March 17, 2020

The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness

By Sarah Ramey
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In her new memoir, The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness, Sarah Ramey writes about the 2012 day her music video featuring her alter ego, Wolf Larsen, premiered on NPR. It starred a red-lipsticked, vibrant version of herself, and it went viral online while she remained ill, exhausted, frustrated and alone at home.

This moment is but one of many, many times Ramey struggled to put on a happy face while her reality was much more painful. She is what she calls a WOMI, or “woman with a mysterious illness.” In the last 30 years, instances of autoimmune illnesses have tripled, and our medical system has not yet developed a respectful, effective way of working with such patients. Instead, skepticism and dismissiveness (the classic it’s-all-in-your-head response) is the norm, writes Ramey, and people, predominantly women, are staying sick.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Sarah Ramey.

Ramey’s angry about that, and she explains why with intelligence, humor and impressively thorough and far-ranging research into the various ailments that stem from trauma, exposure to harmful chemicals, consumption of unreal foods, overuse of antibiotics and more—diseases that defy easy diagnosis and a straightforward cure. They’re often invisible, too: WOMIs may look great even as they feel their worst, and that only increases the doubt among medical professionals, or even family or friends.

Ramey shares her own personal health journey, including conventional and alternative treatments; strategies she’s tried that have brought relief (or haven’t); and what she’s learned about the immune system and the gut. She also makes an impassioned case for profound change in our health care system, which, she argues, is out of balance because it lacks consideration and compassion: “We excel at acute (heroic, eliminate the bad guy) illness and can’t for the life of us solve chronic (heroinic, root system) illness.” She urges readers, especially those who are WOMIs, to be open to sharing their stories and asking for change, in an effort to bring about a cultural shift before it’s too late—since what we’re doing now clearly isn’t working for millions of people.

The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness is a stirring and inspiring rallying cry, an engaging and often harrowing personal story (or, as Ramey quips, “a kicky memoir about my gyno-rectal disease”) and an eminently worthwhile read.

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