Hello! I am glad you are here. I want to take a moment to share a part of my own health story as it brought me to herbalism and Chinese medicine.
I tried to make this health story as short and to the point as I could. If you have done your own personal storytelling, then you know that there are multiple detours and many routes to each story.
Not every person in the healing arts or health fields has had struggles with their own health, nor is it any sort of requirement or guarantee of the worth of a practitioner.
Personal Storytelling as a form of healing and affirmation
That being said, my own experiences with my health has been important to my development as a practitioner.
But that’s not why I’m sharing my own health story.
I share this health story in hopes that YOU will write your own story, too.
Through storytelling, I have seen my true strengths in ways I would not have become acquainted with otherwise.
Instead of feeling like life was unfair, and that I was a continual sufferer of pain and illness, I saw how much fortitude I had to face what I faced, and how many skills I developed along the way, like how to deal with pain.
(Also this is NOT to say that if life is unfair and you feel suffering, pain and illness all you need is some storytelling to magically “make it right” – there’s a lot of different types of struggles, some of which need more than a personal overcoming narrative to heal).
In personal storytelling, we reflect, gain perspective and closure. All of which are healing.
Teen Aged Pain
I start my general health story around age 14. That was a pivotal year because that is when I first really met pain. I had always had bad cramps from menarche. But when I was 14 the pain had increased substantially. I was essentially debilitated with each period from then on.
My dysmenorrhea mystified doctors. As is common, I was given the diagnosis of endometriosis even though a laparoscopy showed nothing.
I was put on one birth control after another until I exhausted every available biomedical tool when I was 18. At that point my doctor said jokingly, “well, we’re out of options, you can have either have a hysterectomy or have a baby”.
I didn’t find that funny.
Joint pain also started in high school. I developed plantar fasciitis in 9th grade and carpal tunnel in 10th grade. During my senior year of high school, I had to quit gymnastics in because my left hand wouldn’t function properly (and the pain was becoming unbearable).
My hands and feet didn’t work and hurt, everyday all day. I felt trapped in pain.
Both progressed to the point when at 19 I woke up daily fighting tears (and I’m not a cryer) and asking God “why?” (and I wasn’t religious).
Add into the mix colds, flus, ear infections, chronic bronchitis, acid reflux, a couple of pneumonias on top of a base of intractable insomnia, anemia and chronic fatigue, and an adverse reaction to the Hepatitis B vaccine that compromised my liver and gave me acne and you have one sickly young woman.
A Mental Shift
One freezing Northern Minnesota January day I learned that my mom lost her job. The handful of prescription medications I was taking would no longer be covered by insurance. What was I going to do?
The same week a book about alternative women’s health fell off a bookshelf and landed at my feet, it was called Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup. It was the first “alternative” health book I ever met. I took it as a sign and read it cover to cover, took notes, and made a plan.
That was the first time I saw that I could take my health into my own hands.
It was empowering to have a guide through those early days of change and discovery. I changed my diet, paid more attention to my body, and developed stress-reduction meditation practice.
I was also in a class at school where we read a bunch of new agey stuff, like The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and The Pilgrimage. That was when I began to read Caroline Myss (listen to, actually, since I would get audiobooks from the library) and became interested in medical intuition. These materials helped me see that there were many ways to knowing.
At that time I also solidified that I wanted to be pre-med in college. I had always been a poor student because of my chronic low energy, brain fog and pain from sitting in a chair (and some inherent attention problems), so I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a typical medical doctor. But yet I was drawn to the health field.
In Wisconsin where I grew up, and in some places in Minnesota where I lived, nurse practitioners could be like an OB-GYN. They could give annual exams and deliver babies, which I was interested in. This led me to be pre-nursing while taking more typical pre-med classes, in case I wanted to be a naturopath.
A time of Health and Spiritual Crisis
I wish I could tell you that I got better after implementing so many changes of my health.
The truth is that some got parts did better, cured even.The constant colds and flus, for one.
Mostly though, I got much, much worse, and brand new symptoms came about.
Sometimes we have a healing crisis. Sometimes being sick is part of our life path.
And sometimes healing has little to do with our physical health and is more about the journey of acceptance and faith as we navigate uncertain waters. It’s about being okay with not being or not feeling okay.
