My stomach churned from just a morsel of food. I’d take a bite and feel a sensation that left me urgently running to the bathroom. It was the stomach bug you wish you did not have, especially while traveling. My mom, a Moroccan native, raised us on all sorts of different foods, flavors and spices; I thought I was immune to turista. Still, I considered that after arriving in the Middle East, it may be a logical reaction given the circumstances: new place, new food, new water and new climate. I thought, “Please, for the love of god though, make it pass.”
After several days it persisted and I found myself not eating as much in order to prevent the bathroom trips. We would hike for days and I survived on water, until even water became a problem. I mentioned it to a friend who was still healing from a stomach ulcer and it sounded minuscule in comparison to what she was dealing with. I’ve always explained my ailments with a strong conviction, and sense of control, it left people assuming I was in good hands; my own hands. Even among those closest to me, I am guarded and uncomfortable showing weakness or sickness. The reality is—any chance we have to devalue a woman and her strength, we take it. We are waiting with baited breath, ready, behind a bush to exploit her as feeble, as if to prove something we’d known all along; that women are not just not as strong as men, but not strong at all. I am certain that this entrenched ideology is what has kept me from being open, communicative and confident about expressing physical, and emotional afflictions.
On the morning of a long, planned hike, I woke at 3:30 am to board our bus to the mountain, and knew something was definitively wrong. I developed a fever, felt weak, shaky and anxious. For the first time since I was 10 years old I thought, “I want my mom.” Being sick kicked me into my most primal gear. In the way traveling often goes, there was no choice but to board the bus, we could sort out the details later if I did not feel better. Half way through the ride we stopped so I could hurl myself out the door to vomit. Ok, maybe this was just car sickness. We kept going.
I don’t remember how or why I decided to climb the mountain. The truth is, it was probably adrenaline, fear of being the “sick person”, fear of being a nuisance, and fear of being a problem. I remember everyone around me smiling as we reached the top. It was 115 degrees and desert surrounded us. We arrived just in time to witness the sun rise over a landscape of sand. Everyone’s voice became muffled, like I had on huge eskimo earmuffs, and I thought in a moderately animated voice, “I go bye bye now” and fainted.
Three EMT’s hovered over me as I eventually opened my eyes. They were moving fast. “An ambulance is on the way.” An ambulance? I was shivering a deep cold that penetrated to my core. My hands and feet were losing color, and I excreted out of every orifice possible. As someone took my blood pressure, another poured a blue liquid into my mouth. I remember feeling thankful that I could discern it’s horrendous flavor.
They brought me down the mountain in a cable way and into the ambulance where I was hooked to an IV. My caretakers up until then waved goodbye as new ones took over and we drove off. At this moment I could only think about one thing: my parents. I recited their phone numbers in my head to be sure I would not forget. A woman asked me my name and I muttered, “Yaël”. She smiled at me as if we were somewhere else other than an ambulance, “that’s my name too”. It softened me, and I felt comforted for a brief moment feeling connection to a complete stranger– feeling that I was not alone. She reached for my hand and gently held it the rest of the way.
It is 2010 and I just transferred to a new college–Bard College in upstate New York. Every interaction and experience felt tainted by something dark and menacing, as if a war was growing and gaining momentum inside me. An uncharacteristic level of depression and anxiety exuded from my body. When I met new students I did not smile or feel emotion. I had anxiety attacks when I was left alone and was afraid to be awake with myself. I grew weaker everyday and slept often. On many nights, I’d reach new depths of anguish, I’d weep while pulling my hair in order to feel a different, more tangible pain. I punched walls and hit my head against them, followed by fits of hyperventilation and breathing into paper bags to calm myself down. This was not me.
On one distinctive day I could not get up from the floor. I looked down and told my brain to lift my legs but they just rested, like phantom limbs, feeling like weights replaced my bones. I’d lay horizontal in my bed to do homework and wake up 6 hours later realizing I had fallen asleep. Something was happening—rapidly— and I didn’t know how to articulate it or get help. Spring came, and on my birthday I heard cheerful students running about outside my window. I had no friends, I had no connections; I was sick and alone. I turned off my phone, pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep. My parents arrived unannounced at my dorm, and just like that, I left school on a medical leave of absence for two years.
Seven years later and I have since been in and out of doctor’s offices, tests, labs, X-rays and MRI’s. I developed amenorrhea, digestive disorders, and vertigo; diagnosed with chronic Lyme Disease, Epstein Barr Virus, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Hypothyroidism, parasites and depressive and panic disorder. I was bed ridden for three months where I kept the shades down and would lay awake at night and sleep during the day. Like clockwork, my dad would come in around 10 am and deliver scrambled eggs of which I would eat 50%. My mother would arrive after work and nurse my nightly anxiety attacks. I had feelings of suicide, fear and such a resounding loneliness that I could hear the air speak. Chronic illness took me out of the reality in which the rest of the world seemed to operate. Suddenly I was alone in the dark, feeling my way around in hopes of finding light, wishing anyone could jump into my brain for just a moment to understand what it felt like to be where I was, hearing my silent screams for help.
I saw doctors (western and holistic), nutritionists, homeopaths, Ayurvedic doctors, therapists, healers, psychics and energy workers. I did different diets and protocols and everything by the book. I never faltered. I never broke. I was so hell-bent on recovery that I did protocols that involved consuming only baby food for 7 months, liquids for 3 weeks, and just papaya for a month. I stuck to these because my life depended on it.
Then, doctors told me the suffering was my fault and to focus more on my emotions. I had abdominal distention and a nutritionist told me that it was because I needed to strengthen my core by doing more plank poses. Another attributed my amenorrhea to a rejection of my own femininity and unresolved trauma with my mother. Yet another doctor diagnosed my chronic Epstein Barr Virus, a viral disease, to which he claimed the only cure was anti depressants. I was given antibiotics for months, anti-anxiety medication, steroids, mood stabilizers and thyroid medication. All this is to say: no one knew what to do or what was happening and I wasn’t getting better.
I could not accept the life I was living; a life defined by chronic illness, and physical and emotional limitations. I wanted to live a joyful life and for the most part, my twenties were a wash of solitude, fear, and self-loathing. To me, I had no choice but to act on my own behalf. I did not want to live if it meant accepting and witnessing the rapid decline of my health and body. For these reasons, I decided to research and find answers since no one else could. I believed the answers were out there. I took extra science courses, researched, experimented, and read medical, health and nutrition books, everyday.
One thing is certain: I received the most successful and supportive care from female practitioners. Even during the most terrible episodes, women provided an emotional support that in effect relieved something. This is not about shaming men or male doctors (thought if I could go back to some of them I’d likely punch them in the face for demeaning me and my body further into a pit of despair and shame). The structure of our healthcare system, medical knowledge and how we treat women in our country played out on and in my body. The healthcare system is structured around a male body— physically and emotionally. Women are marginalized, mistreated, unsupported, and dismissed. We’re diminishing the importance of understanding the differences between a female and male body and how they each respond to infection, virus, trauma, assault, environmental and personal stress, and pathogenic bacteria. We’re busy memorizing medicine and forgetting the individual. Meanwhile women are left unsupported and in the dark, fighting against illness–mental and physical– in a system that already reduces them. We’re at a point where women are sicker than men.