If not for chronic illness, I wouldn’t have my personality, my career, or my positive outlook on life. I know that may sound a bit weird—after all, it’s with good reason major sickness isn't considered a life-enhancer—but nothing shaped my happiness more than the time I spent being told by doctors that I’d likely never be well again, and all the actions I took to prove them wrong. Still raising an eyebrow? Allow me to explain.
I had some bad luck in my thirties. First, I never noticed the tick that bit me during a visit to Cape Cod. By the time I surmised one must have, I had a late stage neurological Lyme disease diagnosis. That’s different from acute Lyme disease in that it’s not a new, potentially temporary illness, but rather a much harder to cure systemic situation in which Lyme has taken over your body on a cellular level. Late stage Lyme diagnoses tend to come with comorbidities, and I was no exception: I had blood parasite co-infection Bartonella, severe hypothyroidism, hormone dysfunction, myalgic encephalomyelitis, and candida overgrowth that was so rampant in my intestines, it was prominent in my blood. Miraculously, I was able to make a complete recovery from those myriad diseases despite my LLMD (Lyme literate medical doctor) telling me one was unlikely, given the severity of my case. Even more miraculously, I recovered without Western Medicine, holistically, on my own with only the help of my family.
My bad luck returned when just months after recovering from Lyme and its cohort illnesses I moved into a home with a gas issue. For half a year, I was slowly gassed by carbon monoxide and combustion byproducts thanks to a faulty piping and exhaust system. My experience with carbon monoxide poisoning was so horrific it made Lyme, which at one point had rendered me pain-addled enough from fibromyalgia that I needed a wheelchair to get through an airport, feel like it had been a bad flu in comparison. My brain was deteriorated to an extent that I received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease from Cedars Sinai, and I scored in the bottom one percent of cognitive testing for short term memory function. As bad as losing my physical mobility and having debilitating nerve pain had been, it was nothing compared to losing my mind. Similar to Lyme disease, I fought C.O. poisoning without Western medicine, using practitioners only for diagnoses, and made a second complete recovery.
By the time I was well from illness fiasco number two, it was five years after that tick bite I’d never noticed. Once returned to full functionality of body, mind, and spirit, I discovered I was a nicer, humbler, more empathetic person. I also had a beautiful sense of life purpose. Here’s how that unfolded.
Before Lyme disease, I wasn’t by any means an awful person, but I also wasn’t the nicest one. I was a skinny, self-proclaimed intellectual with little tolerance for anyone who didn’t operate at my own lightning-fast speed. Losing my thyroid function packed pounds on my body, and suddenly I understood that when asked for diet advice I’d been causing great harm by telling people to “just eat less.” Lyme also ravaged my brain (though less than the later C.O. poisoning would), stealing my ability to hand write, do simple math, or speak without long pauses of thought between sentences. Losing so much function forced me to come to terms with how detrimental to others my judgmental behavior had been, and how callous and cold that version of me was. I identified strongly with my lithe body and quick-thinking brain. Once both of those were taken away, I was forced to discover who I was on a deeper level. Initially, what I found was not awesome, which I doubt is shocking based on my description. It took a considerable amount of self work and humbling to become someone I could be proud of.
I identified strongly with my lithe body and quick-thinking brain. Once both of those were taken away, I was forced to discover who I was on a deeper level.
After Lyme disease, even though I felt like a better human, I still felt strongly lacking in purpose. I’d cooked professionally on and off for my whole adult life and founded a successful brand of snack foods in health food stores throughout the country. But cooking didn’t feel like why I was on the planet, just what I instinctively did with my days when I didn’t have anything else to do. Since childhood, I’d wanted to be a writer. I went to college for that purpose, obtaining a bachelor’s in creative writing. However, I found journalism an impossible field to break into, and landed editorial internships with publications but never actual jobs. Accordingly, I gave up on writing for a living by my late twenties.
When I recovered from carbon monoxide, which occurred years after my recovery from Lyme, my life purpose was abundantly clear: I knew how to get better when told it was impossible, having accomplished it not once but twice in extreme circumstances, and I wanted to teach other people the same. Truthfully, it was unfortunate it took my experiencing half a decade of illness to become someone who cared enough about the greater good to want a career in the field of helping others, and I experience a twinge of shame still, over seven years later, just typing that sentiment. Growth is about sitting with the discomfort of our mistakes and taking actions to correct them, though. No one is born perfect, and no one will likely ever achieve perfection. My journey through illness turned me into someone happy to share my mistakes so that others who’ve also made them might feel less alone.
How was I going to set about helping others feel more well, and give hope to those who’d lost it like I had at my sickest? Food and writing were my natural modalities, so I figured that surely I could mold those skills into ones focused on wellness. My cooking was already special diet focused, and I had the ability to distill complex information into readable, colloquial text. With no action on my part except this decision and a metaphorical handshake with the universe to set me on a new path, my career took off immediately. Only days after deciding I was ready to work again, which I hadn’t done in years by then, I was asked by a culinary event website to represent them in a Goop feature and cook for Gwyneth Paltrow for a day. By the end of the coconut flour pancake breakfast I made the family, I’d signed on as their new private chef.
My journey through illness turned me into someone happy to share my mistakes so that others who’ve also made them might feel less alone.
Because celebrity private cheffing innately leads to public credibility and a level of celeb-adjacent status, within two years of that job I was contributing articles to platforms like Livestrong and Beachbody. Every time someone from a health or cooking site reached out for a recipe, I offered to write the entire article, quickly building a roster of outlets. My first book deal soon arrived, making my dream of writing material that others could hold in their hands, and feel better by reading, come true. By the time you read this, I’ll have turned in the manuscript to my fifth book in less than six years. My accomplishments of these post-illness years continue to feel unreal, as if I’m relaying a dear friend’s story to you, not my own. I like that. I adore my imposter syndrome, my wonder with every new media feature or work request that a dream task is being asked of me.
When I speak at conventions, I begin my talks, no matter the topic, by asking the audience to close their eyes and think of their biggest dream they don’t believe they can ever achieve. After I guide them through what realizing that dream would be like, I ask them to open their eyes and look at me. I tell the audience that my being on that stage looking out at them is proof their dream is possible, because they are watching me live out mine against all odds.
That exercise makes some people teary. Inevitably, one of those teary people is me, every time. I’ll never take the gift of being given a voice to help others for granted, just like I’ll never take my ability to walk without pain, or quickly verbalize my thoughts, for granted again. Knowing that the cards were stacked against me keeps me humble, which, after that previous version of myself, is now a lifelong priority for me.