and very often give a false negative when a person actually does have Lyme. Even Igenex can give a false negative, but it misses fewer cases.

If you do get a positive Igenex result (like I did), it can make diagnosis easier.  Nevertheless, Lyme Disease is still considered a clinical diagnosis, so Lyme specialists won’t rely on tests alone to diagnose you—they’ll also consider symptoms and history.

Who ordered the tests?
In addition to my PANS specialist, I have a local GP who is easier to get in contact with, so my parents and I asked her to order Igenex. Although she doesn’t know a whole lot about Lyme or PANS, she’s been very open-minded and willing to try anything reasonable that might help me.  Basically, it was our idea, and she agreed to do it.

Why did you think to test for Lyme?
My PANS doctor told me a year and-a-half ago that it would be extremely unlikely for me to relapse ever again or to need more treatment. But guess what happened this spring? Arguably, this latest PANS exacerbation was my worst ever, which was totally unexpected at age 21, given that it’s supposed to be a pediatric condition.

We all knew this meant some major trigger must have been at work, and given how much time I spend outdoors, a tick-borne illness seemed reasonable.  Although I’d improved since my IVIG in the summer, it felt like there was a missing piece in the puzzle.  I’d heard from many readers that Lyme is common in people with PANS, so my team thought it was time to rule it in or out for sure.

Did you have a tick bite or the Lyme bull’s-eye rash? Do you remember getting sick?
Growing up playing in the woods, tick bites were a given, but I don’t remember having any over the last few years, and I never had a rash. But apparently, only about 50% of Lyme patients get the rash.  However, in the spring, I had a flu-like illness, and I was bedridden for days. Mentally and physically, I never fully recovered. Then, I had heart and nervous system issues (including POTS) that I’d never had before, followed by a descent into a horrific flare of PANS symptoms. It wasn’t the flu—it was Lyme.

Should I get tested for Lyme?
I’m not a doctor and don’t know your history, but if you’re not able to get all the way better with only PANS treatments, please talk to your doctor about Lyme.  Better yet, look into Lyme disease before you go way down the rabbit hole of autoimmune treatments.  While not everyone with PANDAS/PANS has Lyme, it’s still very common in people with PANDAS/PANS, along with its co-infections (Babesia, Bartonella, TBRF, Ehrlichea, etc). The sooner you get treatment for these infections, the better.

My Lyme specialist believes I’ve had Lyme for a decade (though I remain skeptical of this). I can’t help but wonder what my life would’ve been if I were properly tested ten years ago. Don’t make my mistake.

What are your treatments?
I take two antibiotics and seven different supplements/vitamins each day. I also follow a gluten/grain-free diet (almost Paleo) and detox with Burbur and Pinella. And of course, I still take a couple psychiatric drugs (Wellbutrin and Lamictal) to manage my symptoms in the meantime. Everyone’s treatment regimen is unique, though, so don’t be surprised if yours is quite different from mine!

What’s the prognosis?
Every person responds to Lyme disease and its treatments differently. Some people take weeks to heal, others take months, and I’ve heard of some people taking years. For me, I’m expected to be in treatment for the next year and-a-half, and then I’ll just be monitored. The doctor says someday, I’ll get completely better, and with any luck, when my Lyme is gone, my PANS will be, too.  But for now, I’m just taking it one day at a time…

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I hope this answered all of your questions!  If not, feel free to ask more in the comment section below.

Please, please, please look into Lyme disease if you have any symptoms that never seem to go away or that come and go in cycles. PANS is treatable, but sometimes, it’s complicated by Lyme. Just keep searching and hoping, and don’t give up.

For more information about Lyme, be sure to check out: http://ilads.org

How PANS Really Feels

PANS is an explosion inside my brain

PANS is an explosion inside my brain

“Mom, I want to die!” I burst into the living room screaming, a look of sheer terror in my eyes.

“Please… Help me!” I plead as I crumple into a heap on the sofa, wailing and yelling at the top of my lungs.

I’m being tortured—a sinus infection is causing my immune system to attack my brain, triggering sudden and severe mental illness. This is just another evening in the life of someone with PANS/PANDAS who’s having a flare…

The only way to describe the torment I feel in these moments of a severe flare is that it’s like someone has jabbed a knife into my brain, but the pain is mental instead of physical. It’s like fingernails scraping against a chalkboard, and the chalkboard is my soul being whittled away. It’s like a bomb going off inside my mind, scattering my thoughts and setting my brain on fire. I’m no longer present, but I’m aware enough to not be spared the grief of losing myself. It’s mental agony so intense that, in those hours, I’d rather die than continue to endure it indefinitely.

Shockingly, just a few days before, I wasn’t unlike any other college senior—I was happy, full of life, a bit stressed from midterms, yet looking forward to all that was in store for me. Killing myself was not something on my agenda. But then, I caught a cold, and I soon noticed myself becoming forgetful and struggling to think clearly. A few days later, I started refusing food out of fear (not from a lack of appetite). Then, I suddenly began hearing looping thoughts telling me that I wanted—and needed—to die. The most basic tasks were impossible—simply putting my shoes on was mentally overwhelming. I didn’t care about anything and was completely disengaged with life.  Every few hours, I’d suddenly become gripped with a wave of terror for no reason, and I’d start crying uncontrollably because of the severity of the mental pain.

Within a week’s time, I’d lost my mind.

My parents had come to stay with me for fall break, believing they would bring me home for the rest of the semester. The usual high-dose steroid regimen I take for flares had failed miserably—even a high-dose Solumedrol IV drip did nothing. However, one night, in a last-ditch effort to rescue me from the brink of insanity, we pulled out what was left of an old Azithromycin prescription, and I started taking it (with my doctors’ approval). Sometimes, if steroids don’t help PANS symptoms, it’s a good indication there’s an unresolved infection. I was already on penicillin, but plenty of bacteria can’t be killed by it.

With three days of Azithromycin, I felt no change—though my parents claimed I was starting to look a little less tormented. And then, one day, I started doing homework. Then I ate real meals. Before long, I felt engaged with the world again. By the fifth day, it was as if the whole incident had never happened; I was 100% back to where I was before.

People often ask me what it’s like to have PANS—to survive the mental anguish of flares and then in the good times, to live with the knowledge that it could all recur any day. But the truth is that, to me, there’s nothing like losing, and subsequently, finding your mind again to make you appreciate the goodness of all the little things in life that so many of us take for granted. When I have a bad flare like this one, PANS makes me want to die, because it turns my brain against me. On all the other days, PANS makes me want to live as fully as possible, because I know tomorrow is so uncertain, and I want to enjoy all the good things in my life while I can.

Living with PANS has never been easy—in fact, it often feels impossible, but now that this flare is over, I’m grateful to be alive and well and back in class, and I’m grateful for Azithromycin.  And of course, I’m grateful for parents and doctors who don’t give up on helping me live even when my brain tricks me into wishing that they would.

IVIG #3: Third Time’s a Charm

Could IVIG #3 be the end of PANS for me?

Could IVIG #3 be the end of PANS for me?

Today, just two weeks after my third IVIG, I’m happy to say I’ve made tremendous progress. I’m no longer afraid of food and calories, so I’ve probably gained back about half of the weight I lost. I’ve gotten strong enough to run (slowly). My POTS symptoms are basically gone, and my parents have told me that there’s life in my eyes again. Oh, and I’ve even finished all of the summer coursework for the classes I had to take incompletes in—including a twelve-page research paper!

