Excerpt from “Yearning for Magic: Explorations of a Mother, Healer, and Lover”
In Burch’s second memoir, Yearning for Magic continues Melissa’s adventures as she explores new horizons as a mother, lover and healer. She learned that while traveling with the Mujahadeen was hard, it took just as much courage to face down her fears on home soil, grapple with infertility and embark on her new calling as a homeopathic healer.
Melissa Burch has lived an unconventional life: war correspondent, feminist filmmaker, homeopath & spiritual healer. She challenges the confines of traditional thinking, a pioneer that inspires others to take risks and to be an adventurer, and shares her deepest insights via The Heroine’s Journey memoir trilogy.
Note: Names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Studying Homeopathy in New York City during the 1990’s
Leaving behind the smells of curry, mango lassis, and fried samosas emitting from the first floor of an Indian restaurant near Union Square, I entered the upstairs private banquet room where Harold Thompson taught his homeopathy classes. The owner of the restaurant, a man from Delhi, was Harold’s patient, and gave him the space for a discount. Homeopathy was an acceptable medical practice in India, which I learned many years later.
The class had six people, two men and four women, mostly in their 30s and 40s. I arrived last and sat at the large, table-clothed, dining table, next to Marie, tall and thin dressed in New York black. This was supposed to be a beginner’s class, but the questions seemed much more advanced than my knowledge.
“Is Lachesis a right-sided remedy?” Carol, a blond dressed in a chartreuse matching sweater outfit, asked. She seemed to be from the Upper West Side.
“Did Hahnemann really believe that he was exempt from the psoric miasm?” challenged Peter, who was sporting overalls that gave him the look of a plumber.
OK, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann discovered homeopathy and he came from Germany, but psoric miasm … Please, what were they talking about?
Marie said with a slight British accent or maybe South African, “This is the book you must own, Homoeopathic Materia Medica, by William Boericke, M.D.” as she showed her well-worn copy. If this had been a cocktail party full of strangers, I would have approached her first. She pointed to the page with “Lachesis mutus, Bushmaster or Surucucu” written at the top. I read:
Like all snake poisons, Lachesis decomposes the blood, rendering it more fluid; hence a hæmorrhagic tendency is marked. Purpura, septic states, diphtheria, and other low forms of disease, when the system is thoroughly poisoned and the prostration is profound. The modalities are most important in guiding to the remedy. Delirium tremens with much trembling and confusion. Very important during the climacteric and for patients of a melancholic disposition. Ill effects of suppressed discharges. Diphtheritic paralysis (Botulinum). Diphtheria carriers. Sensation of tension in various parts. Cannot bear anything tight anywhere.
“I like to read this book in the bathroom,” she said.
Who were these people?
To me, that passage on Lachesis sounded like it came from another century, when they used treatments such as leeches, mercury, and bloodletting.
Harold, in his fifties, scruffy looking, taught in a free-form style, where students jumped in with what I thought were random questions.
Harry, in his late thirties from Staten Island, talked like he was a member of the Italian mob. “I gave my wife that Sepia in 200c … She’s been less bitchy. She even wanted to have sex this week,” he said.
I remembered that remedy from Harold’s lecture at the Open Center. Does that mean the remedy worked? I could imagine an independent woman with lots of children, stuck at home, no longer desiring her husband.
Harold finally called the class to order. He was going to teach us how to take a case. “Take out your Kent’s Repertory of the Homoeopathic Materia Medica,” he said.
Marie opened a 4-inch thick black book, printed on thin rice-like paper with thumb print indentations labeled: Mind, Genitalia, Extremities, Sleep, Generalities, in no particular order that I understood. She scooted closer to me so we could share the book with its six-point font.
“Who can find: desires salty food?” asked Harold.
Marie found it in an instant. Clearly, I was sitting next to the Ph.D. student.
“What are the remedies listed?” he asked.
She read natrum muriaticum, argentum nitricum, cocculus indicus. I saw cryptic abbreviations like nat mur, arg nit, cocc.
“What can you tell me about these remedies?”
“Some are in bold, others are in italic, and others are in plain text,” Carol competed for his attention. “Bold gets a number 3, italic 2, and plain 1.”
“Correct, and I want you to pass out these repertorization sheets,” he said. “You’ll need the forms for figuring out the remedy to prescribe.”
Carol jumped out of her seat to pass the spreadsheet-like papers around. Harold gave her a smile showing off all of his teeth—his way of flirting with his female students.
“In the left column, write out all the rubrics of your client, be sure to cover mind symptoms, generals, as well as physical symptoms,” he said.
