1. Great Expectations.
Psychology plays an important part in all medicine; a placebo can sometimes provoke a response even in serious conditions of indisputable physical origin. Even the colours of our pills may have been chosen to make us anticipate their effects. Stress and mental illness can impair the function of almost every bodily system, allowing other conditions to set in and pre-existing conditions to persist and deteriorate. However, none of us have any direct control over any of this stuff.
The only real choices sick people have are about behaviours. We can chose to take our medication, do our exercises, attend therapeutic appointments and generally look after ourselves. A positive mental attitude is not something you can simply opt into; some of us are fortunate enough to be of a nauseatingly cheerful temperament, others of us have to actively seek that stuff out by altering behaviour; doing more fun things, talking with other people, spending your time productively, being nice to ourselves and seeking help where necessary. All of which may be terribly hard work, and frankly when you’re stuck in bed in pain all day, or have the demons of depression inviting themselves round for tea and cake of an afternoon, well, survival takes precedent.
One of the ways that charlatans operate is to exaggerate the power of mind over matter. For example, a friend went to a crystal-healer who explained to her that everyone who is sick has chosen to be sick and must choose not to be sick in order to get better. Now considering that my friend had a incurable neurological condition and this lady had a pile of rocks, it was pretty clear how all this was likely to end (or else go on indefinitely, waiting for change).
There is not much less helpful than investing time, money and energy in a treatment, to get your hopes up only to have them dashed and then have it all blamed on yourself. Even if by that stage you’re quite sure that the therapy is bunkum, you just don’t need it. Self-doubt is an inevitable part of living with chronic illness; am I doing my best? Ought I be trying harder? Is some of this all in my head?
Therein lies madness and anything which stirs this stuff up should be avoided from the start: if the therapy depends on some leap of faith or any particular attitude from yourself, just don't bother.
The same applies to any unrealistic promises on the part of the therapist. If you have received a diagnosis and information from conventional doctors, you probably understand your illness enough to know what is realistic. Remarkable things do happen and treatments which were once on the fringes do find their way into mainstream medicine. However, as a general rule, a therapist who confidently promises the miraculous recovery that has alluded people with your condition thus far, is almost certainly a quack.
Listen to the ones who talk about the promotion of healing and symptomatic relief. In a sense, complimentary medicine really ought to be treated as just that; complimentary to conventional medicine. If you can find something which makes your life easier, makes you slightly more comfortable, then this can be of immense value even if you don’t take up your bed and boogie.
2. A word about specialisms.
Many complimentary therapists of one sort or another have a specialism; something that they’re particular interested in and good at. For example, a herbalist chap I saw had a local reputation for helping women to get pregnant (!). Now I was there with my condition of the brain and spinal cord, but during his in-depth questions I happened to explain that I had always had what you might describe as random menstruation; there had never been much pattern to which days I would have the painters in.
This guy gave me a foul concoction – the most disgusting thing I have put in my mouth – which I had to take for fourteen days, and another slightly less revolting concoction to take for the next fourteen days. Almost instantly, I had a perfect twenty-eight day cycle and apart from the fact it gradually retracted to twenty-five days, it has stayed more or less regular ever since.
However, what impact this had on my overall condition, I have no idea. And whilst I am merely grateful for what was achieved it is worth considering whether a therapist has a specialism; I got the impression that if I had gone to this chap with a disease of the toenail, he would have worked on straightening out my oestrogen levels.
3. Money, Money, Money
This may sound a bit typical for me, but my experience suggests that the efficacy of a treatment is inversely proportional to its expense. I can’t rule out the possibility that my psychological dismay at the amount of money I had been charged effected the outcome, but it seems unlikely; I wouldn’t have spent so much money if I didn’t desperately want it to work. Therapists I have visited have charged between six pounds to eighty pounds an hour; the latter being a homeopath with a broken zip fly who eventually declared that perhaps I didn’t really want to get better. Git.
4. The scientific approach.
Presumably, if you don’t buy into the arguments for a given therapy, you’re not even going to try it. Well, you shouldn't; even if you are feeling desperate or some family member is pressuring you into it; your energy is too precious. So I don't need to express any of my own opinions about what is sound and what is bunkum.
Then again if you are prepared to invest in it, you’re presumably going to do it properly:
- Learn as much as you can about what to expect from a particular therapy before you start. Try to hear a diverse range of views about the particular thing you're wanting to do, preferably from others with your condition. You may not be put off by someone else's bad experience, but it is worth knowing potential drawbacks or risks, just in case.
- Keep records. Ideally, you want to keep a symptoms and activity diary for a period in advance and then throughout any treatment so that you can consider how things are progressing without having to try to remember exactly how things were a month ago. At the very least you should record the dates of when you’ve started things and any remarkable changes, good or bad days etc in the period that follows.
- Don't start several things at once. For example, do not take a load of different herbs, change your diet and start doing Yoga all at the same time. Even if this is suggested. If there is any change at all, you’ll have no idea what is responsible.
- Follow the instructions. Do whatever is necessary to make sure you can do exactly what you’ve been told to do. And stick it out for as long as possible. Although, remember that…
- Anything which has the power to make you feel better has the power to make you feel worse. Complimentary treatments can have unwanted side-effects and contra-indications like anything else, especially for people who are at a low ebb. What's more, unlike your paracetamol, these treatments are not accompanied by a list of known side-effects. If you begin to feel worse in any way, consider these therapies as suspects that need to be eliminated from your inquiries.
I wanted to list all the things that I have found useful at one time or another, but I think that’ll have to be another post. In the meantime, anyone even mildly interested in matters medical are recommended to check out Charles Dawson's Wilder Shores of Arthritis (which I hope he might add to his sidebar in chronological order for future reference).