So am I better now? Is life perfectly peachy now that I’ve had IVIG?

Not even close.

As I’ve said in the past, IVIG is really only the beginning of recovery—not the end. I spent much of the summer trying to hold myself together long enough to make it to IVIG, but now that it’s over and I continue to struggle, I’m realizing I still have to keep holding myself together. It’s not like you get IVIG and then you’re better. No, it can be up to a year before IVIG has its full effect.

I’m no stranger to this long healing process, though—this is my third time going through it. But of course, I don’t like to think about how long it can take to get better and what it entails. I’m not going to lie to those of you out there doing this for the first time… It’s hard—but so worth it in the end.

Some days and weeks, you might do extremely well and maybe even forget PANDAS is part of your life. Others, you might be worse than you were before IVIG. But a lot of the time, you won’t be sure if IVIG has done much good at all. Yet the truth is, if it’s working (and it does fail 10-15% of the time), it’s probably working so slowly that you can’t even tell. Blogging and keeping track of symptoms has helped me in the past, because it’s given me reference points for comparison that showed me I was getting better, even if I didn’t feel like it.

Every IVIG is different, however, because it’s always a unique set of people’s antibodies, and you never know how your body will respond to them. (This is one reason it sometimes fails.)  You and I will have unique experiences with our different IVIGs.

Each time I’ve had this treatment, it’s taken a different amount of time to work. The first time, it was two months, and then it stopped working another two months later. The second time, I improved some right away, but it was nine months and a tonsillectomy later when I felt like my symptoms no longer interfered with my life. This time, I’ve also improved right away, but now I have to wait to see what happens next.

I know this might be a long and difficult journey, but I’m not afraid of it, and I’m optimistic that I’m going to beat PANS for good this time around. I’ve already made huge progress. Plus, my doctor says she’s finding IVIG to be more effective when you don’t have tonsils/adenoids like I don’t.

I can’t know what the future holds, but I’m choosing to believe that, when it comes to me and IVIG, the third time’s a charm.

Goodbye, Anorexia?

Did I really eat a restaurant without having a panic attack?

Did I really eat a restaurant without having a panic attack?

This week, I reached a turning point in recovering from my eating disorder.

Up until now, although I’ve known how destructive my restricting has been to my body and though part of me wanted to stop, anorexia had so much control over me that I wasn’t completely willing to give it up. I said a few weeks ago that I was going to start treatment for it, but honestly, I was so depressed the day of the appointment that I couldn’t get out of bed and just cancelled it.

But one day this week, I looked in the mirror and saw my ribcage awkwardly jutting out in front of what was left of my stomach. I’d now lost seventeen pounds and weighed less than I did in sixth grade. I noticed bones in places that I’d never seen before. I realized how terrible I felt all the time: I was always cold, I had headaches every day, I couldn’t fall asleep, my brain was foggy, and I was constantly forgetting things. All of my POTS symptoms were suddenly getting worse, too. Recent blood work showed anemia, and my doctor told me I’d be in the hospital soon if I didn’t start eating more. Most frightening of all, I was having constant chest pain, which could’ve be a sign that my body was starting to break down the heart muscles as it was running out of other fuel.

Indeed, I was slowly dying. Then again, anorexia had so taken me over that I wasn’t really living anymore anyway. I was terrified to think of being in the hospital with a feeding tube—but I was even more afraid to eat. How could anything change?

I wish it were as simple as just “snapping out of it” and deciding to eat more, but it’s not. The idea of eating an extra one hundred calories is enough to send me into a panic attack. My brain screams at me to restrict so loudly that I can no longer hear the voice of reason. Even when I know it could kill me eventually, anorexia has so much control over me that I will fight with everything I am to continue to restrict. I am a slave to my own torment.

Nevertheless, I found freedom this week with my third round of IVIG. I don’t understand it, but yesterday, I ate all three meals without even trying to count the calories—usually, I have to plan everything out ahead of time and be sure I’m not going to eat “too much.” I’m normally extremely anxious about going to restaurants because it’s so much harder to count the calories, but yesterday, it was fine; I enjoyed my meals like a normal person. It’s like that terrible demon called Anorexia has left me.

You see, with every IVIG infusion, I get a dose of a steroid called Solumedrol. In the past, I’ve noticed immediate relief from symptoms because of it, so if there was any doubt that my anorexia was related to brain inflammation, it’s gone now—you’re not supposed to get better from anorexia just because you had some steroids and immunoglobulins. But the real question is: will I stay better?

As I finish up this third round of IVIG today, I’m bracing myself for the post-IVIG flare that I always have two weeks later. I’ve decided to continue to see the psychiatrist every week for therapy, because I don’t want the restriction to creep back in. I’ve told my parents how they can hold me accountable, so that they can help be sure I don’t lose any more. I’m calling a nutritionist, because even if I were somehow totally “cured” of the mental aspects of anorexia, I still have to recover from the physical consequences of malnourishment.

I don’t know if or when this eating disorder will come back to enslave me again, but I do know that this time, I’m not going to listen. I reached my physical and mental breaking point this week, and I never want to go there again. Life has more to offer than starving myself and being tormented by food. I don’t like to think of what would happen if I continued with that, so I’m running as fast as I can toward recovery.

Goodbye, anorexia. Hello, life.

Why I Won’t Eat

You know it's a problem when you feel guilty about eating an apple.

You know it’s a problem when you feel guilty about eating an apple.

With this latest flare, I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder again.  Restricted food intake is one of the two major diagnostic criteria for PANS, so my new obsession is nothing unusual.  In fact, this is the third time in my life that I’ve faced an eating disorder: the first was when I was nine or ten and the second was in 2014.

This time, my eating problems began suddenly, a few days before a bad virus three months ago.  There have since been periods when I ate without guilt and felt no need to restrict, but at other times I’ve suddenly become completely tormented by food—classic PANS.  My eating disorder is, in essence, mental and physical torture.

PANS-related anorexia isn’t necessarily like typical Anorexia Nervosa, however. In my case, I’m fully aware that I’m too skinny, but I’m compelled to continue my restricting anyway. In the past, I’ve also restricted because I was convinced that virtually all food would make me throw up, so the only thing I would eat was one particular kind of fruit smoothie.  Now, I’m afraid eating will make me gain weight and lose control of myself, so I’m obsessed with consuming a certain number of calories each day.

Living with my PANDAS-triggered eating disorder is like watching myself drive towards a cliff and not being able to stop, even though I’m the one behind the wheel. I know my behavior is dangerous, but I feel compelled to continue anyway.  I know I’m losing an unsafe amount of weight, and I know it’s bad to not eat. But the anxiety caused by eating any more is so intense that I would rather continue to restrict. Even worse, there’s some part of me that derives a twisted form of pleasure from not eating.

Sometimes, I also still enjoy the taste of food, but I often feel bad about it afterwards. In my mind, no matter how little I’ve eaten, I’ve always eaten too much, so I’m always guaranteed to gain weight. I know what my doctors will say about me weighing only 96 pounds, and I know it’s dangerous to have lost 13% of my initial, healthy weight. But for some reason, I just feel like I need to keep going, and the torment surrounding this urge is too strong to resist.