That was definitely the case for me when I turned 20. It was such a painful time. Only in retrospect can I say that it helped me move into myself, and it set me up with skills for healing that I still am devoted to today.
When I was 20, I started working for an acupuncturist and herbalist in her clinic in my hometown. I fell deeply in love with herbs and acupuncture, and moxa, a Chinese heat therapy method.
Each night I used moxa on my wrists and feet. Slowly my pain went away. Veeeeeyry slowly. I was in line for surgeries on my feet and wrists, and after a few months of using moxa I didn’t have to go down that road.
A year of moxa completely healed my feet and wrists. I am still so thankful for that!
As the moxa was reducing my pain, other things were falling apart.
I developed a wicked systemic yeast infection as an effect from antibiotics. It started as a vaginal yeast infection but quickly spread, affecting my gut, lungs, and brain. It nearly drove me mad. No joke.
At this time I was having sleep paralysis and regular dream visitations from a deceased friend coming to me asking for help, regretful and confused about being dead.
I have been interested in dreaming for as long as I could remember and kept a dream journal. In fact, I was deep into a graduate level Western dream analysis course through my university. Because of the course, and mostly just because I didn’t know any better, I psychologized the deceased friend dreams as sometime like “which part of me does this represent?”, when really it was a spirit coming after me to get help.
If I would’ve realized that for what it was, I could’ve done something to assist her passing on.
The soul-sucking sleep paralysis was debilitating in its own right. Nearly every night I dreamt of being my soul being removed from my body and taken into other realms. I woke up not being able to move – that’s the key point about sleep paralysis.
I was exhausted, only to face another pain-filled, yeast-infected day in my body, afraid to go to sleep at night. It was a vicious cycle.
I also had benign sleep paralysis, which is a term I made up to describe waking but not being able to move without accompanying nightmares. It made me late for class and was disempowering.
Looking back on this from a Chinese medicine standpoint, the systemic yeast was a major contributing factor to the spiritual crisis I didn’t realize I was having (also looking back, I see that this was definitely a Lyme flare).
And I believe that as the moxa was helping my pain immensely, it was releasing a lot of pathology that led to the spiritual crisis. Moxa was originally used to expel entities, and there is a relationship between Lyme being a parasite or Gu and yeast being a ghost or Gui. As these become activated and expelled the Shen or spirit becomes disturbed, hence the ghost visitations and sleep paralysis.
(PS Since then, I have had brushes with sleep paralysis but have been able to energetically stand up for myself – mostly using the Ghost Points of Chinese medicine, herbs and a little old fashioned protective magic)
The Beginning Herb Years
The crisis of opening to other realms, disturbed sleep, systemic yeast, wrist pain, foot pain and back pain went on for about 18 months. It was challenging to face the fact that my early adulthood was dominated by pain and spiritual crisis.
I was hardly functional. I absolutely struggled in my university classes. When I performed poorly in a class, I tried to make it up by going to summer school or take on even more classes the next term.
I was a wreck. For the first time in my life I had anxiety and panic attacks, mostly from extreme exhaustion.
Slowly, slowly I climbed my way out of it.
Supplements helped, diet helped, moxa really helped, and mostly herbs helped. I stabilized. Then, I got a little better and a little better over a few years.
It was an blessing and a privilege to be able to work in the acupuncture and herb clinic with a mentor. I continued to work on and off there for over four years. Dina, the owner, demonstrated to how to run an herbal clinic and helped me find my own herbalist path while exposing me to some seriously good resources (like conferences).
Herbalism really helped fuel my recovery.
Not because I found the perfect herbal remedy – no, not at all. In fact, I went through all sorts of herbs (with the help of Dina, who was very skilled) for the yeast, pain and sleep paralysis and found very little that worked.
Don’t get me wrong, herbs have helped me and others so very much in very tangible ways, but at that particular point other modalities were more crucial to me. Boric acid caps and a sugar-free candida reducing diet were the turning points for the systemic yeast when no herbs could touch it. Moxa helped the pain.
Herbalism helped me because because it fueled my passion for health and learning about the body and spirit. Connecting with the vital force held within the plants was a medicine for me. Plants showed me how to flow with seasons, how to be grounded and how to grow and thrive.
