Jacqueline Alnes is a writer and assistant professor of creative writing. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Guernica, Jezebel, Longreads, Ploughshares, Tin House, Electric Literature, The Boston Globe, and elsewhere. She served as nonfiction editor of The Portland Review, holds a PhD in creative writing from Oklahoma State University, and an MFA in nonfiction from Portland State University.
Below, Jacqueline shares 5 key insights from her new book, The Fruit Cure: The Story of Extreme Wellness Turned Sour. Listen to the audio version—read by Jacqueline herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. A culture of “no pain, no gain” in sports has led to a world of hurt.
During my freshman year of college, over a decade ago now, I developed a simple cough that turned into a case of persistent dizziness and blurry vision. As a Division I athlete, I believed, as coaches had taught me for years, that pain was something to be overcome. Despite not being able to see the world around me clearly, I wondered if I should run through the discomfort. When I listed my symptoms and asked my coach and the athletic trainer if I should compete, they responded with a resounding yes. I listened. But that day, my body’s weaknesses were stronger than my will. After my warmup, I collapsed on the indoor track.
In the weeks of symptoms that followed, I was met by a refrain from my coach, athletic trainer, and a neurologist that I was “fine,” “normal,” and “cleared to run,” despite my continued attempts to articulate to them that I did not feel well. When I think back to this time, I’m reminded of the precarious dance that so many athletes participate in, between pushing their bodies to the brink of what is possible and the threat of real harm.
I think about the kinds of narratives perpetuated in sports that masquerade as inspiration and how athletes have internalized these messages about overcoming pain. I think about these narratives whenever I see a video celebrating a runner crawling to the finish line after suffering a health event of some kind, when I see a story about a football player who died at practice due to a coach who wouldn’t allow a water break, when I see stories of athletes who die by suicide because they feel so alone with their pain. While, in some ways, we’ve come a long way in creating spaces for athletes to talk about mental health, and while social media now can serve as a means for athletes to shed light on toxicity within their programs, we need even more room for rest, for consideration of an athlete’s wellbeing holistically, and for easing up short-term to save the health of a person long-term.
If I hadn’t grown up believing that an athlete can outrun or out-train anything, so long as they want it badly enough, I might have accepted rest, learned to listen to my body, and fully recovered. Instead, I internalized my persistent symptoms as a sign of personal failure.
2. The way we talk about illness matters.
I first heard about epilepsy from the Biblical story where Jesus visits a boy who foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and cannot speak. “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus tells the crowd that has gathered around. Jesus brings the boy close to him and rebukes the demon that’s been causing his symptoms; the boy walks away, completely healed. This narrative is far from the only one where seizures are associated with evil, demonic possession, portrayed as “the Hand of Sin,” or associated with the underworld.
“Both able-bodied and disabled people are harmed by these stories we’ve told about disability.”
On one hand, I understand the human impulse to mythologize illness. When we craft narratives, we make meaning. Stories can afford us a form of control and power in situations that leave us feeling like we are without. But on the other hand, narratives linking disability to any sort of evil can be more insidious than any physical symptom. As Michelle Mary Lelwica writes in Shameful Bodies, both able-bodied and disabled people are harmed by these stories we’ve told about disability. “The belief that a better body = a normal body = an able body is difficult to question in part because dominant religious/cultural narratives constantly reinforce these equations, and in part because we regularly benefit from them,” she writes.
The prevalence of these narratives meant that when a neurologist suggested seizures as the possible root of my symptoms, my perception of the potential diagnosis was warped with moralistic judgment. For years, I carried a sense of deep shame whenever I had an episode. I believed I had not done enough to exorcise whatever terrible parts of myself were causing the episodes, which had begun to include aphasia (meaning I repeated words for minutes on end) and memory loss.
3. In our clickbait, sound-bite culture, thinking critically is more important than ever.
At my sickest, while waiting for a bed in the epilepsy monitoring unit to open, I found myself where most of us have been at some point in our lives: googling my own symptoms and hoping for an answer, or at least some form of release. Amidst the WebMD articles and quizzes, I came across a website called 30 Bananas a Day. The absurdity of the site delighted me at first, with its faded header of spotty bananas, a smiling apple parachuting from the sky toward a dancing cucumber, and members with usernames like TheFruitMonster, HunnyDew Sunshine, BeeFree, and Ivegonebananas. I didn’t immediately believe the practitioners of the diet, who preached that followers should eat a diet of mostly raw, whole fruit and should have no sick days, no cheat days, no garlic, salt of any origin, liquid aminos, maca, chili pepper, starchy foods, fruit juices or chlorella. But the premise was intriguing enough to keep me coming back to the site.
