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