On Wilderness, Lyme Disease, and Healing the Spirit, as Lived and Experienced by Jaclyn Ouillette
This is Jaclyn,
There's a fierceness about her. Something that is unparalleled to that of the obstacles she has had to face, doubts that have been overcome, and way she moves from one adventure to the next, whether it be climbing a mountain (quite literally) or when facing the devastating loss and pain that Lyme Disease brings.
Going from "bagging peaks and crushing climbs," drinking coffee in the crisp air of the French Alps, and cultivating a meditation practice between mountain tops, Jaclyn was in a position where hardening and becoming resistant to the change she was all of a sudden thrown into would have been easy. Would have felt like a way out.
She didn't go down that road, but instead, took those moments, that time spent doing the things she loved in the places that filled her up, and used it as every reason to keep going.
There she was, face to face with a life unrecognizable to that of her own.
There she was, seemingly thousands of miles from where she once was.
There she was, looking inward just as much as we were out, bringing her closer to a world much richer, more fulfilling, and colorful than she ever could have imagined.
and This is her story.
Living my Dream
In August of 2006, I found myself standing on a high mountain in the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I was celebrating. Celebrating 10 years of hard work to get to this point, A NOLS Instructor. I had worked hard to finally become an Instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). Living it up and teaching technical backpacking and backcountry rock climbing in the beautiful Wind River Range in Wyoming. I was amazed at myself for reaching this 10-year long dream.
The high mountain peaks, the alpine flowers, the cold alpine lakes, the crisp fresh air, and my travel French press for my favorite morning treat, a dark, rich hot coffee. What else could I ask for? Amazing students, kick-ass Instructors, and the best co-workers you could imagine.. I had my dream and I was living it... not knowing that less than a month later, I would be fully immersed in my own greatest nightmare, bed-ridden with an illness and no cure.
I went from living my dream, to living my nightmare in a matter of weeks.
I was diagnosed with Late Stage, Chronic Neurologic Lyme Disease for which there was and still is no known cure. The Lyme had gotten into my brain and caused swelling and neurologic damage. I was unable to think or to recall simple information. I forgot who I was at times, I forgot my name. I could recognize my sisters as familiar people to me, but I struggled to remember who they really were. I was bed ridden for 2 ½ years as my body disintegrated in front of my eyes. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sit long enough to eat a bowl of soup. I struggled to lift a mug of tea to my mouth.
The Doctor’s Said:
“We’ve done all we can do.”
“You will never return to the area of your passion, you will never return to the wilderness”
“You are going to have to learn to live like this”
I was devastated at age 26, I was destined to live the rest of my life in bed.
My Life Before this Illness:
Before this illness, I enjoyed traveling the country, exploring caves and mountains, canoeing and rafting rivers. I ran, practiced meditation, and yoga. I was a gear head and into “bagging peaks and crushing climbs." I lived my life as if it were an adventure, and now navigating this nightmare became my new adventure. Instead of the outward journey, I found that the only way to go was to journey inward. With blankets covering the windows to block the light that was so excruciating to my eyes, and earplugs to soften the sounds that made me jump and tremble.. my only solace was to close my eyes and to drift into other worlds.
I found myself in a new body in a new space, with a new adventure ahead. This was unfamiliar territory to me, and I was most definitely more scared than I had ever been in my entire life.
At first I was so mad, lost, and depressed. With each doctor visit, there seemed to be no way out. I couldn't seem to find my way back to health. My health declined. I went to 16 different doctors and professionals around the North East and no one could help.
I had began preparing for my death. As my body disintegrated, I asked the creator to take me away from this world, to take me away from the pain. And one evening, with intense pain in my head and my eyes so bad, I had a very powerful dream. In the dream I heard the creator's voice. I was given the choice to stay here on earth, or to leave. In that moment I chose to stay, and I decided that if I were going to live then I was really going to live, no holding back!
When I awoke from the dream, I was still in the pain-filled body. I was back in the confusion and delirium of what I knew as Lyme-brain. I felt awful and very, very sick. But I knew now that it wasn't up to the doctors to help me, but it was up to me. I had to be the best advocate for my health. I had to look at this and think about this very differently if I wanted to survive.
The suggestion I heard was to write a thank you letter to my illness.
And this is what I wrote:
I am grateful for this illness.
I appreciate your persistence.
I love your willingness to not give up on me.
You have taught me to look at life through different eyes.
You have taught me to slow down.
You have taught me the importance of breath.
You have taught me the importance of nurturing always.
You have taught me to fight back, with all of my energy.
everyday, every night, every moment.
You have taught me to focus my energy only on what I truly want.
