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The Yellow Brick Road…

By Cheryl Paley


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Cheryl and Zoei suppose it is only fitting that, as a voice for the “non-traditional” family, my own health history has been equally “non-traditional.”  In these matters I am reasonably conservative in general – today I have a wonderful “western medicine” practitioner for myself and Zoe.  I don’t like antibiotics but I will use them for both of us when the doctors feel they are needed.  Within the adoptive process, children are generally vaccinated in their native countries, and I did choose to continue that practice and have Zoe complete the standard routine, and not, as some do, refuse vaccination.  But a personal history, still vivid to me to this day, has taught me much about the value of other options and it may have even saved my life.

It was 1991.  I was in my 30s, running around a lot, active, too busy to slow down, having fun.  I went to Boston on a business trip and when I returned my house/cat-sitter remarked:  “There’s something wrong with the cat.  I think you should take her to a vet.”  My beautiful little cat, Cookie, 10 years old and always healthy had become, in the span of 5 or 6 days, rail thin and bleeding from the gums.  Terrified and heartbroken, I stood helpless as vet after vet either couldn’t figure it out or poked, prodded and manufactured one “inconclusive” diagnosis after another.  I did everything I could, resisting “putting her down” until finally, just as I couldn’t watch her suffer any more, she died in my arms.

Six months later it began for me as hives – all over my legs.  It was summer and I thought perhaps it was too much sun.  Thus began a 7 year cycle of symptoms frighteningly similar to those of my cat.  Hives became odd rashes, then the bleeding gums, night sweats and blurred vision.  A “normal” day would start and, at any given moment it would just come upon me – a “malaise.”  It was never full out “fatigue” although several attempted to find a label for it under the ever popular “chronic fatigue syndrome” umbrella, shorthand at the time for “we don’t have a clue.”  I felt like I had the flu all the time.  Never debilitated, always just sick.  I didn’t feel good.  And I was very frightened.

I called the CDC – “Could I have gotten feline AIDS from my cat?”  No, they said, not a chance.  The blood work, thankfully, turned up nothing but a slightly elevated white cell count, nothing to be particularly worried about.   My doctor at the time thought it was “depression.”  But… but… but…” I stammered.  “Of course I’m depressed, I’M SICK ALL THE TIME!  Are you sure it’s not… (insert a list of everything from Lupus to Leukemia).”  “Sometimes a rose is just a rose,” he said, in his sweetest, most patronizing tone.  “A lot of women around your age who aren’t married get depressed.  Why don’t you take a referral for a psychiatrist.”

Great.  Thanks.  Now what do I do?  A close friend, whose husband was battling Hepatitis C at the time suggested colonics, and thus began the long and winding road into a new world of alternatives.  Eastern, Ayurvedic, Chinese herbal, approaches I used to mock when I’d hear the “crunchy granola” types espousing their miracle cures.  But I was not entirely sure I wasn’t actually dying.  I was more than willing to try. 

First step was a naturopath.  He found a small bump, the size of a pea on top of my right shoulder.  “Is this an old vaccination?” he asked.  “Yes.  From college.”  “It’s tainted,” he made a serious face, “…a vaccination is supposed to form a small scar – this one never did.  If you don’t flush this from your system it will become some sort of very aggressive cancer when you are older.”  So we flushed.  I drank things, fasted, and changed my diet.  And the little pea became a volcanic mass, growing larger and larger and then exploding, oozing and oozing at first, and over a 6-week period, eventually leaving my body and its mark with a scar.  I fully believe, although I will never know for sure, that the odd little man who made me drink olive oil, lemon and fresh garlic cloves, my naturopath, saved my life.

I thought that was it.  But it was only the beginning.  I was living a Sci-Fi nightmare.  I was Dorothy, on the yellow brick road to Lord knows where, and no turning back.  I had officially left Kansas.  So, on and on it went.  From the naturopath and the colonics, acupuncture, a short term vegan diet to Chinese herbal medicine and finally to a holistic chiropractor and vitamin supplements.  The worst of it lasted for the first 3 years, and then it tapered off, with very intermittent bouts and a messed up gastrointestinal system for another 4 years.  But finally I was free, the alien inside me vanquished by my tenaciousness and a band of herbal warriors.  Ding dong, the witch was dead.

Fast forward 6 years, on a date with a lovely man I only saw a few times.  He unexpectedly lapsed into a very intimate tale of hardship at the hands of a mystery disease that claimed 9 years of his life.  As he described his symptoms my jaw dropped.  It was my story.  “Pesticide induced hepatitis,” he said.  Brought on by something he was using in his garden.  It was only then that the whole picture lit up in my brain like a laser show.  “Click your heels 3 times, Dorothy.”  Pesticide Poisoning.  Pesticide Poisoning.  Pesticide Poisoning.  I was finally home. 

In 1991, around the time of the Gulf War, stories emerged and were quickly buried, re-surfacing in alternative magazines like Mother Jones and The Village Voice of soldiers coming home with a “mysterious flu-like illness” brought on by “chemical warfare.”  At that same time, my apartment was infested, the whole building I lived in infested with roaches and mice.  I tried everything and was finally led to the man they called “the miracle exterminator of the upper west side.”  So my “miracle exterminator” got rid of the roaches and the mice, spraying, bombing, bombarding, and killing everything living in the walls.  And a beautiful little cat who lived right outside them.  Me, I was lucky.  Somehow, by the grace of the angels, I managed to escape.  It took 7 years of my life, but I made it out in one piece.

So many years later I watch other vague, nightmare scenarios play themselves out with many of my friends and their children.  Dear, dear, close friends have a 13 yr. old, plagued since the age of 2 or 3 with oddly undiagnosable neurological and motor issues.  This child is beautiful and bright, an old soul, whose struggle has made her compassionate and curious, but sad, so very sad.  They have run from specialist to specialist, hoping, praying, and trying.  So far they have heard “Asperger’s syndrome” “ADD” “ADHD” “vision impairment”, blah, blah, blah.  Their kid is suffering and they have to sit and watch it, day after day.  Small gains have been made and there is a lot of love in that house, but I know it has taken its pound of flesh from all of them.  At least 10 others I know are dealing with some sort of ADD, ADHD, and hyperactivity situation – undiagnosable, moderately diagnosable, and infuriatingly vague.  It is the age we live in. 

So, is it pesticide poisoning?  Is it our food?  Hormones in our meat?  The air?  I couldn’t tell you.  I have no clue.  I only think I know what happened to me and my cat.  But I do know that sometimes all we are given is a “situation” - a riddle, riddling our lives with pain and confusion.  And then a yellow brick road appears.  Just a road to… somewhere.  Vague.  On the road some appear who would suggest it is “all in our heads” and that we are merely “depressed.”  Some offer help that is not helpful.  Others offer unexpectedly lifesaving, if unorthodox alternatives.  It all leads us further and further down the road.  And then the “Land of Oz” appears to appear and, thinking we are out of the woods, we find ourselves still struggling, trapped with the “lions, tigers and bears.”  But we must walk.  And when the opportunity to walk the path presents itself, the only thing we can really do is, take a deep breath and follow the yellow brick road…



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