By Elisabeth Westermann
Special to The Almanac
Menlo Park native Maria Fadiman will take the stage at Eastside College Preparatory School in East Palo Alto on Aug. 3 in a solo performance about her experience living with an autoimmune disorder.
Fadiman, who attended local schools, is a world geography professor at Florida Atlantic University, a two-time TEDx speaker and a National Geographic "Emerging Explorer." She's the daughter of documentary filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman and writer and psychologist James Fadiman of Menlo Park.
She's also an ethnobotanist — someone who studies the relationship between humans and plants. Passionate about field work, she has spent significant time in the rainforests of Latin America and the savannas of Africa conducting research with National Geographic about indigenous tribes and their practices with plants.
In 2015, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that caused her to feel extreme fatigue, her muscles to seize and her skin to burn when she was exposed to mycotoxins released by mold. At first, her illness was completely debilitating and prevented her from doing the field work she loves.
"For the first time in my life, I didn't go anywhere," she said in an interview with The Almanac. Now, she is back to researching in remote areas, but she faces more restrictions. "I'm not as free out there as I used to be. ... I have to slow down a little bit, and that is not my favorite speed."
In addition to the severe physical suffering it caused, her illness also "rocked" her sense of self, she said. She had always prided herself on being someone who could "live anywhere and sleep on a dirt floor," she added. "What I was so good at before when I was in the field was being flexible and being cool with things falling apart. When I have an exposure [to mold it's much harder to cope. I can't be as resilient. That can be frightening, when I can't rely on my nature."
Fadiman's performance will track her journey of coming to terms with her illness from the onset of symptoms, to diagnosis, to the recovery process. Although her performance does not tell a completely "happy story," it still "has lightness and fun and humor mixed in with some of the dramatic parts," she explained.
The show she will be performing at Eastside Prep will differ from Fadiman's first performance in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has added more details about "coping with regular life, adding more of what it's like, not just to travel, but [to go to a neighbor's house." She has also added a "new layer of honesty and vulnerability."
Fadiman, 50, is planning to take her show on tour in the future, and her dream is to eventually make it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world.
She hopes that her performance will give those who have an autoimmune disorder comfort. "As I started to come out of the illness," she said, "I realized how much I would have liked to have seen a show like this, to have seen someone else who has gone through this."
She also wanted to do this for the people who live with someone who has an autoimmune disorder, people who, she recognizes, bear a significant burden.
Fadiman said she hopes her audience walks away with a broader message about overcoming any challenge. "Autoimmune aside, there's the message of having huge challenges and being able to work through those and come out on the other side," she said. "It really is a fun and difficult story that is about all of us and all challenges and how we all can make it through."
The show is free and will take place at the Center for the Arts Building at Eastside Prep, 1041 Myrtle St. in East Palo Alto, at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 3. RSVP online at mariafadiman.com/solo-show. A reception with refreshments will follow the performance.