By Lauren Watt
Six-and-a-half years ago, when I was 14, I got sick… I got sick, and I never got better.
It began with a sudden onset of Mast Cell Activation Syndrome that led to me carrying an EpiPen everywhere. Everyday foods, smells, and chemicals caused me to flush, break out in hives, become nauseous and fatigued, have tachycardia, and in more serious episodes experience throat tightness and lightheadedness. Then five months after the severe MCAS began, I contracted a Urinary Tract Infection. I recovered from the UTI, but I was left permanently worse. We didn’t know it then, but the UTI had awakened my immune system to latent infections of Babesia and Bartonella.
After the UTI, new symptoms kept popping up every week. My hair began to thin, my joints ached, my head constantly hurt, I was often nauseated, brain fog set in, and I was exhausted and slept for hours every day. I became homebound and couldn’t attend school. I cried when it became obvious that my illness wasn’t going away in a matter of weeks or months, and I was only growing worse. I cried when the things I loved most, like choir, competitive public speaking, and mornings outside caring for my chickens and rabbits were no longer possible.
I needed an outlet. I needed something I could do when there was so much I couldn’t enjoy—not even books, movies, or music. That’s when friends encouraged me to pursue adult coloring and gave me the supplies. It became an escape for me. I colored beautiful scenes, and I pictured myself in them. It was a needed distraction from my symptoms, and finishing a page gave me a sense of accomplishment.
I kept coloring until I couldn’t. My health soon declined to the point I was mostly bedridden, constantly nauseated, even weaker and more fatigued, and experiencing pain and swelling in hands—coloring became impossible. Things kept going from bad to worse. I was finally diagnosed with bartonellosis, after one year of being ill, but the antibiotic treatment and herxing were brutal. Eventually, I was left so weak that I was unable to even wash my own hair, and my digestion was so poor that I could only eat pureed foods and smoothies.
For years, the primary way I passed my time was looking at pictures. I was bedridden and used my phone to do Google image searches of animals, plants, and landscapes. It was a way to distract myself from the hell I was living. I cried almost every morning because I didn’t want to face another day of being in my body that felt like a prison cell. Looking at pretty pictures helped me to find some beauty and to think about things that were lovely, pure, and admirable when my thoughts could easily slip into despair.
Finally, I began to gradually improve in 2019, and in 2020, I regained more strength and mental focus. I decided to start drawing, so my parents gifted me with colored pencils so that I could draw in bed. Draw I did, and much of my inspiration came from the pictures I’d spent hours looking at before. I drew pictures of landscapes, flowers, and birds, and my family made some of them into cards. Sometimes I could only draw for fifteen minutes at a time, but it gave me a sense of accomplishment and helped take my mind off my illness.
Then in 2021, a breakthrough came when I was diagnosed with babesosis. I’ve been treating Babesia for one year now, and I have made so much progress. When I’m not majorly herxing, I can take one mile walks outside and spend hours each day out of bed writing and painting. In October, I started a small online business, Lauren’s Easel, so that I could share my art with others and hopefully bring a little joy to someone else with my creations.
As an artist, I see life with a lens of looking for beauty in even the most broken things. Isn’t that what a mosaic consists of? And I try to live my broken life in a way that makes a beautiful mosaic, a mosaic that wouldn’t exist if illness hadn’t shattered the life I once knew. That mosaic currently looks like creating art for my online store, blogging, and encouraging others with chronic conditions.
It takes courage to wake up each day, to realize that illness is not just some bad dream, and to find beauty and to try to shape the best life possible in the circumstances that I’ve been given, but it is possible. Life has thrown some very hard things at me, but looking back, I realize without chronic babesosis and bartonellosis, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t be an artist and a blogger, and I’m excited to see where the journey will lead to next.
So, my friend, please don’t give up. Try to find something you can do now, no matter how sick you are. It will help take your mind off your illness, lift your spirits a little, and might just lead to a defining moment.
Thank you to Lauren for sharing her story! I, too, have found that having an outlet makes a huge difference in being able to cope with my illness. You can read more about Lauren, see more of her work, and buy her art from her store on her website, Lauren’s Easel.