Healing in the Jungle

I was sick, and now I’m healed.

Two years ago I came to Manu, in the Amazon jungle of Peru.  I had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease, and came to heal with the medicinal plants of the jungle. RA causes inflammation of the tissue and joints, resulting in pain and fatigue. RA gets worse over time, and eventually causes bone erosion and joint deformity. My doctor told me if I didn’t start medication right away, I could be in a wheelchair soon.

Prior to coming to Peru, my life had fallen apart twice. First when I got diagnosed in 2011, and then a couple years later when my husband left me, saying I had changed. I was no longer the energetic, adventurous woman he had first met. And he was absolutely right, I was dead inside. My whole body hurt and I was paralyzed with fear. Fear of my body falling apart, fear of the future, fear of what my life had become.

It seemed that overnight I went from an active life of rock-climbing and hiking to barely being able to use the stairs. In reality, this disease had been slowing creeping up on me for years, until I had a flare that was debilitating, which led to my diagnosis and subsequent med-popping. I couldn’t hold a pen. Food shopping and simple errands would drain me for the rest of the day. I had trigger finger in all my fingers and all my toes.

I started taking medications, as I had to get out of bed every morning and get to work. First was prednisone, which initially gave me a much needed boost of energy. It also depleted my bones of calcium, resulting in another diagnosis, this time of osteoporosis. This, in turn, required a medicine that I had to take intravenously. I began giving myself a weekly injection in my stomach for pain and inflammation caused by RA. Over time I needed medicine for low thyroid, vertigo and migraines.

I hated being sick.  

So I closed down my psychotherapy business, shipped some boxes of stuff to my parents home to store in their basement, left my house and everything in it to my now ex-husband, and came to Peru with a backpack of clothes.

When I got to the jungle I immediately got off all my meds and started a shamanic "dieta". A dieta involves drinking a tea made from plants or trees from the jungle, while eating a simple salt-free and sugar-free diet, living in isolation and immersed in nature. No reading or music, some journaling, and a lot of time spent in the river, listening to the rain, or just watching the trees.

And it worked. Western medicine says that RA is incurable, but my blood tests are now normal. I'm symptom-free, and free of pain, and I’ve been off all my meds for two years now.

When I was sick, I knew that things had to change, and that things could change. How I healed, and what happened...well, it's complicated.  And indescribable.  It's difficult to talk about, as things are constantly changing, and still unfolding.  Where do I begin, and where does it end?  I’ve been living off and on in the jungle since I did my dietas.  I’m not a teacher or a healer.   I only have a story to share.  There are so many things I don’t understand, and the more I try to understand, the less I know.  It only becomes more mysterious and unexplainable. 

Changing involved some blind faith, and showing up when I had to.  It involved trusting myself, and tapping into something much bigger than me.  But there is nothing special about me! True healing can happen to anyone.  

In Manu I was given the time and space to work through things on my own, immersed in nature and often in solitude.  I was always offered a smile, a joke or some wise words when I needed it.  I couldn’t have done any of this without the love and support of the core group of people helping me. I was shown that there are things that we simply don’t talk about, and definitely don’t brag about.  I was shown to respect the plants, to respect the jungle.  That there is power in silence, in that which is not spoken.  And to understand that some things are sacred.  When we work with the plants in a shamanic dieta, it is a journey inward,  going within to find our true selves.  It's a cleansing of emotions, memories, attachments and past experiences. It’s about breaking down the ego.  It’s a meditation.   All these lessons I am still trying to fully understand, as the layers run deep. I’m reminded again and again, that I know nothing.

The journey inward has no ending. I may be healed, and I had some type of spiritual breakthrough, but the process of breaking down the ego takes time. A lifetime. Many lifetimes! There are so many buzzwords popular now- awakening, upgrade, activation. What do these words mean? Everyone has a different definition and I don’t know the true meaning anymore. As soon as we define our experience, we get locked into that one way of thinking. In the end, I think it’s not the definitions we have, it’s how we choose to live.

Healing also involved learning to be patient, something I still wrestle with.  As a foreigner to Peru, I have a different mindset.  I come from a culture that values multitasking, watching the clock and having a sense of urgency.  I had a psychotherapy business in San Francisco, which I closed down when I first came to Peru. My brain felt lighter and more spacious for the first time in years, as I was relieved of the constant mental thoughts of running a business.  In the jungle we are often without internet, and even electricity.  I don't have a TV.  Life is simple and slower, more in tune with nature. It feels more fulfilling.  

When I was sick in San Francisco, I was constantly looking for ways to feel better, to decrease the constant pain and fatigue. It could get overwhelming meeting so many people who call themselves teachers, experts, healers.  It seems that people are quick to adopt these labels. I would research information online for alternative treatments or diets, that would often contradict something I had read a day earlier. I know that frustration. It's good to be skeptical.  But don’t give up.

Along the way there have been highs and lows, challenges and triumphs, and an ongoing struggle to maintain a balance between the two extremes.  I’ve been inspired by so many people, found incredible guides and made new friends.  I've had dark days and experienced loss.  I thought about quitting more than once,  but ultimately kept plugging along.  And now I see it’s all been part of my journey and part of my healing.  You can’t have one extreme without the other. Every challenge has served a purpose, ultimately helping me to heal.

Today I'm free of doctor visits, blood tests and medications that were once part of my daily life. When I’m out hiking, or just walking upstairs, I remember how it used to be. Life offers so many lessons and opportunities. I’m still friends with my ex-husband. I couldn’t see it at the time, but him leaving me was the biggest gift, as it opened the door to a new life, a life without disease.

I’m grateful for everything that happened and everyone involved. For my family and friends for their unwavering support, and of course to the curandero (healer) that guided and supported me, Habin. None of this would be possible without him and the incredible powers of the medicinal plants. It also shines light on the critical importance of conservation of the Amazon, which is at risk from illegal logging and mining. We also need to protect and preserve the traditions of the indigenous Machiguenga and Harakmbut who live in Manu, as they hold the knowledge of the plants.

My healing wasn’t just for me, it’s for everyone. It shows us all that anything is possible.