In 1990, Judith Ford had a career as a psychotherapist and a blended family that included two 12-year-old daughters, an 18-month-old son, and her husband. Her life wasn’t perfect, but her work was rewarding, she had a good relationship with her spouse, and her children were thriving. On the morning of July 4, Ford set out on what she expected to be a seven-mile run. Her usual route was four miles, but she hadn’t been feeling great lately and wanted to prove to herself that she was still the same strong, healthy person she’d always been. 

She did not achieve this goal. Before she had even run a mile, she started to struggle—at first to run, then to walk, then to move at all. In that moment, she could no longer avoid the realization that the overwhelming fatigue, stiffness, and joint pain she was experiencing were connected to an array of symptoms she had been trying to ignore for months.

It would be three painful, frustrating years before she had the first hint of a diagnosis and a modicum of relief. And it would be four more years after that before a doctor definitively identified her illness. During this time, she would lose both her parents, her sense of self, and—more than once—her will to live. Fever of Unknown Origin is her account of this journey. It’s a story about devastating illness, but it’s also a story about love, family, and what it looks like to truly reckon with mortality.

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews calls her memoir a “touching consideration of the frighteningly precarious nature of good health.” Ford writes with a poet’s ear for language and the insight of a therapist as she offers a candid account of extreme vulnerability. Now happily retired and dividing her time between Santa Fe and her hometown of Milwaukee, Ford takes voice and piano lessons—and on a recent afternoon, spent some time talking about her book, the experience that shaped it, and her life since then.

Ford acknowledges that her unwillingness to accept her illness was informed by her childhood. Her mother, often bedridden with a variety of ailments, expected her children to care for her. When Ford was young, she prided herself on being an excellent caregiver—the first to respond to the ring of the bell that her mother used to summon help. As an adult, Ford grew to resent this role reversal and even wondered whether her mother invented illnesses she didn’t actually suffer from. “My mother was, in my view, someone who gave up. I imagined myself—maybe it was a fantasy—as someone who could do anything, as someone who was strong. And that was how I was different from my mother.”

Even as she tries to distinguish herself from her mother, Ford is candid about how her own illness circumscribed her mothering. Passages such as the following, in which she describes being unable to be present for her kids, are some of the most affecting in her memoir:

Nic came to crawl around on my bed now and then. I appreciated him as one appreciates a painting or a sculpture. I liked his white-blond hair, his huge blue eyes and his riveting intelligent gaze, incongruous in so small a person. He was interesting, even beautiful. After three or four minutes of climbing on Mommy, Nic, sensing my detachment, would leave for more responsive terrain. I was usually glad to see him go.

“I didn’t really feel the pain of all this until later, until I started to feel well. I didn’t have a choice, though,” Ford explains. The fact that her mother-in-law was able to step in was bittersweet. “Being a therapist, I realize that what Nic went through, bonding with his grandmother, was good for him. Of course, as his mother, I found it heartbreaking, but it was good for him. When he was about 3, my husband and I took him to Chicago to work with a woman who specialized in attachment because we thought—correctly—that he needed to reattach. It involved a lot of wrapping him up with blankets and cuddling him.”

Before her illness, Ford was a strict rationalist. She found friends’ attempts to interpret her suffering in spiritual terms ridiculous, and she wasn’t interested in any approach to healing other than Western medicine—even though doctors weren’t able to tell her what was wrong with her, and even when she received less-than-adequate care. Visits from one of her mentors changed her mind, though. Here was a teacher she respected, integrating chanting elements of shamanic journeying into his work with her. When another friend—a poet and musician who had his own battle with chronic, potentially life-threatening illness—told her about his encounter with a demon, she discovered what her own demon needed her to know: she needed to quit fighting her illness, let herself feel the sadness she’d been keeping at bay, and accept that death might be closer than she had allowed herself to consider. This was the beginning of her journey toward improved health, both in body and mind.

None of this is to say that she abandoned her old worldview altogether. “I would say that I have learned to hold these two aspects of myself, the scientific and the spiritual, together at the same time, in large part because of how I got well.”

Reading was also an important part of Ford’s healing process. In her book, she lists several texts that helped. “I needed words,” she says, “to describe the shift in my identity. I was looking for other people’s responses to illness.” Reynolds Price’s account of enduring and recovering from a spinal tumor, A Whole New Life, was one work that Ford found especially inspiring. “And then there was Anatole Broyard, who wrote about his own illness as he was dying. I remember being very intrigued by him, by his courage.” Of Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, which the author wrote when she had cancer, Ford says, “Even the title of that book was a challenge for me.” Ultimately, Sontag would be one of the writers who provided Ford with the language she would need to tell her own story.

The art of writing itself was not new to Ford, who has crafted prize-winning poetry and short fiction. Writing a memoir was an entirely different kind of endeavor, though. In fact, it took her more than 20 years to complete the manuscript—a project she might never have finished if not for finding just the right editor at just the right time. When asked to explain the differences between writing poetry and long-form prose, Ford says, “Writing about my own life during the particular period of time that I chose was very emotional for me to revisit, and I swam in it for months and months and years and years. There was just an incredible depth and emotionality. A poem, for me, is much more a container than a long story. It contains an idea, it contains an emotion—the essential thing is that it contains. A longer story is open.”

Ford’s story is still unfolding. Right now, she’s putting together a poetry collection and a second memoir about her life from ages 16 to 19.

Jessica Jernigan lives and works on Anishinaabe land in Central Michigan.