Herbalism was an outlet for both creative artistry and creating community. I found my medium, and I found a way to be of service with the nurturing and restorative ways of plants.
In fact, creating with plants, teas, flowers and gardening is helping me once again recover from a health crisis – once again they are my go-to healing modality.
Baby herbal business
In 2005 I started to see my first herbal clients. The first client came for severe dysmenorrhea, the irony. My favorite medicines I remember connecting with at this time were Wormwood, Wild Lettuce, Skullcap, Creeping Charlie aka Ground Ivy, Figwort and Red Clover.
2006 was when I became a birth doula.
In 2007 I did an internship at Sage Mountain, a botanical sanctuary and herbal retreat center in Vermont when it was led by Rosemary Gladstar. That was a dreamy time. I returned that fall and began blogging about all things herbal on Dandelion Revolution, which I maintained for many years.
Early 2007 was a big chapter in my health story.
I had my second big Lyme flare, but I’ll save that for another time. My day job was working with kids, all those kid-type germs set my immune system over the edge. Unfortunately at this time my dysmenorrhea increased, too. to where I was bedridden for about 2-3 days per month, even with taking loads of Aleve.
Although I was seeing a few herbal clients here and there, I mostly learned about herbalism and Chinese medicine at this time by treating myself, my friends and my dog. Our dog had severe eczema and seizures, and I was constantly working on herbs and doing acupressure on her.
With myself and friends and family, I became very immersed in cold and flu herbs. Minnesota has some wicked respiratory infections, that’s for sure. Thyme, thyme, thyme. Boneset. Wild Cherry – these are the herbs I think of from this time. This is when I started to do more external preparations like herbal foot baths, mustard plasters, onion poultices, respiratory steams, cottonwood chest balms. As much as I love herbal tea, I found that these external preparations made all the difference.
In 2008 I started making herbal products for the doula and midwifery community. A couple years later I began to sell them on Etsy – that’s a whole ‘nother story.
I had a great time being immersed in the herbs, It was exciting to meet and work alongside the plants of Northern Minnesota. I lived, breathed, drank, soaked in and dreamt of herbalism.
By the time I left Duluth in 2010, I was teaching classes, hosting multiple study groups and leading herb walks while making and selling products. It was my own baby herbalist dream come true.
An herbalist not fitting in
In 2010, my husband and I and our dog moved to Portland, Oregon. Here I began a three year masters program in Chinese medicine.
This point in time is hard for me to talk about. It’s hard to separate what I was learning from what I was experiencing with both my physical health and my intuition and spiritual side. My definition of health and healing was turned on its head.
There was a deep unease with myself as an herbalist. It was hard to rectify being both a western and Chinese herbalist. What I thought was my identity was breaking apart.
And I felt very unconnected to the herbal scene here in Portland. For so long I couldn’t wait to move here, because I had heard so much about the vibrant Portland herbalists.
Yet, I didn’t fit in.
I was self-taught. I didn’t have a connection to an herb school or a teacher. Because of that I couldn’t work at an herb shop unless I did so as an unpaid internship, and it was hard to teach herb classes here unless you are a part of an herb school or an herb shop.
My clothes were too “normal”. Think back to alternative 2010 fashion, if you can. Lots of steam-punk, striped leggings, bodycon, circus vibes going on. I, on the other hand, was in a fancy feminine phase, wearing heels, florals, lace and styling my long white girl hair in braids and updos.
I often wonder if this could really be true within the herbal community at large: Does your acceptance hinge on how you look? How you were educated – or not? How old you are? If you have kids? I wonder, is it just my own insecurities?
I took a few classes through a couple of herb schools. Both were led by white cis hetero men.
One had conflict with me because I talked about how much I loved Thyme. After that class he stopped me on my way out to ask how I could use such a hot and harsh herb for respiratory infection. He thought it was irresponsible and I since I was negatively influencing other students to keep my opinions to myself from then on.
I believe I learned about permating the system with Thyme from Bill Mitchell, a respected and much-loved ND and herbalist. I recall David Hoffmann saying the same type of thing – I personally do not think this was out of line, but based on Western herbal traditions and learning from elder teachers and lots of experience.
