Self-Love and Parasites
by Kristen Gehrman
photography by Rachael Larkin
“Kristen I’m telling you, there are aliens living in my body. Little alien babies, I’m serious. They are living in my gut and I can’t get them out.”
And she was serious, literal even. The weight in her voice, the furrows in her pale face, the nervous way her arms clung to her abdomen, it was clear that she wasn’t speaking in metaphor. She believed in the little aliens. This wasn’t my college friend Katie—my bicycle singing, beach yoga, farmers market Katie—this was someone else, someone much darker.
The last time I had seen her we were wearing white dresses and toasting our college graduation like the good Southern belles we weren’t. A little clique of over-achievers, we were all preparing for our next steps: AmeriCorps, grad school fellowships, research grants, start-up ideas, but Katie was the most enviable of all. At 22 years old, she had a job offer at a top finance firm in Washington, D.C. with a starting salary that was more than what I will probably make in the next ten years. To me, she was this Louisiana pixie, a bubbly-ballerina-turned-enlightened-yogi with a perfect GPA in a double major. I had no idea how she did it, and what’s more—she made it all look so damn easy. Now I know that it wasn’t.
After graduation, Katie spent a month backpacking in Peru before moving to DC, “to clear my head,” she said. Somewhere on the way up Machu Picchu, it sunk in that she could not continue on the path that she was on, that the fruits of her obsessive perfectionism would rot away if she let them ripen any longer, and the rest of her soul with them.
“It became so clear to me that all I had achieved up until that moment was only one kind of success,” she said. “A kind of success that can only be achieved through years of self-sabotage, of telling yourself that anything less than the highest possible score was failure. And I couldn’t stop at one level of perfection, it was like an addiction, I had to be perfect on every possible level.”
After the trip, she went home to Louisiana and called her new employer in DC to tell them that she wasn’t going to take the job. “I decided to leave the only structure that I knew, the one where I had complete control--but of course that was a lie that I told myself—it was the need for control that controlled me.”
When she said that to me on that hot summer day, sitting on my couch sweating and rubbing her belly full of aliens, all of the contrasts in her personality that I had never understood came into focus. She was a perfect student because anything less would bring dark depression and days locked in her room. She was upbeat all of the time because even the slightest frown might betray her depths of sadness. Underneath her yoga chants and animal rights activism was a girl obsessed with fitness, deeply afraid of gaining an ounce. For the first time, I saw her perfectly sculpted glass exterior, cracked and leaking out its dark, murky contents.
The daily summer storm rolled in off the Atlantic and a downpour started outside the window. She began to tell me everything that happened in the past two years, starting and ending with the parasites.
Parasites, as in little worms thought to be contracted through contaminated food and water, are terrifying and magnificent things. They enter into your body, they slither around where they want, they multiply. They hide in places that doctors cannot find and they are too highly evolved for the modern medicines that are supposed to kill them. They block the digestive system and obstruct the elimination of waste. But on the other hand, parasites are also necessary to the ecosystem, an ecosystem in which we too are a part. Katie’s parasites were so potent that they became spiritual. Like the immaculately conceived Christ living in her belly, an alien being that she could not get out, they were a Divine blessing disguised as a punishment. They forced her to ask herself the question, “Why is my being such a good host physically and energetically for such terrible creatures?” Today she sees the worms as the most painful and necessary way to free her soul.
Katie is not sure when or how she got the worms, but it was probably when she went back to Peru the second time. Back from her backpacking trip and unsure of her next step, she decided to try to return to where she had had her first moment of clarity to work as a volunteer. A friend of her mother’s heard about a Catholic organization that managed an orphanage in Lima. She contacted them and learned that they were eagerly seeking a program director. Despite her age and lack of experience, they hired her out of desperation.
“I did a one week training in Wisconsin and then flew back to Peru. All of a sudden, I was the director of an orphanage, severely under-qualified and ill equipped for the crises that awaited me there,” she said. “These were not sweet little orphans from Oliver Twist, these were kids with serious issues coming from extreme poverty and life on the streets.”
