The Friends Like These series features people I know from different eras of my life who are doing great things in sustainable and holistic ways.
“When I say ‘I’m a health coach and herbalist,’ most people have NO IDEA what to say in response. Mostly they tell me defensively that they eat meat or they laugh and make a joke about marijuana.” Tricia McCauley is a health coach, herbalist, and proprietor of her own line of herbal products, Leafyhead Lotions and Potions. Adding the hyphenate yoga instructor has helped her initiate conversations about wellness. “Yoga, though, has worked its way into popular culture, so everyone has something to say about it,” she wrote to me recently, “It’s a great conversation starter, and it’s a great bridge to deeper subjects like spirituality, self-care, and living with the cycles of the earth.”
I met Tricia while stressing out about something at graduate school. Having been an English major in college with an allergy to science, I threw myself into the deep end of a Masters in Science program for herbal medicine at Tai Sophia Institute. For years, I adventured within the world of theatre, running shows for students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. At 31, I found myself immersed in texts that had words written in my native language but seemed so foreign. A snarky comment erupted from the back of the room followed by advice about not stressing out over the minor details. From that moment, I adopted Tricia, a year ahead of me in the program who had also studied at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition [IIN], as my mentor.
The deadpan dryness and sarcasm brought me back to my time as an actor and it was no surprise to me that Tricia had been a professional actor in the DC area for years. While I love the ethereal nature of the wellness world, I enjoy cracking jokes about it as well. So did Tricia. Our schedules had us on campus on different days, but I checked in frequently with her. A year later, my old reflection walked into the library. I was pretty calm about my place in my studies and suddenly I was the mentor, passing along the advice I received about not sweating the small stuff.
Though we don’t live that far from each other, getting together has hit bumps. Tricia and I corresponded online for the Friends Like These series.
As with many folks who jump into holistic fields, Tricia endured a health crisis that allopathic medicine could not understand. “While in undergrad [studying for a theatre degree], I developed these mysterious ‘swells’ – itchy red things that occasionally appeared on my body. They weren’t a rash or really like hives; one eyelid would swell shut for a few hours, or half my lip would swell up. It was really disturbing. There was no information on this sort of condition (no internet back then!), and the whole concept of food sensitivities as we know it today was still being developed,” she wrote. A trip to an acupuncturist led her away from wheat and corn, while Arthur Coca’s Pulse Test identified soy, canola, and garlic as troublesome.
I went gluten free to great benefit a few years ago. As awareness about gluten sensitivity and its dangers has risen, so has an industry tailored to this community. In many ways, the change wasn’t that difficult. Tricia was ahead of the curve. She noted, “I learned to cook gluten-free before that was anything you could find on a shelf in the store, and it changed my whole perspective on food and life. When I took gluten and corn out of my diet, I lost three dress sizes in three weeks. I’d never been overweight, but I had a lot of bloating that I didn’t realize was optional. Also, my mood swings evened out a lot.” The more she spoke about the benefits of her transition, a new career path emerged. She entered IIN with the intention of taking a year off full-time acting. That was seven years ago.
As with my journey, the curiosity that opened up at IIN led Tricia to what was then called the Botanical Medicine program at Tai Sophia. She said, “I like unearthing historical secrets – I could write my name in Egyptian hieroglyphs when I was 10 – and herbs seemed like a pretty amazing, well-kept secret. Much of my reading was a mix of pagan and magical uses, as well as healing uses. So I was fascinated with herbs in a kinesthetic way and an intellectual way, but hadn’t bridged the gap to using them for clear-cut wellness.”
For her, the formal education proved necessary: “Coming from a background of NO science, I would never have had the discipline to sort through the contradictory information, the research, or lack thereof, to figure out what’s what with the herbs. I don’t believe I could have gotten the relationship I currently have with the plants anywhere else.” Still, Tricia honors those who approach herbalism outside the classroom. She wrote, “There are amazing, brilliant self-taught herbalists – my parents lived in a town in Idaho and the herbalist there was self-taught, not just in the traditional methods but she also taught herself to read the research, learned constituents, sifted through Jim Duke’s database to extrapolate uses for native herbs – amazing!”
