Wild Medicine Chapter: Is the Illness My Fault?


“Those who have an understanding of the mhondoro ceremony were correct when they told me that all beings in a community are connected, that the madness of one is the madness of everyone, that there is no separation of minds and bodies between people. It was true when they said the wickedness and carelessness and avarice of one would bring pestilence on the whole. Your sickness is mine. My sickness is yours.”  – Leaving Before the Rains Come, Alexandra Fuller (204)

We were out in the Sonoran Desert, in Arizona, where, in only a few weeks’ time, we would be performing my ceremony-theatre play-thankfulness hymn for the healing I had experienced a year and a half ago – a complete remission of autoimmune symptoms and pain that had devoured me since I was twelve years old. 

In gratitude to the spirits that had spared my body the cycle of pain, symptoms, medications, supplements, diets, side-effects, pain that I had grown so accustomed to, I had written a play. Or rather, the play was written through me. Now, in preparing myself to leave Tucson, Arizona and go back to Zimbabwe, where my dreams, my Ancestors, and the diviners I had sought out were guiding me to go, I had decided to give thanks to the Spirits and put on my play of thanksgiving.

That was the plan, then.  

You see, Spirit loves symbolic gestures. And as much as we ourselves may also love our own symbolic gestures, we must remember that it is a conversation we are having, and not a monologue. How Spirit chooses to respond is … well, exactly that. How Spirit chooses to respond.

(It isn’t necessarily painless, this delighted response from Spirit.)

I had, completely unknowingly, thrown down a dueling glove to my Spirits. They took me up on the challenge gladly, knowing the things that I could not know. I told Spirit – I am ready to go home! And Spirit responded, with the wise and sly smile of a trickster who knows the punchline before the joke is told: ‘We don’t think you are. But don’t worry. We will make you ready.’

And here they were, making me ready.

In practical terms, it looked like this – an explosion of fire in my body, the likes of which I had never felt before.

So here we were, in the desert, six of us wise women, young and younger, old and older, all involved in the theatre, all sitting in an ayahuasca ceremony – a sacred plant ceremony – together, in order to gather energy for the play in which grandmother ayahuasca played a main role. At this point, the flareups in my body had me tremendously worried. I could hardly move for the pain in my body. I was troubled and deeply confused. Why was it, that as soon as we had started rehearsals of this play, which was a gratitude play for the healing I had thought I had experienced, as if to challenge every single word and intention in the script and in the putting together of the play, the fire in my body had returned?

(Was it something I ate?)

I was doing ceremony regularly then, training to work with plant medicine, and rehearsing this production. The idea for this ceremony came as a way of initiating the cast into the experience they were describing on the stage. During this desert ceremony the plant spirit came and gave me the song described in the play as ‘the most beautiful song in the world.’ I had not yet learned about medicine singers, and I had only just started working with my Medicine Singer Shaman Guide, Phil Cash-Cash. When it came to the contrary storm eating away at my joints and bones and muscles, at the time of this women’s ceremony out in the desert, I was just coming out of denial.

I deeply felt the ironic and paradoxical meat of this particular metaphor in my life.

I was the pig slaughtered on the shiny knife that had before been used to cut up food for my own sustenance. Despite the nature of my previous diagnoses, in this instance I could feel that in some way I was being both betrayed and wooed. A deeper story wanted to be told, you see. I knew there were things in my life that were plain wrong, and that I was nowhere near to where I wanted to be. But in my narrative, I would sing the play to the Universe in gratitude, and the Universe would respond with its own blessing, in a kind of call-and-response rhythm.

The Universe did indeed respond, but it did not wait until our performance date – it roared its joyful welcome around the time I was casting for the play. Right when I committed myself to do the play. Right then, Spirit sent me the thing that I was so sure I had healed from. And here it was, again. 

Relapses are the worst. Ask anyone. First-time diagnoses are no fun, that is true, but at least you have the energy to fight. You are protected by your ignorance of what is to come. The future is always with us, but at least she has the decency to keep her face covered. (Is it decency, or mystery or something else? Does it matter?) The past has no such reserve. She walks with us, whispering herself into our ears as if her life depended on it (which of course, it does.) After you heal, the shadow of potential is always attached to your feet. Of course, we say that we are not afraid. And those of us who are strong and brave and wise, I believe them. But when the relapse happens, then you respond not to the symptom itself, but to the entire journey of what came before, and let me assure you – as you yourself know – it is a heavy journey.

The Truth of the Story of Relapses is that we want another story entirely, actually, please – and nothing else will do.