“What is a rubric?” I asked, never shy to look stupid in front of others.
“Hey Teach, me too, what’s a rubric? Is that the same thing as a symptom?” asked Harry.
“It is the exact translation of the patient’s expressions into repertorizable symptoms,” Harold answered. “Symptoms that can be found in the Materia Medica.”
“Oh, boy. So, I write down the problems in the left column,” said Peter.
“Then you look up the rubrics in the repertory and write out the remedies listed and put their names in the narrow columns at the top of the page,” Marie said.
Who was teaching this class?
“Yes, and then as Carol said, if the remedy is a 1, 2, or 3, write it in the square next to the rubric,” said Harold. “Ignore any rubric that has more than 30 remedies listed.”
“Why?” I asked.
“In homeopathy, we are looking for the strange, rare, and peculiar—not common symptoms like headaches, but like stabbing occipital pain, on left side, better from pressure and worse at 3 p.m.,” he explained.
Class was over. I wrote down the names of the books, took several copies of the case-taking sheets, and hung around, not quite ready to leave. I loved challenges. This was quirky, too.
“Where can I buy these books?” I asked Marie.
“You can borrow mine, I have several copies at home,” Marie offered. The other copies must have been waiting for her in the bathroom, where she would study away from her children.
“Thank you,” I said. I had made a friend.
I walked home, excited to try this new exercise on George. He would be my first patient. It sounded like fun, like astrology. Maybe I would gain some insights. Still, practicing medicine after my first class was outlandish. No, this was a parlor game. The joke was on me, thinking this homeopathy thing was more than an experiment in off the wall ideas.
George kissed me at the front door. He was happy to see me. Alex was asleep in our bedroom. Could I really treat Alex if he got sick? Dr. Buten had thought that was normal. Would homeopathy change my ideas of medicine?
“George, what’s bothering you? I’m going to take your case. Find you a homeopathic remedy. Your constitutional,” I said. I learned that a constitutional remedy was like your signature remedy, individual for you, and would treat whatever illness you have.
“I’m tired. You know me, you answer the questions,” he said. George had worked all day and looked after Alex so I could go to my first class on homeopathy.
“OK, sometimes you get stomach aches, you fart, have lots of gas,” I said.
I looked up gas in abdomen and there were over a 100 remedies listed. I looked down, and there were 30 remedies for cases of feeling worse after eating. I wrote the info on the photocopied sheet from class.
“Irritated in the middle of the night,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“You know, you’re a bear if Alex wakes you up in the middle of the night.”
“Oh, I know you have cravings for nuts,” I said, as George unshelled another pistachio nut and dropped the shells into a bowl on the side table next to the couch.
“You’re better for movement.”
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“Well, when you get upset you like to go for a walk,” I said.
“And messy, how do I translate that into a rubric?” “I’m not messy!”
“Look at your desk.”
I wrote out all the symptoms I wanted cured. It was my list after all. I threw in some really strange, rare, and peculiar ones like the out-of-body experience he had in his twenties before he met me. Harold made a big deal about finding those rubrics. I was getting the hang of this repertorizing.
I had a list of 20 remedies across the top of the page. I filled in 1s, 2s, and 3s based on the characteristics of the font. It took hours to record the information on the chart—flipping the tissue thin paper, reading the miniscule abbreviations, holding the book down with my thumb, and making notes. Then, I added up all the columns, and the highest number would be the remedy I would prescribe. Easy.
Fifteen was the highest score. The remedy was Phosphorus. I looked in my homeopathic kit. There was the blue bottle. The label on the bottle said it was for dizziness with headaches, something George didn’t have. What harm could there be? There was nothing in these medicines. They tasted like candy. George would be my guinea pig.
“Sweetie, take this,” I filled the cap with 2 to 3 white pellets the size of BBs.
“Open your mouth,” I said. He obliged. He was a risk taker when it came to new medicines.
I poured the pellets under his tongue. This was the second time I had used a homeopathic remedy in my life. I didn’t know if the remedy my doula gave me during labor had done anything. Everything had gone so quickly at that time. I never asked the doula what remedy she had prescribed.
“It’s sweet,” George said.
“Yes, the pellets are milk sugar. Phosphorus is a mineral found in plants. It’s diluted and succussed,” I said.
“Succussed?” he asked.
“Pounded or shaken—it’s like you’re getting a drop of phosphorus in an ocean all tumbled around,” I told him.
“Oooooh, oooooh,” George moaned loudly.