Classes in herbal preparations introduced Tricia to balms and creams. With her allergies, she had trouble finding personal care products she could use. Friends liked her products and Leafyhead was born. She doesn’t cut corners, though her prep time is limited to the cooler months due to humid D.C. summers. Here’s her process: “Most Leafyhead products are based on almond oil infused with chamomile flowers (which are lovely and anti-inflammatory and support tissue healing): I grow the chamomile flowers, harvest them, dry them, infuse the oil, and then get to making the salves and lip balms and lotions. I also grow my own calendula and comfrey. Last year I wild-crafted the black walnuts I used in my anti-fungal salve. I make the lotions in blenders, and the largest batch I can make at one time is 4 cups. I also print out the labels and stick them on myself. So it’s all pretty high-maintenance.”
Due to the requirement of cooler weather to allow the lotions to emulsify, Leafyhead caters to the holiday crowd. My wife Sara loves lip balm and I throw some in her Solstice stocking every year. She attests that she absolutely loves the Leafyhead ones I ordered last year. Tricia created her line with no business background, citing organization, money, and space as her biggest hurdles. Her home used to play host to her clients and her products. With her practice now on Capitol Hill, the lotions and potions are her only roommates, overtaking her dining room table for three months a year. Another hurdle? Working alone. She quipped, “I’m a very social person, so being a ‘solo-preneur’ can be very isolating.”
Tricia combats isolation by teaching yoga at Yoga District and serving as the resident herbalist at Common Good City Farm, a non-profit educational farm near Howard University. At the farm, “I plan and plant the herb beds, and teach a series of workshops. This year, I’ve been so busy that the beds need some serious weeding. I need apprentices! We’ve got more than 60 herbs growing — we sell some of the medicinals to herbalists, and just started a culinary herb CSA this summer. The farm has been such great learning and such wonderful community; most of my closest friends I met at the farm, and it helped me find my voice and identity post-grad school. And being hands-on for 4 seasons with so many plants has deepened my relationships with them in amazing ways. ”
Working in the nation’s capital, you never know who might stop by. In 2011, Georgetown University and Washington Post Live hosted “The Future of Food” conference. While in town, the keynote speaker decided to check out the farm. Tricia was there, “Meeting Prince Charles was amazing. I’m not a celebrity-phile by any means, but this was wildly exciting. He’s very involved in the urban farming movement. As the herbalist, I was stationed at my herb bed, and he toured around the farm and we had a lovely chat about herbal medicine, of which he’s also a fan. He’s very intense, and very charming.” Anything else? “And not as tall as I thought he’d be.”
As you can see, there is no clear path for someone who studies holism and herbal medicine. The two hands stir many pots at once. Tricia also keeps two community garden plots and serves as Secretary on the Executive Committee at the LeDroit Park Community Garden. While herbs are her forte, veggies have proved a challenge. Weeds, woodchucks, squirrels, and bugs vie for a chance to disturb the food. But again, this gives her a chance to be with people. “It’s been great, though, having a community of friends who are also obsessive gardeners – we each bring our skills to the table and trade info on soil amendments, seeding, seed saving, and so on,” she wrote.
With all these activities, focus is key. “Teaching yoga, even more than taking classes, keeps me accountable, keeps me clear on who I am and what I’m doing,” Tricia observed. And not only is she bringing powerful healing to others through her various practices, she successfully treated herself: “My food sensitivities went away last summer! Through food elimination, herbs to heal up the gut, herbs for stress management, yoga and biking for stress management – I can eat anything I want now, which feels like a miracle every day.”
Herbalism, gardening, yoga, consulting, making products. Tricia still acts now and then and reports that she plans to write a book about her healing journey. All of it satisfies her. She concluded her e-mail, “This is a wild and unexpected path, very different from what I envisioned when I took the leap to attend IIN. ‘A rich life is often a messy life,’ as my yoga teacher Gracy says.”
May we all have such messiness!