With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I first became interested in alternative health practices as a teenager, when I began practicing yoga. I was also a drug user. My father thought this was a contradiction, but I said they both were about feeling good. When I took speed, it was easier to get into difficult yoga positions — although I didn’t have the patience to hold them for very long.
At sixteen I got interested in diet and became a vegetarian, which meant I lived largely on grilled cheese sandwiches. I read Adelle Davis and took vitamins. I read Paul Bragg and fasted, although I lacked discipline. It seemed to me that if you fasted regularly enough, you could reach a state of perfect health. (This was before I realized that people sometimes use diet and health to rationalize their eating disorders or general disdain for their body.) I had the vague notion that illnesses of every kind — and even aging itself — were the result of bad diet and a failure of the will. I rejected the germ theory of medicine, believing instead that most disease was caused by toxins in the body, which could be eliminated through “cleansing.” I tried Arnold Ehret’s mucus-free diet but became alarmed when a friend who followed it told me she was so “clean” she no longer had periods.
I once visited a practitioner who believed our insides are coated with toxins that can be expelled only by the use of high colonics — a type of extreme enema. She had photographs of people’s butts on her desk. I was briefly macrobiotic — “macroneurotic,” my husband calls it. My macrobiotic-cooking teacher warned me that this diet would cause me to “vibrate at a higher level” than others and could generate problems in my relationships. I also went to a chiropractor who told me that he had been an orthopedic surgeon in a former lifetime. He said I had made holes in my aura by taking LSD.
The most unusual practice I tried was a psychic clearing. In my early twenties I worked at an occult bookstore, and through it I discovered an elderly couple in Arizona who claimed they could clear the physical body of parasites (I’m not sure whether these were real or metaphorical) and the astral body of negative psychic influences. Not only that: they could do this from a distance, using just a letter from me. So I wrote to them. I don’t remember what I said. I got the impression the content of the letter wasn’t important. They wrote back and said they’d found parasites. They’d also found twenty-two disembodied spirits attached to my aura. Sometimes when people die, they explained, their spirits get stuck on the material plane. In their sneaky, paranormal way, these spirits latch on to the living and encourage them to drink or gamble or have lots of sex. The disembodied spirits can then enjoy those behaviors by proxy. According to the theory, some bars are full of the spirits of dead alcoholics, which might be true, for all I know. Anyway, the couple found twenty-two spirits attached to me and cleared them away.
At the time I was living with a violent boyfriend but was unable to leave him. I was full of inertia. I couldn’t make a decision or take any action. But, strangely, after that psychic clearing, something changed. I was myself again. When people ask how I finally found the strength to escape that bad relationship, I say I was rescued by my friends, or by falling in love with someone else, or by going to college. But, honestly, it started with that letter.
A few years ago I had a fungal infection on my feet; my toenails turned purple and itched. I went to a doctor, who cheerfully wrote me a prescription for fungicide.
As I was walking to the pharmacy to buy the lotion, I met my friend Judy and told her my story.
“You don’t need to buy anything,” she announced. “Just pee on your feet.”
“Pee on my feet?”
“Yes, it’ll cure you right away. Remember, the best pee is the first one of the morning.”
Judy didn’t invent this idea. Urine therapy has been around for millennia. Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, advises drinking your urine — mixed with water — as a treatment for glaucoma, epilepsy, meningitis, and even cancer. Ancient Romans brushed their teeth with pee. Some believe the Bible recommends urine therapy. (Proverbs 5:15: “Drink waters from thy own cistern, flowing water from thy own well.”) Thai healer Ratree Cheepudomwit claims drinking urine will turn gray hair black. The theory is that urine — a sterile byproduct of blood filtration — contains vitamins, enzymes, hormones, and antibodies custom-made for one’s body.
I didn’t buy the fungicide. The next morning I awoke, stood in my bathtub, and urinated on my toes. Afterward I ran cold water to rinse the tub. I continued this practice every day, and within two weeks my infection was gone. I was cured by urine!
Or maybe the fungus would have vanished anyway, and I’m just a fool who likes peeing on his feet.
