If you saw Akeela on the street, you might mistake her for a movie actress. Sporting a long pink floral dress and perfectly matched coral-painted lips, Akeela looks as if she could be en route to the red carpet. Instead, she’s en route to her office in a flexspace building, opposite a McDonald’s in Bolton, a city near Manchester, England. There, she works at a children’s health care charity, a job she feels is just as worthy of Hollywood glam.

Akeela has been “dressing up” for work since she was sixteen. “I didn’t like asking for money from anybody. I was an independent woman from the beginning,” she says. Then, when she turned nineteen, she became a mother of two children. She loved that job, too: cooking for them, comforting them, helping them take care of themselves. It was the same with her own mother and her mother-in-law. And since she was a natural caretaker at home, she decided to pursue it professionally—first at a home care agency, then in a residential care home. “I just knew, that’s me: caring,” she says.

But although the care jobs fulfilled Akeela’s psychological needs, they started to tax her physical ones. The jobs came with literal heavy lifting: moving patients, pushing beds, being on foot 24/7 to tend to the patients’ every need. Gradually, all that caring at work and at home took a toll on her back. And she realized it wasn’t going away; she had developed chronic pain.

When Akeela went to the doctor, he gave her a simple solution: Stop working. Rest. “‘If you don’t stop, one day, you’re gonna wake up and your back’s gonna be totally shot,’” Akeela remembers him warning. But Akeela ignored the advice; she loved the care work too much to listen. “I just carried on, working and working through the pain.” 

Day by day, the pain got worse and worse. And one day when a longtime colleague offered Akeela a job as her physician’s assistant, she immediately accepted, thinking that job could help her do the caring she loved without as much pressure on her back. But when she showed up for her first day, the pain was unbearable. She realized she couldn’t be helpful, so the physician sent her home to rest.

This time, Akeela listened, thinking one week off her back might heal her. But that’s when things got even worse: after she tried resting, she found she could no longer walk or even get out of bed. And when Akeela was taken back to the doctor, pleading for a way to stop the pain so she could get back to work, the doc gave an even sterner warning. “They said, ‘Akeela, if you go back to work now, you’re going to end up in a wheelchair.’”

Akeela couldn’t imagine her life without work. “I was scared, first about the income. My husband wasn’t working, my daughter was in the US.” But her deeper fear wasn’t the money, it was the time: What was she going to do all day? She’d gone from working nearly every type of care job to becoming the one who needed the care.

She couldn’t bear it. When friends talked about their work, she got jealous. Eventually, she decided to effectively cut them out of her life. She did the same with her family. When her husband and kids called doctors and therapists to send more help, Akeela became even angrier. “I had a go at them and kept asking ‘Why did you go behind my back?’ and they said, ‘We just want to help you,’ and I said, ‘Well, you didn’t help me; you’re making a show out of me.’ It was a nightmare, and I became a nightmare.”

Just when Akeela thought things couldn’t get worse, her mother and mother-in-law got “very, very ill” at the same time. Usually, Akeela would be the first person to take care of them, but her back pain had other plans: “It was killing me.” That was the lowest she’d ever felt, she says. “I just kept thinking, ‘There’s nothing left. I can’t do anything anymore, and I don’t want everyone to do everything for me. I don’t belong here anymore. It’s just too much.’”

But as she watched her mom suffer, she had a lightbulb moment: “My mom worked so hard for everyone else, but she never listened to her own needs until she became very, very ill. And I just thought, ‘Wow, I’m doing what my mom did, and it’s not fair to my kids or to my husband.’”

That moment prompted Akeela to give in and finally get help. First, she tried antidepressants. Then she tried counseling. Neither worked for her. “I was just crying in front of all these people I didn’t know, and I said, ‘I don’t think I’m getting anywhere with this.’” Her nurses agreed. “They said, ‘Akeela, you’re looking awful. This isn’t you. You used to be so full of life, full of joy.’”

That’s when everything changed: This time, instead of another therapy or drug or stern warning to rest, the nurse gave Akeela a different kind of medicine: “She gave me a card that read, ‘CVS Social Prescribing’ and said, ‘There’s this woman, Joanne, who can help you, and she’s not gonna judge you.’”

“No judgment” was just what Akeela needed. And when she called Joanne to relay her troubles, her diagnoses, and her big frustration that she still didn’t know what was wrong, Akeela got the nonjudgment she was looking for. “[Joanne] was the first person who said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’” Akeela remembers. That answer gave her goose bumps. And when Joanne asked Akeela what she thought might help her feel better, Joanne was also the first person to welcome Akeela’s answer: “A job.”

Excerpt from THE CONNECTION CURE by Julia Hotz
Copyright © 2024 by Julia Hotz. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, NY.


  • Julia Hotz is a solutions focused journalist based in New York. Her stories have appeared in The New York TimesWIRED, Scientific AmericanThe Boston GlobeTime, and more. She helps other journalists report on the big new ideas changing the world at the Solutions Journalism Network. The Connection Cure is her first book.