Dark circles and bright ideas

Have you heard the good news?

“Stop. Just stop. I do not want to hear this.” It was all I could think to say to the woman behind the counter. Considering how shocking her aggressive sales pitch was, I’m astonished that I could say anything at all.

She was also shocked that I — that anyone — would not want her free medical advice and (loud and public) diagnosis of what had caused the dark circles under my eyes, because, in her view, she was being insightful and supportive.  She kept trying to come back to the topic, because she couldn’t believe her ears:

“Allopathic medicine can’t help you, but I know exactly what to do about your dark circles!”

I had to keep saying, “No. Stop it.”

“My husband had the same problem for years and…”

“Please stop!”

She was shocked by what she saw as my rudeness and stubbornness.

She seemed to have no workable frame through which to view me, so I paid for my friend’s prescription and got out of her compounding pharmacy as quickly as I could.

My theory is that I'm listening to the first person to mention my dark circles. Riveting!

My theory is that I’m listening to the first person to mention my dark circles. Riveting! 50 years later, not so much.

But outside in my car, I had to shake off like a cat who had smelled something bad. Here it was July of 2013, yet I had stepped backward forty years into the wild-eyed, fundamentalist era of alternative medicine, of intense certainties and promises of miracles, of ungrounded ideas promoted with evangelical fervor, and of a categorical distrust of anything conventional or, in the terminology of the community, of anything from “allopathic” medicine.

It was an era — and a mindset — that I knew very well, and really didn’t want to revisit.

However, I live in Northern California, where alternative medicine is a given; it is everywhere. I’m completely surrounded by it, and though I’ve made a kind of peace with it, quietly moving over to conventional medicine (thankfully, relievedly, happily) and away from metaphysical and paranormal alternatives, I sometimes witness people espousing views about health and medical care that are very concerning to hear.

Fasts, repetitive detoxification rituals, extreme diets, megadoses of supplements, miracle foods — these are normal and accepted behaviors in my community, and they concern me.

I’ve become very skilled at dissociating slightly so that people can’t see me react in sadness or frustration, because I remember what it was like to believe in all those miracles and wonders. Now, I just practice non-attachment while people talk about whatever new miracle cure or super food is going to change the world and heal every possible ailment, and I wait until the sermon ends.

But this woman, sitting behind the counter in her compounding pharmacy, surrounded by books from people like Suzanne Somers and Jenny McCarthy, went crackerdog about the dark circles under my eyes — I mean 1970s Jesus-freak street theater intense: she was going to bring me salvation from my dark circles and heal me. There was no way for me to escape a direct confrontation.

“Please stop it.”

From her point of view, she was helpfully giving me a free diagnosis based on what she fervently believed. From my point of view, she was being thoroughly inappropriate, violating HIPAA privacy rules (there were other customers in the pharmacy), and loudly proselytizing about a worldview that I no longer find helpful at all — and through which I and my loved ones have experienced untold suffering that we were never allowed to talk about, and that almost no one in the alternative medicine community wants to hear.

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve got dark circles under my eyes. I’ve had them since I was a baby, and they’re just a function of how my eyes are. I have deep-set eyes, a high bridge on my nose that casts shadows, and pale, thin skin that lets you see right through to the purplish blood vessels and darkness inside my eye sockets. I’m partially transparent!

Chart from ProfGillespie.com

Chart from ProfGillespie.com

You can also see my veins very clearly on my inner arms; they’re bright greenish-blue just beneath my pale skin. I’m like one of those colorful circulatory system charts you see in anatomy labs.  Phlebotomists love me.

My dark circles get darker when I’m tired, just like many other people — but even when I’m fully rested and feeling peachy, my dark circles are dark. That’s just how I’m built.

Another thing: I had also just gotten out of the pool before I headed over to this woman’s compounding pharmacy to pick up a friend’s prescription, and my eyes were probably pinkish from the chlorine — so my dark circles probably looked pretty obvious. I understand why this woman jumped onto her soapbox, but I really didn’t want to hear this particular sermon yet again.

Thanks to the thoughtful doctors and dermatologists I found after I left the New Age and alternative medicine back in 2003, I’ve understood for many years that my dark circles are nothing to worry about. I also know that there’s really nothing that can or should be done about them other than wearing under-eye makeup, which I do so that people won’t always be asking, “Are you tired? You look so tired!” Sigh.

I can’t get truly angry, because people are showing concern, but it gets very tiresome to always have people up in my face. It’s my face! Back off.