He had doubled over. “My stomach’s cramping. It’s too painful. What’s in this stuff?” he asked.
“It can’t be the remedy. There’s nothing in them.”
I helped him to our queen-sized bed. He curled up into a fetal position, moaning. His forehead was perspiring. I brought him a glass of water. He was in too much pain to sit up and drink. Alex woke up, and I coaxed him back to sleep.
“Ooooooh,” he cried.
Within seconds of taking the remedy, my husband was having the worst reaction I had ever seen. I heard that coffee was an antidote for remedies, reversing their effects. I made him a cup of coffee and forced him to sip it. The pain slowly tapered off after an hour. He slept deeply through the night.
This was a new paradigm, this homeopathy world. I saw a remedy act on a real person. I was blown away. This was not possible. If I had not seen it myself, I would have explained it away. I would think it was Marguerite’s meatloaf. Yet he had never been sick from her dinners before. He had stomach cramps in the past, but these came out of nowhere and were much more intense than any pain he had before. Clearly, the remedy had done this to him. I remembered Harold talking about aggravations as a good thing. Was this an aggravation? Did the coffee do anything to help?
George fell asleep before I could ask him what he thought.
The next morning, George woke up with lots of energy. He said he had had a fabulous dream of rowing on the Mediterranean Sea like when he was a boy spending summers with his grandparents on Tinos. His eyes looked brighter.
“I feel great,” he announced. “You’re going to become a homeopath.”
My sweet George. He always knew how passionate I could become about a project or making a close friend—long before I was aware of what was happening.
At the next homeopathy class, I explained what had happened.
“What! You gave him coffee?” Harold said. “You weren’t supposed to do that.”
“But he was in pain.”
“It would have passed. It was an aggravation. What splendid results! You found your husband’s constitutional remedy,” he said.
“Constitutional remedy?” I asked wanting to hear his definition again.
“Yes, the remedy that will support him to get better on all levels: mentally, physically, emotionally, even spirituality,” he said.
I didn’t understand any of this. I had administered a medicine as implausible as a black hole, and it made the patient sick, then better. I was fascinated. I bought every book on homeopathy I could find. George was eager to hear all about any discovery I made. This medical modality fit the energy medicine paradigm he had studied at the IM School of Healing Arts. I was embarrassed by my early dismissal of his studies, as I became more and more immersed in my homeopathic studies.
First Homeopathic Proving I Joined
A year later, I was still going to Harold’s beginner’s classes. There really was only one weekly class that he taught regularly. And there were no other homeopathy courses in New York City at the time. We were the same seven students attending what Harold called The New York School of Homeopathy. There was no homework, tests, or graduations. I no longer slept during Alex’s nap. Studying homeopathy became a part-time job.
Alex no longer wanted to ride in his stroller. As soon as he could walk, he wanted to explore the material world; every fire hydrant, crack in the street, and concrete apartment stoop held immense clues to the world he lived in. I was deep in exploring these spirit-like medicines—as eager to understand them as Alex was to learn about the nature of objects.
During Alex’s playgroups, when he climbed the dome-like structures with the other kids in the playground, I read Boericke’s Homoeopathic Materia Medica—looking up remedies I didn’t know. I began prescribing homeopathic remedies—Arnica for minor falls, Hyland’s Baby Teething Tablets for new dentition, Oscillococcinum for first signs of the flu. In New York, my crowd was open to alternative medicine and trusted me. If I suggested a homeopathic remedy, they were willing to give it a try.
But with my father and brother, who was going to medical school, I had to defend homeopathy. They pointed out the absurdity of its premise.
“There is nothing in those remedies,” my brother said.
“Nobody’s heard of this homeopathy thing,” my father said.
I was trying to ignore the implausibility. I knew these medicines worked.
“We will be doing a proving,” Harold told the class in a bland white chiropractor’s waiting room on West 33rd Street, our new class location.
“My homeopathic colleagues and I will run the proving. First, we’ll take your cases as a base point, then you will be given the remedy in 30c. You will not know what it is. We are following a double-blind procedure so some of you may get a placebo. Your homeopath for the proving will check in with you daily to record your new symptoms.”
I was excited. Provings were the way that new remedies became part of our Materia Medica, our homeopathic pharmacy. The new recorded symptoms induced by taking a remedy would become part of the repertory. Now, I had reverence for this medical modality. This new adventure would allow me to enter the world of a remedy from the inside, and discover a remedy from experiencing it firsthand.
“Can my husband join in?” I asked.
“Yes, of course. We’re always looking for volunteers,” he said.
