“Reader, I congratulate you at the end of a long road. You have endured a lot of my story, which is not a fun one, and I thank you.” So begins the penultimate chapter of Sarah Ramey’s scathing memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness, chronicling her multiple health problems and botched medical procedures she suffered for a decade. It is made up of three parts: a detailed account of the mysterious chronic illness, a contemplative descent to hidden truths and realities, and a feminist call to arms. Equal parts mystery and manifesto, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness is an essential read in these modern times.
(Part of the allure of reading her memoir is discovering the nature of her illness and, therefore, I shall not mention specific terms and details to keep it cloaked in mystery.)
Back in college, Ramey blacked out. Based on the initial findings, she is suffering from an infection. The doctors prescribed antibiotics to ease her pain and assured her a quick recovery. She left the hospital, returned to school, and began a life in pain. The nascence of her chronic illness is a medical procedure that ripped a part of her urethra. Ramey does not sugarcoat her life. You can hear her scream, taste her blood, and feel her pain as she recalls one medical tragedy after another. Every sentence feels like sharp needles puncturing you into submission. Despite regular trips to hospitals, her undiagnosed and sometimes misdiagnosed illness persisted. To her chagrin, some doctors asserted that she is fine. Their dismissal implies her illness is psychological. She decided to try alternative medicine much to the disappointment of her father, a topnotch physician. In the course of her journey through Eastern medical practices like yoga and acupuncture, she became a zealous practitioner of positive thinking. She noticed fleeting changes and spent serious cash. Finding bliss, she realized, is expensive.
Undeterred, she decided to understand her predicament. Ramey put on her researcher hat and read countless medical books and journals. She also met other people suffering from similar illnesses. Soon enough, she has discovered potential patterns and possible pertinent clues to her situation. The list of symptoms she collated is spread over three pages and its visual impact speaks volumes. Using her data, she sought additional medical tests and tried an illegal treatment. Still, her illness persisted – it sometimes felt more persistent than her.
Ramey took a step back and analyzed the root of her problem. By this time, the medical sleuth has transformed into a feminist philosopher. In the beginning her memoir, Ramey is caustic and hilarious, using pop culture references and puns to explain her situation. I guess to balance the seriousness of the topic. But as the second part unfolds, she invoked women writers and thinkers to lift the veil. To explain her health journey, she methodically compared the ideas of Joseph Campbell and Maureen Murdock on heroism. The pace and intent of her writing are breathtaking. Weaving Greek Mythology, Lewis Carroll, and the Feminine Divine is a highlight of her memoir. Guided by the stories of the ancient mothers, she embraced her darkness and found light.
The last part synthesizes her data and her realizations. It is a sight to behold as she rattles the socio-political, economic, and historical contexts of her point: women suffer from mysterious illnesses because the medical system is skewed against them and therefore broken. The final chapters read like a feminist manifesto. She has seen herself in the timeline of unending struggles and called on her sisters in arms to speak up against inconsiderate health practitioners, reject gaslighting, and assert their right to heal.
Like the late Elizabeth Wurtzel and her groundbreaking memoir on depression (Prozac Nation), Ramey and The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness will spark debates and discussions about the blindness, ignorance, and oppression of modern healthcare to the needs of women. Hers is a modern tale of a defiant heroine for the Me Too Generation. To paraphrase a popular feminist anthem, Sarah Ramey acquired wisdom born of pain, paid the price, and chose to share her life to help others and to speak truth to power.