Maybe you don’t have the energy anymore; maybe it was too expensive the first time around. Maybe you tried everything already and you don’t know what to do this time. Maybe you burned some bridges with some health practitioners, or with your family, or with your employer, or with any help that was offered. Maybe the illness destroyed some relationships in the past, and you do not have many strings left to pull. Or maybe it’s entirely different: you do have the energy, the money, the will and the strings, but those around you don’t. Maybe they would prefer that you go away. Caregivers get tired, too – more easily, arguably, as it is not their own life that they are fighting for. They want a story with a beginning, middle an end. Everybody does. Nobody likes a betrayed narrative, least of all those who draw their peace and inspiration from closure.  

(My own parents would have loved my life to seem more secure than it did. As if there is any security from that trickster-demon, relapse.)

So I was out in the desert, with knees that were killing me, and a body that was beginning to succumb to the pain that quickly took over any conception of ‘normal’, and I was in the phase of asking for help. A benign kind of asking for help: nothing too serious, nothing too revealing, but I wanted to know if all of those wise people I was now around, all of those healers, intuitives, feelers, empaths, shamans, if they had any insight into what was going on with me. The way I would ask, limping my way over to them, wobbling like a two-legged chair – please, if you will, a word, an image, a feeling, a thought, an idea. I was desperate, and I was curious. Also, this was an easy way to pass conversations without having to say much of anything of what was going on with me (the fire was consuming everything, even gestures, even words.) 

The answers came in in their motley of shapes and colors, as they will, when you ask for other’s opinions or input. Many of them reflected not me, but the ones answering the question, as well as our relationship. They were all true, and they were all false, and they were all neither true nor false.

On this morning, as we came out of ceremony, in the dusty light of dawn mirroring the light dust of the Sonoran Desert, one very wise woman told me something I had never before considered: 

(it seems so obvious now)

Klara, I don’t think your symptoms are your fault, in any way. I had an image of you in ceremony – like you are a lightning-rod for the Earth. When she feels something, what she experiences, you absorb and express. I think that there are some people who are like lightning-rods for the Earth. They feel her symptoms. Your body is a reflection of the Earth. This is not your fault.” 

What a revelation.

It wasn’t until I heard her words that I realized that I had been searching for my fault all along, in greater or lesser ways. Yes, if you had asked me at the time, I would have said: this is not my fault. I’m not sure, however, how true that would have been. Did I really believe it, or did I just want to find a deeper and more sure fault, a real fault, something I could hold onto, something solid? Or did I feel the failure of it all deeply, in myself? 

Illness feels like failure. It interrupts everything that you can identify as a life. It tears away your likes, dislikes, opinions, preferences, hobbies, good times, bad times, relationships, jobs, education, future, family, home. In return, it offers only one guarantee: nothing will ever be the same again.

(Enter Oya-Iansa, the Orixa of the winds, and the storms, and the dead, and diviners and … Change. Oya must be the mother of illness as well. When else do death and rebirth and the wind and divination all come together? Our breath, into the coin that speaks to the shells that map out our own patterns of death and rebirth. And because the illness eats our bodies, so we do believe them, those Ancestors, those clicking and clacking and chuckling beads and shells and bones.)  

Nobody before this woman had ever said to this to me – you are a lightning-rod for the earth. The most wizened among them talked about a healing journey, the wounded healer, a healer’s path, the notorious Saturn return, family problems, genetic issues, diets, cleanses, the complexity of life and learning to love yourself. (The even more wizened simply listened.)

There was quite a bit of fear piled onto me from other people, and I was told that I was full of fear and it was palpable. (I’m sure it was. I’m sure that people were also afraid.)  

It’s also true that people fall away when you get sick. The land of illness is a place we all must visit alone. My dad sent me money. My mom stopped calling. I had no meaningful contact with any family during this time, except for my Aunt Kasia, who called me regularly, even when I didn’t want to talk to her, because I felt my own failure of not getting better (she was a big believer in dietary medicine, my Aunt.)

I understood this escapist fear. I had it myself, when I read up on autoimmune problems on-line, and when I visited message-boards populated by people who listed their symptoms and medications as their user tags (in order to not have to repeat themselves.) Reading lists of symptoms and medications and grotesque timelines, I would freeze and shut off the computer. Was this my future? 