George and I were driving to my dad’s place each month to participate in a new intentional community forming in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Cornerstone Village Cohousing. We started to envision our lives out of New York City. We were transitioning from the pulsating bohemian life to the rhythms of a full family life. Our needs were changing—we wanted to live with other families with children and older people, have more space, and still be part of an intentional community with shared facilities. My grandmother was going to help with the down payment, and move in with us.
Since I left home at seventeen years old, I had looked for communities to join. First, it was the film and artist community, the women’s community in Manhattan, then the Penington Quaker community, now it was cohousing. I wanted to feel that I was part of an extended family that understood me. Cohousing communities were beginning to be built across the United States. The idea came from Denmark, where the homes were designed for “people who want to own an apartment but not feel shut off by it, lost in an impersonal city,” quoted in The New York Times.
On this trip to the Boston area, we would be going to a Cornerstone meeting, staying with family, and visiting friends while participating in this proving. It was Memorial Day weekend. We had left my grandmother at the Penington with her aide because she didn’t want to go on a long road trip.
“What do you think will happen?” George asked, while driving exactly 55 MPH on Highway 95 North to Concord, Massachusetts. I was relaxed, as we listened to the soft rock radio station. George was the safest driver I knew.
“We can take the remedy tonight. I have it with me,” I said. “Then tomorrow we’ll call the homeopaths who are supervising the proving to check in.”
“That woman who took my case was strange. She asked a zillion random questions, like did I sleep on my right side or left side?” he said. “Why did I have to go through that?”
“Harold wants a baseline so they record all the rubrics that are particular to you. The proving is looking for the strange, rare, and peculiar symptoms that are new symptoms that you’ve never had before,” I told him. Alex was asleep in his car seat. He would nod off on car trips.
We arrived safely at my dad’s home at night. We tucked Alex in the bed between us. We still did a family bed so I could easily nurse him at night. I gave George the unmarked sugar pills in the bottle cap. He took four pellets. I did the same.
“You’re sure you don’t know what this is?” he asked.
We fell asleep immediately after I nursed Alex.
In the morning, Alex, twenty months old, woke up and sat up straight. George and I were still asleep on either side of him.
“Daddy, my milkie,” he said, looking straight at my breasts, as I woke up.
“OK, dear,” I said.
When he was done, he said “Mommy.” Then turned around and climbed into George’s arms and hugged his father’s bare chest.
George spoke to Alex in Greek. Their special language. Alex understood everything but would answer in English.
There was no hesitation in Alex’s voice. Our son had swapped our genders. I was daddy, and George was mommy!
“This must be the remedy,” I said.
“Whoa, this is so weird,” George said.
“We’ll have to tell the homeopaths. Wonder what’s next?” I mused.
Provings were known to alter reality, create feelings and circumstances not experienced before, produce new symptoms, usually short lived. Dreams were also important. It was like going to a foreign country—everything looked different. You were still you, just acting differently, and different things would happen. I was excited about how quickly the remedy had taken affect. Alex got a dose through my breast milk. Were we homeopathic explorers, discovering new healing substances?
Later, George drove us further north on Highway 95 to visit friends who had a summer place in New Hampshire. The Beatles were playing on the radio. Across three lanes, we saw a black VW bug heading for the next right exit. Suddenly, the VW swerved across all the lanes and passed a few feet in front of us to get off on the right exit.
I gasped. George kept the car going straight in the slow lane.
“Man, that was close,” said George.
A few minutes later, a car zigzagged in front of us. George leaned on the car horn, warning the driver. I was shaking. George started to speed up and passed him. He gave the driver the finger. George had never done anything like that before.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked.
“Don’t tell me anything, that driver deserved it,” he said.
On our way back from seeing our friends, we drove behind a white van that jostled over something on the nearly empty highway. Fifty feet ahead of us, the van’s bumper was lying on the road.
George maneuvered around the fallen car part.
“Fuck!” George shouted.
Over the next month, George tailgated cars. He cursed at drivers that drove too close to him.
“Malaka,” he told an old lady driver, which is “wanker” in Greek.
“That could have been grandmom,” I said. He didn’t care. It was as if that remedy took possession of him every time he got in the car.
Some of the drivers followed us and honked at us, after George gave them the finger.
“George, you must stop this. Someone is going to pull out a gun and shoot us,” I said.
“No, it’s not me. It’s YOU. You’re so jumpy in the car,” he said.
The peaceful man I knew had become a menace in the car.
I told my homeopath supervisor what was happening. George’s homeopath had quit because she got busy so George was no longer part of the proving.