For someone used to achieving optimum results, the job was a rude awakening, spiritually and emotionally. Accessible only by a dangerous web of chaotic Lima highways, the orphanage was a lonely place clouded by strict Catholic rules and limited resources. Faced with issues that would normally call for a professional social worker, like a little girl who eats toilet paper in distress and teenage boys running away to join violent street gangs, Katie was suddenly stripped of the possibility for perfection. Under the watchful eyes of children and clergy, she had nowhere to hide in her despair.
“The way that I had to present myself to everyone else was really different from the way that I felt inside. I was expected to be in charge, to have everything under control. There were nuns older than my mother who came to me for answers,” she said. “Plus, I had go to mass a couple of times a week. I had to be the secret yogi underneath my old Catholic façade. I knew the prayers and all of the motions, but it was so painfully clear that the way I was expected to help the kids wasn’t the way that they needed to be helped.”
And that’s when the parasite symptoms started to manifest. She began to experience less frequent bowel movements and severe stomach cramping, but she thought it was just the food. She had started eating animal products again due to a lack of options at the orphanage and after years of veganism she was sure that they were the source of all of her ailments.
“I was very unconnected to my body and didn’t know how to vocalize the pain that I was feeling. I thought if I didn’t acknowledge it, I could go on as if everything were under control. At the time, I didn’t have enough awareness to realize that my internal environment was manifesting externally; I was falling apart.”
It took her nine months to realize that she needed to leave the orphanage. For months she hid her mounting abdominal pain and depression from the children and co-workers, but finally it became too much. She resigned her position and moved to downtown Lima where there were better health facilities. Three months later she finally flew home to Louisiana to seek treatment. The choice felt like defeat, as if she were leaving important work unfinished in Peru.
Back in the States, she went to the university hospital and had a colonoscopy and several other tests, but the doctors were unable to diagnose her condition. After some home research she became convinced that she had contracted a jungle parasite, but the doctors were not.
“The truth is that western doctors know almost nothing about parasites, so they very rarely diagnose them. There are researchers, however, who believe that parasites are linked to a number of other conditions, autism being one of them.”
For the two months she was home in Louisiana her health went up and down. Some days she would power through three yoga classes in a row, some days she couldn’t get out of bed. All the while, she was unable to rid herself of the feeling that she needed to go back to Peru, to the jungle where she still believed she could be free.
“Through a mutual friend, I met the director of Amaru Spirit, a plant medicine center in Iquitos, a town in the heart of the jungle.” When she said “plant medicine” my eyes rolled. I thought I knew what “plant medicine” meant: it was that ayuhuasca juice, a hallucinogenic plant that people drink in the desert that takes them to nether galaxies via the fast lane to enlightenment. My ex-boyfriend was always talking about ayuhuasca and so-called nirvana experiences. The whole subject left a sour taste in my mouth. But what Katie got herself into was something different, something as sinister as it was spiritual.
“The jungle plants are not for day-tourists, they demand respect—they are portals into realms that our minds can’t access,” she told me. “They are dangerous, but have very sacred healing properties.”
The night before she left for Peru the third time, she felt a huge pain in her belly. “I was scared, because I still knew that I was still sick but I didn’t know what I had. The next morning, I went to the toilet and eliminated a 10 inch parasite.”
As if she expected me to not believe her, she pulled out her phone and showed me a picture. There it was, a long tadpole-like creature floating in a bowl of feces. “I didn’t understand at that moment the magnitude of the issue. I was elated and thought that I was clean after eliminating just one big worm.”
Outside my window, the rain had stopped. The street was steaming in the August heat and the storm had left little rivers in the ditches. She asked if we could go for a bike ride. We biked around the park in silence, listening to the screeching frogs and cicadas, as loud as the jungle. All of a sudden, Katie snapped back into her old self and started to sing—
“And don’t tell me what to do,
and don’t tell me what to say,
and puh-lease when you go out with me,
don’t put me on display!”
