“I now thought of myself as a sick person, a new identity that I could embrace with righteousness.”
Trapped inside my body
THE ESCAPE ISSUE
“I now thought of myself as a sick person, a new identity that I could embrace with righteousness.”
Trapped inside my body
There is a secret at the center of my body, and I will never know what it is. This secret could be described as an illness, but no doctor has been able to name it, and even I have a hard time describing its shape.
It began six years ago with tiny muscle spasms rippling beneath my skin — fasciculations, the doctors call them. The early ones came at night. As I’d lay in bed, I’d notice some nook of my body — thigh, finger, cheek — begin to flutter. It was as if a presence inside me were knocking from behind my skin, demanding my attention. Soon after, my belly expanded into a ball of throbbing inflammation. With this came burning nausea, knotty tightness, and the sensation of a rock-hard mass lodged in my navel.
At first, these symptoms were occasional, but pretty soon they were with me always. So I visited my general practitioner, who gave me a brief consultation and diagnosed my condition as “generalized anxiety disorder.” The explanation felt like a dismissal. I went to a gastroenterologist for a second opinion, and after some blood tests, I received the same response. I got a third opinion from a neurologist, who stuck me with needles and fired electricity into my muscles. He, too, found nothing and reiterated “anxiety,” which I now understood had become a default for anything with unknown pathology — the disease of modern life.
It seemed plausible that my condition — or at least part of it — was psychosomatic. I could understand that my problem was perhaps hiding in the deep, dark waters of my unconscious. I can’t say I believed this, but I accepted it and spent years swallowing pills, opening up to psychotherapists, and quelling as many sources of stress in my life as possible.
Meanwhile, I got sicker. My immune system collapsed. Every local virus entered me — flus, fevers, colds — and for two years I rarely emerged into full health for more than a week or two. Over time, I grew paranoid and isolated. Every social encounter was a fresh batch of germs. My weight plummeted to the point that my wife began gasping when she saw me shirtless. Heavy-limbed fatigue overtook me and prevented me from leaving the apartment for long stretches of time. I stopped going to the bathroom. I lost my libido.
Perhaps the most insidious of my ailments were those that threatened my livelihood as a musician, particularly something called laryngopharyngeal reflux. After concerts, my throat was increasingly raw and painful, making it difficult to speak for weeks. An endoscopy revealed that my esophagus was bleeding, and so I was prescribed more meds — the popular acid-blockers — all of which seemed to send me deeper into my spiral. I took a break from singing and, more generally, music. I hadn’t done this in two decades, but after this decision, I barely touched an instrument for three years.
At this point, it was clear that anxiety was an inadequate diagnosis. So several practitioners ran me through their tests and tossed out some new names — autoimmunity, chronic Lyme disease, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth — each of which offered its own list of broad symptoms and vague solutions. None of it helped.
I grew increasingly afraid of this unknown inner assailant. It began to define me. To appease it, I changed professions — from touring musician to homebody artist — and moved across the country, from New York City to rural California. In my mind, my situation had transitioned from an acute and curable one to something chronic that needed to be accepted and maintained. I now thought of myself as a sick person, a new identity that I could embrace with righteousness. I began envisioning a life where this illness always existed.
Depression overtook me. Until then, I’d always aimed to keep my emotions tucked away. But now, I wasn’t strong enough to hold anything in. I was a mess of hopeless despair, and everyone could see it. I’d lost faith in Western medicine, which I came to realize isn’t designed for long-term puzzles like mine.
I began tripping down the dark alleys of the sick internet, a place filled with other mysterious cases. I dropped every permutation of symptoms into search engines — “brain zaps + vertigo + twitches” — and rarely found myself wiser. I began to explore the unorthodox treatments I’d previously considered illegitimate. High-minded judgment was a luxury I could no longer afford, and I dove into the abyss of alternative health. I was treated with hypnotherapy, colonics, chiropractic, energy healing, naturopathy, Taoist abdominal massage, past-life regression, homeopathy, shamanism, craniosacral therapy, witchcraft, Rolfing, herbalism, kinesiology, and sensory deprivation. At one point, a traditional Chinese doctor reported that I had two demonic worms living inside of me — which seemed like the best explanation yet. Nevertheless, his bitter teas did not exorcise them.
