For most of my adult life, my body was an incubator of chronic illness, and I was dependent on other people to care for me. At age 22, I was diagnosed with acute coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever, an ailment the New York Times once called “a disease without a cure.” My symptoms resembled that of the flu: fever, cough, chills, fatigue, body aches, and joint pain. I was married young and fortunate to have a husband who could keep us afloat while I was sick, but eventually even simple acts of daily life became unmanageable.
Doctors weren’t able to provide answers. Years later I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, an elusive condition characterized by chronic pain, fatigue, sleep, and mood issues. My doctor would tell me to exercise, but I couldn’t lift my head off of the pillow. When medical professionals hear that you don’t have energy to get out of bed, they assume you’re depressed. I don’t think I was depressed, but my illness had overtaken my life.
In 2007, at age 39, I found myself in bed, in pain, and on a variety of substances including pain medications, sleeping pills, antidepressants, coffee, and alcohol. My teeth began to crack and fall out. I remember lying sick inside my house and seeing someone ride by on bicycle, and I felt like I wasn’t living anymore. I thought that the next thing coming would be cancer, and I was going to die.
Around that time a friend took me to a raw food restaurant. I was highly skeptical; after all, who wants to eat uncooked foods in the middle of a Chicago winter? At that point my diet was primarily based on processed foods. I didn’t have energy to cook, so I ate a lot of frozen meals. The restaurant’s menu was not appealing to me at all; I would rather go hungry than eat raw kale—I sipped on lemon water instead. But after seeing the restaurant’s detox center and looking at their cookbooks, which were filled with ingredients I had never heard of, I became curious about the healing powers of raw foods.
I was at a point where I would try anything to get well, so I decided to attempt a raw food “cleanse.” I enlisted the help of my best friend, Suzie, who flew in from California and stayed with me for two weeks. She said she would do whatever she could to help me, and I told her I just wanted to eat raw foods all week. I didn’t have any expectation that I was going to live that way for the rest of my life, but after 10 days of cutting out all processed foods, coffee, and alcohol, and filling my body with fruits and vegetables, my health was reversed. I was pain free, my head was clear, and the oppressive fog that had enveloped my life for almost two decades was gone.
My healing continued for the next year, both physically and emotionally. With the help of a woman in the raw food community, I transformed my eating and my health with a plant-based diet designed to promote a more alkaline chemical balance in my body. The foods I ate before had caused my body to become very acidic. I learned that an acidic body will show symptoms like pain and fatigue, and acids can draw minerals from bones and teeth, which explained why my teeth were cracking.
Once my body began to heal, I woke up to a personal life that was a total mess. I found out my husband of 17 years was leading a damaging and dangerous double life, and it was clear that I needed to move on. I didn’t have money for a lawyer, and going through a divorce without any help was painful and scary. At this point I was almost 40 and I had never lived independently. I wasn’t educated after high school, I didn’t know how to type, I had no business experience, and I had never even driven down the road 30 minutes by myself. I got a job managing a boutique up the street, but I was barely making it, and I didn’t like how my personal story was unfolding. I wanted a different story, and for once I had the comfort of knowing I had a healthy life ahead of me.
At this point I was doing a lot of experimentation with different preparations of raw foods. I did research online and learned about the surprising textures that certain ingredients could create, such as creaminess from cashews and meatiness from walnuts. I read the labels of health foods and figured out how to make them myself. I still didn’t like the taste of greens, so I learned how to hide them in fruit smoothies. I saved up to buy a dehydrator and began inventing recipes. While I was managing the boutique, I would share some of my favorite foods with customers. Once a month I would have a “happy shake” party at my condo, where I would teach people how to make my signature chocolate green smoothie. As word traveled and more people became interested in my raw recipes, I knew I had found something I needed to share with the world.
In 2009, I sold my condo and everything I owned. I bought a white Prius, a laptop computer, a camera, and a cell phone, and, with $5,000 remaining, I decided to live in my car and travel the country for a year to educate people about raw foods. Some people might view this as drastic, but in my heart I knew that this was a path I needed to follow. So I cast away the material possessions of a life I never really lived and, with my health intact, set off to find my own way.
I created a Facebook page to get the word out about my plan, and soon I was contacted by a couple in Tucson, AZ. On January 1, 2010, I drove west and spent a week with two people who let me into their home and will forever have a place in my heart. I cooked for a dinner party they hosted, and I led a class on raw cooking for their friends. I taught them everything I knew, and I figured out a lot along the way. At the end of the week I knew I had found my calling. It wasn’t just about the food—I’m really not a foodie. I’m a people person. I was overwhelmed by the appreciation I felt after our days together—I fell in love with them. I wanted to keep doing that, to have another family to fall in love with.
Over the next few years my world went from a small little bubble in Chicago to sailing in Martha’s Vineyard, hiking in Arizona, seeing the leaves turn in Vermont, and clamming on the shore of Long Island. I met so many people. I saw our country and I got to feed everyone along the way. I worked with families of all backgrounds, including people on public assistance, because I knew it was possible to eat raw on any budget, and I wanted everyone to know that he or she can find good health through something as simple as food.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned through my work is that no two families are the same, and no one diet works for every family. Every time I go to stay with new people I base the menu on their personal needs, health goals, and budget. I don’t decide what to make as the first meal until I’ve met everyone in the family—I know better than to serve a big Texas dad a salad for dinner on the first night! It’s for this reason that I don’t expect everyone to subscribe strictly to raw or vegetarian guidelines. I believe some cooked food is important for nourishment, and certain animal proteins, such as fish, offer essential nutrients. I also create a personalized recipe for each family based on their favorite foods. From key lime pie to burgers to spaghetti and marinara, I have a knack for making healthier versions of well-loved recipes, as you can see in my recent cookbook Eat Raw Not Cooked.
More than anything, the past few years have provided an education about myself. I never knew how much of a caregiver I really was because I had to be taken care of for so long. It’s truly a gift to be able to care for others, and having the appreciation of a family is so nice. Now I’m remarried and have a place to call home, so I feel much more balanced, but I still thrive on the personal connections I make with the people I meet. When I was sick I kept a gratitude journal, and every day I would write down five things for which I was grateful. They were typically the same basic things like hot water and coffee. Today I can’t even imagine keeping a gratitude journal, because I have too much for which I am thankful. I am so appreciative of everything in my life. Just a few years ago I couldn’t get out of bed, and now I’m thriving. I can’t wait to start each day, and there are no words to describe how good that feels.