“I put Algernon’s body in a cheese box and buried him in the backyard. I cried.”

I’m a smart guy.

I’m not bragging. It’s not like I deserve any credit for being smart. I didn’t do anything to make that happen. I’m also tall, but nobody compliments me on that. (Good job being tall!) Intelligence is an immutable characteristic that I have at times capitalized on and at other times let go to waste. So it goes.

It’s not easy to understand what it’s like to be smarter or dumber than one is. I have some friends who are much smarter than me, and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to experience the world as they do. Like height, intelligence is a privilege, in that we live in a society that places value on both. And although I don’t know what it’s like to be of a different intelligence, I do know what it’s like to be short; we all started out short. Although I have brown hair now, I bleached my hair a couple of times as a teenager, so I know what it’s like to be blond. If I really wanted to, I could probably fake my way into at least being perceived as of a different race, sex, or sexual orientation.

Interestingly, I have come to find out what it’s like to be dumb. I am, at this moment, rather stupid.

On September 1 I returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. During the 14 hours that I spent waiting around the Atlanta and Charlotte airports that day, I became progressively more sick, until I had a full-blown case of influenza. (It’s flu season in the southern hemisphere, after all.) Ten days later, I was still sick. The fever was gone, and my symptoms were muted, but I still felt sick. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t care about eating, I just wanted to lie around and watch TV.

So I went to the doctor, starting to doubt my self-diagnosis. After explaining my symptoms, both physical and mental, he came to a conclusion quickly: I have Lyme disease. (A pending blood test may help to confirm that, but they’re famously unreliable.) I was bitten by a tick this spring—one of many ticks that I find embedded in my skin each spring, summer, and fall—that was bearing Lyme spirochetes, which it injected into me. The immune-suppressing tick saliva allowed  the bacteria to establish an infection there. That initial infection raised a nickel-sized welt on my back, which I presented to my dermatologist, who assured me it was nothing to worry about. (In fact, this may well have been a borrelial lymphocytoma.) Gradually, those spirochetes reproduced, spreading throughout my body, through my bloodstream. Some of those spirochetes have hijacked my own cells, persuading them to produce nerve toxins that disrupt my brain’s neurotransmitters.

In short, Lyme has made me tired, listless, depressed, and stupid.

This is a fascinating experience. Or, at least, it would be fascinating, if the symptoms themselves didn’t prevent me from caring. Other than short bouts while ill—when I’ve actually had the flu—I’ve never been listless or unmotivated. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve never been depressed. And I’ve never been stupid. I’m pretty much neurotypical.

So I want to explain, briefly, the bits about depression and stupidity, if only to capture the experience for Future Waldo.

Depression isn’t at all what I thought it would be like. I don’t feel depressed, by which I mean that I don’t feel sad or despairing or anything like that. I just feel less. Mostly, I feel like I couldn’t be bothered. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t eat much, if anything. I doubt that I’d shower or shave. I’d mostly watch television and nap. My preferences are largely gone. (Should we have chicken or fish for dinner? I just don’t care.) I have a very short attention span; like a puppy chasing a butterfly, I’m happy to pursue whatever shiny thing presents itself, until a new shiny thing comes along. With substantial, headache-inducing effort, I can fake being normal-ish, but not for long. Depression, at least as I’m experiencing it, is the absence of emotion, rather than negative emotion. I don’t mind it, not yet, but maybe depression is what keeps me from minding depression.

Stupidity is also different than I’d thought. Part of my stupidity stems from the depression, I think. My curiosity is muted, my ambition to learn more or consider options more deeply has vanished. But part of it is just straight-up stupidity. I can’t really think about more than one thing at once. When a new thought enters my head, the old one simply vanishes. (Thanks to the depression, though, I don’t really mind.) I have no critical thinking skills, little ability to string together a cohesive argument, and a poor recall of long-held facts. I’ve been stuck at this point in this paragraph for at least ten minutes, unable to think of the other ways in which I’m stupid, or to spend more than five consecutive seconds trying to think of them. Yes, I’m too stupid to explain how I’m stupid. Do me a favor and pause to let the irony of that sink in, because if I pause, I’ll start forget what I’m supposed to be thinking about.