All day long, I’m doing calorie math in my head, planning my meals for days. I feel guilty about what I ate, and unsatisfied with what I didn’t—PANDAS tells me I’ve never eaten too little.  I’m beyond exhausted all the time, and I fear it’s because I’m malnourished.

I never imagined I’d become so ill again. I never thought I’d take things this far. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I have a problem, because I believe so strongly that I’m still in control of my eating disorder. But part of me knows that while I thought restricting would give me control over my body, it’s instead made me lose all control I had left.

On some level, I find comfort in the “control” I think I have through restricting, but deep down, I know I can’t continue like this. Deep down, all I really want is to be able to enjoy food again without any guilt and to be strong enough to run.

I’m tired of food controlling my life, and I’m tired of feeling so bad, so I’ve decided to start outpatient treatment for my eating disorder. And of course, I’m going back to see my PANDAS doctor to address the brain inflammation that triggered it in the first place.  Finally, I’m going to have the Igenex labs run to test for Lyme and co-infections (in addition to a couple dozen other blood tests).

Although I’m scared to stop restricting, I’m so ready to be free and strong.  I’ve decided that, somehow, I’m going to eat with pleasure again. 

Why Antibiotics Are Necessary for PANS

Sometimes, you have to try a few antibiotics for PANS before you find the right one.

Sometimes, you have to try a few antibiotics for PANS before you find the right one.

Since being diagnosed with PANS, I’ve been on antibiotics for twenty months straight, save for one two-week break. I’ll continue until six months after my last symptom, or at the very least, through my senior year of college.

Over these months, I’ve tried a variety of antibiotics, including Augmentin XR and Cefdinir, but it was switching to Azithromycin in October that I believe was the final blow to my illness. The few mild symptoms that remain have little effect on my life.

Yet some critics might say that my taking antibiotics for twenty months is reckless—that I’m contributing to antibiotic resistance and an inevitable super-bug apocalypse. But these are the same doctors who will give a six-year-old anti-psychotics without investigating infectious triggers. So who’s the reckless one: the doctor who loads up a kindergartener on Abilify without running diagnostic tests, or the doctor who’s prescribing a year of Azithromycin, knowing it will keep me sane and healthy? Is it reckless to properly treat the underlying cause of a debilitating and potentially life-threatening illness?

Nevertheless, some skeptics argue that antibiotics merely have a placebo effect—that people are seeing a relationship between symptoms and antibiotics that doesn’t exist. But anyone who has PANDAS or who’s lived with a PANDAS child for any length of time may have observed the pattern of improvement with antibiotics over and over again—and knows it would be unscientific to claim these observations as mere coincidence.

But what about antibiotic resistance? What about the fact that antibiotics kill off beneficial gut bacteria? What about yeast infections? If PANDAS is just “sudden-onset pediatric OCD,” why not give kids an SSRI and send them to therapy? Why not treat the tics with some anti-psychotics? Surely long-term antibiotics are unhealthy, right?

If PANS could be effectively treated with therapy and anti-psychotics and SSRI’s alone, the PANS community would settle down and crowd into the offices of mainstream doctors, the kids would get better, and the families would go on thriving. But this isn’t the case. Treating infections is the most crucial part of recovering from PANS, because the infections are what trigger the symptoms in the first place. Any ongoing infections will continually provoke the immune system to create the antibodies that attack the brain and lead to symptoms. Thus, the infections need to be dealt with for healing to occur, and they need to be prevented for it to continue.

As for antibiotic resistance, more than half the antibiotics used in America are for agriculture. We should be worried about all the livestock being given antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes—not kids with PANDAS who take amoxicillan to stop bad antibodies from attacking their brains. Some people with PANDAS are literally dying. I would argue that they need antibiotics as much as someone with life-threatening bacterial pneumonia, for which no one ever questions the use of antibiotics.

But surely after twenty months of antibiotics, my gut flora is a wreck, isn’t it? Seeing as I’ve never had a yeast infection or diarrhea or nausea during this whole time, I’d say I’m just fine. In fact, I had stomach issues before I started antibiotics that have since resolved. I’m not alone in this—I’ve heard similar reports from many other families. (All this being said, yes, I do take a probiotic everyday—with 30 billion live cultures.)

Antibiotics are a critical part in the healing process of PANS. For some, they may be the only treatment needed. For others, they’re one of many therapies that work together.

If you’re just starting on the road of antibiotic treatment, my best advice would be to realize that it can take time for PANDAS symptoms to die down. In some cases, you get worse before you get better.

Antibiotics are still drugs with risks, and using them shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, with PANDAS, the bigger risk is often to leave the trigger of the disease untreated.

Why PANDAS Awareness Matters

2015-awareness-basic-logo-small

As I made my way through the halls to my neurologist’s office last May, I stopped in my tracks as I saw a face I recognized. She was receiving IVIG and roaming the halls hooked up to an IV bag pole, accompanied by her mother and a nurse. She was exhausted. There was no light in her eyes. She had a sense of burden and deep sadness about her that penetrated to the depths of her soul.

Once you’ve seen the face of a child with PANDAS, you can never forget it.

Over the last year, I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories about what this illness can do. I’ve seen the look of terror in children’s faces and the grief and weariness in the parents’ eyes. I’ve watched as my own life fell apart, flare by flare, and I’ve spent what should’ve been my best years wanting nothing more than to find my lost mind.

Although PANDAS and PANS are curable, getting a diagnosis, let alone proper treatment, is far too difficult. It took me eight years to find an answer. It took me declining so much that I could longer walk, lost twelve pounds in two weeks (that I absolutely didn’t have to lose), and was psych-ward-worthy depressed and suicidal before doctors finally admitted that there could be a single cause to an alleged list of seven different syndromes and illnesses.

And I am one of the lucky ones.

My story has a happy ending. After two IVIG’s, a tonsillectomy, and a year of antibiotics and steroids, today, though I still have symptoms and take medications, I have my life back. I’m living independently, attending a prestigious university, earning straight-A’s, and making my mark in my chosen field. But without treatment, I would still be spending my days homebound, sleeping for up to twenty hours each day, unable to walk, and constantly watched by my parents so I wouldn’t hurt myself.

Sadly, my story may still be the exception—not because PANDAS is rare, but because it is common and many people may never receive a diagnosis. PANDAS/PANS is likely responsible for as much as 25% of cases of childhood OCD and Tourette’s. As many as 1 in 200 children may have this devastating condition. While some may outgrow it, for others like me, left untreated, it could lead to a lifetime of mental illness and disability.

To make matters worse, there are only a handful of doctors in the US who are considered to be experts in treating PANDAS and PANS. Their practices are overrun with cases. Waiting lists can be long. And when you finally do get an appointment and a diagnosis, treatments such as IVIG and plasmapheresis are outrageously expensive and are often not completely covered by insurance. If you’re fortunate, antibiotics might be enough to put you into remission, but sometimes, insurance won’t cover these, either.

While thousands of children and families are suffering, too many doctors are debating whether this condition even exists. Many doctors have the nerve to send families on their way, blaming debilitating symptoms on “bad parenting” or “school stress.” If we had a dime for every time we were told PANDAS is “controversial” or “not well understood,” perhaps we could pay for our IVIG treatments!