In the summer of 1994, at the age of thirty-eight, I was living in a motor lodge in Ames, Iowa, and trying to become a writer. I worked for a temporary-labor service called Royal Cleaning, which would hire me out for a day here or a week there at six dollars an hour. It rained every day that summer, sometimes all day, and the numerous rivers and creeks in that already wet part of the world crested and calmly flowed down streets and through people’s living rooms and into the classrooms and offices and basketball arena of Iowa State University. Royal Cleaning was called in to deal with the mess.
We waded through sewage, trash, dead rats, broken glass, and mud. We filled trucks with ruined furniture and rolled up acres of soiled carpet. We smashed windows, hauled away tree branches, and knocked down soaked plaster walls. It took a week for eight of us to tear out the floors of the racquetball courts. The nails that held the warped wooden parquet in place were sunk eight inches into concrete and had to be jacked loose with a five-foot, eighteen-pound chisel. I was the chisel man, stooped and slamming solid concrete for eight hours a day until I was almost unable to walk.
I’d had back problems since I was eighteen, when I’d tried to lift two forty-pound cases of hot dogs off my delivery cart at the Del Mar Racetrack. I barely moved them before I fell to the ground as if I’d been shot. A maintenance man scampered over to help, and when I wasn’t able to stand, he looked down upon me with kind understanding and told me it was probably my sciatica. Laid up in bed in a lovely Valium haze for two days, I wondered if I would ever walk again. On day three I was back at the track, however, stocking concession stands and newly convinced of the importance of proper lifting.
My sciatic nerve, if that’s what I damaged, was never quite the same again, and it plagued me with increasing frequency as the years passed. Physical labor, especially the awkward lifting required by jobs such as restaurant cooking and unloading trucks, would aggravate it, but so would holding the same position for long periods — as you have to in spot welding, for example. Sitting for too long could also cause mischief, so even my cherished dream of becoming a writer was threatened. One time I was simply walking down the street when I sneezed and was transformed into an Egyptian hieroglyph. After my back had gone out, there was not much to be done for it. Liquor, hot showers, jacuzzis, massages, ice packs, hamstring stretches, headstands, Bible quotes, and ibuprofen were equally ineffective. Time was the only cure.
I could never afford any kind of comprehensive spinal evaluation, so I did what everyone else in my situation did: When I could not get out of bed or put on my pants or tie my shoes, I got out of bed and put on my pants and tied my shoes anyway. When I could not scale a ladder to shingle the roof of a house, I climbed the ladder and shingled the roof of the house anyway. Like humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years, I did what I had to do because I had no other choice.
Whenever I ran into a doctor in a bar, I would ask what the medical community was currently recommending for cases such as mine. Lower-lumbar issues, I learned, were tricky business, and I was consistently advised not to go under the knife, because spinal surgery often created more problems than it solved. Most back injuries resolved themselves — or so I liked to tell myself when I had assumed the shape of an ornamental flamingo.
I tried not to complain. Yes, I had a stiff back that sometimes pulled me down like seven Afghan teamsters taming a wild camel, but one finds ways to adapt. Cooking could be done with one hand as I guided myself along the edges of counters and sinks with the other. Floor-refinishing work was desirable, though lifting the machines was always problematic. Whenever I was assigned to a warehouse, I tried to get forklift duty. Light factory work was also welcome.
Once, on a bus to Zanesville, Ohio, a man dropped his suitcase on my head from the rack above, and dusty music-box melodies began to clink and clash in my ears. For the next six months my brainstem felt as if it were planted in a heap of broken clamshells. I had numb extremities and dizzy spells and saw flashing lights. I could sleep for only a few minutes at a time, with knees up and arms draped like a pet octopus over my face.
In my early forties I moved to Mexico, where living in cement houses with cold, ceramic-tile floors made my condition worse. There were days when I literally could not get out of my inflatable bed, and dressing was a challenge. Able to afford a doctor in Mexico, I met with a Russian MD who spoke English. He had a good look at me and declared that unless I wanted to spend my old age in a wheelchair, I needed surgery within two years. I said I couldn’t afford surgery. He wrote me a prescription for Valium, the truffle of tranquilizers, and gave me three syringes of epidural steroids, which provided temporary relief but did nothing to address my fundamental affliction.