The good news is that this isn’t permanent. I started on an aggressive, two-week round of antibiotics yesterday, and I intend to find an infectious disease specialist with experience in Lyme to chart a more aggressive path to wellness. In theory, once the antibiotics start to kill off those spirochetes, I’ll stop feeling sick and stupid. (Unfortunately, the antibiotics will also kill off many of the bacteria that my body needs, so I’ll be having lots of homemade pickles and sauerkraut, coincidentally ready to eat this week, plus yogurt and kimchi, which will help to repopulate my gut’s microbiota.) I don’t know how long it’ll be until I start to feel better. Again, thanks to the depression, I don’t really care, although I know that I’m supposed to.

I hope that, in retrospect, this will have been a positive experience. It’s very difficult to understand how somebody else’s brain works. It’s hard to sympathize with those who did less well in mental aspects of that great genetic lottery, because usually one can’t really know what another person’s experience is like. Learning to understand depression and a different level of intelligence is a rare opportunity, and I’m optimistic that this is an chance to become a better person.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

53 replies on ““I put Algernon’s body in a cheese box and buried him in the backyard. I cried.””

  1. Yes, everytime I hear depression described by someone who has it, that is how they describe it. Absence of feeling/motivation rather than negative feeling. And that is how I’d describe it mself too.

  2. You may not know exactly what it is like to be short if you were never short relative to your peers. Along those same lines, if you do know what it is like to be short then you should also know what it is like to be stupid. I once skimmed through a book that my 3 year old niece was trying to read. As she struggled to sound out each word I exclaimed “Ha! This book is easy!”

  3. “because usually one can’t really know what another person’s experience is like.” You might read any number of books, but you can not understand some one else unless you are in their shoes – or experience their thought process.

    I believe that stupidity is nothing but absence of rational thinking, which is actually blissful !! I was not lucky enough to be bitten by a bug, instead had to carry out an experiment in order to understand the concept of YOLO , as it is generally perceived.And it was an eye – opener, helping me connect with other people better more than ever.
    and I’m also optimistic that this is an chance to become a better person :)
    If you interested in reading more about it , you may at http://nocialmonk.blogspot.in/2013/09/living-without-fear-of-consequences.html

  4. Not all depression feels alike.

    I have felt the kind of depression you are describing—where you mainly feel apathetic about most everything.

    I have also felt the kind of depression that feels like a soul-crushing black of hole of intense sadness for months or years after losing loved ones and my faith.

  5. Your article is great, but I’d like to point out that your stupidity/dumbness may have started earlier: you diagnosed yourself.

  6. A very moving article. I have been through Lyme disease myself when I was younger, with very different symptoms that got me in the hospital for two weeks.
    Just wanted to wish you a quick recovery.

    @Nocial Monk : you are not “lucky to be bitten by a [tick]” it can be a very harsh time if you get Lyme’s.

  7. Kolo,
    I apologise for my statement “lucky to be bitten by a [tick]”. I honestly have no idea about Lyme disease. My intention was not to hurt some one or dis-regard the seriousness of Lyme disease. If I could edit that comment, I would do so right now. In future I will be more careful and considerate .

  8. Nocial Monk,
    Don’t worry, no offense taken. Lyme is actually a pretty bad thing, even the early symptoms are quite frightening. The thing is, it starts up as just a spot on the skin, that you may not even notice if it’s hidden, e.g. behind an ear. So it’s easy to let the first days/first week pass by and get to the second stage of the sickness :

    What Waldo experiences is only one of the many possible neurological affections, in my case I don’t remember any effect on my intellect, but I got the palsy thing.

    Anyways, once identified, the antibiotics are efficient. Also, if you notice the ticks and remove them (with a tick twister ! other methods are bad), just mark the spot with a pen to remember where it was. If a few hours later you get a red patch, the tick was carrying Lyme. Then it’s antibiotics for a few days and the sickness doesn’t develop.