Over a period of weeks, I grew intrigued by a tab on the site titled “Testify!” where followers shared how the community had helped them heal. As I scrolled, I saw my deepest desires laid bare. There was a post from someone who had been a professional athlete forced out of sport by a range of health issues. When doctors couldn’t find an effective path toward wellness, she tried the diet––and it worked! Others said the same. They had clear skin and soaring energy. Most of all, they were happy. After hearing my symptoms repeated back to me with clinical distance for years, seeing my wants echoed in these internet posts helped me develop a kind of trust in the community, even if I wasn’t eating a diet of fruit.
“When so much seems unknowable about the very body you live in, it feels nice to stand on a firm platform made from rights rather than wrongs, even if that very platform itself is a false reality.”
Now, with the benefit of years of hindsight and the worst of my symptoms in the rearview mirror, I see that such a restrictive diet was never really the answer, at least not for me. But when you are in the throes of illness, there is something comforting about distilling the world into dichotomies: sick or well, bad or good, off-limits or completely nutritious. When so much seems unknowable about the very body you live in, it feels nice to stand on a firm platform made from rights rather than wrongs, even if that very platform itself is a false reality. This desire for clarity mirrors the kind of rhetoric that has become pervasive on social media where content creators––sometimes without training, education, or licensing––can make a claim about a cure, solution, life hack, tincture, oil, or diet that they say will change your life, heal you, help you lose weight, or rid you of any impurity. For people who have been dismissed or disbelieved by medical professionals, have lost trust in pharmaceutical companies due to their privileging of profits over patient wellbeing, or are unable to access care due to exorbitant costs, these kinds of claims that offer a level of certitude start to feel like hope.
When confronted with a post, bit of information, or idea that sounds alluring, it can be valuable to ask questions like: Is this a message I believe in because of an emotional desire or a scientific truth? Who is sharing this message, and for what purpose or profit? Am I reaching for an easy solution in the hopes of avoiding a deeper reckoning? What is the bigger narrative behind this post, and do I believe in it?
4. Chasing purity can be a dangerous pursuit.
While I never became a full-blown fruitarian, I visited the 30 Bananas a Day website enough that I started to believe in the leaders’ messaging around purity: if I stopped eating foods that they said were toxic, I would not only heal myself from my condition, but I’d be a better person. This narrative dovetailed dangerously with the ways I had internalized my neurologic symptoms as somehow being my fault. Food became a way that I could exercise control over my body, which increasingly felt uncontainable.
During the period of time when I was restricting certain foods from my diet, I began to believe that I was a better version of myself, as if my capacity to deny my own wants was somehow a marker of success. This moralistic conflation of abstaining from certain foods with being a “good,” “pure,” or “healthy” person was not unique to me individually or to the 30 Bananas a Day website. Instead, we find this same messaging in the early 1900s in England, where the word “fruitarianism” first appeared in a newsletter published by a Christian vegetarian organization called the Order of the Golden Age. Contributors to the Order’s newsletter wished to relieve the general population from “joints and tissue…choked by waste and uric acid” as well as “the demon Gout and his malign kindred” and stressed that meat was “the cause of a large proportion of the Pain, Disease, Suffering, and Depravity with which our race is cursed.” The founder, Sidney Beard, wrote that “real followers” of Christ should feel obligated to “relieve human suffering” and that it was each person’s responsibility to purify themselves through food to prevent disease and cure it.
“During the period of time when I was restricting certain foods from my diet, I began to believe that I was a better version of myself, as if my capacity to deny my own wants was somehow a marker of success.”
The conflation of morality, appetite, and religion has influenced humans for much of history (just think of the shame and blame associated with Eve succumbing to temptation through food, as early as Genesis, all the way to terms like “clean” or “guilt-free” added to contemporary packaging). This messaging is problematic not only for how it encourages judging individuals based on their consumption but also for how it sets up a false promise of power. The lie that purifying your eating can lead to total and complete healing is so alluring––when everything else is uncontrollable, food choices can grant the illusion of power–– but it can also lead to self-blame and shame. The pursuit of purity can also become extraordinarily unhealthy because there’s never an end to it.
5. Relinquishing a desire for perfection can lead to a more nuanced—and beautiful—way of life.
In my identities as an athlete and as someone with neurological symptoms, I used to long for a life with certainties. I wanted assurances that I would be healthy, faster than ever before, capable of running any distance I dreamt of. I longed for control. I used to believe I was stronger if I could withhold food, hit quicker splits, or dismiss the gravity of my own symptoms. I used to believe that all I needed was a cure, something that would take away whatever darkness had settled over my life.
For years, I let myself believe these lies. Though they sometimes brought temporary relief from the grief and shame I felt, they were false forms of power. What I began to realize is that true healing is different than a cure; the first requires deep, true, and difficult work, whereas the second is often a quick fix that leaves the underlying issue unresolved. In order to truly heal, I had to give up the all-or-nothing binaries that had held me in their grip. I sought help from a variety of professionals who encouraged me to unpack the narratives I held about myself and my health. I began to find beauty in my body again and believe myself worthy of love and care.
To listen to the audio version read by author Jacqueline Alnes, download the Next Big Idea App today: