One pleasant evening in August 2004, I was bitten by a mosquito. Buzzzz… Slap!
It’s a tiny thing. Who thinks about it? Just part of the soundtrack to life here in sub-tropical Queensland.
Two weeks later I was sicker than I had ever been. My joints and muscles were on fire. I had raging fevers and delirium. I was so exhausted and weak I could barely walk as far as the bathroom. It went on and on.
After about six weeks, it finally settled down. But it never really went away. I went to doctor after doctor. I had test after test. It’s a wonder I didn’t look like a prune, they’d taken so much blood out of me for testing.
Finally I got an opinion from another doctor and she said those three magic words: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In some parts of the world, it’s known as ME – myalgic encephalitis.
I’ve known a number of people over the years who have been given that diagnosis and it’s been like a life sentence. They have felt as though their life ended that day. I felt similar emotions rising in me after I heard those words, and I just wanted to crawl under the blankets forever.
But then I got cross. I didn’t want my life defined by one mosquito bite. Was there another way?
I remembered how a friend being treated for CFS by a very senior specialist a few years earlier had been prescribed a steadily increasing program of exercise. No matter how bad it felt, she had to do it. And it did seem to help her.
I wondered if it could work for me.
But it was so hard to exercise–painful and utterly exhausting. I knew I needed a powerful motivator to get me to take this particular “medicine”.
There are two things you need to know to fully understand the crazy thing I did next.
Firstly, for many years I had wanted to hike the Milford Track in New Zealand. It was a “bucket list” item for me. I wanted to do it as a research trip for my debut novel Poison Bay — a concept that had been composting in my brain since the 90s.
The book is about a bunch of old friends with past secrets who go on a long trek through Fiordland National Park… and when they find themselves lost, things start to go very, very wrong.
I’m an old journalist, so I wanted some facts to base my book on, to trigger ideas and word pictures and emotions. I wanted to know what it really felt like to hike those mountains. I wanted to write notes and take photos and interview people.
I’d been talking about doing my “research hike” along the Milford Track for years, but every year there had been another reason not to do it. I was too busy, or none of my friends were available. Yada yada yada.
The Milford Track goes through Fiordland National Park along the remote south-western coast of New Zealand. It takes four days, and covers 54 km. The start and end of the track are accessible only by boat. No phone signal. No roads. Once you are on the track, the only way out is your own legs or a rescue helicopter.
It goes through mountains that other mountains want to be when they grow up. These are professional mountains. If they were buildings they would be 400 stories high.
It’s one of the wettest places on earth. They have up to 7 metres of rain a year – flash floods sometimes sweep hikers away, and I even spoke to someone who had been blown off the track and broken their jaw.
There are avalanche alerts at various places along the track – yes, even in summer. People get caught in blizzards and lose their way.
The trees drip streamers of moss, like giant green cobwebs. It’s an otherworldly landscape, spooky and dangerous and gorgeous.
Sound like a good place to set a mystery/thriller novel?? 😉
The second thing you need to know about me is that I’m not actually a very good hiker. 😉 I’m not an athlete. I have eccentric knees. I love wild places, and I love the idea of hiking – but if I’m going to be absolutely truthful, I’m mostly in it for the snacks and the photography!
Nine months after being bitten by that mosquito I booked to hike the Milford Track. Yes, I actually booked it, and then nearly fainted from shock and the fear of what might lie ahead.
Here was my Motivation to exercise.
I had a deadline. I had a commitment.
I had PAID!
I had to do it.
So I began my training schedule. I walked around the suburbs in hiking boots with my rucksack on my back, feeling foolish. Gradually, I added more weight to the rucksack.
I found some steep hills outside Brisbane, and developed a 3 kilometre training circuit. Every weekend I would go up there and hike, even starting at 5am when summer came early and the heat was debilitating.
I couldn’t do much at first. Each time I’d go home after training and curl into the foetal position for a few hours and try to recover, my whole body feeling like it was on fire.
I built up little by little. In each training session I would be able to do just a little more for the same amount of pain.
I felt as though the exercise was pushing that virus out of my muscle fibres, one excruciating millimetre at a time.
Finally November came. There I stood, beside the sign that marked the beginning of the Milford Track. [Gulp]
I was terrified. I didn’t know if I would be leaving this track on my own two legs or in a rescue helicopter! (I joked with my friends at work to look for me on the evening news. I hoped it was just a joke.)
There were retirees scampering down the track ahead of me each day. Mostly, I was last. But I just kept plodding – one step, after another step, after another step.
I have two exquisite memories of that hike.
First, I remember standing at the top of Mackinnon Pass, which is more than a kilometre straight upwards. If you’re from the Himalayas, that might not seem too bad, but for a girl from Brisbane, that’s mighty high.
It had been snowing in the morning, but the clouds lifted for us slow pokes down the back of the bus. (Sometimes there are advantages to being last!)
So many people hike that track and never get to see the view I saw. Those incredible mountains, steep and so very tall, marching away into the distance. They boggle my mind. No photo can capture their immensity.
When I close my eyes, I can still see that view now. I swear I could hear angels singing!
The second memory is of standing under the sign that marks the end of the track. After four days of beautiful hell, my knees were so swollen I thought they might explode. I was leaning heavily on my hiking poles, using them like crutches to help me stand.
But my heart was bursting with joy, because I HAD DONE IT.
I had done it.
I had done it.
Do you know that it’s only recently I have realised, I might still be saying: “I’d love to hike the Milford track” if it wasn’t for that mosquito. That horrible insect that brought such suffering into my life was also the catalyst for one of my greatest achievements.
Some days I look back to the Belinda of 2005, and I say to her, “Who are you? And more importantly, where are you?”
I still have mountains to climb. I have other mosquito bites to overcome. Some of the problems are awful, and some days I just want to give up.
You have mountains to climb too. They might not be literal ones with snow on top of them, but you have visions and dreams that light a fire inside your soul.
And you have mosquito bites, large and small, that are getting in the way of your dreams. Big bites like grief or serious illness, and the little constant nibbles of daily difficulties and lack of confidence.
Will you join me this year, this day, in the Mosquito Bite Challenge? Let’s search for ways to release that fierce, determined, possibly INSANE person inside each of us, who can do amazing things in spite of the hassles of life.
Let’s climb our mountains. Maybe we can even take our challenges and turn them around into something good!
When you and I get to the end of the trail, may we be able to say: My life was defined by my dreams and the challenges I fought and overcame, not by the mosquito bites.
Yes, I finally finished that novel! It was another huge challenge, and there’s an extraordinary feeling that comes of being able to hold it in my hand. And it has now won an IPPY Silver Medal, which is pretty exciting. 🙂 🙂 If you enjoy mystery/thrillers set in wild places and you’d like to know more, you can check out my page dedicated to Poison Bay.
p.s. I’m not a doctor, and I’m just telling you my story, not suggesting how you should treat an illness! Talk to your doctor if you’ve got CFS or ME, before you do anything crazy. 😉
Marlene Cullen says
Just now reading this, thanks to the link on your recent blog post. You inspire me! My knees have been worse lately so I stopped dancing as an exercise that I love. I might just grin and bear it and get back to it. Thanks for linking this to your current post, which I saw on Twitter.
Belinda Pollard says
Thank you Marlene. I love it when people stumble across some of the older blog posts, and this was one of my favourites. Glad to hear you are getting back into what you love. Maybe you can modify your dancing a little to protect your knees. 🙂
An amazing, inspiring blog post. Well done on reaching your goals like that and for defeating your illness.
You’re lucky though that you’re one of the people for whom exercise can defeat Chronic fatigue. I know people with ME (and who beleive there’s a difference between ME and Chronic Fatigue) who absolutely can’t do that kind of exercise.
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Juliet. I’m not sure I’d say it defeated the fatigue for me, but it certainly brought it down to a much more liveable level. It continues to be hard some days, even 10 years later.