“This must be the remedy. What remedy zips around caring less about where they’re going?” I asked. “And has a terrible attitude!” “It’s not the remedy. I have a prover who has road rage, and the remedy didn’t cure him,” she said. The homeopath was talking about the homeopathic principle of “like cures like.” In theory, in order to heal a disorder, a remedy would be given for the same condition that was produced in a proving. The first remedy discovered by Dr. Hahnemann was China officinalis. After he took the Peruvian bark, known to cure malaria, in an accidental proving, he experienced intermittent fevers and other malaria-like symptoms. Hahnemann hypothesized and confirmed that China officinalis was effective in treating malaria because it also produced the symptoms similar to those of malaria.
“You think?” I said, not sure I could accept her explanation.
In Hahnemann’s Organon of Medicine, the homeopath’s bible, there was also the idea of totality of symptoms. You didn’t give a remedy for one condition but for a cluster of symptoms that matched the remedy picture. This homeopathy had so many rules and illogical ideas. I was suspecting homeopaths didn’t know everything about homeopathy.
Another week into this proving, I felt a heavy cloak of depression wrap around me. I was walking down 3rd Avenue with Alex holding my left hand and my grandmother linking arms on my right side. This thick, impenetrable energy came up from behind like the presence of a stranger too close to my back and sucked all the vitality out of my body. I barely made it home and then collapsed on the couch for two days. Alex was good natured. He watched Teletubbies on TV when I couldn’t function. I was zombie-like, unable to think, barely able to walk, and profoundly disinterested in everything. This time, my supervisor said this collapsed state was the proving.
“The remedy grabbed you for sure,” she said.
At the end of the month we all gathered in the Penington parlor for the final proving meeting to share the results. George stayed home with Alex, since he was no longer a prover.
“So what is this remedy?” I asked. My curiosity was bursting. I gave my summary of what had been happening to our family to the proving group.
“It was like my life had been kidnapped for the past month. Our son is back to normal calling me ‘Mommy’ and George ‘Daddy.’ I now have a glimpse of what it’s like for people who live with depression. So much more compassion for them. It was like I had been an actor living someone else’s life. I am so glad it’s over.”
“The remedy is Musca domestica, the common house fly,” Harold told us, like he was announcing the winner on The Price Is Right.
“We took the fly remedy?” I asked.
“Yuk, that’s disgusting,” said Marie.
“The fly has an androgynous existence,” he said.
“Perhaps Alex’s mixing up our gender is related to this androgyny,” I said.
Harold continued. “Its vision is kaleidoscopic so the fly moves in irregular ways.”
Marie turned to me. “Maybe George’s crazy driving and those zigzagging cars you keep seeing are also an aspect of this fly remedy,” she said. “It’s all that Doctrine of Signature.”
“Shhh,” I whispered when the provers turned to stare at Marie and me.
I couldn’t fathom this Doctrine of Signature. How could these random events be related to taking a highly diluted and succussed fly?
“What about road rage?” I asked the group. I wasn’t going to let it go. Especially since George was still driving in an aggressive manner after taking the remedy.
“Not related to this remedy, but your other symptoms will be included in the Materia Medica,” my supervisor homeopath assured everyone.
After the proving, George and I were constantly fighting in the car when he drove. He ran red lights, cursed out loud. I was fed up. I was hyper alert, startled every time he pressed the gas too hard or stopped suddenly.
Then, he ran a stop sign and blurted out, “It’s that damn remedy!”
This spontaneous realization and affirmation was finally voiced out loud. His driving returned to normal. Proving symptoms usually stopped when there was an intention by the group that the proving was over. George had been stuck in proving limbo. His declaration must have been his way of ending his proving symptoms. But I never fully recovered. More than fifteen years later, I still get anxious in the car when he drives.
My dilemma after this proving, this Doctrine of Signature, pushed deep into my sub-conscious. The implications of substances holding a complex archetype that could be studied was too much for me. A housefly possessing the medicine power of the animal was also beyond my comprehension, but the idea that the proving would bring out a range of symptoms, homeopathic Materia Medicas, and modern repertories would be updated with this new information made sense.
Homeopathy was becoming my calling. I couldn’t explain how filmmaking, which had been my life until now, was being replaced by this holistic health modality. This was more than a career change.
At Harold’s first lecture, what had caught my attention was when he spoke about homeopathy and spirituality. This merging of concepts created new synapses in my brain. There were connections I could not deny. Psychology, medicine, unseen realities, and energy substances were kaleidoscopes making new patterns. How could I make sense of this new paradigm?