387,000 children in America (1 in 200) need treatment and shouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles just to find a doctor who won’t dismiss their symptoms. Tens of thousands still just need answers.

October 9th is PANDAS/PANS Awareness Day. Help us raise awareness. Help us tell more doctors and psychologists so that it doesn’t take so many years of suffering to get a diagnosis. Help us get more insurance companies to recognize PANS and cover more treatments so that more patients can get the care they need.

PANDAS/PANS needs awareness because that sad girl in the hallway is in every elementary school across America—yet many of her may never know why she suddenly lost her joy and personality.

I believe that if those of us who have been diagnosed keep making noise, there will be a day when it is unheard of for a doctor to deny the existence of such a devastating syndrome. I believe there will be a day when the only thing parents have to worry about when their child gets PANS is helping him get better—not finding a believing doctor, not wondering how they can bring a terrified and uncontrollable child across the country for a consultation, and not paying for treatment.

But until then, I will keep writing and raising awareness, because for so many, that day can’t come soon enough.

PANS Symptoms Pic-small

PANS/PANDAS is an autoimmune reaction triggered by Strep, Pneumonia, Lyme, Mono, Stress, etc. resulting in an acute onset of neuropsychiatric symptoms that can include: separation anxiety, OCD, tics, age regression, ADHD, sleep difficulties, personality changes, urinary feequency, irritability, rage, sensory sensitivities, deterioration in learning abilities, and anorexia.

What I Wish I Knew Before IVIG

There are some things doctors don't tell you about recovery...

There are some things doctors don’t tell you about recovery…

Last week, I celebrated the one-year mark since my first IVIG. It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, yet my recovery has seemed to go so much slower than I thought it would.

There are many things that no one ever told me before my first IVIG. I was warned about the fatigue and nausea and headaches afterward and the post-IVIG flare that would come in a few weeks. I was even warned it could take a year before all my symptoms went away, but I was never told what that year might be like.

So I decided to write a letter to my pre-IVIG self. Everyone has a different recovery road. Some people heal in less time than I’ve taken, and others take longer. This is what I would’ve found helpful, but I’d love to know what my fellow PANS warriors wish they’d known before treatment, too…

Dear Me,

You’re in for a crazy ride. You’re sick right now (and don’t even realize how bad it is), but you’re going to get better. You’re going to return to yourself. There will come a day when you are tormented no more. There will come a day when you enjoy your life again. There will come a day when you can spend time with your friends. There will come a day when you are able to eat without getting nauseous and anxious. There will come a day when you don’t have involuntary movements during every waking moment.

But it’s going to be a hard journey that will require you to fight harder than you think you can fight. Along the way, you will have awful flares. You will have times when you are terrified of yourself again. You will have times when you want to give up. You will have times when you will be mad at your parents for wanting to save you. But you’re stronger than you’d ever dare to believe, and you’re going to come out of this more alive than you were before you got ill.

During those times when you seem to be getting worse or going in circles, remember that there isn’t a straight path to recovery. Sometimes, you will take two steps forward and one step back. Other times, you will take two steps back and one step forward. IVIG is the beginning of recovery—not the end. Unfortunately, recovery doesn’t happen overnight like the onset of PANS—it often happens so slowly that you won’t notice you’re getting much better.

Still, even if you know you’re moving forward and that PANS isn’t a permanent illness, there will be moments when you’ll be sure you can’t go on another day. When you feel like that, take some ibuprofen and remember how far you’ve already come. If you’ve made it this far, you can make it the rest of the way to healing.

It will be a long road, and you’re going to feel sad and angry and confused sometimes. Lean on the people who care about you, and don’t look down on yourself for fighting this disease. It isn’t your fault. Give yourself permission to take it easy, and don’t feel bad about it. You are battling a serious illness, and your body needs rest in order to heal.

There will be a lot of days when you don’t feel like yourself, but you are still in there. You are ill, but you are not broken or any less of a person for having this disease. Don’t give up. Better days ahead.

Did I Lose My Mind to a… Sink?

Could a dirty sink trigger an autoimmune attack in my brain?

Could a dirty sink trigger an autoimmune attack in my brain?

Serratia marcescens… What in the world is that? An Italian dish? An exotic island town? Neither. It’s the name of a bacteria that you’ve probably never heard of—a bacteria that had taken up residence in my tonsils.

Serratia can be found anywhere, but it thrives in hospitals and in damp spaces like bathrooms. If you see a pink or orangish ring around a drain (such as mine, pictured above), it might be Serratia. Most people never have trouble living near the organism, but for some, it can cause serious problems. It can attack the heart. It can cause urinary tract infections. It can live in the gut. It can even cause bacterial meningitis. For me, having it in my tonsils was likely an ongoing trigger making my immune system attack my brain.

But I never would’ve imagined I had this bacteria in my tonsils, especially since they looked small and healthy before they were removed. Although I’ve been having fewer PANS symptoms since my tonsillectomy, I was incredibly skeptical that there would be any infection found, let alone something as strange as Serratia. For years, I’ve been accustomed to undergoing all manner of blood work and tests only to have negative results.

But the other day, as I logged into the online portal to read the pathology report on my tonsils and adenoids, I was shocked to see the words, “Serratia marcescens tonsillitis.” The bacteria were not only in both of my tonsils, but in my adenoids as well, along with white blood cells. Interestingly, there wasn’t a trace of Strep or Mycoplasma pneumoniae or MRSA or any of the other more common findings in PANDA tonsils.

After months of not knowing why I was flaring every two to three weeks, I finally had a possible explanation.

I called my GP and shared the news, and she wanted to rule out an infection in any other part of my body. This meant sticking what looked like a long Q-tip up my nose, another around my butt, having me pee in a cup, and another needle-stick in my arm for a blood culture. All of these cultures came back negative, so it turns out that I’m infection-free now!

It’s unnerving to think that I had no idea there was a terrible bacteria living in part of my body this whole time. It’s even more unsettling to realize that an occult infection was essentially making me lose my mind. This is the kind of thing that could be the premise of a Sci-fi horror movie… But it’s just real life for me.

Although having this bacteria in my tonsils could explain my very frequent flares, I will always wonder: how did I get Serratia in the first place? Maybe it was the dirty sink or my orange-stained shower curtain. Maybe it wasn’t. I’ll never know. All I know is that I’m 90-95% symptom free with my tonsils and the infection gone. Whatever provoked my immune system to attack my brain and ruin my mind is gone now.

So what’s next? I’ve gone seven weeks without a flare—the longest flare-free period in the last year. If I do have another major flare again, my doctor wants me to do a three-week course of Bactrim instead of a Prednisone burst, because maybe, I’ve been flaring whenever I’m fighting off Serratia. Unfortunately, S. marcescens is resistant to many antibiotics, including penicillan-based antibiotics, so the Augmentin XR I’ve taken since October has offered no protection against it.

As for the sink… My mom has since scrubbed it out with bleach—same with the shower curtain. In order to kill this bacteria, you need to use bleach or hydrogen peroxide; it’s resistant to many other household disinfectants. I know this because, strangely, I did a long Biology report in high school about preventing S. marcescens infections.  For all I know, the whole time, the bacteria was living in my own tonsils. Oh, the irony!

