As anyone who knows me is aware, I love tea. Some may think this love is disproportional to tea’s merits, but I don’t think that way.
Tea is the first thing I think about when I wake and I have to remind myself not to drink it late at night when the temptation is strong and the threat of insomnia is real. I owe this little herb a lot. Tea helped me to master the Chinese language and propelled me into, and through, university. It inspired me to get my first proper job and to start my first business. Tea forms a corner stone of my health routine and, for me, drinking it is a spiritual experience.
But, I have a problem. I can’t drink it.
Let’s rewind two months…
For some weeks I’d been experiencing dizzy spells, acute hypertension and heightened anxiety.
I had put these issues down to a couple of factors. I thought, perhaps, a Siberian herb I’d been trialling – sagandailia – was at fault. Also, every autumn grip floating round the cavernous Moscow metro had latched onto me. But, after a month of feeling, frankly, the worst I’ve ever felt, it became clear that neither of these possibilities were a probability.
Finally, it all came to a head. I’d continued to work full-time despite feeling shitty. One evening I was teaching when I started to smell burning leaves. I was on the verge of asking one of my students if they smelt it too, when I realised I was feeling dizzy and the smell was in my head. Although I’ve never had a seizure before, it felt how I imagine you feel briefly before you have one. I grappled with this feeling for the rest of the lesson, maintained a poker face, and tried my best to finish the lesson. This was unsettling to say the least.
After class finished, I went to doctor Google. He gave me the usual optimistic prognosis: a brain tumour and/or epilepsy. Ideal.
Luckily, in the preceding weeks, I had been to see various doctors who had already ruled out these options. But I was still shaken up.
After a bit more searching, Google did turn up something useful: caffeine sensitivity causes the same symptoms – including phantom burning smells.
I cut out tea and I started feeling better.
A few days later I got to the core of the issue. After being bounced around Moscow medical clinics in the month since the symptoms had started, what had started off as an itch flowered into a glorious rash across my chest. I ended up in the office of a dermatologist. She called it straight away: Lyme’s disease.
This diagnosis explained everything. I’ve been spending a lot of time taking photos of deer in the national park and I had spotted and flicked away several ticks crawling on me. The reason I’d discounted Lyme’s in the first place was because I hadn’t seen one of these arachnids latched-on – and I did examine myself after every trip to the woods. But, as it turns out, lots of people don’t. Deer tick nymphs can be as small as 1mm across!
Blood tests bore out the doctor’s initial diagnosis and, after a three-week course of doxycycline, I am Lyme-bacteria-free.
And after my second week of eating a ketogenic diet (with plenty of ginger and turmeric tea, bone broth and probiotics), I am mostly symptom-free. The symptoms lingered on, worryingly, after the antibiotic course.
I think I will be able to drink tea again before long, but for now I am taking it easy.
But some habits die hard. I was conscious that I had to give up tea and somehow it wasn’t a problem. I missed the cup I have as part of my morning routine, but I got used to it. It was chocolate became the issue – a weird one for me as I don’t eat much chocolate.
Addiction is a strange thing. It lurks dormant and arises when you least expect it. Its can arrive to the beating of drums or it can slip in the back door, almost unnoticed. A few days ago, on my way back from work, I stopped off to get some groceries. I was halfway home and a chocolate bar was in my mouth before I was conscious of what I was doing. Bear in mind that it was ten in the morning and as well as avoiding caffeine I’m on a low carb diet and this example seems even more compulsive.
On the whole, though, I’ve been fairly successful cutting out caffeine.
I’ve felt loss, or the threat of loss, many times over the last year and a half. I’m not comparing giving up tea to any of these in gravity, but tea, and tea knowledge, has formed a big part of my self-image. I try to find lessons and possibilities for growth in all events – as painful as that might be.
My lesson from tea restriction is a simple one – but aren’t the simple ones the hardest! During our short lives, we engineer our sense of self, we build networks of friends and family, some of us create empires and establish dynasties. It is the nature of things to come apart and we build on shaky foundations. Even if you create something that lasts beyond your time here, you will – sooner or later – have to let go of it. The choice is whether to do it with grace and love, or with resistance and clinging.
With the bigger letting-go challenges I’ve faced in the last few years, resistance and clinging have been hard to avoid, but my experience with Lyme’s has given me an opportunity to practise what I will have to do throughout my life on a manageable scale.
I know that going forward, my relationship with tea will be less needy, more considered, and will not take what I have for granted. My job is to apply this learning to the rest of my life – an ongoing challenge, of course, but with perseverance and patience this kind of contented life is not beyond anyone.