You have taught me that giving up is unacceptable.
You have taught me the power of my own thoughts.
You have taught me to look deep within.
You have taught me to remember life is beautiful.
I am truly grateful for all these learnings.
I want to thank you, for most importantly,
I have learned that
every breath, every step, every thought in life is healing.
With much love and appreciation,
Jaclyn A. Ouillette
My Rehabilitation & Recovery
My journey back to health was long. I remember the day when I was at Neuro Rehab peddling a bike-like machine with my arms Velcroed into the peddles to help build up my strength. The women assisting me said how good I was doing. I thought, “My goodness, I can barely hold my arms up, before I could paddle a canoe for 10 days no problem.”
I used to volunteer with adaptive sports, never would I have thought that I would be a participant in adaptive sports, but that fateful day came. And I gratefully accepted the experience.
A double kayak with me in the front, and the recreational therapist in the back we paddled across the pond. After about 10 minutes I would return to the beach and sit by myself in my sleeping bag on the beach in recovery and unable to function for days after. But to be outside again lifted my spirits to a new level.
To regain strength and balance I was put into a program that helped me learn to snow board. On the bunny slopes, the instructors held me up as I learned to feel my feet again, and learned to use my feet to turn my body. They brought out a chair for me to sit when I tired and brought coffee to keep me going. Weekly I returned to those smiling faces so patient and willing to sit with me for hours in the snow. I was regaining my balance on the board, and back in my life.
My Re-entry into the Wilderness
I found myself in a new body in a new space. I re-entered the wilderness in a whole new way. Through meeting many teachers and guides, I was able to move beyond my fear and stretch myself daily. In less than 5 months I went from bed ridden, to hiking at Zion National Park. Sitting on the edge of a 2,000 foot red sandstone cliff I realized those doctors were wrong!
Looking down on Angels Landing, I knew there was much more to life, and remembered, if I was going to live, I was going to really live. If I could hike here in Zion then I wanted to go to Peru.
Hiking in Peru
I had always dreamed of hiking in the mountains of Peru. Their majestic beauty called to me from a young age. Those tall snowy mountain peaks called to me still, and I committed myself to go. When I arrived in Peru, I traveled with indigenous medicine people and wisdom keepers there. Their bright colors and joyful ways helped me to feel more open to this new experience. To be welcomed into the spiritual traditions of another culture. Their language touched my heart.
I visited huacas, or ancient centers of power, where the energy came out of the earth…
I walked with a group up Mount Pachatusun, over 16,000 feet in elevation…the mountain looked daunting. But when I got tired, instead of asking for more energy, they taught me to thank the earth and the mountain for bringing me this far, to see the beauty, the strength, and the courage around me and to take that into my body and inside of me
They taught me to walk up the mountain, with every step a prayer. Every step was one of gratitude. My breath became an offering, of thanks. My focus was to bring my attention above my body, and to walk with lightness, allowing the mountain to carry me up.
At one point on one of our breaks, I took off my shoes and stood barefoot. My bare feet touching this mountain I felt YES! this was absolutely my dream. Here I was standing, fully connected, filled with bliss, with joy, with not a pain in my body. The mountain took my pain and held it for me
And I was lifted to the high summit, all the way to the peak and looking out there were snowy mountain peaks in all directions. The clouds parted just above head, then hail, snow, and rain…blessings from the creator...then on the descent a rainbow filled the sacred valley.
It was absolutely magical.
How I changed:
I learned a new way to be in the wilderness, I learned a new way to be. I learned a new way to be a human on this planet and I am filled with inspiration.
I returned to Maine, my base camp and my home and I studied with 3 Master Maine Guides to became a Registered Maine Wilderness Guide so I could share this new way of connecting in the wilderness with others.
My focus instead of hard skills and leadership styles has become gentle, more clear, more trusting of the natural rhythms of nature. I am more in tune with the subtle shifts in each individuals energy and the groups collective energy. We focus on life transformations, and listening deeply to our own rhythm and inner knowing.
I have changed in that I am able to help guide others into an inward journey and a deep remembering for what they came here for … and to experience the wilderness and earth around them in a new way... I have learned that we are all students of the Earth, always.
This is just a short version of an 11-year long story. But this has drastically changed the way I live and the way I experience life. I wish to share the hope and the inspiration because without those I would not be here. I want to give others hope, and to inspire them to live an incredible life no matter what they are experiencing.
Stay in touch with Jaclyn
I am still exploring life and learning everyday by serving as a Guide to women both spiritually and in the wilderness. I founded Wilderness Wisdom Journeys, a company dedicated to Empowering Women through Wellness Practices, Martial Arts, and Wilderness.