Now, I’m Serratia-free, and my bathroom appears to be, too. I may not know for sure how I became infected, but one thing is certain: I’ll never again look at another pink ring in a sink in the same way!

Why Bedtime Can Be Terrifying

How can you sleep when the PANDAS bear follows you to bed?

How can you sleep when the PANDAS bear follows you to bed?

Tap, tap, tap.

It’s 2 AM, and someone is at my bedroom door. I bolt awake and hold still so they don’t know I’m in the room. I slowly reach for my phone and think about texting my parents to come help me.

But I’m all alone. No one is at the door.

I’m hallucinating again.

I try to tell myself that what I heard wasn’t real. I try to tell myself that my brain is playing tricks on me again. But no matter what I do, I’m afraid. I may be twenty years old, but sometimes, I still ask my mom to sleep in my room because falling asleep can be so frightening.

When I’ve been at my worst, my hallucinations have also happened while I was wide awake. Usually, these hallucinations were just colored blobs floating around me, but the first time it happened, I was twelve and too scared to tell anyone, so I wrote about in my journal:

Journal Entry

“I was lying in my bed… When I looked at the lower left hand corner of the bed, I saw a clearish thing with two black dots, about two inches from top to bottom. I think I saw a spirit of some kind. Be it an angel or a fallen angel or something else that I’m unaware of, I don’t know. I’m a bit freaked out right now.”

If you think seeing “spirits” around my bed or having an auditory hallucination of someone knocking on my door is terrifying, last fall, I woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a giant black bear snarling at me next to my bed. In the moment, it was completely real to me, and I screamed. But I quickly realized the only bear in my apartment that night was the PANDAS bear in my brain…

More recently, if I’ve hallucinated, they’ve been mild auditory hallucinations such as the tapping noise at my door, and they only happen while falling asleep or waking up (hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations). Now, I’ve managed to go several weeks without a nighttime hallucination, but I still worry about it happening sometimes.

Right now, what makes bedtime so difficult is that, for the first hour I’m in bed, I often go through periods of being half-asleep and then suddenly startling awake. My thoughts begin to turn into half-asleep dreams, and out-of-nowhere, a troubling (and often irrational) idea comes and disturbs me so much that I wake up:

Oh no! I say to myself. I must not believe in God anymore.

My eyes spring open, and I try to talk myself down from the troubling thought: It’s just my OCD. It’s not true. I can’t decide anything about my faith in a state like this. I need to just go back to sleep.

A few minutes later, I fall asleep, and it happens again:

Oh my gosh! What would’ve happened if I’d fallen off that cruise ship I was on five years ago?! I could’ve died.

Just as I’ve calmed my mind and gone back to sleep, I’m bothered again:

Wait a minute… Did I really pass all my classes this semester? Wasn’t there something else I needed to do?

The first week after my tonsillectomy, after a couple days when the swelling went down, I had no trouble falling asleep because of the narcotics. Now that I’m healed and off the pain killers, I’ve had less nights of startling awake with fear, but I still wake up more often than I should. Bedtime still isn’t easy, because I’m still anxious about getting in bed in the first place.

The way I see it, bad things happen in bed… My OCD onset happened when I was eleven while I was in bed. My worst panic attack ever and the start of my chorea movements happened last summer while I was in bed. I’ve seen growling bears and floating “demons” while in bed. I’ve woken up with my arms completely numb and paralyzed in bed. I’ve woken up screaming for no apparent reason while in bed.

Sometimes, I think a lot of the anxiety I experience now isn’t a symptom of my disease anymore so much as a consequence of having lived with it for so long. How could I not be anxious about a part of my day that has been so unpleasant for me for so many years? How could I not worry about frightening hallucinations happening again?

Earlier in the summer, my nighttime symptoms were so bad that my psychiatrist wanted me to take anti-psychotics before bed. But now, I think the best thing for me is to work through the anxiety and relearn to think of sleep as, not a time of torment, but a time of rest.

Tonsillectomy and… Hope?

So Many Popsicles

My breakfast, lunch, and dinner!

When I first found out that I needed a tonsillectomy, I made three appointments with three different doctors at two hospitals. While this may sound excessive, based on past experiences, I knew the first doctor or two might refuse to do the surgery as soon as I mentioned PANDAS, especially since my tonsils looked healthy on the outside.

Indeed, when my records were sent to the first doctor, my appointment was cancelled within two hours and my case passed to a different doctor in the practice.

Sadly, more often than not, telling a doctor you have PANDAS is just asking to be laughed at and dismissed. Many doctors don’t believe in PANDAS (let alone the newer term PANS) because they’re unaware of the growing research and evidence, and others don’t know enough to take it seriously.

Most doctors, if they believe PANDAS/PANS exists at all, assume it is extremely rare and only presents in a young child as an obvious, overnight onset of OCD. This is certainly the most common presentation, but according to Dr. Swedo, the idea that PANDAS only exists in prepubescent children was an arbitrary distinction for the original study. Still, in the minds of most doctors, to have me, a twenty-year-old, say I have this obscure pediatric disorder is preposterous (never mind that it started before I hit puberty).

While my case being dropped by the first doctor seemed like a bad sign, when I met with the new doctor at my appointment, he knew more about PANDAS than most and actually agreed to do the surgery after I told my story and explained the severity of my symptoms.

So that’s how I found myself last week trustingly lying in an operating room at the same hospital that had failed me so many other times over the years.

This was the hospital that discharged me from the ER last summer without a single test when I suddenly had severe chorea movements. This was the hospital whose neurologists had said PANDAS was “too poorly understood” to be considered as an explanation for my rapid decline. This was the hospital whose psychologists completely missed my severe OCD when I was twelve. Disturbingly, this was also the hospital consistently ranked as one of the best in the nation.

But last week, the hospital redeemed itself to me.

As I waited in the pre-op room, sniffing, grunting, and twitching involuntarily from my latest tics, I actually felt as though everyone not only believed me, but actually wanted to help me. I usually feel like I have to fight for every little bit of care I get, but this time, they were fighting for me. This time, I didn’t have to partially cover up my diagnosis by only saying I have Autoimmune Encephalitis (but not PANS). Everyone knew my full diagnosis, but they were all-the-more eager to help.

My operating room was crowded with residents, interns, and medical school students trying to get a look at this unusual creature—this real, live PANDA bear—because they saw that we exist outside of a “theoretical disease” briefly mentioned in their textbooks. There were whispers of my case in the halls—not because they were mocking my diagnosis as usual, but because they were fascinated. These young doctors genuinely wanted to learn about PANDAS/PANS so that someday, they could perhaps know how to treat their own patients with the disorder.

For the first time, doctors at a regular hospital were giving my illness the attention it deserves—and giving me the treatment I needed.

If there’s one word I felt to describe the day, it would be “hope.” I felt hope because more doctors finally believed in my disease. I felt hope that someday, other PANDA’s from my hometown wouldn’t have to travel to out-of-town specialists for treatment—someday our own “world-class” hospital might treat more of us. Most of all, I felt hope that I had finally found the treatment that would bring me back the rest of the way…

Ever since I came out of surgery, I haven’t had a single tic.  The day before, I’d developed two new vocal tics that got more and more disruptive as the day went on.  I know—tics usually increase with anxiety.  But why have I also found myself suddenly carrying out fewer and fewer compulsions this week—and not getting extremely anxious over not doing them?

As always, there are a lot of variables at work.  Still, I can’t deny that, aside from a sore, gnarly-looking throat and fatigue from leftover anesthesia, I’m feeling great in every other way.  (And I’m not in nearly as much pain as people tried to scare me into thinking I’d be in.)  To me, what happened this week is a good enough reason to keep hoping for continuing progress.

What’s It Like to Survive a Flare?

IMG_3864-small

This week, I finally hit the post-IVIG flare that we were all dreading.  Thanks to a six-day burst of high-dose Prednisone, I’ve come out of it now, but I hope I don’t have to go through that ever again.  Unfortunately, I probably will.

Until my most recent IVIG, my flares were getting worse and worse.  One night a few weeks ago, I found myself spacing out at the kitchen table for about two hours, unable to make myself get up, because I had too many OCD compulsions. When I realized I’d been doing nothing for two hours and thought about how hard it would be to do anything with the burden of OCD, I just lost it—I spent twenty minutes walking around my apartment screaming and hitting the walls.

On another night, I similarly started screaming, but then ran outside and sprinted for half a mile in the rain at 1:30 in the morning. Shapes were rising out of the bushes during the run—shadows were everywhere… I realized I was hallucinating.

This week’s flare wasn’t nearly as bad—my latest IVIG seems to be damping things down.  This time around, my flare consisted of depression, feeling detached from everything and being “out-of-it,” some of the worst tics and choreiform movements since the summer, bad memory problems, and crying about everything for no reason.  The flare wasn’t pleasant, but at least I wasn’t hallucinating.

At this point, I’ve become a master of knowing when I’m about to flare. It’s true that all my flares happen very suddenly, but there are a few warning signs…

The first clue for me is that I start to have a hard time making myself do anything in the hours leading up to the flare. I lose interest in things. If I’ve made plans, I cancel them if at all possible. It’s almost like my body knows it needs to conserve energy to brace for the coming battle—before I consciously know it’s coming.

The second clue is that my physical pain suddenly gets worse. As a result of another condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, I’m almost always in some amount of pain, but this is different. I start to get this strange, dull ache all across the backs of my arms and sometimes in my legs, too.  Before this week’s flare, I went to bed and had that pain in my arms and thought a flare would be coming. The next morning, I had no other signs of flaring, but sure enough, that afternoon, I fell off the cliff.

Another sign of a coming flare is that my cognitive issues suddenly get worse—especially the word-finding problems.  I don’t know the names of everyday objects.  I try to articulate myself, but I say things in the wrong order and get the tenses of my verbs wrong. Sometimes I know how I want to say something, but it doesn’t come out of my mouth that way.  I find that increased word-finding difficulties might happen only a few minutes before the worst of the flare.

But what’s it like to experience a flare?  The tics and other movements are obvious. You can see the “look of terror” I get with my widened eyes. You can watch me having a panic attack. You can hear me yelling at my parents. You can notice me doing more compulsions than usual. If you could read my mind, you’d know that the looping, intrusive thoughts start happening much more often. But it’s more than all of that—flaring feels like losing yourself.  It’s like something outside of yourself takes control and snatches who you are away.

When I flare, it feels like someone is taking things out of my mind and hiding them—and refusing to tell me how to get anything back.  I look for the words to speak, but this monster has set them up in a high place I cannot reach. I try to remember what happened the week before, who that familiar face is that I’ve seen hundreds of times, or even what I was in the middle of doing, but it has all been stolen out of my mind, and I don’t know where the monster has put any of it—I just know it’s all gone.

When I flare, it feels like I’m living in another world, unable to traverse the chasm that is my mind in order to be with everyone else.  I know I can’t think clearly about anything, but I cannot specifically tell you what about me is “off.”  I may try to go about my day as usual, but the world doesn’t quite make sense, and I feel like I’m somewhere else. The scary thing is that I never know how far away I’ve been until I come back out of the flare—and then it’s like I have been away for a long time am rediscovering all the wonderful things about the world and the people around me.

Coming out of a flare is like getting the proper prescription at the eye doctor—you didn’t know what you had been missing until you saw clearly again. You knew things weren’t quite in focus, but you never could’ve imagined all the details you once missed—but now, everything seems even more beautiful since you can fully see it.

I often wonder how many more times I’ll have to go through these flares. I’m not myself at all when I flare, so I feel as though I’m living between the flares, hoping to have as full of a life as possible.  I go to college like everyone else. I have friends. I even make straight-A’s.  But I live with the constant reality that I could flare at any moment.

I try to live the life I want to live between the flares because when you never know when you’ll lose yourself next, you have to make the most of every moment and cherish each day that you get. I lose my perspective on everything when I flare, but if I can look at all I accomplish in the better times, I can maybe know on some level that I am still me—no matter how much each flare makes me feel otherwise.

Why Kids with PANDAS Are Brave

Recently, I had the chance to meet with a family who had two kids with PANS. We had some great conversations, and I’ll probably write a whole other post about our meeting another time. But there was one exchange between me and the seven-year-old that I can’t stop thinking about:

Me: “You’re very brave.”
Little PANDA: “Why?”

He was clearly surprised by my statement. I could tell that this idea was completely novel to him and that no one had told him this before. I didn’t expect a seven-year-old to have spent a great deal of time cogitating on the way he’s handling a disease, but I still found it curious that he had no concept that he was brave for continuing to fight it. I’ve thought about his reaction for awhile, though, and now it makes perfect sense…

You see, when you’re a kid with PANDAS or PANS, you live in a world of fear and anxiety. One day, you were fine, and the next, everything became scary. You don’t understand the things you do anymore, and sometimes, you’re even afraid of yourself because you don’t know when you’ll lose control next. You feel like a coward for being worried about things you know don’t make any sense—things that no one else around you fears. You feel crazy. You feel trapped. You feel anything but brave.

If you’re a seven-year-old living in that kind of world, of course you’d never think about how brave you are. But you can have courage and not even know it…

“You’re brave because you’re fighting against PANDAS,” I told him. “That’s a hard thing, but you’re doing it.”
Little PANDA: “Is my sister brave, too?”
Me: “Yes, she’s brave, too.”

PANDAs are not cowardly for having severe anxiety. They are not weak for losing control of their emotions. They are not crazy for carrying out compulsions. They are not freaks for having tics and other involuntary movements. No, they are children doing their best at fighting a devastating disease that’s attacking their brains—a disease they cannot control. None of us ever wanted to do odd behaviors and angrily lash out at our parents—when we do it, most of us only feel worse about ourselves afterwards. We hate all these symptoms, but we are doing the best we can to get through each day—and that takes courage.

Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid. Brave is going on in spite of the fear—and this is what all PANDAs are doing every day, whether they realize it or not. I hope more and more parents will start to understand this and remind their children that having irrational fears and continuing to fight them is brave.

Getting Over the Trauma of OCD

I usually say I’m mostly free from my OCD. Indeed, I no longer have to cancel out every intrusive thought that enters my mind, and I don’t have to double-check everything I say or write for a blasphemous double-meaning. Without hesitation, I can read passages of Scripture that once sent me into a full-blown panic attack. I’ve truly come a long way, but lately, I’ve been realizing that my fight isn’t over.