  9. A compelling read, Waldo, and one I’ll share with a poor co-worker struggling with Lyme. When I struggled with depression I remember describing it as, “if my bed were against a wall I still couldn’t decide which side to use”.

    I’m particularly concerned that your dermatologist failed to alert to the possibility at all. I hope you intend to follow up with her and–not for nothing–maybe you could message me her name, since I live in your town and also use the dermatology services here!

  10. Seems like a Great experience for you!

    Also it seems to me, that you can experience the same with… drugs.
    Booze make you stupid, other stuff can shift your mind…
    And also it’s easier to get than a Lime :)

    Anyways, get well!

  11. Thank you for your article. This makes me consider the way I’ve been feeling lately, and that perhaps what I’m feeling/experiencing is not “normal”.

  12. It’s fantastic that you found the energy to write it, especially since it appeared on HackerNews. “Flowers for Algernon” is an excellent book.

    Same experience here: Depression and loss of intelligence come together. From a major uni in my country, I went to very average jobs. My depression lasted 4 years and I felt deprived from my emotional abilities: Things I used to be good at, like reading people or exposing facts in a constructed manner, were all impossible. In successive jobs, I saw that look on the HR people saying “That guy is a nutcase, we need him out”. Forward 5 years, I’m excelling again. I hope the same happens to you.

  13. Don’t say genetic, when you experience it without genetical changes, but microbial changes. Don’t encourage people to stay stupid by giving them hope that the “genetic lottery shit” is real. The hypothesis is that intellect can be altered by genetic defects and only by that. Everything else would only held true, if there were huge genetic differences between intelligent and stupid people, but you know that there isn’t a big difference generally.

    Say it with me: Every human being without genetic defects can be as smart as Einstein, when learning like Feynman and training like an Athlete. Or do you want to be a Evolution hypocrite?

  14. You’re smart, I believe you, because of your intriguingly analytic writing style. Probably 140 hopefully more soon. Enable a SPAM Filter here.

  15. I remember feeling just like that after I came down with viral meningitis (which -I’ve learned- is the good variety to catch, contrary to the bacterial meningitis). Things that required even the smallest of mental effort -making a peanut butter sandwich, getting dressed, even creating a proper sentence- all seemed like insurmountable tasks. I never felt like I was stupid at the time, but looking back I was pretty stupid :) I guess it’s because the body needs all available resources to fight off the disease, leaving nothing for your brain to run on.

    Lyme can have some pretty nasty side effects if untreated, so it’s a good thing you spotted it in time. Good luck with your recovery.

  16. responded on HN but will write here too. Had the same stuff last month. it pases with doxy. Your summary exactly applies for me. Don’t believe the post lyme stuff you read. ITS ALL BS. I went to one of the nations best infectious disease guys (parents are well known docs and got me the appointment). When I had lyme he laughed. It and the other tick diseases are highly sensitive to doxy. Anyway get well soon. If you need any advice hit me up

  17. This is the smartest post I’ve ever read about being stupid! I appreciate your lucid description of a difficult situation. Wishing you a very speedy recovery!

  18. Great article – you’re going through something terrible, but shared it in a compelling, even humourous manner. Thanks for writing this – I’ll be thinking about you and hoping you start feeling better.

  19. dear author and commenting populace,

    you know nothing of depression. it is considerably more broad than your watered down, temporary experience. you are essentially making light of a horrible situation that many people ACTUALLY SUFFER through constantly.

  20. The mental Lyme Disease symptoms you are feeling are coming from brain swelling.
    Ask your doctors for a SPECT scan to prove it. Forget about the depression etc, your brain is swelling.

    If you can get them to give you the SPECT scan, congratulations, you hacked the system.

    Your now know that oral antibiotics will never cure you and that you can skip the bullshit and go to a real doctor who is as diligent in his or her research as the hacker news community is in development. Oral Antibiotics will NEVER be adequate to treat a lyme infection that has gotten to the point where brain swelling is occurring.