When I was a young girl in the alternative medicine community, my dark circles were a constant source of fascination and concern (though only rarely about my fatigue levels). Everyone had a theory about what my dark circles meant, and everyone wanted to share the good news about how I could get rid of them.

In many areas of the alternative medicine community (homeopathy, acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, naturopathy, chiropractic, herbalism, and many forms of nutritional counseling, etc.) dark circles are called “allergic shiners,” and they’re thought to be a sign of an allergy to food and/or other substances. There is some truth to this, because allergies like hay fever can cause the eye area to swell and itch, which can make the eyes look bruised. But I don’t have hay fever or any seasonal allergies, so this isn’t true for me.

I did develop an allergy to dark circle cures, however

In other areas of the alternative medicine community, dark circles are believed to be a sure sign of liver trouble, and that’s a big, big deal. There’s a tremendous amount of folklore in the alternative medicine community about the liver, and there are literally thousands of remedies that promise to support, cleanse, detoxify, fortify, rebuild, and heal your liver.

So I and my dark circles spent significant amounts of our lives on restricted diets, detoxification programs, fasts, purges, cleanses, herbal remedies (Chinese, Ayurvedic, European, and “ancestral” remedies, which are thought to be healing herbs or diets that your ancestors used), liver supplements, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture treatments, megadoses of vitamins, and overdoses of miracle foods like brewer’s yeast, cod liver oil, or spirulina. If I were still in the alternative medicine community today, I would probably be overdosing right now on coconut oil, acai berries, kombucha, and chia seeds.

When I was a member of that community, I did special yoga and tai chi movements for my liver, I tried continual rotation diets to find the food culprit — and when nothing at all happened with my dark circles, I doubled down and got really serious. Like many people I knew in the alternative medicine community, I had willpower that was astonishing. I could and would do anything in service to my health, and if there was a new regimen or idea out there, I could easily become an expert and fully compliant practitioner in less than a week.

I see now that I was doing science in a way, because when the miracle cures didn’t work (and they never did, because my dark circles aren’t a symptom of any disease or condition), I became more disciplined and more perfect — because I didn’t want any laxness on my part to interfere with the promised cure. I wanted the healing forces to have every chance of working, so I did everything right and controlled all of the variables.

And if it still didn’t work, I got even more strict, because more is better, right?Wheat free? Forget that; I’ll go grain-free. Meat-free? Oh, I’ll do you one better, and I’ll remove all animal products from my diet. Olive-oil-and-lemon purges don’t work? Okay, how about a high colonic?

What about purified magic water with special electrolytes — never anything from the tap? Or what about an Ayurvedic purging ritual where every part of the body is made to expel supposed toxins?

Or wait, how about NO?

bear NOI won’t go into what it took, or how many years it took, to unwind from those beliefs. I write about a lot of it in the ten-part essay, Missing the Solstice, that forms the foundation of this site.

In all honesty, the process resembled (healthy) cult deprogramming, and it’s a book-length story that I may write someday. Today, I’m happily separate from all those seductive miracles and wonders, and fairly able to maintain my equanimity around people who are immersed in them, because I understand why people are there.

But there’s a lot of emotional processing I have yet to do, about the decades I spent — and the money, time, energy, and years I wasted chasing after healing regimens that were not just wrong for me — but were absolutely wrong for anyone.

So when this true believer woman started sharing her gospel of dark circles, all of that history and all of those absurd and pointless and even dangerous remedies rushed back into my consciousness and all I could say was “Stop it.

I’m really pleased that my voice worked, and that I didn’t lose the capacity to form words. I mean, cool! Score one for the use of language in primates!

But there’s a huge, untold, unspoken well of trouble within the alternative medicine community, because stories like mine don’t get told. Usually, stories like mine are silenced, shamed away, rationalized away, or simply ignored as immaterial.

Stories like mine (and there are thousands upon thousands of stories like mine) are treated as a crisis of faith or a lack of discipline, instead of as vital dis-confirming evidence — or as reasoned and reasonable critiques of an often dysfunctional, irresponsible, and patient-blaming ideology of improbable miracles and broken promises.  

In that ideology, my dark circles are proof that I didn’t try hard enough, that I didn’t think the right things, or that I didn’t try the right miracle cures and miracle foods in the right order.

From her position behind that counter, that intense woman with no boundaries just wanted to help me.

But she couldn’t know — because she never asked or even imagined that the asking was necessary — that her form of help is toxic to me.

I am grateful that I could leave that worldview behind, and I often say jokingly that everyone in the alternative medicine world owes me cash money, because I wasted so much time and energy chasing after miracle cures for things that weren’t even illnesses.