What I’ve been through as a result of Scrupulosity OCD was extremely traumatic. Do you know what it was like, as a devout Christian, to believe that you would be forever separated from the God you loved with your whole heart? To me, this was the worst thing that could have happened, and as far as I knew, it had happened.

The pain was real, even though the reality was totally different. The truth is, I just had a disease that manifested itself as extreme OCD that happened to take the form of religious obsessions and compulsions. No matter the content, all OCD is essentially the same. It wasn’t a “spiritual” issue any more than it was when I caught mono last year (and subsequently descended into the worst flare of my life).

I wish Scrupulosity got more attention both in the OCD community and in churches and other religious organizations. How many people are secretly tormented by unwanted thoughts and believe that God is mad at them because of their struggle? How many people are worried that they need an exorcism, when really, they have a misfiring brain that can be treated? Even one person going through what I have is too many.

Words are completely inadequate to describe the despair of feeling as though the next intrusive thought that came into my mind could ruin me forever—and living with the awful suspicion that I’d already doomed myself to an eternity apart from God. Scrupulosity is surely the closest thing to Hell that exists on this side of the grave.

If I told you it was once like the constant dripping of a Chinese water torture in your own mind, it wouldn’t begin to describe the torment.

If I said it was like being blind and deaf and unable to run while knowing you were being followed around by a hungry tiger, it couldn’t describe the incessant anxiety.

If I told you it was like having someone dangle you out the window of an airplane to drop you at any moment, it couldn’t communicate the sense of impending doom.

Even if my OCD were completely gone (which it is not), I still couldn’t just get over the sheer trauma of what it once did to me.   Sometimes, I still blame myself for not being “brave” enough to try to get help sooner–and for concealing my OCD so well.  But I was petrified and did the best I could.

While I may no longer have the compulsions surrounding my obsession of being unforgivable, the anxiety is still here; I am terrified of ever having to go through that pain again. Every time I go to church, every time I read the Bible, every time I just try to worship, that sense of imminent doom follows me there, because I can never forget how OCD once used my faith to torment me. I’m always waiting for the next obsession to come that will leave me paralyzed with anxiety all over again.

Sometimes, I think that OCD is going to make the very thing I feared the most come true for real—me walking away from God. How can I possibly keep believing when it hurts so much? How can I possibly trust in a God that I am, on some level, still afraid of? How can I ever get over what happened to me?

I’m mad at God—partially for letting these horrible things happen, but mostly because He has seemed so silent through much of my ordeal. Where was God during all those nights I spent alone in my room, sweating through panic attacks over Bible verses my brain abused? Why didn’t He just plainly tell me, “Hey, I’m not like that. Don’t listen to those lies…”

But don’t you see? Even if Christ Himself had appeared to me and assured me that none of my obsessions were anything to worry about, my OCD would’ve still moved on to find another thing to torment me. And I’m convinced if I had never had Scrupulosity, I would’ve had another kind of OCD—just like how now, it has become mostly contamination fears.

I know that God isn’t like my OCD—He’s not just waiting for the next opportunity to torment me and make me as miserable as possible. No, I’ve experienced His love for myself and on some level, I do know that He is the Perfect, Good Father that He says He is.

But I can’t fully believe it—not yet, anyway.

Yes, it’s true that I have a long way to go in the healing process. But I can’t help but be grateful that I am even at a place where I can recognize that I have OCD and am not a reprobate or a spiritual failure. Had I not figured out I had OCD, I certainly wouldn’t know I have PANDAS. Considering the severity of my symptoms, I might not still be here had I not gotten a proper diagnosis and treatment in time.

As traumatic as my life with Scrupulosity was, remembering it and then seeing how far I’ve come gives me hope that someday, I’ll get to a place where the pain no longer haunts me.

What I Wish I’d Told My Parents

This time of the year is always difficult for me. Seven years ago at this time, I had the worst PANDAS flare of my life and descended into a terrifying world of OCD, odd behavior, insomnia, and depression. For a time, my symptoms completely tore apart my family.

I’ll never forget when I first made my parents cry. I was twelve years old, and we didn’t even know I had OCD, let alone PANS.  Had we known, things never would have gotten so bad.  My parents were almost as terrified as I was at the change they had seen in me.

I thought I was going crazy. I had to speak a certain way. I had to walk “just right.” I needed to be sure I chewed my food in a particular manner. And God-forbid if I breathed the wrong way… I also felt like I needed to jump out of the second-story window of my room. Why? I didn’t know. It just seemed like something I should do—it wasn’t because I was trying to hurt myself. I would impulsively taste things that shouldn’t be tasted—like shower gels and wet rocks I found in the woods. Again, I didn’t know why I did those things, but I just felt like I had to.

I refused to do my schoolwork. I looked at the words on the page of my textbooks, and they become horrible blasphemous thoughts in my mind. The thoughts never left me alone. Every moment of every day, no matter what I did, there they were to torment me. Everything I did was used against me to become something terribly immoral that showed I was a wicked child. To me, having the thoughts come was just as bad as saying them out-loud and meaning them—damning and perhaps unforgivable.

During school, I would sit and stare at the blank lines of my notebook paper, unable to explain that I was terrified of what the words I was supposed to write could become in my mind. My mom (who homeschooled me at the time), eventually would become exasperated, and I would run out of the room both because I couldn’t handle the OCD thoughts and because I couldn’t stand to make her so upset. But I couldn’t even tell her that I never wanted it to be that way. I didn’t want to not work. I didn’t want to make her cry. I just wanted the thoughts to not be there.

“Why are you doing this to your mother?” my dad asked one night, as the three of us sat around the kitchen table. “She is sacrificing her time to teach you, and you aren’t even trying to work with her.”

I will forever remember that lonely tear that streamed down my mom’s face at that moment. My best friend, teacher, and care-taker had now become someone I had deeply wounded by unintentionally fighting against her.

I never meant it. I wished I could tell my parents that I wasn’t trying to upset them. I longed to break my silence and explain my inner battle, but telling anyone the horrible thoughts I was having would show them how terrible of a person I really was. So I sat there in silence that night, unable to respond with even one word, because whatever I said would be turned into another obscene thought in my mind. I couldn’t let that happen, because it might get me thrown into Hell forever.

“Why won’t you answer me?” my dad said.

“I—I…” I couldn’t get the words out. Another thought had come into my mind, and I had to be sure I canceled it properly before going on. “I—just… I don’t know. I am—I can’t.” The thoughts were overwhelming my mind again, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to know I had cancelled them properly if I said anything else.

I couldn’t handle seeing my parents so upset anymore. I ran upstairs and slammed the door to my room and cried. Why was this happening to me? How could I have let my mind become so out of control? I knew I had no control over the thoughts, yet I was somehow convinced they were all my fault.

If there is one thing I would have told my parents back then if I could have (besides telling them that I actually had an autoimmune disorder causing all my OCD and strange behaviors), I would tell them that I hated what I had become and what I was doing to them. I would tell them that I didn’t want to be doing any of it—I was simply scared out of my mind, by my own mind.  I wished I could have told them that all the pain I caused them was wounding me even more.

I longed for my parents to understand the constant terror that I lived in and the feeling of utter hopelessness so that they could see I wasn’t just being a brat. I wanted to not feel like I was so alone. But I was afraid that talking about the thoughts would end up proving to me and everyone else that I really was a reprobate. As painful as it was, it seemed like the only thing I could do was to keep pretending that my silence and school-refusal was just me being a rebellious preteen.

