January 5, 2011
Q-&-A with Wendy Shanker
When following doctor’s orders just isn’t enough
After Wendy Shanker published her first book, “The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life,” she thought she had fought and won her battle for self-acceptance. But after being diagnosed with Wegener’s disease, a life-threatening autoimmune disorder, she found that her struggle to come to terms with her body — a body that was now slowly deteriorating — was far from over.
The 38-year-old writer and comedian embarked on a mission to find health and wellness by any means necessary, whether through Western medicine or traditional Eastern practices. In her search, she tried everything from acupuncture to cranial massage, consulting with her New York-based physician all the while.
Finally, Shanker went against all advice and stopped taking her medications — only to find her body begin to heal itself. She documented her journey in her newest book, “Are You My Guru? How Medicine, Meditation and Madonna Saved My Life” (NAL Trade, $15).
Jewish Journal: How are you doing now?
Wendy Shanker: I’m doing really well. I feel very good. I’m pretty much drug-free and doing my full-time job, which is taking care of myself, along with my other full-time jobs. It’s good because it would have been terrible to be sick when this book came out.
JJ: By the end of your journey, you went against medical advice, got off all your medications and your body restored itself. Why and how do you think that happened?
WS: Two things happened — I had hit the point where the medicine was making things worse instead of better. The drug direction I was getting was, “Take more medication,” but I needed to get off them in order to get better. Plus, as I talked about in the book, that X factor, that mystical, “Did somebody say a prayer? Did I hit the right spiritual adventure that made the starts align?” — I can’t discount that. [Eventually] I started taking this new drug, Rituxan, that was a lot gentler, a lot more targeted and that has been a real success story.
JJ: Have you retained any of the practices that you picked up during your journey to stay healthy?
WS: I’m still doing acupuncture and [taking a] lot of the nutrition and supplements that I picked up from Ayurveda. I’m still making my shallow attempts to meditate with as much frequency as possible, doing yoga and exercise, taking vitamins.
JJ: Do you think Judaism helped you in your journey?
WS: I was raised with Reform Judaism, and a huge part of my Jewish identity came from my involvement in youth groups, and friends who were Jewish. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I think my practice has gotten stronger. I have a lot more connection with the spiritual part of Judaism than I did when I was younger, in the same way I feel spiritual when I’m doing yoga moves. I do think it’s helping me heal. I like that I can look elsewhere for faith and find it, but I also find it in the faith I was raised with.
JJ: You’ve written a lot about body image, both in terms of your struggle with your weight and your struggle with the physical side effects of your illness. What issues do you think Jewish women in particular struggle with in terms of body image?
WS: There is a big struggle. There’s a big struggle with weight, that somehow the Jewish body is too big, it’s too curvy— [and then] there’s a certain body type that’s a skinny Jewish body and those girls worry that their boobs aren’t big enough. Jewish food isn’t exactly kale and peppers, either. Then there are these genetic Ashkenazi gene issues with breast cancer and with Tay-Sachs disease and with certain autoimmune diseases, so that makes life really complicated when you’re worried about your health and you have to wonder, “Does my Jewishness have an effect on this?” It just gives us something else to feel bad about if we choose to.
JJ: You talk a lot about the idea of not blaming yourself for what’s wrong with your health, yet it sounds like you were able to make a big difference in your recovery by doing all the work you did. How do you reconcile not blaming yourself for what’s wrong, yet still take on the responsibility to make it right?
WS: I think that what’s different is the motivation for going out there and empowering yourself. So instead of this idea that “if I’m not getting better it’s my fault because I’m not trying hard enough,” it’s like, maybe you’re not getting better but it has nothing to do with the amount of effort you’re making. Maybe this isn’t the right treatment plan. That’s where I also compared it to dieting — as in, “I’m doing Weight Watchers and not losing weight; it’s me, I’m not doing Weight Watchers hard enough.” Instead of, “Maybe Weight Watchers isn’t the right plan.”
JJ: At the end of the book, you say that you wrote this to empower other people. Do you think that Western medicine leaves people un-empowered?
WS: Yes, I do. It’s not the doctor’s fault, but it’s a really rough system that’s based on the idea that you’re broken and you need to get fixed. There isn’t room and there isn’t time for the doctor to get the holistic view with their patients; they have to fix the one problem that’s in front of them. But instead of blaming doctors or blaming patients, you have to take the responsibility. For me it was, this is the limitation of Western medicine, so what can I bring to it to help balance out the deficits?
JJ: At one point in the book, one of the healers you visit suggests that you talk to your body parts. The conversation you had with your liver was so funny. Are you still in regular contact with your organs?
WS: Yes, I like the idea [of giving] each of these organs a personality. I was joking around with her, but once that organ had a personality, it was hard not to think about it, and it was actually kind of a good format for me to give me body a little credit. I still think it’s kind of silly, but when I get a good test back, I still say, “Thank you, liver, I really appreciate it.” It’s a way of personalizing my relationship with my body.