I look at my time in the New Age and alternative medicine with mostly sadness and pained laughter rather than rage, because it’s just where I grew up. I understand that proselytizing woman’s fantasy of perfect health, and her desperate need to believe in a benevolent, human-focused natural world that contains perfect cures for every possible ailment, real or imagined.

I understand her belief that perfect behaviors will always result in perfect healing, and her belief that illness, disability, and even death are controllable and optional things that can always be fixed. I understand all of that, and I bow to those ideas with a sense of wistful nostalgia.

But I also feel a great deal of grief when I see people treating real (and imagined) illnesses with miracle cures — and then blaming themselves and doubling down with fierce, heroic, and nearly self-flagellating dedication when those miracles don’t work.

Alternatives become necessary when the conventional fails

I realize, of course I do, that conventional medicine is plagued by serious, fundamental problems that must be faced and changed, especially here in the U.S., where medical care is horrifically and tragically tied to money and privilege.

It is not possible for me to wholeheartedly and uncritically champion a system of healthcare that regularly and reliably discriminates against the poor, the disabled, the elderly, minorities, and the desperately vulnerable.

It is also pretty silly to suggest that people should leave alternative medicine and go back to a system where cost-cutting, corporate approaches to health care, and an often heartless expediency blend with snappily-dressed, fast-talking pharmaceutical reps who peddle their newest drugs like candy.

Conventional medicine as an entity and a movement has much to answer for — and very, very far to go to become laudable.

So don’t think that I’m championing conventional medicine to you, because I’m not. You get to do what works for you, and I won’t come after you with fire in my eyes, proselytizing about the good news. Conventional medicine has much to answer for.

And at the same time, so does alternative medicine. And though I see that the holistic, patient-focused, and hopeful folkways of alternative medicine are a direct response to the often cold and clinical, assembly-line-like atmosphere of much of conventional medicine, both approaches are problematic.

I understand that alternatives only arise and become powerful when the conventional is unworkable, or cruel, or both. I get why alternative medical approaches have become so popular and are essentially the mainstream in some places (like here in Northern California).

Makeup is magic! I have cured my dark circles!!

Makeup is a miracle! I have cured my dark circles!!

And as a native speaker of the language of alternative medicine, I understand the worldview and retain the parts of it that are valuable for me — such as mindfulness and healthy eating. Those are keepers.

But I’m deeply grateful that I’m not trapped in that worldview any longer.

I’m relieved and grateful that I and my dark circles have found a workable alternative to alternative medicine.

Part 2: Bright ideas revisited


Filed under Alternative medicine, Empathy, New Age

8 responses to “Dark circles and bright ideas

  1. Karla – I can definitely relate to what you are saying here. Just this week I was looking at maybe trying some supplements for my menopause symptoms (or should I say experience. Are they even symptom?). I went to the website to check into it and was met with an in my face marketing strategy that really turned me off. I’ve already tried lots of alternatives in the past for pelvic pain and it didn’t work. However, learning to feel my emotions has made a huge difference for the better in lessening my pain. I’m still learning to trust my intuition when it comes to alternative healthcare (and I’m in Northern California too and detox programs through my yoga studio are the norm here) and the promise of complete healing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks Gail! Some of the alternative stuff does help — but a lot of it doesn’t, and it’s as if there’s no consumer protection agency — just a bunch of us informally saying to each other, “Oh, the all-tomato diet (or whatever) didn’t work for me.” Conventional medicine is sometimes hilarious with its warnings — or scary — but at least the warnings are there. At least I know what might happen, and whether something might be effective. That’s something!

  2. Like you say, some of it works, some of it doesn’t. Some wastes your money, but some are dangerous. It’s good to cast a critical eye on both sides of health. Enjoyed this, Karla! Thank you!

  3. Midlifer

    For those who say “some of it works” . . . which ones work? This leaves me confused. Diet/healthy eating and mindfulness work. Any others on the alternative list?

    • That’s a big set of questions in three small sentences. I’m thinking of the times that diet/healthy eating and mindfulness don’t work, though people promise up one side and down the other that they will do so. And there are many conventional remedies that aren’t actually useful, as we discover every couple of months or so.

      I think the dichotomous approach that the alternative versus conventional conflict requires actually obscures deeper questions about just what health is. It’s a much longer discussion, I would say, and it involves questions of disability rights and social justice awareness for people whose conditions are not going to change, regardless of what sorts of remedies they use.

      One of the problems I saw in alternative medicine was that there was an underlying idea of the perfection of nature and the human body — and that if we could all just get back to that perfection, peace and goodness would reign, and robust health would be bestowed upon us. In my cult days, our teacher even promised that we could regrow teeth with the right combination of vitamins and affirmations, I kid you not.