Too often, when we commence that brave and soul-on-the-shoulder and heart-on-the-sleeve journey of healing ourselves, we are simply looking for faults to justify our despairing guilt. The world will fault us in greater or lesser ways – talking about diet and stress and location and medication and karma and energy and attachments and beliefs and trauma and everything else. As a Native-American healer in Peru once told me: “You have to realize that you are responsible for every single thing in your entire life. You have to take responsibility for all of it.” He wasn’t wrong, but I wouldn’t use the words, “take responsibility.” I would say that we have to shepherd it all, to love it and hug it and give it a place beyond shame, and that this will not necessarily look like anybody else’s version of doing the same thing.

What he meant was what I was looking for in myself: the cause that brought on the effect of pain. I had never considered the obvious – that my wounds were relationshipped to the Earth that my feet could barely stand on anymore. I had never considered that the Earth might be feeling the same thing, and that she was not looking to herself for faults, but feeling – feeling feeling feeling – and feeling some more. Keeping faith and hope alive, that a new day will come. 

Months earlier, I am driving through the grasslands of the Midwest, seeing the patches of dead earth among the tall grasses – patches where nothing grew. The red and gold grass shines and waves with life, and I feel an upwelling of softness in my sternum and I realize that the Earth grows fur, and what you feel when somebody runs their fingers through your hair – that prickly and warm feeling (that upwelling of softness in your sternum, that glow in your chest) – that feeling of being taken care of – that is what the earth feels when we walk on her back with our own feet. She feels warm and prickly and taken care of; she feels an upwelling of softness, a surging glow in the roar of power in the churning of lava in her core, in her sternum. We feel it because she feels it. When we stop feeling... and I realize then that the Earth gave me her blessing, and her curse. I realize that the Earth’s hair is falling out. Because of us, the Earth has Alopecia. Because of us. The Earth gave me her disease. For no other reason than so that we could feel together. I understand then that my hair-loss had been a gift from the Earth to myself. She is my mother, and I bore the stigmata on my scalp that made me her daughter. I stop the car and for the first time, I thank God, and Mother Earth, and my Ancestors, for giving my head the opportunity to know what it is, traumatic hair loss.

My friend, that wise woman who is still my friend, and still a wise woman, said a true thing. Some of us are lightning rods for the Earth. And when we feel our bodies, we are feeling her, our Mother. Not feeling as in comparing, the way that a lot of non-chronically-ill people like to talk about illness  

(that friend of yours who will helpfully comment – “I read a book recently about a woman who was REALLY sick … she had cancer.” Their tone that says it all – the comparison meant to make you grateful that you are only sick, and not REALLY sick),

meaning “be grateful because things could be a lot worse!” There is a time and a place for this, but there is another time and place when we don’t compare ourselves to anything or anybody, and we feel ourselves to be lightning-rods for the Earth, bringing down the fire, dancing conductors of the flame. We are her children, you see. It’s that simple. Her body is our body and our body is her body. 

Malidoma Some, the famous Dagara diviner who changed many lives, my own included, says this about the element of fire, “Fire opens the doorway to the Spirit World and allows our psyche to commune with other life present, past, and future. Fire is like a connecting rod, an open channel. In fact, fire is our psyche, the spirit part of us that knows what has always been. … “(The Healing Wisdom of Africa) Elsewhere, he writes that fire is the element that gets angry when we are not living our true purpose, and thus she comes and devours everything. My own body experienced being devoured and consumed by an element that would not leave me alone. In the Dagara tradition, the fire is the element of the Ancestors. Fire is a sign that they are paying attention.

The nature of the flareups – the fire – and the image of the lightning-rod were clues to the spirit mediumship I would be invited into, as well as the true deeper nature of the ghost of fire in my body, and the love and forgiveness on the other side of it all.

When the storm comes, and lightning strikes, then it is the lightning rods that are placed strategically across communities, to filter the fire for everyone else. I burn for you. You burn for me. We burn for each other. 

The current rise of auto-immune disease is a spreading fire. It challenges all of our notions about independence, about the health of the Earth, about what we are for and how we are connected to each other and to the Ancestors. Some months later, when I was still absolutely desperate for help, I turned again to Malidoma Some for clarity about my symptoms. He asked me if the illness gives me fatigue.

“No. It’s fire. It’s fire all through my body, and pain so bad I can’t sleep.”

At this, he nodded his head thoughtfully.  

“That’s the Ancestors. What are those hard-headed ones thinking now?”

I felt so relieved. Somebody finally understood. 

How many of us are lightning rods for the Earth, in these troubled times?

How many of us take our fingers to scratch her behind the ears and whisper a gentle thank you and I’m sorry that it hurts you so?