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AmiCietta Clarke: Escape from Liberia and an autoimmune disorder couldn’t keep her down

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

AmiCietta Clarke on the Finding Fertile Ground Podcast

As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.

AmiCietta standing by a tree

Meet AmiCietta D. Clarke, motivational speaker, writer, certified holistic health and empowerment coach, wellness educator, and attorney…plus mom to three-year-old twin girls!

After overcoming a rare autoimmune disease by changing her diet and lifestyle, AmiCietta founded Clean Body Living, a holistic health coaching practice that helps women with autoimmune diseases and other chronic illnesses shift their mindset to realize that they own the power in their healing journey through awareness, body movement, clean eating, self-care, stress management, and reducing environmental toxins in their lives.

I could not believe the irony, when I fired up my podcast editing software, to hear AmiCietta describe how she and her family escaped the civil war in Liberia with 24 hours’ notice when she was 12 years old. That night we in the United States were reeling in shock from the attempted coup and violent insurrection in our nation’s Capitol building. I found the timing, on the Feast of Epiphany no less, to be chilling.

Map of Liberia

Before I interviewed AmiCietta, I did some research on Liberia. Africa’s oldest republic, Liberia is the only Black state in Africa never subjected to colonial rule. It was established on land acquired for freed U.S. slaves by the American Colonization Society, which believed Black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States.

The country was relatively stable until a military coup in 1980 overthrew the government and killed the President and the majority of the cabinet. In 1989, a rebel group led by Charles Taylor launched an insurrection. This started the First Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1989 to 1997. By 1996 thousands had been killed and approximately 700,000 others had been displaced into refugee camps in neighboring countries.

The Second Liberian Civil War began in 1999 when Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a rebel group based in the northwest of the country, launched an armed insurrection against Charles Taylor. Approximately 250,000 people lost their lives during both Liberian civil wars.

The country’s first post-conflict elections, held in 2005, resulted in the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa.

AmiCietta lives in Maryland, but she was born in Liberia. She recalls her childhood fondly, spending a great deal of time with her family and friends. AmiCietta can actually trace her family’s history in Liberia back to her great-grandfather, who moved to Liberia from Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was five.

“I have roots all over the African diaspora. My dad’s half-Haitian and half-Nigerian, and my mom’s grandmother was from Barbados. So I’m just like a melting pot.”

After the insurgence, the family thought they’d be able to stay in the country until they received a tip from AmiCietta’s uncle, urging them to leave. Her family lost everything when they escaped the country in a cargo plane. They fled to Cote d' Ivoire (Ivory Coast) with just a suitcase each, and they also lived in the Canary Islands and Guinea before settling in New York City a year later.

AmiCietta has returned to Liberia a couple of times since leaving, in 2008 and in 2014. She actually got to meet the president, who told her she was proud of a Liberian lawyer. It was inspiring to meet the first woman president in Africa.

AmiCietta with President Eleanor Johnson Sirleaf
AmiCietta with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
“It was really exciting. I hadn’t been back for 18-1/2 years, and I remember counting down the days…The war lasted for 14 years, so after it was over, I was excited to be back in my birthplace. At the same time, I could see the destruction of the ice cream place that we used to go to, growing up. You could see it was bombed, and all the structures were destroyed. But it was still good to be home.”
Building destroyed in Liberia, Sophie's ice cream shop
What's left of Sophie's ice cream shop

Moving to New York was a rough transition when AmiCietta was 14. The size of classes in American schools was overwhelming, and AmiCietta also encountered a lot of bias and stereotypical comments about Africa.

“They asked whether we wore clothes and had pet lions, so I really didn’t have a lot of friends, even throughout high school.”

She also faced discrimination from the school officials. They didn’t think she was an all-A student. They said, “An A in Africa is not the same as an A in America.”

She was put in regular classes for one quarter until she proved herself and got moved into the honors classes. AmiCietta showed them all when she got a full scholarship from Cornell.

AmiCietta when she was in college with her maternal grandparents
AmiCietta when she was in college with her maternal grandparents

In her final year of law school at age 25, she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a rare and potentially fatal autoimmune disease. Her first symptom was blurred vision, which she first experienced when driving 70 miles per hour back to law school. After she got diagnosed, she had to request accommodations for her exams, including the bar exam, because of the blurred vision.

She already had a job lined up at a big firm in New York, but she had no idea she would end up working 80 to 100 weeks as a corporate lawyer. She thought the medication would help her keep pushing herself like that. She worked that pace, off and on, for eight years. In 2007 she billed two 300-hour months, and that didn’t count overhead hours.

“Amazingly, I did not get blurred vision during that time, but then afterwards I got blurred vision. I went to my doctor and said, ‘You know, I didn’t get blurred vision.’ He said ‘the stress is affecting you afterwards.’ But he also said, “if I billed two 300-hour months, I would get blurred vision.’”
Visiting her family home in Liberia
Visiting her family home in Liberia

She would cover one eye, or use an eye patch, or sometimes have to squint to read the documents. She didn’t tell anyone at work, because she didn’t want to be treated differently.

AmiCietta took immunosuppressant drugs for four years until her doctor said he didn’t want her to continue because of the side effects. Then she took steroids for two years. Preparing for her surgery to remove the thymus gland, she had to stop taking the steroids…and it got worse. In addition to the blurred vision coming back, she couldn’t move her fingers and she had trouble walking.

The doctor wanted to put her back on the steroid, but AmiCietta was worried about the side effects, which included diabetes, osteoporosis, and glaucoma.

Marrying her husband Spencer
Marrying her husband Spencer
“He told me I didn’t have to worry about them because I was young. I was 31, and I was on a low dose.”

When she went back on the steroid, her symptoms cleared up…but just four months later, she was diagnosed with osteoporosis at 32.

“For me, that was a real turning point. I was so upset, not just because I had osteoporosis…but because I had mentioned it to my doctor…that set me on the journey I am now.”

She went to see a naturopathic physician and began taking steps to heal her body. She changed her diet, eliminated dairy, began juicing and eating all organic foods, and started reducing environmental toxins.

“I just became intrigued by how all these things could affect me.”

Since making these changes, AmiCietta has been medication and symptom free for the past ten years.

I shared with AmiCietta that my sister passed boards for the relatively new practice of lifestyle medicine just the day before I interviewed AmiCietta a few months ago. AmiCietta is a lifestyle medicine success story.

“Traditional medicine definitely has its place, but it doesn’t help the body heal. It just suppresses the symptoms.”

AmiCietta didn’t know anyone else who had myasthenia gravis when she had the symptoms. Her mom reached out to the Myasthenia Gravis Association of America, and AmiCietta also met some friends online who are in a similar position.

“I know that having a community is key when you’re battling a chronic illness and I’ve created that community for myself now.”

AmiCietta and her husband Spencer have three-year-old twin girls, Jassah and Juah. I mentioned how thrilling it will be for them to grow up with a Black woman vice president, and she agreed.

With Jassah and Juah
With Jassah and Juah
“After I started noticing changes and improvement in everything I was doing, I became really intrigued about nutrition and healthy lifestyle.”

In addition to her full-time job as an attorney, she started her own company, Clean Body Living. She’s also writing a book, in her spare time!

“When you’re going through a chronic illness, you don’t think there’s anything you can do. Your doctors tell you, take your medication, come back to me in three months. I want people to know there are so many things you can do, which won’t interact with your medications, that can help you to get better, better manage your ailments, to live better with the illness.”

Clean Body Living focuses on five principles: awareness, body movement, clean eating, stress reduction and self-care, and reducing environmental toxins.

At the time of the interview, AmiCietta was finding inspiration and ideas from The 5 AM Club: Own Your Morning, Elevate Your Life by Robin Sharma…although she said she might have to apply it as a 6 a.m. Club.

With her mom, Vera
With her mom, Vera

The story of grit and resilience AmiCietta finds inspiring is her mom, Vera, who did everything she could for her kids and her family.

“Just imagine, you’re in your 40s, you lose everything, like all your money, all your worldly possessions except a suitcase, and you have to pick up and provide for your family.”

When AmiCietta got into Cornell and Duke, her parents were worried because they wouldn’t be able to pay. After her mom wrote letters and told them what happened during the war, they gave her a scholarship. Vera also helped her dad find a job after he graduated from Harvard.

“My brother and I are so thankful for her example and her grit and determination to give us the childhood that we had.”

Next week I start my “Writers on Resilience” series, and I’m excited because these writers have all appeared on my “Best Books” list each year…two of them in 2020. My first writer will be Cathy Marie Buchanan, whose book Daughter of Black Lake, which is set in Iron Age Britain, topped my “Best Fiction Books of 2020” list. I also loved her novel, When the Falls Stood Still, set in Niagara Falls. As an avid reader, it’s such a thrill to be able to talk to the creators of these wonderful stories!

Writers on Resilience Series

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