    It’s like putting a bandaid on a gun shot wound.

    I have been on various forms of oral anitbiotics for 9 months leading up to August of this year. I have been to infectious disease specialties after infectious disease specialist, I have been to Lyme Specialists from ILADS and Lynne specialists not a part of ILADS.

    Consider the Lyme Epidemic.

    If you could just walk into any doctors office and ask for a 2 week round of oral antibiotics, then Lyme wouldn’t be lyme, it would be bronchitis.

    Are we hearing about a bronchitis epidemic? Hell no.
    Are we even hearing about a pneumonia epidemic? That shits serious (I have had it) but it doesn’t hold a candle to Lyme, not because its not serious, but because it is treated properly.

    And yet, you believe, as I did, as we all do, that your doctors have this figured out and you are on your way BACK from being dumb. Consider this your canary in the coal mine. I had mine last year, and I am only just getting better with IV Therapy.

    Not because I didn’t have Lyme disease, not because I haven’t been to enough doctors, but because I do have lyme disease and everyone from your doctor, to your pharmacutical companies, to your news media, is functioning on bad information.

    The mental and most serious symptoms of lyme can not be solved with oral antibiotics or it wouldn’t be an epidemic. It would just be hassle.

    Once you get to the point I did you *may* come back to this message.
    If you do I hope you will read to the end and then accept the fact that any real doctor who DOES treat lyme disease with the IV Antibiotics that your condition (if you have brain swelling and mental issues) requires will NOT accept insurance.

    They will be expensive, cash out of pocket (since insurance wouldn’t pay them anyway), they will be far away from you, you will have to wait months for an appointment.

    Again, it doesn’t make sense right?
    Why would people spend thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours and risk the negative side effects of IV medication if they can just take two weeks of oral antibiotics and be better?

    They wouldn’t. I wouldn’t and I am not dumb.

    I don’t know any good doctors in Virgina, but I do know that every week I see people from california, vermont and florida when I visit Dr. Leslie Fein. I know that she is the only doctor in the past year to take me seriously and treat me with the respect my intellect deserves (even if it may be a little off right now).

    I know that it is the first place symptoms and research were discussed with me as if I were a person who had important decisions to make that would impact the rest of my life. If it’s an epidemic, and every doctor has the right information on how to stop it, why is it an epidemic?

    This google search (for Dr. Fein’s name) tells you everything you need to know IF you are prepared to believe it. I wasn’t and my business, family and friends have paid the price for that mistake.

    Hope to see you on hacker news again. If you are looking for lyme information, start here:

    Good night and good luck.

  21. Waldo, drop me a line if you need someone to talk to about this. I can’t share personal experience with lime disease, but I can share experience with feeling stupid.

    I fell on my head last fall and received a closed brain injury and several other head/neck injuries. I was stupid too; but I wasn’t even smart enough to realize that I was stupid. It’s only about two months ago that my abilities to think critically, imagine new ideas, fix problems, and code returned — and I understood WHY I couldn’t write in languages I’d used for years, hold a conversation, or learn new things.

    The important thing is not to beat yourself up about it. Your body is letting you down because an insect infected you with a crappy bug. Also, it’s OK to seek medical treatment for your body letting you down so that you don’t do something stupid while your brain’s crosswired and shorting out.

    If you’re anything like me, when you recover it will give you a lot of sympathy for and understanding of people who can’t wrap their brain around a complicated technical issue without resorting to rote memory, written “recipes,” and all the other things that IT support staff scoff at.

  22. Indeed you are stoopid ;-) If you eat a lot of yogurt while you are taking antibiotics, you will neutralize the antibiotics. They’ll be wasted killing all the yogurt. You have to wait until you’ve finished antibiotics to start replacing your good bacteria.

  23. you know nothing of depression. it is considerably more broad than your watered down, temporary experience. you are essentially making light of a horrible situation that many people ACTUALLY SUFFER through constantly.

    a) I wrote about “depression, at least as I’m experiencing it.” You don’t get to tell me that my depression isn’t good enough or isn’t real enough. Period.

    b) I wrote on Twitter last night: “Lyme disease has induced depression, which is pretty bullshit depression. I feel like a depression tourist, just slumming for a few weeks.” But that’s my call to make. Not yours.

  24. Waldo- so sorry to hear about your Lyme disease. I hope there are no serious long-term effects; I know that Lyme disease can be worse the longer it goes undiagnosed/untreated.

    While I’m hardly an expert, it seems as if Lyme is often difficult to diagnose correctly. In addition to your experience with your dermatologist, I’ve both heard and read about other cases in which it took years to get a correct diagnosis, during which time the disease got increasingly worse and had serious long-term repercussions. One acquaintance of mine was in and out of the hospital for two months before they figured out she had Lyme disease — initially, they thought it might be a brain tumor.

    Anyhow, enjoy your temporary reprieve from intelligence, and I hope you have a speedy recovery!

  25. If you eat a lot of yogurt while you are taking antibiotics, you will neutralize the antibiotics. They’ll be wasted killing all the yogurt. You have to wait until you’ve finished antibiotics to start replacing your good bacteria.

    Modern research finds that that one must simply time the antibiotics relative to the probiotics. I shouldn’t have one within two hours of the other, so that each has time to digest. (See this recent Harvard story for more, which reports on a study published in JAMA that found health benefits from taking a regimen of probiotics along with antibiotics.)

  26. I experienced this while I was on anti-seizure medicine (for a temporary condition that never came back) and I recall my ambition basically draining out my ears and I looked at myself and just … didn’t like what I saw. For weeks. I didn’t really realize it at the time (I mostly slept) but looking back on it, like Karl says, was poignant.

  27. I agree with Greg and “not all depression feels alike” above. As a long term chronic depression suffer and HN reader your assertion that depressed = stupid is dangerously fallacious. I’ve also found that intelligence is an immeasurable spectrum and that ‘stupid’ people can often be ‘smart’ in their own area or way (ie, fish climbing trees; Einstein style). All things are relative.

  28. Hey Waldo, it’s weird to find out about your post via ycombinator instead of on the dads list. Anyway, two things.

    (1) there’s progress in a vaccine for Lyme disease: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/260471.php

    (2) there’s a probiotic supplement called Align that complements the bacteria in yogurt. You can pick it up at Costco. Yogurt doesn’t contain all types of the good bacteria normally found in the gut, unfortunately. https://www.costco.com/Align%C2%AE-Probiotic-Supplement%2c-63-Capsules.product.11630542.html

  29. I’m recovering from Lyme’s and Waldo you have captured EXACTLY what it feels like. Please let us know when you find that infectious disease specialist. I’d like to contact him/her myself because after my own antibiotics course I’m still not 100%. Wishing you well….

  30. Fave line: “This is a fascinating experience. Or, at least, it would be fascinating, if the symptoms themselves didn’t prevent me from caring.”

    So sorry that this has happened to you!

  31. Thank you a million times for posting. I was diagnosed almost one month ago with Lyme and just finished a first round of doxycycline. Already realizing that I will need additional time on antibiotics as four days off of them has proven that my brain is still slow. It is no fun to not feel up to par. As a part time writer, it’s KILLING me. I’m impressed my your lucidity nonetheless.

  32. I *think* you are suffering more from apathy than depression. Apathy is “I don’t care about anything”. Depression is “I have no hope for the future and no reason to exist because I am nothing”.

    It didn’t sound like you have no hope for the future, so that’s why it sounds like apathy. I’ve had both of these in my past. They are different. Depression is more serious because there are some core beliefs that need to be rebuilt after they have been crushed or destroyed.

    Anyway, interesting post. I guess you answered the question “is a dumb person smart enough to know they are dumb?”.

  33. I totally feel you. I had a kid a year ago and I’m still at less than 80% my previous cognitive ability due to lack of sleep, and lack of restful periods.

