- Your inspirational memoir, A Few Minor Adjustments begins in Zambia, when you were working there as a Peace Corps volunteer. What transpired during your time there, and how has your experience as a traveler influenced your personal journey on the road to better health?
When I traveled, I was forced to open my mind, to pay attention, and to be adventurous. I had to learn to be comfortable with my fear of the unknown. Living in Zambia taught me that. I stayed with a local Zambian family, ate dishes such as boiled millet and fried-caterpillars. I built makeshift wells and latrines near a crocodile-infested river close to the border of politically unstable Zaire. Each day was an adventure, especially when it came to my health. I had giardia, dysentery, a putzi fly infection resulting in maggots in my butt, and almost died from an uncommon case of malaria. Almost dying in Africa was a pivotal point for me. I realized I needed a fierce will to live if I was going to survive. Now all these years later, that has never changed. It’s the one constant that has kept me going.
- After falling ill in Zambia, you returned to the United States and began a journey that centered around trying to cope with continuing mysterious health issues. What were some of the high and low points of that time when you were first struggling to figure out what might be causing your symptoms?
The worst part was the not knowing why I was so sick, if I would ever heal, or if I was going to die. Every day I woke with the same questions, and each night I went to bed with no answers. It was terrifying. And it went on for years. I saw hundreds of doctors, healers, and therapists: rheumatologists, cardiologists, integrative medicine specialists, neurologists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and eccentric healers such as a Russian ex-physicist who waved fertile chicken-eggs over my chest to try to reset the rhythm of my heart.
I came close to committing suicide. But that’s the miraculous part. We don’t realize what we are capable of until we are faced with enormous challenges. I learned to respect my inner strength, to know how much I could endure and how much I could rise above. I kept finding ways to change myself and my situation, like changing my attitude; changing the foods I ate, trying new therapies and treatments, including an exploratory heart procedure. I stayed open and stopped looking back. What a magnificent lesson.
- There are many individuals, including medical personnel, spiritual healers, therapists, family members and friends, who helped you along the way. What impact did these people have on your attempts to both live with and diagnose your illness?
That was one of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever been given; to see how much people cared and feel their compassion and love. My family and friends never gave up on me. That kept me strong. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. I’m certain of that, especially with regard to my mother and my grandfather. Both of them helped me financially, since I lost the ability to work. They were also there for me emotionally. My boyfriend Alex, the one I dedicated the book to, was amazing. He went to doctor appointments, did research on my health, cared for me while I was bedridden and unable to walk unassisted. I will never forget it. People often tell me how strong I am. I always reply the same way, “I’m only as strong as my support system.” As horrendous as my physical health was, I always had love.
- During the course of documenting what was happening with your health, you decided to turn your personal story into an inspirational memoir. What do you find the most fascinating about the memoir genre, and how has writing this book helped with your own healing.
I’ve always been fascinated with memoirs. Reading a memoir, I get to dive deep into someone else’s world, to understand their most intimate struggles and triumphs. I got to know them. It’s like I get to live another life for a little while. I also feel that memoirs connect us, bridging the gaps between different aspects of our humanity.
Writing a memoir is deeply cathartic. I believe we write a memoir twice. The first time we write it, we write it for ourselves. We write to release emotions and energy surrounding everything we have endured. Then, when it is at the point where we feel clarity around it, we re-write and fine tune it to make it accessible and ready to release to the world. We prepare the story in such a way that enables people to easily come along our inner and outer journeys and gain insights from them. Ernest Hemingway said it best, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” That’s what I did.
It’s difficult to explain how writing this memoir contributed to my healing. I certainly don’t think it made the process go any faster. But it made me go deeper into the crevices of pain where I didn’t necessarily want to go. So the healing I’ve experienced is more profound and lasting.
- What would you like readers to remember most about your story?
We all have pain and suffering, but we all have joy and beauty. It’s really about perspective and choosing each day to show up in a positive way and to have more compassion for each other, and for ourselves. If we don’t understand something, like an undiagnosed illness, then it is our duty as human beings not to turn away, or reject the unknown, but offer compassion, even if it is something we don’t understand. Actually, especially if it’s something we don’t understand.
- You’ve often said that you would like to give a voice to those who are also struggling with an undiagnosed illness. What would you say to those who are on a similar path as yours?
If I could survive all that I have, and it’s a lot for one person to endure, then anyone else can, too. Even when we feel like ending it all, we have to find a reason to live for just one more sunrise and then one more sunset. Because we never know what is around the corner. There were so many times I was ready to end it all. I was barely alive. Now, I look back, and I’m so glad I didn’t give up. As long as we have the will to live, you can heal.
- Are you working on a new book and, if so, what can you tell us about it?
Absolutely! My next projects are companion books to the memoir: The Healing 100 and The Symptoms 100. The Healing 100 is the top one-hundred things I did to heal, and The Symptoms 100 is the top 100 symptoms I had and what helped me. I also have a collection of poetry, Poetry of Peace, which chronicles four stages of life, Seeing the World, Through Darkness, Into the Light, and With Peace. It’s really about the emotional and spiritual aspects of healing. Lastly, I am creating a cookbook filled with allergy-free recipes: The Cookbook for People Who Can’t Eat Anything. I’m excited about these projects since the goal is to provide insight, a touch of humor, and ideas on ways to heal. I believe people can learn from my experiences, be inspired, and have some tools for their own healing journey.
For more information, please visit www.cheriekephart.com