Years later, when I was employed again as a cook in Nebraska, my back turned against me full time. I walked around in various stooped and tilted positions, wore a brace (which didn’t help but at least mitigated the pain), and often had to take the pans out of the oven on my knees. One day my employer asked me to fry up a bag of snacks called Spudsters, which were breaded mashed-potato balls. I dropped them into a vat of 350-degree oil, where they browned nicely. Deep-fried food generally floats when it’s done, but the Spudsters were big, so I let them cook a moment longer, just to make sure they weren’t still frozen in the middle. As soon as I dumped them into a serving bowl, they began to explode, and all three of us behind the line hit the deck, swearing in amazement amid the whizzing hot-potato shrapnel. I needed help getting off the floor.
Despite the priceless comedy I provided nightly, my employer took pity on me and insisted on paying for a full chiropractic examination. I did not have confidence in chiropractors, but at this point I was desperate. X-rays revealed that my neck, and not my lower back, was the origin of the problem. After a bit of tapping at the base of my skull with a rubber reflex hammer, some measuring with a T-square, and a session of table manipulation, my chiropractor seized me about the shoulders and audibly wrenched my carriage a few times. I was given a cold pack and a set of exercises to perform daily. Dazed and slightly stiff but nevertheless pain-free, I sailed from that office with a straight rudder, my view on chiropractic revised.
It wasn’t long, however, before my back reverted to its old ways. After each visit to the chiropractor I would feel renewed, and I’d faithfully continue the exercises and cold-pack applications, but a month or two later I would be back to taking the pans out of the oven on my knees. I gave up all notions of rehabilitation and resigned myself to scrabbling around like an arthritic chimpanzee who’d been shot in the leg. It was no monumental burden. My life was relatively easy. There were billions of others on earth who had it much tougher.
Four or five years ago, in my early fifties, I was working as a school janitor when my back problems simply went away, without medicine, exercise, ice packs, essential oils, cayenne plasters, chiropractic, or yoga. The pain and kinks and crippling snarls were gone. I put my brace in a drawer, where it lies untouched today.
The idea that problems can solve themselves is one I have always liked, but I can’t explain how it happened for me or why it took almost forty years. As I’ve experienced a measure of success in my writing career, the physical demands on me have lessened, and my stress level has diminished. Perhaps that’s the reason my spine has decided to live in harmony with me for a while. Gravity, the force that pulls us all to our earthly fates, might have been a factor as well. I won’t rule out will, diet, sympathy from the gods, or any combination thereof. As with so many things, I don’t claim to know. I’m just grateful I never had the money to go under the knife.
I can relate to Poe Ballantine’s essay about his bad back [“My Life as a Flamingo,” December 2014]. I’m a senior citizen in excellent health, but I have to be careful getting up in the mornings, because I sleep on the floor to keep my spine straight. To stay limber, I stretch all my muscles for an hour each day. I also take cayenne-pepper capsules to improve my circulation. I would love to wake up one morning and, like Ballantine, have no back pain at all, but it has not happened yet.
Sparrow has hit a new low with his essay “Unexpected Medicine” [December 2014], in which he discusses urinating on his feet to cure a toe fungus. Cancel my subscription.
To Julie Ingram who wrote in to cancel her subscription [Correspondence, February 2015] because of Sparrow’s essay about curing a toe fungus with his own urine [“Unexpected Medicine,” December 2014]: My father was born in 1904 in a small Mountain West community where children went barefoot whenever possible. In warm weather, shoes were required only for church, holidays, and funerals.
The children’s feet sometimes got sore from walking the dirt streets, wading in irrigation ditches, and exploring fields, hills, and canyons. To soothe the pain and toughen the skin, they would pee on their feet.
Under normal conditions urine is sterile. Millions of people in India routinely consume their own urine for medicinal purposes. Our own cultural ignorance on the subject ought not to be reason for shock or canceling one’s subscription.
In the eighties I worked as a farm hand in Humboldt County, California. In the course of my job I brushed up against poison oak or ivy — I can’t remember which — and no amount of calamine would quell the itch. A Native American in the area recommended swabbing the blisters with my own urine. As unsavory as this seemed, I proceeded to do it each morning. Sure enough, the itching and redness abated. God, or however you understand the magic, made our bodies such that self-healing could occur.
Sparrow is a strange bird, indeed, but he knows of what he speaks.