Growing up in the 1960s in Vancouver, I became a full-fledged flower child. While I was in the throes of my hippiedom, my mother took me to San Francisco, where it all began. I was not enthralled. Thinking about the “me generation” provoked the question: Is this what I want my life to look like? My conclusion was a heartfelt “no.”

My brother and two sisters had already become observant Jews. Since I had taken so many journeys already, my mother suggested that I check out my own religion as well. I started learning with aMy voice inexplicably became monotonic rabbi and was soon hooked. I enrolled in a Jewish women’s college in New York.

But as the second half of my enchanted year of studies began, my handwriting suddenly became totally illegible for no reason that I could ascertain. My voice inexplicably became monotonic, also apparently without reason. One day that summer, as I was walking out of my class down the grassy path of the campus, my right leg began to kick my left ankle. Since this only happened occasionally, I thought that perhaps I was unconsciously adopting some of the symptoms of the cases that I was learning about in my psych class. But to my horror, the kicking started to occur with every step I took.

At the end of the summer, I returned to Vancouver and tried to figure out how to fill my days constructively while waiting for my boyfriend, Harvey, to propose. One night, I was in the kitchen with my mother. When she spoke to me, I suddenly found myself unable to answer her. My lips were frozen and would not move. When I finally managed to speak, my words came out slurred; they were unintelligible. My family thought it was a joke, and started imitating and making fun of me, until they realized I was serious.

Now unable to speak, with my feet still kicking, I realized it was time to see my physician. He had no idea what was wrong with me, so he sent me to several neurologists for a slew of tests. The results all came back indicating that my health was normal. My physician reiterated that I was in perfectly good health. Nobody could identify the cause of my problems, so they attributed it to “conversion hysteria”—today, this is called “conversion disorder”—connecting my symptoms with my newfound interest in religion and my strong reactions to the suffering of the Jewish people throughout history. But I knew that the problem causing my suffering was physical and not psychological. I was totally sane.

Finally: A Diagnosis

Functioning day to day was a challenge. I felt as if a hose in my gut was siphoning off every bit of strength I had, which wasn’t much. It tore Harvey apart to see me like this, and he felt totally helpless. But despite my mystery illness, he remained committed, and we got married in June 1974. We spent our “honeymoon” at the Scripps Clinic, still searching for answers.

I was finally referred to a top neurologist, Dr. John Menkes, but he was booked up for months, with his only opening on Saturday, Shabbat, when Jews may not travel or do any creative work. I consulted with my rabbi, and he said that I could walk there. It took two miles and two hours of my feet kicking each other down the street to reach his office. After examining me, Dr. Menkes diagnosed me with a rare neurological condition called dystonia musculorum deformans.

Finally,Finally, it was confirmed: I was not crazy it was confirmed: I was not crazy. I truly was ill. My initial indescribable elation at finally finding a medical reason for my condition was shattered when the doctor proceeded to tell me how rare it is, that there is no known cause, and, thus, no known treatment or cure.

Poor Harvey! All his hopes, dreams and visions, all his goals for a new marriage and a new life were obliterated instantly. It was devastating to know that we would have to deal with a chronic, incurable illness ... possibly for the rest of our lives. My husband was at first upset and embarrassed by my condition, but eventually, he got over it, and together we struggled through it as a team.

Facing the World

If you want a small, bitter taste of what it feels like not being able to speak to others, try this: The next time you meet with friends, do not say a word. Pretend as if your mouth is sealed. If you can manage to do this, you will gain a slight understanding of the constant emotional pain and seclusion of those with speech disorders.

My voice was totally without inflection or expression—a monotone—and my speech was completely unintelligible.

Whenever I went out into the world, I was armed with the trusty note that I had printed in Hebrew and English. It said, “Hi. My name is Cheri Tannenbaum. I have a neurological condition called dystonia, which affects my speech. I hold my nose when I talk because this helps me to talk a little better. (No, I do not need a tissue!) You need to listen to me very carefully to understand me. Please ask me to repeat myself over and over again until you do. I am not deaf or retarded.”

Whenever I would raise a finger to indicate that I wanted to say something, everyone would say: “Please be quiet! Cheri is going to try to say something!” Then everyone would be expectantly waiting for me to try to painfully eke out some sounds that might or might not be understood. This was a great purifier of my speech. I learned to consider very carefully whether something needed to be said; most things are not important enough for the monumental effort it would take to try to say them. At the same time, I had to learn that when there was something truly important for me to say, I needed to be really tenacious and insist that people listen to me.

There was another advantage—I developed the best listening ear. I loved it when my friends told me that they felt comfortable telling me their deepest, darkest secrets because they knew that I could not and would not tell a soul.

Growing Family

I didn’t want to miss out on being a mother and raising children. My doctors at the time told us that my dystonia was genetic, so there was a 50-50 chance that we would have a child who was ill. I could barely take care of myself; how would I be able to take care of a sick child?

My husband and I wrestled with the issue, and we eventually decided that G‑d is the ultimate doctor, and He knows what would be best for us. We placed our trust in Him, and I gave birth to a healthy baby girl we name Orit.

After we moved to Israel, we received another miracle. At age 41, the doctors told me that my dystonia wasn’t genetic! I had another girl at age 42, and a son at 44. Thank G‑d, all my kids and grandchildren are healthy!

Laughing Attacks

In August 2014, as if all this was not burdensome enough, I started having crazy laughing attacks. I would laugh hysterically and uncontrollably, right from my gut. It felt exhilarating and liberating. My laughter would come at any time—alone, with family members or groups of other people, and would last varying amounts of time.

Finally,Never give up. Your situation can change in the blink of an eye Harvey took me to neurologist Dr. Avi Reches, who diagnosed me with a rare form of laughing epilepsy. After prescribing a medicine that disagreed with me, he tried another, which had a miraculous side effect—suddenly, I could talk!

Yes, G‑d works in mysterious ways. Yes, there are miracles; they may just take a very long time to happen. At the end of the day, we always end up getting our due. Never give up. Your situation can change in the blink of an eye, in the snap of a finger, or you may have to wait a while. Perhaps in the end, however, it is worth the wait.

Embracing Life

Happiness is a choice.

I must take life every second as it comes. I know that my day will be a constant struggle and full of humiliation. I try to surround myself with positive, supportive people. I take help from others when I need it. (I always say, “I’m not helpless. I just need some help.”) I try to give to someone else, to transcend my own self-absorption.

I hear the call of G‑d: “See how I am helping you to bring out your greatness so that you can be an inspiration to others.” I hear the call of my husband, children and friends loving me and rooting for me, and saying, “We all still need you.” I hear my creative spirit calling me and saying, “There is still more beauty that needs to be put into this world.”

Excerpted from her book, “Woman of Few Words.”