On Learning From Experience

Sarah Sullivan
6 min readFeb 16, 2020


This is a post about how I recruited a team of health practitioners to work with who not only were excellent professionals, but also had personal experience overcoming illness. It is painfully obvious to me that not all people who share this preference will have the access to care that I did. A way I can help on the individual level is to recommend or send you books which have been authored by doctors of this kind — since books are much cheaper than appointments. And to make myself available to share anything I’ve learned along the way.

Sahalie Falls.

Among the most important approaches I took to restore my health was working with people who had been sick themselves and gotten better.

I got to this tactic the hard way: For years, I worked with many doctors, including one I love and trust, only to find myself much sicker than when I began.

When I finally broke through my breaking point and discovered a new way to relate to the experience of illness, I could at last hear my intuition banging on my door. It’s message was clear: Work with people who have been here before.

Out of alternatives, I listened to my intuition. I recruited a wide team of practitioners — many doctors, a nutritionist, a massage therapist, a core synchronism practitioner, a meditation teacher, and more — who, in addition to being excellent practitioners professionally, had also overcome serious illness themselves. Even the sweet owners of the float tank I love got started on their path because of their child’s illness. It was a long time before I learned there is a term for this — the “wounded healer.”

These people became my team, and they were and are my most trusted counsel.

Obviously, I don’t think that personal experience should be a requirement to be a medical professional — it was just what I eventually grew to want for myself. And it goes without saying that my ability to hire the medical professionals that I wanted to is a reflection of my many layers of tremendous privilege.

To the extent the decision to recruit a team of this kind was an intellectual decision, it was this:

Illness is one of those wild experiences where you really don’t know how you will handle it until you’ve had to face it. You‘re asked to make tough decisions. And it’s almost impossible to predict the choices you will make until you’re looking them straight in the eye.

I was no longer looking for paternalistic doctors to tell me what they would recommend for their patients. I had been down that path. I was looking for real partners to share what they had done for themselves.

This was motivated, in part, by the very many doctors who have been chronically sick and recovered that I have heard say something along the lines of: “If this was any of my patients, I would have told them X. But this time, it wasn’t a patient. It was me. And I did something else.”

That was the wisdom I longed to have.

Eventually I realized that I was the one who had to do the work. So I stopped looking for a doctor; I started looking for a teacher. I no longer wanted a healer; I wanted a guide.

Along the path to Tamolitch Falls.

My experience with chronic illness has felt like being lost in the woods. When I was deepest in that forest, I wanted to talk to people who had been there before, who had mapped the terrain. Who could coach me on where to place my feet when the ground got rocky. Sometimes I felt like I could hear them. That I could hear my team speaking to me from the other side of the woods. As my individual voice would call out with a question, I could hear their collective voices — singing as a chorus — guiding me back home to myself.

I have found practitioners who have been sick and gotten well to be some of the most practical, open-minded, humble people I have ever met. They are far more interested in practice than theory. They have tried-and-true tactics that get people well. They also know that the trusted tactics that work for many patients may not work for you — because no one else has ever lived your story. They know that a tactic they’ve never heard of, could hold your answer. They are not afraid of your body. They are not afraid of your intuition. They are not afraid of you. They are fundamentally curious. They are good listeners — because they know that you have the answers to your own body, not them, and that any detail can be a clue to solving the profound mystery of your illness. They know that dogma gets absolutely no seat at the table, because the only thing that could possibly matter is that you get well. It matters not at all how you get there. They know that healing is possible. Because they have seen it in their patients. And because they have lived it themselves. To deny that healing is possible for you, is to deny their own lived experience.

During the final few days of the last decade, as I was driving, my thoughts drifted to my health team. About how I worked with beautiful people who had helped me get out. About my preference to work with people who knew with great intimacy the landscape I was walking.

Mid-thought, my consciousness awoke suddenly to this knowing:

I am now one of those people.

[Instant tears.]

I am someone who was sick and got well.

I am someone who has walked the landscape of chronic illness, who has mapped the terrain of the forest. I can explain in vibrant detail what it feels like, what it meant for me, how I am almost out.

I am the kind of person whose counsel I sought out.

At Breitenbush.

Like my teachers, I can now explain with great depth my experience with illness, and not feel threatened when you have a different one. I can tell you with certainty what helped me recover, and not assume that my path is yours. I am no longer afraid of being wrong. I’m far less interested in being right. All I want for my society most days is for more people to feel well in their own bodies, for more to know that profound healing is possible.

What does it feel like to realize you are now the person you needed in your darkest hour?

To know that all of the struggle might have earned you a kind of wisdom that may be useful to others?

To realize you are becoming your teachers?

A miracle.

It feels like a miracle.

I am closer than ever to exiting the forest. I have no idea what it will feel like to take that last, final step out of the woods. If it will be dramatic. If I will even notice as it happens.

But I do know what it will sound like. When my singular voice inside the forest merges with the chorus of my teachers on the outside, and all of their teachers, it will be the strongest, sweetest song I’ve ever heard.



Sarah Sullivan

Mostly interested in healing of all kinds. Formerly: NDP, @USDigitalService, and Obama White House.