This person was enmeshed both in my school, the well-know herb school and with the herbal conference scene in Portland. Eventually I stopped going to the conferences because of how I felt around him. NOTE: a couple of years ago, the same conference leadership has been dismantled and restructured to be BIPOC led 🙂
The second teacher I had has been called out for being racist.
There is actually a third interaction with a white male cis hetero herbalist that stopped me in my tracks, too. I was considering going to his herb school, luckily I had this interaction prior to attending.
You get the point. Instead of feeling connected to other Western herbalists, I felt more disconnected than ever.
Chinese Medicine School
Back to the grad school days… This is where l refined important skills. I learned how to be a practitioner, and I was trained in of acupuncture, Shiatsu and Chinese herbalism.
Chinese medicine is the system that I use in all of my health evaluations and strategies. Even though I began my western herbal studies 8 years prior to beginning Chinese medicine school, I consider TCM my foundation.
Until beginning grad school, I just did not have a satisfying understanding of how the body worked, how things went wrong and how to help it recover. I tried the best I could – hence being pre-med in college in pursuit of this knowledge.
In high school I read medical books in search of finding out the answers to why I and others were sick…if I just look hard enough I’ll find the true reasons for illness and be able to fix it – or so I thought.
But ultimately, I didn’t resonate with the Western medicine scientific reductionist model of disease.
Actually, I did resonate with that system for a time, and I had great trust in it. But it did not work for the particular types of health concerns I wanted so desperately to fix, no matter how hard I believed it would.
I want to note that you do not have to know a lot about the body, physiology and pathology to be an herbalist. Not everyone is that kind of herbalist, nor should we all be. There are many different avenues for herbalism, follow yours.
I, however, definitely wanted to be a clinical herbalist.
My mentor Dina was essentially primary care in the little towns she worked in, treating cancer, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, all sorts of common complaints.
Even as a child I had wanted to know the body deeply and resonated with medical or scientific type information about the body. One of the first things I wanted to be when I grew up was a pharmacist.
Grad school taught me how to be systematic and intuitive at the same time. It taught me how to study. And how to listen to the patient, to make health assessments and to make an herbal/acupuncture plan.
I learned to ask myself what is the best strategy for this persons healing at this moment? Really, it was the best thing for my herbal path.
Total Grad School Burnout
At the end of grad school, my health and energy were fading. That’s typical for many of us. It’s to be expected with hard work and long hours.
The program I went to was a 4 year program that you could do in 3 years if you went straight through, with no summers off. Add in the work study jobs I had, and I was at campus 50-60 hours a week. Which is not to mention the loads of constant memorization and studying outside of school hours.
When I look at photos of me from that era, I am shocked at how gaunt my cheeks are and how and dark-ringed my eyes are. I look more desperately tired and ill in those photos as a 31 year old graduate then I do now, after being a full-time, around the clock sleep-deprived mother of two while being sick.
Part of my sick look was that I was kind of wasting away. I had to stop walking to school because I kept losing weight despite eating over 3500 calories a day.
Deep down I suspected something more was going on with my health than typical school burn out.
I had many joint issues, and I was exhausted. My ferritin was at a level of 6, to which my clinic supervisors were shocked that I was even standing and functioning at all (it’s called running on adrenaline).
One of the naturopaths-acupuncturists that I worked with specialized in hard-to-treat Lyme. She herself had had Lyme and extensively researched and then used a non-antibiotic treatment protocol, since she was adversely allergic to antibiotics, to reverse her blindness in one eye, pain and fevers.
After the second term of working at her clinic, I decided to go get tested for Lyme again. I had Lyme when I was eight years old, but never had any post-treatment follow-up tests. I wasn’t surprised to see I had positive ELISA titers for Borrelia burgdorferi.
I didn’t do anything with those positive test results. I didn’t feel up for jumping into a long and expensive herbal protocol (or so I thought – I didn’t realize how easy it is to start a protocol until I tried it years later).
Instead, I worked on raising my iron stores and healing my leaky gut (all those years of Aleve) as a way to rebuild my foundation of health and (hopefully) reduce the joint pain from that route.
