MAY 13, 2018
IN 2007, Amy B. Scher was dying. As a last attempt at survival, she flew with her parents from Monterey, California, to Delhi for stem cell injections to be administered by renowned biotechnology expert Dr. Geeta Shroff. Scher hoped the treatment would cure her, but it was the discovery that complete recovery only comes through harmony between mind, body, and spirit that really rocked her life.
In her stunning new memoir, This Is How I Save My Life: From California to India, a True Story of Finding Everything When You Are Willing to Try Anything (Gallery Books), Scher chronicles her harrowing eight-year battle with Lyme disease and the six weeks in India that saved her. The refrain “we are the healing we’ve been waiting for” rings throughout the book, a beautiful testament to resilience that veers from the comical to the tragic. It details how the author bravely faced her emotional and physical demons, which is unsurprising since the 38-year-old Scher, an energy therapist and self-described “nice Jewish girl,” comes from a family of warriors: her grandparents survived the Nazis in Poland, where her paternal grandfather built a bunker to save 18 Jews.
I spoke with Scher in New York, where she now lives with her wife after eight years in Los Angeles.
UTIBE GAUTT ATE: Memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “Amy B. Scher is a brave warrior and a wonderful writer. She is a living example (very much living!) of what it looks like when a woman takes her health, her heart, and her destiny into her own hands.” When your essay “Curing the Incurable” appeared in Gilbert’s 2016 anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, how did that affect your career?
AMY B. SCHER: It gave me more confidence as a writer, which propelled me forward. It may have also helped from a publishing standpoint, because I was able to build upon what I’d done with her. My career’s consisted of little steps in which all the ones before really mattered.
Eat Pray Love gave me the idea women could have grand adventures and travel alone. It made me see, though it was a risk, I needed to go to India. While Elizabeth and I were inspired by very different life events (hers was the demise of her marriage and mine the demise of my body), it was still the same premise: traveling the world to find something you couldn’t at home. Then, in the end, finding out you had what you needed all along.
She inspired me because she beautifully showed that storytelling is less about the events and more about bringing them to life for the reader. She put into words what so many thought and felt. I hope my book helps people to live authentically and trust the unfolding of life. In India, I learned how to be myself without worry or fear. My body demanded it. There was no shortcut. It took embracing the entirety of my life, disease and all. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, “There’s a reason for everything.” But I do think there’s a greater purpose, though usually we can’t see it right away.
In a book about sickness, how did you achieve lightheartedness?
Lightness and humor in the face of things that suck is part of my personality. I wanted people to laugh, because sometimes that’s the only way to get through pain. My vision was to make this book as light as it could possibly be. In that way, I sought to make it different from other illness stories I’d read. It’s depressing to have a sickness and to read about sickness — both sick and healthy people don’t want to read about it. I didn’t want the book to be all about stem cells, because I would not want to read that book. I intentionally didn’t drag readers through dirt, because the other parts of my journey were more interesting.
How did being a white Jewish girl in India affect you?
It was just what I needed. It was the first time I didn’t attempt to fit in, because it was impossible. I knew no one and was a stranger in every way. That helped me let go of the pressure I always put on myself to be perfect, strong, and totally together. India was a huge learning curve, culturally, emotionally, spiritually. It brought me to my knees, humbled me, and forced me to break the rules and constraints I had for myself. That would never have happened at home.
When I wrote the book, I was afraid of doing a disservice to the beauty of the people and country because of the challenges I had there. Fortunately, it was years later, so I wasn’t swayed by my own emotional turmoil and ended up with a really accurate representation of how things were.
The emphasis your Indian doctors placed on the mental component of your healing surprised me. What was the biggest difference between medical treatment here and in India?
The Indian hospital that treated me believed the mind was integral to all health. The idea of mind-body connection and how much it’s integrated into their medical care shocked me. Doctors pushed me to alter my attitude. I felt like they blamed me. It was annoying and I resented it at the time, but it was what I needed — the piece I didn’t get here. I had completed treatments that cured lots of people with my condition, but the concept of the mind affecting the body became a huge part of getting well. In the States, this idea is now more present — even in large teaching hospitals. There’s an East-meets-West paradigm.
As someone whose family has been through a lot of trauma, I could relate to your family history. Do you believe intergenerational trauma influenced your illness?
I believe our family’s experiences and emotions can be passed to us just like DNA. I addressed this after I returned from India because I started to backslide health-wise. I studied how we store emotions in our body and the direct effect that has on us physically. What I worked to release were inherited distress and fears.
My dad was born in a German displacement camp a year after the Holocaust. I believe he was affected by intergenerational trauma — what happened to his parents affected him on a deep level. Perhaps myself as well. There are studies that suggest the experiences of the generation prior to Holocaust survivors affected their DNA and produced chemical effects in the generation to follow.
But then there are plenty of children of trauma survivors who don’t develop mental health concerns like their parents. A lot of this has to do with our individual composition and, in part, our ability to overcome adversity. Through my illness, I healed some of this intergenerational stress, hopefully breaking a cycle that didn’t end with my dad.
Isn’t it controversial to say you can heal your own disease?
It’s definitely controversial, but even my Western doctors said, “You know, you have to look at yourself.” They asked, “Do you have any toxic relationships?” I was so defensive. I was like, “I have Lyme disease — that’s a terrible bacteria infiltrating my system.” I believe you can heal yourself when no one else can, but I don’t believe medicine is bad. I don’t believe doctors are bad. I take a balanced approach. That’s not everybody’s path, but it was mine. I was only telling my own story.
Your memoir is intensely personal. What gave you the courage to share?
I realized that telling my story and hearing about other peoples’ stories is important. It can help mitigate pain for yourself and others. I love it when someone reads something I wrote and says, “Oh, I really relate to this.” Offering my story and connecting with other people about theirs became more important than my ego or vulnerability.
What advice can you give anyone who feels hopeless?
Keep showing up. I remember all the times I thought, I cannot do this even one more day. Then I’d go to sleep and wake up the next day with the same stuff to trek through. To paraphrase Ram Dass, one of my spiritual teachers, “You have to take it all as necessary steps and proceed.” You have to allow yourself the meltdowns, the misery, and the acknowledgment of the vast pain in any sickness journey. Always find a way to keep showing up for yourself, because you never know when your healing will arrive. Often when you feel like you’re miles from where you want to be, you’re just around the corner.