      Yet in conventional medicine, there is still a lot of unquestioned ableism, or the unfounded idea that every condition can be alleviated, and that certain ongoing conditions can be equated with moral failure. This is especially visible in all of the public hysteria and frank hatred about people whose weight is higher than the current BMI straitjacket allows. If you question the reflexive and ableist fat-shaming that goes on, you’ll unearth that moral hysteria in just a few seconds.

      What works? Sometimes nothing can or should, and as my disability rights activist friends say, “Each one of us is only temporarily abled.” That seems to frighten a lot of people, but I find it really comforting, because my activist friends are paving the way for disabled people to feel somewhat welcome in a world blinded by both alternative and conventional approaches to this mysterious and often mythical thing called “health.”

  4. Midlifer

    Thanks Karla. I appreciate your response. As someone who worked in both fields, R.N. and later a Reflexologist but also as a client/patient of both systems, the whole ball of wax is exhausting.

    Re: the fat shaming. As someone who has been thin her whole life I experienced doctors who didn’t think I could be sick . . . so thin and all. I’ve seen friends of mine treated disrespectfully because of their weight by medical professionals. So many stories. Thanks again.

  5. jane

    I like “Stop it”. Never sure what to say and I get this a lot. I have always been able to take what I like and leave the rest, without getting sucked into the fanaticism. Right now I’m into the raw food movement, and they seem more fanatical to me than any new age movement before.

    I think it’s the times, actually, as we live in fascist times. But when I discovered the raw food movement, the light went on for me inside. It’s given me permission to eat the way I’ve always wanted to eat. Not 100% raw, but I call 4 fresh oranges breakfast (which elicits constant complaints, even from some raw foodists, duh?), and a quart of pomegranates is my preferred to-go snack this week. And through this permission, I resurrected a very traumatic incident from when I was a child. I remember eating a large bowl of fresh peas. My 3 brothers showed up, said something, and I’ve never eaten a pea since then. For decades, I’ve tried to remember what happened. Liberating the raw foodist in me finally liberated the memory. They were kidding me for eating that bowl of raw peas with a fork. I felt a deep betrayal. My brothers were supposed to be my allies, my supporters, the guys who had my back, and here they were all 3 together criticizing me for the wrong utensil? They could not be trusted. And for me, that’s how being psychic works. Some small event triggers an unconscious psychic unfolding of all that is to come down in future years. I stick it all into that incident, because at the time, I’m traumatized. Did that protect me from many of their future betrayals? Maybe it did, I’m not sure? But I still can’t eat peas. Stop it” sounds perfect.

    • Hello Jane — yes, food faddists! Oh my word, I was raised in the 1970s extreme health food movement, and I had to do a great deal of work in my 40s to get out of its clutches. I really like the concept of “orthorexia,” or extremist healthy eating.

      I had an undiagnosed chronic illness that I was trying to manage with diet, and it didn’t work, because diet wasn’t the problem. But these diets make outrageous promises, and then blame the patient for not being strict enough when they don’t work. So they get a free ride both ways — unsupported claims with no refutation, and unassailable credibility because the failures are always the fault of the dieter who isn’t perfect enough. It’s so creepy — especially since the people who often end up on these diets are very vulnerable and ill. I know I was.

      I remember, back when I was on increasingly stricter dietary regimens, making an absolutely perfect meal with all the perfect foods and none of the evil ones, and in the right percentages, and with the right intentions and perfect spices (and so on) — and as I brought the fork to my mouth, my body sent me an image of King Midas. I had to go and find the story, but it was such a perfect analogy. Thanks, body!

      Midas turned everything he touched into gold, but that meant that all food turned to metal in his mouth. In the version of the story I had, Midas starved to death surrounded by gold and jewels. I took that analogy to heart and saw that no matter how perfect my food was, the strictness, anxiety, fear, and self-flagellation I was being asked to bring to it by these extremist dietary ideologies meant that the food essentially turned to metal in my mouth. There was no joy or nutrition in it — I was in a very real way eating metal and despair. Whoa.

      I was able to unwind from those ideologies as I unwound from the New Age, and wow it’s so blissful to be free. I was also able to take all that freed up time and energy and focus on finding actual help for my chronic illness, which I finally did a few years ago. Whew. Diets can be very healing, and some people do report amazing changes with this or that regimen. But you don’t hear the stories of people who are not helped, because they get blamed for not being perfect enough. I’m calling shenanigans. And if the people are very ill and/or vulnerable, I’m also calling abuse.

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