by Barry Vissell
It was Saturday, June 20, 2009, and we had one more week till our daughter Rami’s wedding to her fiancé River. I had no idea that this day would shake my whole world. We worked to get our house and property ready for the anticipated 170 people. Our new refrigerator arrived and I emptied out all the food from the old one. I found a frozen piece of chocolate cake baked by our son months before and couldn’t resist tasting it. It was still delicious.
After the new refrigerator was filled and shelves adjusted, I made myself a cup of green tea, went into the office, and started working on the computer. I had only had a few sips of the tea, when I started feeling light-headed with a very strange “buzzing” in my head. At first I thought I was hypoglycemic, or maybe the green tea somehow had an unusually large amount of caffeine. But the sensation felt very different than anything I had ever experienced. It was not at all unpleasant, just unusual. And it was getting stronger by the minute. The “buzzing” was now spreading throughout my whole body.
I got down on my hands and knees, touching my forehead to the floor, hoping to bring more blood to my brain. Not helpful. It kept getting stronger. I thought, “Maybe I’m down on my hands and knees to pray for help, or to be closer to the earth.” I did indeed pray for help.
Sitting on my chair again, ever the medical doctor, I wondered if I were having a stroke. Not your typical stroke that involves pain or paralysis, but an atypical one that was only affecting my sensations and not my muscles. I even thought about Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of her own stroke in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.
There was only one thing in the whole world I wanted to do – and that was to find Joyce. I got up off the floor, not at all sure I could stand, let alone walk. I found I needed to will myself to put one foot in front of the other, but my balance seemed OK. I made it to the kitchen, found Joyce, and let her know I needed her help. It has often been difficult for me to ask Joyce for help, to lean on her strength and love, but in this moment it was a “no-brainer.”
She took one look into my eyes and immediately knew something was very wrong. Although my pupils seemed normal, my eye movements were sluggish and my skin was cold and clammy. She helped me lay down on the couch, sitting close to me, and together we tried to piece together what was going on. My thinking faculties seemed fine, even hyper alert. Caffeine overdose was out of the question. Stroke was very unlikely, given the progressive quality of the symptoms. Now my skin was becoming hypersensitive. The blanket Joyce had placed upon me felt like it was filled with lead. Even her hands upon me felt oppressively heavy, a clear warning sign. Normally, there’s nothing I like more than Joyce’s touch.
I kept returning in my mind to the chocolate cake. Poisoning seemed to be what was happening. But really … chocolate cake? In the freezer? Then I wondered if John-Nuri had added something “special” to the recipe … something that could be mind-altering. Our 20 year old son was at a party with his friends and Joyce called his cell phone and left an urgent message.
Even though it had been more than 35 years since our “experimenting” with psychedelics, I knew what I was experiencing was no “bad trip.” There was no mind altering, no euphoria, no hallucinations … just this intense physical sensation that was vibrating or buzzing without pain. And it kept getting stronger!
Joyce was on the phone, trying to reach a doctor friend. On the couch, I had the oddest sensation of starting to go to sleep without being even remotely sleepy. It felt like my body was shutting down internally and I, my real self, my conscious self, was somehow detaching from my body. I was starting to feel profoundly peaceful, more peaceful than I have ever felt. Letting go in that moment would have been blissfully easy, but another part of me understood that this could very well be my body’s way of dying. I felt that, as intense as the poison was, I had a choice of whether to stay or leave. I even thought about Rami and River’s wedding in exactly one week. I needed to be there. Rami needed me to be there to bless her union with River. And I had so much more to give and experience in my own life.
I called out to Joyce. She came right over and sat close to me. I asked her to keep me engaged, to help me stay awake … to anchor me to my body. We talked about going to the emergency room, but it never seemed quite right. I really wanted to stay at home, surrounded by love and quiet. Some moments I wondered if I was dying, so intense was the experience. Other moments I felt I had the conscious decision to live or die.
My body started to shake and Joyce found more blankets to put on me. I couldn’t tell if I was cold or hot. I just wasn’t that connected to my body.
Joyce asked me to stand up. She may as well have asked me to climb Mt. Everest. It wasn’t that I felt weak, or even sick. The difficulty was simply being in my body.
Somehow I made it to my feet. Then she took my arm and asked me to walk with her. With great effort, I placed one foot in front of the other. She guided me outside onto our deck, to a chair in the warm sun. Joyce knows how much I love the sun, but it didn’t feel good and, after just a few minutes, she helped me return to the couch.
John-Nuri arrived home and breathlessly entered the room. He assured us there was nothing unusual in the cake, and I knew he was speaking the truth. I looked up into his loving brown eyes and asked him if he felt I was dying. In that moment, he felt more like a compassionate father than a son. I felt a great need for his love, and complete trust in his intuition and healing ability. He looked deeply into my eyes before assuring me I was not dying.
I felt bathed in the love of my wife and my son. I received an inner assurance that I would live. I just needed to now ride out the rest of the process. I needed to let my body do its miraculous job of detoxifying and eliminating whatever I had ingested.
It was then that I finally remembered something else I had tasted during my busyness in the kitchen. It was my home grown Kombucha. Widely revered for its immune strengthening properties, it looks like a mushroom but is really a symbiotic relationship between bacteria and yeast that is grown in a solution of sugar and black tea. The “mushroom” had been growing for several months, and I remembered sampling the solution about an hour before my symptoms started. It tasted normal. Luckily I only poured myself about two ounces of the drink. Had I poured myself a full glass, you would probably not be reading this article right now.
My medical friend later told me, after much research and several calls to Poison Control, that my Kombucha culture somehow became contaminated. Some stray organism invaded the mixture, reproduced itself, and secreted a neurotoxin that poisoned me. There have been other cases of poisoning with home grown Kombucha, including one reported death.
Hours later, upon returning from a trip, our daughters, Mira and Rami, and our soon-to-be son, River, arrived and added their love to the mix. It was unbelievably sweet to be surrounded by so much good energy.
I feel so different as a result of this near death experience. I have never felt so grateful to be alive. Today marks 10 days after the poisoning. I received IV treatment to support and flush out my overburdened liver. Within 24 hours I was 90 percent clear of symptoms, and after 3 days back to normal except for an occasional episode of nausea and lightheadedness. The wedding was a blessed event with love filling every moment.
I notice I take more time to give and receive love with friends and family. Being so close to death really forces me to appreciate life, to slow down and notice all the beauty around me, to be a better human being.
I am so aware of the fragility of our bodies. Two ounces of a drink placed me on the brink of a precipice. A few seconds are all that are needed to destroy a human body in a car accident. How much have I taken life for granted. I realize that every minute of life is precious. Every day holds the opportunity for more growth and love.
After officiating at the wedding ceremony, Joyce and I became separated while we were greeting friends and family. Joyce noticed the time. It was exactly one week since she sat on the couch helping me to stay in my body. Overcome with gratitude that I was alive, she ran to find me, and invited me to be alone with her for a moment. With the noise of celebrating in the background, Joyce and I held tightly to each other and gave thanks for more time to be together on earth, and to keep giving our gifts of love to the world.
Here are a few opportunities to bring more love and growth into your life, at the following longer events led by Barry and Joyce Vissell: Jul 19-24, 2009-Breitenbush Hot Springs Summer Renewal in Oregon; Nov-Apr-Personal Mentorship/Coaching Program; Jan 31-Feb 7, 2010-Hawaii “Couples in Paradise” Retreat.
Joyce and Barry Vissell, a nurse and medical doctor couple since 1964 whose medicine is now love, are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom and Meant To Be.
Call TOLL-FREE 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at www.sharedheart.org/ for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.