    Someday I talk pretty again.

  34. @Kristina, you may want to give yourself additional time off the anti-biotics before going back on. I’ve been off almost 3 weeks and am just now starting to feel more “cognizant” The anti-biotics are almost as bad as the disease itself…

  35. This was one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read. I’ve been bitten plenty of times by deer ticks and had the welts but never anything more than that. Good luck on a complete recovery.

  36. Kefir has ten times the bacterial content of yogurt and has been shown to be capable of recolonising the gut. Plus it is way easier to make than yogurt, though you do have to feed it daily. I have grains to share if you are interested.

  37. @Jenee i am wont to agree with you. the antibiotics certainly elicited a series of unfortunate side effects. that being said, i know that there is some sketchiness whereby the CDC suggests you only take antibiotics for a couple of weeks- and somehow this is related to helping insurance companies lower costs related to Lyme. the truth is that this spirochetes probably don’t go away from one two week dose of doxy. granted i began treatment one month after the bite, which bodes well for recovery, and that those who go untreated will naturally have a harder time fighting it off, but i do think it will take another flooding of the antis into my system to really fight it off.

  38. Yup. That is exactly how I have been feeling for the past few months.

    We only really notice depression when it starts to go away; when we begin to notice things that had previously been ignored: Our perception of colours, textures, sights and smells all start to have a perceptual depth and quality that is absent in the throes of depression: Not only do they start to provoke an emotional response, but they attract and maintain a depth of attentional focus that was absent before.

    Indeed, it seems to me that depression might be more accurately classified as a derangement of our attentional mechanisms than an emotional disorder.

    Ability to concentrate disappears, ability to do any sort of in-depth analysis goes away, ability to read anything other than the shortest of articles dissipates.

    Fortunately, the hyperkinetic attention-deficit twitteresque world of the internet is tailor-made for individuals with depression and an inability to concentrate…..

  39. Waldo,

    Not one year has gone by since I moved to Sugar Hollow a dozen years ago that I haven’t had to remove at least one tick; the average is more like 4-5 over the course of a season. Despite bug spray, etc., it comes with the territory with hiking & outdoor work. So I’ve always felt that I’m living on borrowed time as far as Lyme goes.

    You’re someone whom many of us trust to think critically and know the difference between anecdote and evidence, so I hope you’ll continue to post what you experience and learn as the situation moves you, and good luck navigating the universe of contradictory information out there about Lyme disease.

  40. I got mononucleosis when I was 16, and it was like this, times 10. (not to mention a non-stop feeling of general unpleasantness – not pain, not nausea, just blahhhh.) I’d try to read a book, nope, way over my head. Same with magazines. To my great horror, I even tried midday television and found that soap operas were too difficult to understand! I really think my IQ dropped to the mid-50s. And it’s viral so there’s no fix other than to wait it out.

    As someone who normally read 2-3 books a week this was a special kind of hell.

  41. I can sympathize and empathize with you. I have lupus. People have a hard time understanding that that meant so me because they still see me going 100 miles per hour and working on 3 different things at the same time. But, those are the people who did not know me before lupus. Those with prior knowledge know that it is normal for me to go to go at 200 miles per hour and juggle 6 things at one time. It is hard for others to understand the sense of “loss” that I feel or the frustration of not being able to do as much as I once could. I simply don’t think as quickly as I use to and I do not have the same level of energy to handle the thoughts that I do have. It is frustrating … and depressing.

  42. I contracted Lyme Disease about three years ago and it was a wretched experience, but it gets better. In my case I remained fairly lucid but I experienced muscle/joint pain and fatigue like I have never known before or since.

    The doctors were pretty concerned and I learned through that experience is to never be upset about time spent in the doctor’s waiting room. You don’t want to be the person who the doctor sees immediately when you come in. You want to be the person waiting.

    Email me if you want or need to.

  43. Well, your writing skills still exceed those of any respondent to this post, so I’m holding out hope for a full recovery! Get well soon.

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