I had spent two decades as a proud vegetarian, but now, practitioners of all types were suggesting that my situation could have been worsened by this limitation. So after years of resisting, I introduced meat back into my life. It helped, a little, and I began implementing a variety of uncomfortably restrictive diets. They destroyed my social life and turned me borderline orthorexic, but it was all in the name of health, and I’d keep them up until their benefits faded away.
Although I found no answers, I found endless threads of knowledge. I filled notebooks with theories, made connections between vast bodies of medicinal systems, and in this way, the lack of diagnosis was expansive, generative. My fear of the unknown fueled my state of compulsive learning. Without the satisfaction of an answer, I was offered only an ever-growing list of questions, all of which could be reduced to one: What is happening to me?
One day, after years of avoiding doctors, I found myself standing in front of the office of Dr. Erin Martin, an integrative physician who bridges alternative and conventional practices. If I wasn’t giving up, then I had to keep plugging away. As she listed off the usual treatments (tests, supplements, diets), she could see in my eyes that I needed something new.
So she told me a personal story. Years earlier, she had struggled with celiac disease, which affected her hormones and made it difficult for her to become pregnant. Then she went to Amrtasiddhi, an ayurvedic center in Bali, and underwent a powerful form of cleansing called panchakarma. Shortly after she returned home, she became pregnant. “But,” she warned, “this is no spa. It’s not a sightseeing vacation. Prepare to be uncomfortable.”
I’d certainly considered other forms of radical medical tourism before — most notably fecal microbiota transplantation, which can be difficult to obtain in the States — but the risks had always outweighed the benefits. As I researched the center, though, I discovered other cases like mine. Countless people described the experience as “life changing,” an adjective I considered both hyperbolic and deeply attractive.
Panchakarma is a specialized ayurvedic treatment, and the word translates to “five actions,” which include: controlled diarrhea, vomiting, nasal washing, enemas, and bloodletting (usually through leeches). It sounded intense, but nothing newfangled had worked for me, so perhaps a 5,000-year-old system of medicine (and one that invented prognosis and diagnosis) could help. So I flew across the world. It was a commitment of time and distance that felt essential, separating me from my daily life, placing me in another time zone, season, climate, and culture. If all went well, my old sick self would not be able to find me.
The length of my stay was also important. After years of hourlong consults, daylong programs, and even weekend retreats, I needed to immerse myself. Time is dosage, and my condition was long-term; it seemed right that the treatment should be the same. I signed up for 21 days. At the insistence of the center’s physicians, I wouldn’t leave the compound, a quiet little paradise abundant with flowers and trees, for the first two weeks. Patients are encouraged to stay mostly indoors, avoiding too much sunlight and wind, as both can disrupt the body. All “impressions,” as they call them, should be reduced: reading, work, excessive exercise, screens, and internet, which was not readily available anyway. Likewise, the food is bland — especially during the first seven days — and caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and sugar are not permitted during the entire treatment. Even long naps are discouraged, as they can disturb sleep cycles. So the state most people live in is pure cleansing boredom.
For the first part of my treatment, I clung to my bed, sweating through all the symptoms of a raging infection. This was during the “ghee cleanse,” a method of absorbing all the undigested material in the body. For a week, I drank butter oil infused with medicine every morning at 6:30 a.m., starting with about half a shot glass and working my way up to a pair of brimming tumblers. When the ghee is served, one of the center’s employees comes to the table and asks each person about the state of his bowel movements. This is not a private conversation, and people do not hold back the details of frequency and consistency. I often knew the pattern of a guest’s evacuation before I knew his name. Truly sick people are immune to embarrassment.
What follows are waves of dizziness, fatigue, and mind-bending nausea. During the first few days, I rarely ate, and when I did, it was only watery soups, which is all that is allowed. By the sixth day, the oil oozed from my pores. This, the doctor told me, is when the ghee has fully saturated the body — every organ, every cell.
