In Los Angeles, there's no dearth of holistic treatments, crystals, or Goop-y wellness remedies that people swear will change your life and heal all of your ailments. But Léa Moret, a 23-year-old Belgian-French writer who went to college in Los Angeles, wanted to go to South America in search of alternative cures for cystic fibrosis, an illness she has struggled with since she was 18 months old.
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic condition that causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs and other organs. There's no cure for cystic fibrosis, so Léa is required to take 20 digestive pills a day, frequently go on antibiotics, and visit the hospital every three months to have her lung function checked. But she often doesn't take her medications and antibiotics, and occasionally smokes cigarettes. The life expectancy for cystic fibrosis is approximately 37.5 years.
Always curious about alternatives to Western medicine, Léa heard that another cystic fibrosis patient had a positive experience using ayahuasca, a traditional medicinal tea with powerful psychedelic properties. So, after college graduation, Léa and her best friend Camille Shooshani, 23, traveled to South America to try ayahuasca and explore other healing modalities. On their trip, which is chronicled in the Netflix documentary Léa & I, they tried essential oils, peyote, biomagnetism, plant medicine, shamanic ceremonies, and frog poison — all in the name of healing.
Here, Léa and Camille spoke to Refinery29 about living with chronic illnesses, exploring these unconventional treatments, and the healing power of friendship:
Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Many people with chronic illnesses often talk about feeling disbelieved by their doctors and frustrated with the current medical system. Did you feel that way, or is that what drove you to seek alternative holistic treatments for cystic fibrosis?
Léa Moret: "The weird thing about this chronic illness is you're born with it. It's not like it happens to you one day, and suddenly you have to change your life and adapt to it — you're always living with it. I'm very lucky, because I'm doing very, very well with cystic fibrosis. I have almost a normal life: I can work out, I can run, I can travel, I'm not too tired. There were different episodes difficult moments — three or four times I had to be hospitalized and take pretty intense antibiotic treatments — but on an everyday level I'm well."
"I don't want to criticize Western medicine, especially because I have always been so healthy. I'm so thankful that these treatments exist and that there are protocols that extend the lives of so many people who have this illness. But personally, when I was about 16, I started feeling like I needed to heal myself differently. I started feeling a very strong instinct that sometimes led me to disobey my doctors. I wanted to try other types of alternative therapies that seemed irrational, yet attracted me. Following this instinct has really worked for me physically, psychologically, and spiritually, and it helped me to understand that these different aspects of health are all interconnected. I wish that more people could be exposed to these other modes of healing, that more people knew that they exist — not as a replacement for anything but as a supplement."
Of all the different healing modalities you tried on your trip, which had the biggest impact?
Camille Shooshani: "It’s really hard to compare anything to ayahuasca, which we had the most experience with. We did it in a way that was very traditional, which is so integral to the experience itself. We drank ayahuasca six times in ten days. Traditionally you’re supposed to do it many times in a row, rather than as a one off experience. You really shouldn’t half-ass this.
"I went into ayahuasca very confused about the rest of my life, quite anxious, and deeply unsure of myself. But ayahuasca was almost like some kind of magic. It genuinely restored my faith in life pretty immediately and directly — my anxiety left me immediately and more or less stayed away. Which is miraculous, really, because when you’re in that state, you think this will never go away, there’s no way the muck of your mind is going to leave you. Then it does, and it’s so important, profound, freeing, and liberating. But Léa had a different experience…"
LM: "The plant made me realize that it had been difficult to have this illness, because I had always felt different and alone. There was a very big feeling of injustice that I felt as a kid, and all these feelings I had completely put aside. The way I presented myself to others was always very bold, joyful, and happy, and [ayahuasca] was like, Okay, now heal the wound that has existed in your since you were a kid."
"I started shaking for three hours. Everyone vomits through ayahuasca, and I never threw up once, all I was doing was coughing. The thing about cystic fibrosis is you have thick mucus and cough more, and you need to cough it out more than others. And during the ceremony, I kept coughing. I literally had mucus that was coming up by itself. Maybe the shaking was helping it. I’ve done so many treatments that are lung-cleansing, and this was far, far, far more cleansing than any treatment I’ve done."
How did that impact your cystic fibrosis, or how you view it?
LM: "We really can’t draw a conclusion on this, but it definitely caused such a reconnection to my body. You know your body, you should definitely listen to doctors, but at the end of the day if something doesn’t feel right, just don’t do it. That was such an amazing lesson."
"I do feel like I'm lucky to have this illness, because it gives me freedom. When you know you're going to die, you have a tendency to be more free, because you know there's no time. I would always brag about it, like, Yeah, I don’t care if I die young. This was like, No you’re actually hurt by this. I feel weak and fragile. The really big thing was I needed help to talk about this; I need to express things about it."
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
LM: "I hope that people just trust themselves, and know that they can find the courage to do things. Ask yourself deeply what you want to do, and trust that somehow you can try to get there. It’ll never look how you imagined it, but on the way you’ll find magic in your life."
CS: "Yes, there is something so beautiful in trust — trusting yourself, trusting another person. And this is what we tried to show of our own journeys within the film: Two people who have some issues but decide to go confront and deal with them together. Friendship is such a profound medicine and you don’t have to be alone."
Lea & I premieres on Netflix on Friday, August 2.