It was an old Leslie Gore song I had never heard until that day, but by the second verse, I was singing with her. We circled the park five times singing that song over and over again like a chant.
“I’m young, and I’m glad to be young
and I’m free, and I’m glad to be free,
to say and do whatever I please…”
“So what happened in the jungle?” I asked. Katie stopped singing. The silence was louder than the insects in the trees. “I think I’m going to write the rest of the story down and send it to you,” she said.
The next day, there was a letter in my inbox. The story was a 48-page pdf that one day Katie will publish for herself, but at the time she asked me never to show it to anyone. It is a powerful story, one that I cannot tell for her. It starts with a seven-day tobacco diet at Amaru Spirit, follows months of training in the healing properties of tropical plants, and details a dark sexual encounter with an indigenous shaman that she had come to trust, a solo escape on a river boat, yoga teacher training in Brazil, and many more bowel movements contaminated with worms. The story is wild, but her wisdom remains simple and profound.
She gave me permission to include these excerpts from her tale and promised that when she is ready, she will release the entire thing.
. . .
My name is Katie. I am 24.
And I’ve spent my entire life hating myself.
I know hate is a strong word. But it’s true. I have hated myself my entire life.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t love there too.
It just means that the hate was strong...very, very strong.
I think that self-loathing is extremely common.
It’s rampant...ladies and gentlemen...IT ́S AN EPIDEMIC.
It’s sad you know...any time I’ve ever been mean to someone else or ever said anything rude, it’s because of sadness inside of me. It’s not because of them.
And that makes me sadder. When the “dark side” wins. When the hate overcomes the love. When I’m mean to anyone. No one deserves meanness.
Please God help me make the love stronger.
I want the love to be stronger.
Because just as strong as that hate is, the light is so much brighter.
God led me to Perú for a reason. He gave me a chance. He gave me a chance at being reborn, a chance at eradicating the hate from myself that has caused so much pain and suffering my whole life for me and for those loved ones around me. Self-inflicted suffering is the worst. Because it hurts you a lot. And because it hurts the people around you even more than it hurts yourself.
We have to be brave. Life MAKES you be brave. You don’t have a choice.
Just to get up out of bed every morning and start your day requires so much bravery… We trade aliveness for safety. Or let me rephrase that. I have spent the first 24 years of my life trading aliveness for safety. And now I get it...I GET IT GOD. I GET IT.
. . .
It took Katie nearly two years to get rid of the aliens living in her body and she is still in the healing process. She is convinced that they stayed with her until she was ready to let them go, that as long as they kept burrowing in her body, she still had more to learn about loving herself. "I am healing lifetimes of issues that I think come from generations of women in my family. I pray that what I've been through will stop the epidemic of self-hate in my family line. I will not pass this on to my daughters. It ends with me."
She's now living in Lousiana again where she has been working as an elementary Spanish teacher and yoga instructor. She is preparing to return to the jungle in the fall, this time to walk others through the healing steps of plant medicine.
“I spent a lot of time wondering why God chose me,” she said to me in a recent phone conversation. “But I think it’s because he wants me to teach people something: That there are no shortcuts when it comes to healing something as big as yourself. Healing one part of your body that hurts, like your belly or your intestines, is only one small part. We cannot ignore how sacred our whole being is and how much self-love it takes to carry on.”
Kristen Gehrman is from Charleston, South Carolina and currently lives in Lausanne, Switzerland where she is getting her Masters in French Linguistics. She likes to read the newspaper, talk to children and write essays. She generally finds her friends much wiser and more interesting than herself.
Rachael Larkin is a free spirit chasing her dreams and trying to capture it along the way. Although she lives in Seattle, she is restless in one place. Rachael loves to travel and is constantly seeking out love and togetherness. She is a purist, obsessed with all living things in their natural state. The universe blessed Rachael with a daughter, Uchu. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram.