I recently read Sarah Ramey’s memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness. Published just last year, it is described this way:
“In her harrowing, darkly funny, and unforgettable memoir, Sarah Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness in her senior year of college turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted that her devastating symptoms were psychological. …Ramey’s pursuit of a diagnosis and cure for her own mysterious illness becomes a page-turning medical mystery that reveals a new understanding of today’s chronic illnesses as ecological in nature, driven by modern changes to the basic foundations of health, from the quality of our sleep, diet, and social connections to the state of our microbiomes.”Book Jacket Cover
I haven’t experienced the horrifying stories she recounts with medical personnel, but I know others who have. I think it helped that I was usually drawn to alternative practitioners, though Sarah had her own horror stories with alternative practitioners. She finally found help with practitioners of Functional Medicine, and my own primary care nurse practitioner is aligned with that field. For that I am grateful.
I identified with the mysterious nature of auto-immune chronic conditions–when I reflected on it, I realized that they have been a part of my life for many years–most recently, Hashimoto’s thyroid disease, SIBO, adrenal fatigue, and borderline diabetes, but earlier in my life there was endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and gradually developing multiple chemical sensitivities, and multiple food sensitivities. For most of my life, I managed to work and keep my balance, but it became more and more difficult. Finally, when I turned 65, and could access Social Security and Medicare, I retired from my work as a full-time minister.
I wondered at the time if being released from the stress of full-time work might bring me relief from the illnesses, but that was not to be the case. Instead, I was better able to manage living with the illnesses. But it is a delicate balance. If I eat well (for me that means no refined sugar, no gluten, low carb, lots of vegetables, and meat, while avoiding the list of specific foods that give me problems), if I rest when I am weary (which is spending some variable part of every day lying on the couch), if I take certain natural supplements (for example, I take Berberine, which has been shown to be as effective as Metformin for helping blood sugar balance), and if I don’t overdo it anywhere, well then, I have some energy to do things I love, to write, to garden a bit, to learn new things, even the miracle of building our little pond last year.
Sometimes, I can forget that I have these illnesses. Some days I wake in the morning rested and glad to greet a new day. I might have several hours to work on projects. I tend to get more weary and achy as the day goes by. And during these two years so far of COVID, I have been glad for the many opportunities that the world on Zoom provided. But then, something happens that upsets the balance, and I am sunk into a lower level of functioning, just barely able to cook my meals and take care of the basics. Most recently, I think that my body might have reacted badly to my second Shingrix vaccine. The last four weeks have been mostly couch weeks: reading books and watching British mysteries on Roku. I hope that I am emerging from that now. It is not easy to know what upsets the balance–all I can do is respond to it.
Because I am always asking questions about meaning, I appreciated the connection that Sarah Ramey made between our chronically ill bodies, and the larger ecology of the earth. I think about that too. I wonder if my own body is mirroring the afflictions of the earth I love, is somehow sensitive to the larger web–global warming, the prevalence of forever poisons, the loss of communal connections, the ecological balance which human beings have undermined. If that is the case, can I love my body as I love the earth? Can I grant her that self-care that has been neglected for too long?
One aspect that Sarah Ramey sees as critical is our need for human connection. I was reflecting on how for much of my life I made connection through activism, through shared work. I still feel the impulse to act for justice, in small ways, but there are less opportunities now for the connection that used to be a part of it. I have also felt more isolated since retiring, and, of course, since COVID. Maybe I need to learn something new–to nurture connection that is not at all about work or social justice, but about something more elementary. Can I be cherished, not for what I do, but for my being? Can I cherish others in this way? Can I also cherish myself in just this way? Perhaps it will require a kind of spring melting of some other kind of hidden ice. May it be so.