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‘Do it all’ scientist tells about facing debilitating autoimmune disorder

Life can change in an instant.

This is something Maria Fadiman knows too well.

Fadiman, an ethnobotanist and associate professor of geosciences at Florida Atlantic University, is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and two-time TEDx speaker.

She thought of herself as a woman who could “do it all” by traveling the world, working in rainforests and dealing with rebel armies in Mexico.

She often traveled from Africa to the Amazon.

That was until 2015.

“My whole world physically, emotionally, and my entire sense of self came crashing down,” she says.

That year, Fadiman was diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disorder. Exposure to mycotoxins released by mold caused her muscles to seize and skin to feel painful, as well as trigger emotional upheavals.

“It was a relief to get the diagnosis because I thought I might be going crazy,” she says. “I was about to go onstage for my TEDx talk, and my muscles were burning and seizing. I thought maybe I had just stressed myself out to a breaking point, but it was something more.”

This is the impetus behind her one-woman show, “When the Unseen Bit: From Invincible to Vulnerable.”

She will perform the show tonight and Saturday, Aug. 11, at the Railyard in Santa Fe.

Once the diagnosis came, the work began – the work of tearing her home, life and identity apart.

“There were people coming into my home to disinfect surfaces three times over, telling me to throw out couches and rugs and eventually all of my clothing just so I could get some relief,” she says. “Nowhere felt safe to me, which absolutely rocked my sense of self. I felt like all the walls were crumbling around me. It took a toll on my marriage. We had to work a lot of it out.”

Today, Fadiman can do fieldwork again, but with some new limitations.

“I used to pride myself in being the woman who could handle any discomfort, any circumstance and not wince,” she says. “Since the diagnosis, I’ve had to learn to be OK with needing to ask for help. It’s humbling. I take my time and look at the entire situation before I get into it. It’s been a change for me, and I definitely feel confident in everything that I’ve learned. There’s some humor in it. My family pushed me to tell my story, and while it’s still scary to get out there, I think it’s connecting with people. We don’t have to feel alone now.”

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