Editor and screenwriter Zachary Sklar has dealt with CFS for more than 20 years. He vividly remembers his encounter with a physician that helped him take more control of his own recovery.
By Zachary Sklar
In November 1986 I went to see Dr. Shyam Singha in a cramped hotel room in mid-Manhattan. Tall and thin, he was a Sikh from India—a naturopath, osteopath, acupuncturist, and nutritionist. He had a restless energy, flowing black hair, and an ageless face. He could have been 40. Or 70. I had no idea.
He examined my tongue, felt my pulse and asked me what made me laugh. Then he handed me a piece of paper with a scribbled regimen. “Twelve to sixteen broiled oranges per day for seven days. As much hot water as you want. Nothing else.
I looked at him. He must be insane, I thought. For nine months I’d gone from doctor to doctor at the best hospitals in New York. I’d taken countless tests and pills. Nothing had helped. If anything, I was worse than I’d been the night I got sick. More exhausted, more fevers and night sweats, digestion hopelessly messed up, head in a 24-hour-a-day fog, skin turning a sickening yellow.
“I can’t walk to the corner store,” I protested. “How am I going to survive without protein?”
“Do it!” he ordered in his Indian accent. He turned and left to see another patient.
I was scared. For 15 years I’d been a journalist and editor. Strong and healthy, I’d never been seriously sick, never missed a day of work. Now I couldn’t read for more than a few minutes before my head throbbed with pain. I couldn’t concentrate to write. My savings were depleted. How was I going to pay the rent?
I was 38 back then, a rational man who believed in science and western medicine. I distrusted anything that smacked of unquantifiable eastern mysticism. But now I had to admit: everything I’d believed in wasn’t working.
Dr. Singha was asking me to change my diet and my habits—in short, the way of life that had gotten me into this mess. He dismissed the hope that the next doctor or the next pill might magically save me. Instead, with those two words—“Do it!”—he challenged me to take control of my own health.
I decided to do it. The broiled oranges, I realize now, were a fruit fast to cleanse my over-taxed liver and digestive tract. Within two days, I started to feel better. The fog in my head lifted for a few hours and I felt more energetic. For the first time in nine months, I had hope.
After the week of oranges, Dr. Singha’s regimen continued with only raw food for a month. Then one cooked meal a day and the rest raw for five months. No meat, no alcohol, no caffeine, no sugar. Fifteen minutes of laughter per day.
People sometimes ask how I could follow such a strict diet. I answer: when a diet helps you feel better, you have a marvelous incentive to continue it.
That first visit with Dr. Singha was the beginning of my long journey back to good health. Over eight years I learned some of his simple wisdom. Food is medicine, he used to say. But when you eat the wrong food, it can be poison. He modified my diet many times and added in supplements—things like digestive enzymes, fish oil, psyllium husks, spirulina. He treated me with acupuncture and gave me breathing exercises. Occasionally he offered prescriptions that I thought were whacky: “hug a tree till you can hear it talk,” “walk in cold water for 10 minutes before bed,” “conduct an orchestra for 15 minutes a day in front of a mirror.” As it turned out, each of these helped.
But the most important thing Dr. Singha did was to empower me by giving me a vision and some tools to change my life. Over the last 21 years I have tried many things to speed my healing—homeopathic injections, colonics, low doses of doxycycline, thyroid supplements, anti-yeast diets and more. I’ve eliminated much of the stress in my life. I’ve learned what’s really important to me and focused my limited energy on that. I’ve moved to a rural town with lots of trees, clean air and silence. I’ve insisted on getting a good night’s sleep and a good nap every day. I’ve exercised as my body allows—swimming, qigong and, more recently, running. And I’ve been fortunate to have unwavering support and love from my life partner, Sarah Plant. Gradually, very gradually, I’ve improved. I feel far better today at the age of 59 than I did at 38.
I’ll probably never know the exact cause of my illness. From the tests, it’s clear that my immune system was unable to fight off whatever attacked it.
Why was my immune system compromised? I have my own theories. I led an extremely stressful life in New York City. For six years I missed two nights of sleep every week proofreading at Time and Life magazines. I spent my vacation time picking coffee on a peace brigade in Nicaragua and ended up with intestinal parasites.
But there’s something else. I grew up in Los Angeles during the 1950s when nuclear testing in the atmosphere was permitted. On Halloween Day of 1958, wind carried a huge cloud of radiation from the Nevada test site toward southern California. The radiation hung over the Los Angeles basin for three days in an inversion layer. Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Linus Pauling predicted that 25,000 cancer deaths would result from that one exposure over the next 30 years. I was ten years old then, and I got sick 28 years later. I don’t know if that radiation contributed to my illness. But it sure didn’t help.
I know some people suffering with CFS who cling to the hope that one day researchers will discover a viral cause for the illness and a miraculous cure—the polio model. But after I met Dr. Singha, I stopped thinking that way. Instead, I started working to heal myself.
What Dr. Singha gave me wasn’t a cure. But for me, it was a more important gift. I’m very grateful to him. With two words I’ll never forget, he helped me move on to my new life. “Do it!”
Zachary Sklar is a journalist, editor and screenwriter. He is best-known as co-screenwriter (with Oliver Stone) of the Oscar-nominated film JFK. A former Executive Editor of The Nation magazine, he has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and served as a Creative Adviser at the Sundance Screenwriters’ Lab and many other workshops around the world.
Editorís note: This essay originally appeared in the CFIDS Associationís special publication Defining Moments: 20 Years of Making CFS History. First-person historical perspectives, a personal essay by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand, a CFS timeline and countless photographs fill this 61-page publication. Click here to get your own copy now.
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