Raising Hope for Families with Lyme

Freeskier Angeli VanLaanen’s career was temporarily put on hold when she underwent treatment for chronic Lyme disease. Now she is back on the slopes and aiming for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

This week Angeli announced her partnership with the LymeLight Foundation. She has signed on as a spokeswoman for the foundation for the coming year. We caught up with Angeli and asked her to share a bit with us about her experience with Lyme, upcoming documentary film and her journey back to health.

How long were you sick before you were diagnosed with Lyme disease?
I started having Lyme symptoms at age 10. I was diagnosed at age 24. 14 years I went misdiagnosed/undiagnosed.

How many doctors did you see before being diagnosed?
I had seen more than 15 doctors before finding my diagnosis.

You are in the process of producing a documentary film about your Lyme Journey called, coincidently, “LymeLight”. How did you come up with the title LymeLight for your documentary?
LymeLight was suggested as a title for my documentary film during a brainstorming session with Neu productions and my roommates. I chose the name because it embodies our mission to bring Lyme Disease into the limelight.

What helped you the most when you were sick?
What helped me the most during Lyme treatment was maintaining a healthy lifestyle. I continued to be active in whatever way I could, I made sure to get ample sleep and I followed a strict anti-inflammatory diet (for more info read “It Starts With Food” by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig).

How did you keep your spirits up?
What kept my spirits high through Lyme treatment was looking forward to something everyday. It was little things like going on a short walk, talking to a good friend, making my favorite meal, watching a new movie, writing a blog, sewing a tank top or baking a friend a birthday cake. The key is to find low stress past times to keep you busy and motivated.

How did being sick affect your training and competition?
Being a competitive athlete requires consistency. The nature of Lyme Disease causes symptoms to fluctuate. I would have good days and I would have really bad days. This cycle inhibited my progression during training and my success at many halfpipe events. I often would lose muscle function and balance while skiing. A fellow athlete once described my skiing as “all or nothing” and that is what it was. I was either on, or I was off. The part that no one suspected was that it was caused by a tick borne illness.

How long were you sick before you realized you had to stop skiing?
I battled symptoms throughout my childhood and athletic career but it wasn’t until 2008 that my illness became debilitating. Doctors giving me a clear bill of health time and time again confused me. I knew something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I continued to push through and compete until my diagnosis in November of 2009.

What did it feel like when you knew you had to take time off from skiing and competing to get well?
Putting my competitive halfpipe career on hold broke my heart. I was grieving the loss of my dream and my identity. I had some really down moments, feeling lost and angry about being misdiagnosed for so long.

How did you get through your illness?
What really got me through my battle with Lyme was the support of friends, family and knowledgeable doctors. It took time for the close people in my life to understand what I was going through. I initially isolated myself, not knowing how to ask for the support I needed. What I learned through my first year of treatment was compassion and patience for those who did not yet understand the struggles I was facing. Once I opened up and educated the people in my life, they felt confident to be there for me. Feeling understood made the difference for me. I found peace with my illness and began to focus all my energy on recovering.

Did you ever give up on your dreams or think you were going to have to?
I never gave up on my dream of returning to my professional skiing career. However, there was no guarantee that I would be able to ski at a high level again. While going through Lyme treatment I took a step back to explore other passions of mine that could one day translate into a job. It’s important to keep your mind open to whatever direction life takes you.

How did it feel when you got back on your skis?
Returning to skiing halfpipe was one of the most exciting experiences of my life! At every contest since my comeback, I take a moment to give thanks for my health and for my ability to return to the sport I love.

What steps do you take to make sure you won’t relapse?
I follow a strict anti-inflammatory diet and healthy lifestyle focused on keeping my immune system strong. I spend time each day meditating, I make sure to get enough sleep and eat 3 balanced whole food meals each day.

What did you learn from the time you were sick?
I learned some profound lessons during my battle with Lyme Disease. To name a few: My understanding of human struggle has given me deep compassion for others in trying circumstances. I found confidence in who I am, even at my worst. After having many basic human functions taken away while I was ill, I have great gratitude for the little things everyday and most of all for the gift of life.

If you could change it all and not have gotten sick would you?
Embracing reality gives us the freedom to move forward, fighting reality creates personal suffering. I choose to move forward and embrace the challenges I was given. I am grateful for all I’ve learned and the opportunity to help others, because of my battle with Lyme.

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