A Shift in Dysmenorrhea
Although this deserves a longer discussion, I did experience a shift in my dysmenorrhea my last year of grad school that has influcenced how I view health and healing.
I had a work study job working during the doctoral program, which was one weekend a month. While I was there I put myself in the schedule to be treated for my cramps. The doctoral clinic focused on Gynecological health for an entire year, every other year. Luckily it was the first and third year I was at school (I still went to the doctoral clinic as a patient the second year, the people were familiar with me and I had good continuity of care).
We tried all sorts of herbal formulas. I was given all sorts of diagnosis. Finally at the end, a majorly Blood moving formula helped clear out some stagnant clots and I felt a little better.
Then the final piece came into play which helped me get off of Aleve. The Aleve was ruining my gut and leading to greater levels of inflammation -which in turn worsened my cramps.
My wonderful friend Michelle came over when I was super crampy one day and gave me Shiatsu for over an hour. While she was working on me, I was able to get through the intensity of the cramps without taking Aleve. She was like a cramp doula!
The dysmenorrhea was still pretty bad. But it was better. After my friend was my cramp doula, I still had majorly painful periods and had to take 1-2 days off to stay in bed, moaning and delirious. But prior to that, I would have to take Aleve to prevent passing out and throwing up.
This shift was truly healing.
No, I was not pain free. I was not “normal”.
But I was better, and it was lasting. This gave me hope and let me reside in my own body as someone who identifies as female. It helped me heal my relationship with my own womb.
It showed me that sometimes it takes 3 years of trying before you find the right herbal formula. These were the top level Chinese medicine docs from Chinese hospitals writing these formulas and giving the diagnosis. Sometimes healing takes a while. Not everything fits into a neat and tidy box.
And this experience showed me how fabulous it would be if we could all have pain and sickness doulas.
The Baby Days
Six months after graduation I became pregnant with our first child.
Oh, how I loved being pregnant (let’s be real, I only felt amazing during my first pregnancy). The reason I felt so incredible during pregnancy was because I was sleeping great for the first time in my life. My energy was the best it had been since I was 8 years old.
My second pregnancy…I was really, really, really tired. That’s how it goes sometimes.
Motherhood has shifted my world view greater than anything else I could have ever learned.
I pay a lot more attention to the subtleties of health and vitality and to the dynamics within relationships of support. There is a dynamic between a parent and themselves (and their ability/support to inhabit and work with their own body), parent and their child, the parent and society/culture (the roles to fill and how to fill them), and the parent and their lineage and ancestral patterns (what has been passed down to them).
Western modern society has made it challenging to parent in the ways we would like to, because we have to work so goddamn hard to simply maintain staying afloat in late stage capitalism. It’s hard to balance so many roles with very little cultural and familial help, skills, tools, rituals, nourishment or stories about our own mothering/parenting capabilities.
We have to do it on our own, and holding it all together can come at cost to the parents vitality and health.
How does this affect the way I work as a practitioner? Now I am more aware of just how much stress we all have around us, parent or not. Even if we are not feeling super anxious or stressed, I always do extra points for balancing the nervous system or suggest a simple but effective nervine herbal tea to drink in the evening.
Having children can bring unending joy and can be deeply grounding, creative and incredibly healing.
But in this modern age, we need extra support for our bodies and energy because we are lacking deep, nutritive cultural support systems. Many people are experiencing systemic racial oppression; health disparities between white and non-white are real and must be remedied.
Embodiment Healing Work
The whole process of becoming a parent was like an initiatory experience for me.
Essentially, becoming a parent helped me to trust my inner knowing more than anything external.
This, in turn, helped me trust my intuition and begin to listen to it. Listening to my intuition led it to become more strong and clear. I wrote about the birth of my first child and how a dream helped me though it here. I truly do not think I could’ve gotten through that birth as well as I did without listening to the clear guidance I received through a dream.
People think intuition is like a trait you are born with. Perhaps some people are more neurologically wired to be intuitive more easily, but everyone has intuition. Everyone can learn intuition. Intuition really is a skill that you can learn.
Becoming a parent was a body journey for me, too. I listened to my body in a different way and through that listening, a lot of healing came about.