I’m no doctor, but I often wonder whether differences in the initial viruses that trigger the condition might account for differences in the outcomes. Hopefully some answers will be found, in time! Thanks for stopping by.
Marianne Wheelaghan says
Hey Belinda, not sure how I missed this post but have read it now. Well done, you, for embracing your fears, especially in the face of such a debilitating illness/syndrome. You are an inspiration. Thanks for writing about your experience and for the great photos – the Milford Track looks amazing. I looking forward to discovering it “virtually” when I read Poison Bay. And yep I’m up for the mosquito challenge, absolutely 🙂
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Marianne, let’s face those challenges head-on!
I have been making some changes on this site and my email list was disrupted during the changeover, so that might be why you didn’t see this one.
Fiordland is a dramatic and gorgeous part of the world. I’m sure you’d enjoy doing a bit of “forest bathing” there. 🙂
Laura Zera says
I will absolutely join you in this challenge for 2015! Perhaps we can build a bit of structure into it and come up with a few audacious goals, then keep each other on track.
I so admire you for your response to your diagnosis. (And I didn’t know that a mosquito bite could result in that illness — those little buggers are such nasty creatures!) Yours is a great, inspirational story, Belinda. xo
Belinda Pollard says
Ah, yes, Laura… the beloved Aussie mozzie often carries such delights as Dengue Fever, Ross River Fever and Barmah Forest Virus. What a treat. 😉
As for our challenges, yes, let’s do that! I want to get the sequel to Poison Bay and my dog memoir written in 2015. Setting a schedule and keeping one another accountable (allowing for grace too, of course) is a splendid idea.
I keenly read every word of the blog,while the writing made interesting reading of an human effort ; the photos looked tame toddlers when compared to the great Himalayan scenery.
I wish you visit any country that contains the great Himalayas(aptly called “ABODE OF SNOW” in the old indian langua SANSKRIT).
As of the one of ` wettest` part of the world , it is ranked below dozens of spots on the earth.
Belinda Pollard says
Hi Manjit, yes the Himalayas are taller than the Fiordland mountains. But the Fiordland mountains are 8 times the height of the tallest mountain in my city, so they look very big to me. 😉
That’s a great tale, Belinda. That scenery looks fabulous. I love the positivity that shines through – so many people (myself included) let the little things be an excuse not to follow up on the bucket list, and even the small things that are so easily within our grasp, if only we’d shake off the inertia and pull our fingers out. I will learn from it … but I have to get my current job finished first!
Belinda Pollard says
Thanks Sally. It truly is a gorgeous place, though it’s also hard work!
Thinking about all this is one of the reasons I decided to finally go for it and self-publish my novel. I’ve been holding back and holding back. I need to go and grab life, instead of waiting for it to come to me, and waiting to have “enough time”. 🙂
I so know that feeling. A serious illness a couple of years ago made me sit up and think – mainly about how little I had achieved and how little time there is to put that right.But I so want to feel that I’ve left my mark – even if my book bombs at least I can say I tried and feel some level of satisfaction. Not that there’s much chance of it bombing as it’s not even written yet – but I do have more resolve than I used to! And I am getting on with it. But not in nearly so spectacular a way as you did. Isn’t it incredible how humankind can know intellectually that the only way to achieve our desires is to just get on with it, but emotionally it takes a shock like illness or an accident to make us get off our butts and make it happen?
Very good luck with your book.
Belinda Pollard says
So true, Sally. I heard an after-dinner speaker a couple of months back, and she revealed how her son was diagnosed with autism while her husband was still in rehab from a very serious stroke. And she fell in a heap of course, who wouldn’t… but then she picked herself up and decided to make something of her life even while it was a mess. That story was another catalyst for me to finally do this thing.
I agree with you… it may bomb, but at least we’ve tried. Those too timid to fail never achieve anything! Best wishes for your book too… can’t wait to see it. 🙂