“If pain stems from the brain, it was my brain that would hold the key”

In the Moment - - Wellbeing -

but then go­ing fur­ther, look­ing at the mind-body con­nec­tion. If pain stems from the brain, it was my brain, I de­cided, that would hold the key. And if Western medicine wasn’t pre­pared to work with me on a cure, I would look for it else­where.

I started at the top, in a way – with an In­dian faith healer, Patrick San Francesco, who claims to be able to chan­nel di­vine en­ergy and heal any ill­ness known to man. When I went to a ses­sion of his, in which he taught us how to heal our­selves and other peo­ple, I was struck by his em­pha­sis on bed­side man­ner. His tech­nique seemed to fo­cus on gain­ing trust and re­as­sur­ing peo­ple that they would get bet­ter. It was, I thought, the per­fect re­al­i­sa­tion of the placebo ef­fect. Did it work? In a way, yes – af­ter email­ing him ev­ery day (an es­sen­tial part of the heal­ing, he says; stay­ing en­gaged with your re­cov­ery, I might say), my pain lev­els di­min­ished for a good month.

Then there was Kevin, the LA mas­sage ther­a­pist who claimed to be di­rected by an­gels. It sounded ridicu­lous – but what­ever he was do­ing, it worked. I felt bet­ter af­ter a 90-minute ses­sion with him than I had in two years of med­i­cal treat­ment.

As the time passed, I be­came more des­per­ate – and will­ing to try more ex­treme treat­ments. In Haiti, I un­der­went a Vodou ex­or­cism, locked in a can­dlelit room with a priest. The de­mon, he said, was wrapped round my neck, along with the spir­its he wor­shipped. As he ‘pulled it out’ through my arm, I was the most fright­ened I’d been in my life, but af­ter­wards, I was com­pletely pain-free for 48 hours. Af­ter that, I knew I was on to some­thing. I just had to find a way to trick my brain into re­set­ting it­self.

I tried other al­ter­na­tive treat­ments – fly­ing to Colorado for med­i­cal cannabis and China for acupunc­ture. Both gave me re­lief, but not enough to make a last­ing change, so I went back to that mind-body con­nec­tion.

Look­ing back, the turn­ing point was Soweto. In March 2016, I went there to see a san­goma – the South African ver­sion of a nganga.

Thabiso Siswana was 26 and, more im­por­tantly, a woman – one of the few I’d seen on my four-year jour­ney. She claimed to feel my pain her­self, and to un­der­stand the dev­as­ta­tion it caused. She also told me she be­lieved there was a spir­i­tual rea­son for it. She didn’t cure me – she said I’d have to come back for a month and go through ini­ti­a­tion with her for that – but my four days with her made me re­frame the way I thought not just about the pain, but also my­self. I re­alised that I had trusted the au­thor­ity fig­ures too much – both doc­tors and al­ter­na­tive heal­ers; that I’d handed my body over to a suc­ces­sion of mid­dle-aged men; and that it was time I started be­liev­ing my­self over peo­ple I’d never met. A month later, I was bet­ter.

My cure came in Brazil – bizarrely, my pain dis­ap­peared in an in­stant at a faith healer’s called John of God – but I’m not sure whether, if I’d gone there ear­lier, I’d have got bet­ter there. Of course, I’ll never know what it was that un­leashed my re­cov­ery – was it my brain, or the tens of thou­sands of spir­its that John of God claims to chan­nel? What I do know is that I took some­thing from every­one I saw on the way. Whether it was hope, tenac­ity or a glim­mer of well­ness, I put it all to­gether over a two-year pe­riod and it came to the boil in Brazil, a sim­mer­ing gumbo of dif­fer­ent faiths, be­liefs and heal­ing modal­i­ties.

It never oc­curred to me when I was in pain, of course, but look­ing back, I re­alise that the two-year search was al­most as im­por­tant as the cure it­self. It made me re-eval­u­ate my­self and my life, work out my pri­or­i­ties, test my be­liefs and pre­pare for my re-en­try into the world of the well.

And al­though I know that ev­ery­thing I did would be im­pos­si­ble – both prac­ti­cally and fi­nan­cially – for most chronic pain suf­fer­ers, I do think that there’s some­thing other peo­ple with chronic ill­nesses, par­tic­u­larly women, can learn from what hap­pened to me. We can ques­tion our be­liefs about our bod­ies and our health, not take for granted what the (usu­ally male) au­thor­ity fig­ures tell us, and change our re­la­tion­ships with our bod­ies. We can keep hold of hope. We need, in a way, a med­i­cal #metoo move­ment. But to do that, we have to start by work­ing on our­selves.

Ju­lia’s book Heal Me (Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, £16.99) is avail­able now.

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