After three months in a perpetual state of OCD fear and bizarre and even dangerous behaviors, I finally began to come out of the flare. Looking back, I had been having joint pain, fatigue, and consistent low-grade fevers throughout the entire episode—symptoms of another strep-related illness called Rheumatic Fever. When these began to disappear, so did all my psychiatric symptoms. (Of course, my pediatrician at the time never even thought to do a strep culture and wrote it all off as “depression” and “isolation from homeschooling.”)

It took five years of time passing and me eventually being able to name my intrusive thoughts and compulsions as OCD before I would even let my parents bring up anything about what happened in 2007. When I came out of the flare sometime in early 2008, I apologized profusely for the wounds I unwillingly made in my relationship with them. But those wounds did heal, and my brain is healing, too. Today, my parents and I have a great relationship, and of course, now they understand what I was dealing with—and they remind me it was never my fault.

I wish I could have told my parents in 2007 where things would be today.  I wish they could have seen me now, in my right mind, going to college.  I wish I could have told my parents that, even though I was going to have another terrible flare at nineteen that led to a misdiagnosis of narcolepsy, made me temporarily lose the ability to walk, and caused a tic disorder to appear overnight, we would finally find the answer to all of my strange symptoms.  I wish I could have told my parents that even though my case was extreme, I was going to get 100% better.

Most of all, I would tell my parents “thank-you” for persevering through my strange behavior in 2007, for not giving up on finding a diagnosis, and for sticking by me as I continue to recover today.

I Had OCD for 6 Years… And Didn’t Know

This week has been OCD Awareness week. Up to this point, I haven’t discussed my OCD very much, but I think it’s time to change that. An overnight onset of OCD is the hallmark symptom of PANDAS/PANS—which I had almost eight years ago.

For six years, I concealed from my parents and psychologists the torturous obsessions that ran through my mind because I was so afraid of and ashamed of them. Not all OCD is caused by PANDAS/PANS, but no matter what causes OCD, it is a devastating and frightening disorder when left untreated—especially when you don’t know you have OCD, as was my case for six years.

Because I have PANDAS, I can tell you the day that my OCD started. (With non-PANDAS/PANS OCD, the onset isn’t so sudden.)  I was eleven. I went to bed one night, and while reading in bed, a terrible blasphemous thought entered my mind. Most people would have let it go, but I couldn’t.  In an instant, my whole world was turned upside down as my body produced an autoimmune response against my brain that gave me PANDAS, and thus, OCD.  I began having the first panic attack of my life, because I suddenly had an irrational fear that the one intrusive thought had doomed me to Hell.

What could I do? I was eleven years old, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents my terrible fate of eternal damnation. I couldn’t tell them about the thought either, because then they would know how bad of a person I was for having it come into my mind in the first place. There are no words to describe the horror that I felt, and the worst part was the feeling of being alone—that I couldn’t tell anyone and that even God had turned against me. There was no hope.

I was not doomed to Hell of course, but living with PANDAS-triggered Scrupulosity OCD sure felt like it. Before long, my mind was a constant cacophony of intrusive blasphemous thoughts that I hated. Every time I read a book, the words morphed into even worse thoughts. When I walked, the rhythm of my steps became an obscene word. It got to the point where I literally wouldn’t write or say anything because everything turned into an intrusive thought…

Even if I answered a question someone asked me by saying “Yes,” I was afraid I would actually be affirming a “bad thought”—even if the conversation had absolutely nothing to do with my thoughts. If I said “No,” I might cancel out a “good thought,” which would have been just as bad. The worst feeling was wondering whether or not I had “cancelled out” the bad thoughts properly, because sometimes, I would lose track of my mental rituals. One time, I accidentally said one of the intrusive thoughts out-loud, and I worried about whether I cancelled it properly for the next five years.

At eleven years old, I thought I had to be going crazy. I couldn’t understand why it seemed like my mind was full of thoughts that weren’t my own; I wondered if I was possessed. I knew that no one should be afraid of the things I feared. At the same time, I felt like I had to keep following the rules and doing the compulsions just in case they were rational. What if everyone else was crazy and I was sane?

With OCD, there’s always another what-if and another precaution that you have to take in order to neutralize an obsession. For some people, the obsession is getting sick or getting someone else sick, so they wash their hands a particular way and a certain number of times in order to stop that bad thing from happening.  For me, the obsession was Divine judgement, so I become consumed by morality and carried out silent mental compulsions to “cancel out” any kind of immoral thought that entered my mind. It was as if I always had to decontaminate my mind. Of course, it was never really decontaminated, because the intrusive thoughts would come back as soon as I tried to stop them.

So how in the world did I escape from that prison?  When I was seventeen, in the second worst OCD flare of my life, for the first time, I began to ask a different what-if… What if these thoughts were not my fault? A lightbulb went off. I remembered reading an article in Readers Digest that said OCD involved repetitive unwanted thoughts.  I googled OCD, and a chill ran down my spine as I read a description of the Scrupulosity type and realized it was everything I had been experiencing since I was eleven. It took a couple weeks, but I eventually worked up the courage to tell my parents I needed help.

Today, I can say that, thanks to therapy, I am 90% free from Scrupulosity.  Because I have PANDAS, my OCD gets dramatically better and worse over time, and I still have contamination OCD.  Even so, thanks to Exposure therapy, my OCD has never gotten as bad as it once was.

Somewhere, in the middle of my OCD mess, I met a loving God that wasn’t just waiting to smite me the moment I didn’t cancel a thought properly. When I realized who God was, over a few months I was eventually able to stop my mental rituals on the leap of faith that they weren’t necessary. It was terrifying, but the moment I stopped believing the intrusive thoughts had any power was the moment I was set free.

If I had known sooner that OCD could take the form of intrusive thoughts and mental rituals, I could have had a better adolescence. And I certainly would have figured out I had PANDAS much faster. For my parents, it was horrifying for them to realize I had been mentally tortured by OCD for six years without them knowing.  As my mom put it, “You were too strong for your own good. Most kids would have eventually cracked under that kind of pain.”  I know there are a lot of other strong people out there. How many others are silently locked inside a prison that exists in their mind?

Whether one’s OCD is caused by PANDAS/PANS or not, I want everyone to know that there is hope. No, you’re not crazy. And no, you probably aren’t the only person who has that obsession.

If I ever have children, we will talk about OCD and talk about thoughts that come into their minds that upset them. I will tell my children that any thought that enters their minds that they hate isn’t their own. I will tell them that they aren’t responsible for thoughts that happen against their will. I will tell them that even if the bad thoughts were their own, God wouldn’t love them any less. And I will tell them that God understands how the brain works and isn’t intimidated by intrusive OCD thoughts—or anything else that can be thought.

My parents did everything right—they sought out the expertise of psychologists and counselors, but I was so afraid that I hid my OCD skillfully. The only thing that could have gotten me help sooner would have been if someone asked if I ever had repetitive, unwanted thoughts.  Why did none of the professionals ask? People need to know that OCD can be completely hidden in the mind—it’s so much more than a personality quirk or germaphobia. People need to know that they’re not alone in fighting thoughts that they’re too ashamed to mention. People need to know that OCD is treatable.

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