Science

Coming to Terms With My Tick Anxiety

Yes, they’re gross and they’re everywhere, and maybe that’s partly my fault. But I can’t stay inside.

A tick.
Ticks are becoming more and more a part of life in many parts of the country.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by IgorChus/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

One summer day, in about 1991, my mom took a tick off my brother’s scalp. It was unsurprising that he had one; he spent most of his New Hampshire boyhood doing God knows what in a swamp that he and his friends nicknamed “Beaver Fever.” I remember the incident because this tick was disgusting. Swollen to its maximum with my brother’s blood, it looked like a raisin with legs. I also remember it because although we were horrified—my sister and I danced around the kitchen screeching throughout the tiny operation—we weren’t scared.

This past weekend, when I spotted a tick on my own child’s head, the fear I felt was something else. We took it off solemnly, with ceremony, and put it away for safekeeping—labeled with the date, in case she got sick and we needed to show it to a doctor. Ticks are terrifying now. And in the Northeast and the Upper Midwest, there are more of them than ever, or at least, more of them than we remember seeing. These arachnids thrive when the winters are warm, as Mary Beth Pfeiffer wrote in her 2018 book Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change. Although there may be other reasons why tick populations are booming, it’s generally acknowledged now that climate change is a huge help for them. In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency began using the rate of reported Lyme disease cases as an indicator of the impact of climate change—“the only disease to be accorded that dubious distinction,” Pfeiffer writes. In 2018, researchers published a study estimating that if we hit a 2-degrees-Celsius increase in annual average temperature, Lyme cases in the United States will increase by 20 percent by midcentury.

Lots of people are afraid of bugs. And ticks are inherently gross, sure. But my tickphobia is wrapped up with how it feels to be living on the brink of what we are constantly told will be the terrible time of climate change. The practical problem of Lyme, and other tick-borne diseases that are still rare now but might be worse for our bodies, is one thing; the knowledge that we did this to ourselves—and that this is just the beginning—makes it all so much worse. I’m not the only one to feel this way. Recently, in a piece on kids and ticks on Medium’s Elemental, Amy Brill wrote about the fear that swept her parenting community on Long Island in 2017 as numbers of reported Lyme cases spiked and news about the spread of ticks hit the New York Times: “In a heartbeat, the fear of everything that could befall our children—unseen predators, mysterious illnesses with long-term complications, or natural disasters of epic proportions—had codified into one overarching terror: that our kids would be bitten, their blood infected, and their lives destroyed. By a teeny, tiny, tick.”

Ticks are so scary in part because, if my child were to get sick, I would feel crushing guilt for not having been vigilant enough. And there’s a lot of uncertainty that goes along with this sickness: If she gets symptoms, would I remember to think of the possibility of Lyme and suggest it to our doctor? Will the test work the way it’s supposed to? Does “chronic Lyme” really exist? What are the chances, truly, that my child or I would get the worst of it—the wrong tick, the wrong time? I try to reassure myself that paying attention is probably the best action I can take to protect her, that her chances of getting the disease are low to begin with, and that it’s highly treatable if that happens. In the grip of tick fear, I pinwheel back and forth between confidence that it’s going to be fine—even the New York Times, along with many, many doctors, says so—and paranoia that makes a bright July day look dark and full of crawling portents.

Positivity largely prevails. My tickphobia hasn’t changed my life significantly. But I still hate the fact that the free feeling of going outside in summer—children stampeding out a screen door; aunts and uncles and cousins playing lawn games barefoot as the fireflies glimmer—is gone, replaced by protocols and procedures that I’m never even sure I’m executing correctly. Treat clothes with permethrin—then make sure to change into those clothes when you’re going into the woods? Wear long pants tucked into socks? In Ohio’s heat and humidity? These ideas seem restrictive when I’m thinking of my own habit of randomly deciding to stop for a picnic in our nearby state park on the way back from the farmers market on a Saturday; when I contemplate enforcing these rules with my child, too, I get downright annoyed. Preventive measures, like thorough nightly tick checks for the whole family, seem almost laughable for my middle-age body, already covered with tick-size moles. My toddler, while much smoother-skinned and smaller, resists even simpler evening activities like toothbrushing and bathing. As Brill put it, responding to tips from experts who say you can thwart ticks by taking off your clothes outside, putting your clothes into the dryer, and then showering right away: “I can’t even get my kids to take a shower when they’re coated in sunscreen, sweat, Mister Softee, and homemade slime, much less every single time they enter the house.”

I guess one answer is to stay in. But you can’t, if you’re me—you just fundamentally like being outdoors, it’s built into your soul in some deep way. (You also can’t if you’re me, and you’ve read all the things about the impact of “nature deficit disorder” on America’s indoor kids.) So, instead, you resign yourself to forcibly inspecting the scalp, toes, and belly button of a screaming, overtired 2-year-old every night; to wearing the pretreated long pants when you remember. Sometimes, you skip all that, and worry. That’s just the price you pay, in 2019, if you want to be outside where you live—or so you tell yourself.

David Sobel teaches environmental educators in New Hampshire, is a theorist of place-based education, and has written for years about what he defines as “ecophobia.” This is what he describes as the snowballing phenomenon whereby people fear aspects of the natural environment, which they perceive as irretrievably degraded, and spend less time outside in their local contexts, eventually getting more and more disconnected from nature. (When I first read about the idea of ecophobia, I felt smug about my own tolerance for mosquitoes and heat and mud. And then I remembered my fear of ticks and felt a little less smug.)

When I asked him about tickphobia among parents, Sobel shared with me a draft of a forthcoming article about a tick education project that he co-wrote with Robin Huntley, of the Juniper Hill School in Alna, Maine. In the piece, Sobel and Huntley describe a project executed at a small elementary school in Maine, where some children and adults in the community had been diagnosed with Lyme. “Some of those affected have experienced extreme and chronic symptoms,” they write, “a fact that has led to the development of a culture of fear within the school community.”

So, in response, a third-grade class at the school began to collect the ticks they found when they went outside for recess, identifying the specimens and logging the locations where they had been found. The class found that most of the ticks they identified were dog ticks, rather than the Lyme-carrying deer ticks, and that—contrary to their expectations—the students who played in the woods were less likely to find ticks than those who played on the playground. “The confidence and enthusiasm accompanying their knowledge sparked an educational domino effect,” Huntley and Sobel observe, with family members and students both feeling better about spending time in the outdoors.

Sobel and Huntley describe the attitude they’ve come to take toward ticks, as educators who spend a lot of time outside with children, using an incredibly pragmatic metaphor. Ticks are “like the bacteria that cause cavities in your teeth,” the two write. “They’re there all the time, we can’t avoid them, and so we have to learn how to live with them.”

This idea is wonderful, and the results are so heartening. Just last year, I wrote about a wonderful book by Mark Hineline that advocated the practice of recording information about the nature that surrounds your house, as a way of fighting the existential despair of climate change. Hineline argued that we should get interested in what is happening—gather data, so that when you get that vague sense that the daffodils came up even earlier this year, you could refer to last year’s record and check, rather than just lie awake at 3 a.m. Perhaps this is also an answer to tick fear: write it all down, apply the methodologies of science and record keeping.

What’s helped me most in reconciling with this change, though, is to see the new burden of tick management as just another part of growing up. I have a romantic vision of what it means to be outdoors in part because I’ve been lucky. I was born into a body that has interacted well with the places where I’ve lived. I haven’t had to deal with asthma or allergies; I grew up in a place where air quality was great, the climate was moderate, and the streams were clear and good to swim in (if not to drink; my brother’s beloved Beaver Fever came by its name honestly). No wonder I’m annoyed, in middle age, to find my customary freedoms restricted.

Maintaining a good relationship with the outdoors, as we move forward into climate uncertainty, is going to require work. I’m going to try to invest my anxious energy in the big picture, rather than worrying and worrying about ticks. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop checking for them, though.