As the program continued, therapists dripped oil up my nose and pooled it onto my blinking eyes. They gave me four-handed body massages while dumping liters of oil across every inch of my body. They dripped a single thread of oil onto my forehead, which sent my nervous system into buzzing, emotional paroxysms. They gave me almost a dozen enemas — oil, tea, milk, bone broth — some of which I held for hours, some for a few excruciating moments. Each dose pulled more from me, until I was left an empty-headed balloon of a person, floating from treatment to treatment.
It was then, at the peak of internal discomfort, that I purged. I drank a foul, bitter herbal beverage and, for several hours, violently expelled a watery yellow liquid. As requested, I dutifully counted the number of bowel movements: 37 in three hours.
My mind and body were broken down. The doctors had told me things might get worse before they get better, and that is what happened. Old injuries rose to the surface — aching knees, sore tailbone, throbbing jaw — and violent images plagued my dreams. One night, wild dogs tore me apart in an empty city street.
I welcomed all of this. After years of self-directed healing, I wanted to outsource my health, to renounce as much control as possible. In illness, every moment is an opportunity to assess — Am I better? Worse? Why? Was it that salad I ate? Now, all these questions could be irrelevant. I did what I was told and thought of little else. The doctors encouraged me to let the oil draw out my sick identity: The more I clung to that person, the harder my recovery would be.
I was about halfway through the program when my doctor asked me to extend my stay to almost a month. This would be the longest stay of anyone at the center during my time there, and I had yet to see any improvement. I resisted. I’ve always been the contrarian — the “healthy skeptic,” as they say — and without clear results, I couldn’t possibly sign up for more of this discomfort, right? But as soon as I came to this conclusion, I was plunged into hopelessness. If I didn’t extend my stay, this meant I was already declaring the program just another iteration in my long list of failed experiments.
So I stayed. This had, after all, been the most attentive medical care I’d ever received, and for the first time in years, I trusted my physicians. I would have to turn off the skepticism and absorb whatever they offered me. Over the following weeks, they taught me to cook, exercise, wash, think, massage myself, organize my day, and sleep, all through the lens of ayurveda. Finally, as a conclusion to my treatment, the doctor asked that I play a concert for the other patients. Music had been part of my fall, so it made sense that it could help me rise. With only a few days to practice, I played the concert underprepared — just a guitar and my voice. Still, the feeling was uplifting, as satisfying as my largest shows but without the moody dip that often follows such grand ambitions.
By the end, though, even these doctors did not name my disease. Instead, they urged me to accept that I would never unlock my secret. This would be my final character trait to relinquish: my need to know. I had cultivated this addiction to knowledge over a lifetime, and these days, with every name, date, and image living in our pockets, the temptations are stronger than ever. But I had learned that I was unable to access my cure through my mind. Everyone knows that ignorance breeds fear, and it does, but so can information, and that fear just creates a hunger for more information.
When I left, I was asked to keep up the practices daily in order to see the full benefits of the program. Healing would not be an isolated moment, as so happens in Western allopathic medicine, but an ongoing process of adjustment. Forty-eight days, they told me, is how long it takes to develop a new physiological position.
For the past three months, this is what I have done. Every morning, I oil up all five senses — nostrils, eyes, skin, ears, mouth. I scrape my tongue, meditate, stretch, bathe, and eat porridge. Rather than trying to learn anything new about my health, I am refusing to understand what I don’t need to: no more obsessive hours of health research. As I do this, every day, I feel a little better. But “better” isn’t really the right word — it’s just what I say to people. “Better” suggests a continuum, but right now, with each activity, what I feel is new, altered.
Each stage of my illness has required me to peel away a layer of my identity — the professional musician, the levelheaded pragmatist, the vegetarian, the autodidact, and, of course, the convalescent. Then panchakarma scrubbed away the remnants and left me with a blank sense of self.
It would seem that the next logical task is to rebuild myself — and I finally have the energy to do so. In the past, when my symptoms faded for a few days, I immediately wanted to forget about my condition and slide back into my old, comfortable ways. Now, I can’t find my way back, and I don’t know if I want to.
Perhaps this is one function of sickness — a way of opening us up to our next self. Every cold, a refresh. It’s certainly how it feels: After a flu, normal daily life is like a euphoric opportunity to be alive. Maybe in this way, we could experience illness as a part of wellness, a necessary, if difficult, step in our development rather than a diversion from the lives we are supposed to be living.