One way to think about it is that becoming a parent brought me home to my body, and with more of me connected into my form, the more information came through. I was finally wired into my physical form, and I had more opportunity for input and output. Not to reduce the body to an electrical machine…but now that I write that, I am reminded that it’s okay to embrace however metaphors come to us – my own Moon (representing our animal body) is in Aquarius, a very electrical sign.
Coming home to my body sounds like it was some sort of event or defined process. It was not. I didn’t really notice it. But it was slowly built over time.
I just started to drop my senses into my body and listen and feel. I had done that in the past – I think we all do, especially when we are sick or in pain. But I felt called to do it again, and again, each time with more ease. Becoming embodied is just like intuition in that way.
This embodiment process was really overwhelming for me. I got seriously overloaded with intuitive data and wounds to be healed. I was walking around like an open, bleeding sore and being able to sense everyone else’s open, bleeding wounds (herb note: that kind of energetic bleeding out and resonating with wounds calls for Yarrow, in my opinion).
It was so bad I called myself a wound sniffer, after the cancer-sniffing dog phenomena.
Sometimes sensory and non-ordinary input would come in too fast. The main physical manifestation was having bouts of intractable insomnia. My brain and body were renegotiating their wiring, and it took a while to get it (somewhat) organized (herb note: sounds like St. John’s wort, the nerve doctor).
At first I wasn’t going to write this in my health story because it didn’t seem related. But actually, it is very much related to my herbal and acupuncture practice, because I see that we need to give all sorts of healing processes space, time and nurturing.
Getting embodied sounds lovely. It is. And I think we should all do it – with LOTS of time, support, patience and love.
Any healing of shift we are embarking on, no matter how mundane or how so-called energetic, warrants utmost respect and care. And on a more clinical level, we need simply need to tend our nervous system as much as we do our physical body.
Healing journey, once again and always
When my second child was 1, I became very ill with the symptoms of Lyme.
Whew – it was a really intense Lyme flare, someday I’ll write about it, too. Mostly so I can share the super simple herbs I took to help me get at those spirochetes once and for all.
This flare came with its own spiritual crisis, for sure. I’m still in it, so my perspective is lacking.
Sometimes people with diseases and intense illnesses often have an underworld journey. In Chinese medicine thinking, the moment of death is when Yin and Yang separate. In some illness experiences, our body and spirit separate at times although not fully. Times in our lives when we have one foot in this world and one foot in the underworld can open us to mystical realms, our dreams, helping spirits, nature spirits, our intuition, ancestors, the dead in general, past lives and so on.
The recovery from Lyme this time around was a long journey. Thankfully with the help of a LOT of herbs, acupuncture, a team of trusted practitioners and the support of my family, I was able to begin to turn my health around.
I say begin because I still have a long way to go. I am 18 months as of Sept 2020 into an herbal Lyme protocol and am much better, but not fully where I want to be.
That brings me to now. Now I am writing and starting my practice again and loving every minute I get to work with other people as they step into being the hero of their own health story.
If you feel like you have a lot of healing to do, I bet you’re right. We all do.
If you feel like you are overwhelmed and scared, or confused or lacking, or you don’t feel like it is even possible to heal, I have been there and I know others have too.
And I have seen so many people face their greatest challenges and come through to the other side.
I keep coming back to the idea of a pain doula, someone who sits with another as a witness to a the process of going through the keyhole of wounds, pain, trauma, depletion and illness.
Being a practitioner is like being a coach. I cannot do any healing for anyone, but I can be present, I can offer my hands for comfort, I can suggest tweaks to the physical body for bringing in more ease and flow, I can hold space, I can be grounded, I can honor another.
And I can share some tools so you can be your own “pain doula” and build your own toolbox of skills to weather even the mildest of symptoms. And mostly, I can just be here as a support person, a witness to your own health story.
Thank you for reading this. Thank you for being a witness to my health story. If you feel inspired, I hope you create your own health story, if you haven’t already.
Wishing you comfort and ease where they can wiggle into your daily life, and wishing you patience and trust where they cannot at this moment.
Send me an email if you’d like to reach out. I am not on social media right now so email is the best way to connect. firstname.lastname@example.org
Take good care,