When Cami Walker found out she had multiple sclerosis, she became depressed, sleepless and was in constant pain. Then an old friend offered some advice: Stop thinking about yourself, stop dwelling on your pain, and start giving away 29 gifts in 29 days. In her book, “29 Gifts,” she chronicles her giving cycle and explains how it altered her perception of her situation. The giving cycle couldn’t cure her condition, but she was no longer too tired (or too bitter) to live her life. An excerpt.
Prologue: Desperate times, desperate Measures
That night, I call my friend and spiritual mentor Mbali Creazzo. Mbali would call herself a “medicine woman.” She is South African, but her family moved to England when she was three because of apartheid. She has a “wise woman” way about her: quiet, peaceful, insightful. She chooses her words carefully. She may not seem all that remarkable when you’re in her presence, but she has a ripple effect on you. She is the person who introduced me to the concept of the 29 Gifts “prescription,” and in many ways I feel I owe her my life.
My husband Mark and I met Mbali in 2005, when we knew her as just Toni, our next-door neighbor. We were living near Lake Merritt in Oakland, to get a break from the frenetic bustle of San Francisco. A couple of times a week she and I would carpool for the twenty-minute trip to work. I had a high-stress job with an ad agency, and she worked at The Institute for Health and Healing at California Pacific Hospital. She is actually one of the innovative healers who helped guide and shape the programs at the institute, where they marry Western medicine with various forms of alternative medicine. We were friendly, but not really friends. About six months after we met, she made plans to go to South Africa for a couple of weeks to visit some relatives. She knocked on our door and politely asked whether Mark and I would feed her cats while she was away. We were glad to help.
The first time I walked into Toni’s apartment, I nearly stumbled over a large altar on the floor by the front door. Beside a vase of flowers stood an open bottle of vodka, which perplexed me because I knew she didn’t drink. There were also a bowl full of ash, piles of rocks and shells, and a number of African statues that looked fierce and intimidating.
I had been exploring various forms of spirituality over the years and have several friends with altars in their homes, but most of them just held some pretty crystals and maybe some angel cards or even a cross. But the contents of this altar freaked me out a little. I knew there was nothing to be afraid of; Toni was a caring, loving woman who lived to help people. Regardless, while I tended to the cats, I skirted around that altar, giving it a wide berth. I wanted to ask her about it when she got back but decided against it. I figured if she wanted to tell me about her spiritual practice, she would.
When Toni got home from South Africa, she announced that she would now go by the name “Mbali,” pronounced em-BALL-ee. Over the years, I had several friends who traveled to India to meet gurus and came back using new names. Another friend changed her name just because she didn’t like the one her parents gave her. So we started calling Toni “Mbali” and didn’t think much of it. She looked the same, but something on that trip had apparently changed her. How much so, I would find out later.
A few months later, Mbali returned the favor and fed our cats when Mark and I went to Mexico for our wedding and honeymoon. I had been working like a fiend. At my extremely demanding job as creative strategy director of an advertising agency, I made a lot of money, but the pressure was constant and the hours were long — sixty hours would be a short week for me. In the month before the wedding, while I was finishing a big new pitch, I kept noticing that my mind didn’t seem to be working right. The words were in my head, but sometimes I couldn’t get them out. My hands hurt and were very stiff. I would will my fingers to move over the keyboard, but they wouldn’t hit the right keys. Chalking it up to stress, I managed to wind up the intense workweeks and get on the plane to Mexico. Mark and I enjoyed three amazing, relaxing weeks in Playa del Carmen, celebrating with forty of our family members and friends.
Then we flew home and our life disintegrated in a matter of weeks.
I may only have noticed those weird symptoms for a few weeks in 2006, but looking back it’s now obvious to me that I had been having flare-ups of multiple sclerosis symptoms over the previous fifteen years. Sometimes my toes or fingers would go numb. Or my whole body would feel the way your foot does when it falls asleep. I’d have vomiting spells that were so bad I’d lose 20 pounds in a week. I’d be so tired that I’d need to stop three times to rest during the two-block walk to the bus stop. The doctors always told me there was nothing physiologically wrong, that it was just stress. The main prescription they gave me was to relax.
So in 1997, when I was 24, a year after moving to San Francisco from Nebraska, I began to seek alternative treatments. During the decade I lived in the Bay Area before my diagnosis, I regularly saw an acupuncturist, several different massage therapists, a chiropractor, a hypnotherapist, a meditation teacher, and a nutrition counselor, plus I practiced yoga at least five days a week, all of which had tremendous therapeutic benefit. I firmly believe that if it weren’t for this team of holistic practitioners, I would be much worse off today. I think their help kept the MS at bay, but only for so long. It was no match for the overdriven lifestyle I lived. There is a strong connection between high levels of stress over extended periods of time and autoimmune diseases. Scientists are still studying this connection, but I believe that if I had made different lifestyle choices, it is possible I may not have developed full-blown MS.
While Mark and I were on our honeymoon, I developed a urinary tract infection. We had four days left in Mexico, and I wanted to wait till we were back in the States to treat it. By that time it was pretty bad. (I’ve since learned that a UTI is a common trigger for an MS flare.) The infection cleared up after I saw a doctor, but three days later I woke up and my hands simply didn’t work. I couldn’t bend them; they were stuck like claws. Over the next couple of days I felt tremendous fatigue. I could hardly get anything done at work. By the time I lost the vision in my right eye, I found myself back in the hands of mainstream doctors after a pretty long absence.
My diagnosis of MS came just one month after my wedding day. Three neurologists in white coats took turns looking into my right eye and commenting on the degradation they could see on my optic nerve. They took me through a few standard neurological tests. Tap your index finger and thumb together. Walk heel to toe. Touch your nose with your index finger. One of the top neurologists at the UCSF Medical Center confirmed the diagnosis for me by showing me pictures of my brain from the MRI scans they took.
“You see this hook-shaped white lesion here?” he asked, pointing to his computer screen. “That’s a classic MS lesion. Judging from your history of symptoms, I’d estimate you’ve had MS for more than a decade.”
“A decade!” exclaimed Mark, stunned. “Shouldn’t someone have caught this sooner?”
“I don’t think she’s ever had enough symptoms present at one time to lead to an accurate diagnosis,” replied the doctor. So there really wasn’t anyone to blame, but that didn’t stop me from being angry at all the doctors I saw over the years who told me I was suffering from nothing more than stress.
Now here I sit on the phone with Mbali. She listens intently and lets me cry for a while. Then, in her British lilt, she attempts to pull me out of my self-pity.
“Cami, I think you need to stop thinking about yourself.”
For a few seconds, I’m shocked silent. I imagine Mbali on the other end of the phone, sitting near her unique altar, her silver hair and bronze skin reflecting in the soft light of her apartment. She’s probably wearing one of the beautiful, colorful necklaces she makes and smiling at my stunned reaction.
“Thinking about myself?” I howl. I start in on her about what a wreck I am, what a wreck my body is, telling her I don’t have room to think about anything except myself right now.
“I know, that’s the problem,” she says. “If you spend all of your time and energy focusing on your pain, you’re feeding the disease. You’re making it worse by putting all of your attention there.”
I absorb this information quietly.
“Cami,” she says, her voice soft and soothing but her words hitting me hard, “you are falling deeper and deeper into a black hole. I’m going to give you a tool to help you dig yourself out.”
“What should I do?” I ask.
“I have a prescription for you. I want you to give away 29 gifts in 29 days.”
From the book “29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life” by Cami Walker. Available now from Da Capo Lifelong Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.