Hello and welcome back!
I’ve been away: I did a couple of years of research, wrote my thesis on autism and the enforcement of normality, got my master’s degree, and am now training and licensing people in my applied work: Dynamic Emotional Integration®. It’s been an intense couple of years, and though I haven’t been updating this blog, I’ve still been thinking about everything here, and continuing to study paranormal and metaphysical ideologies.
Now I’m back, and following up on my previous post, where I wrote about entering a compounding pharmacy in my county, and stepping back 40 years into the shockingly evangelical era of alternative medicine. I had the opportunity to revisit that era again this year, this time with slightly different results.
Alternatives become necessary when the conventional fails, continued
Street drug serenade: I’m still supporting the friend whose prescription I was picking up at that compounding pharmacy back in 2013. My friend’s condition is serious and ongoing, and she and her doctors have tried everything on-label and off-label to address her chronic illness. She’s been on more medications and therapies than we can count, and though her doctor is conventional, he will often try alternative medications and treatments if he thinks there’s a chance that they might help.
There is a very, very off-label medication that I discovered for my friend’s condition; it’s known primarily as a street drug, and it needs to be administered by IV. We learned about this medication a few years ago, and tried to get my friend into a trial at the National Institutes of Health, but it didn’t work out, and we couldn’t find a local doctor who would even consider providing a trial treatment. There was one doctor in Los Angeles who offered to fly up to Monterey and provide an hour-long IV infusion for $1000 a visit, but the drive from here is 3 hours each way, and it just never came together.
Last month, my friend’s doctor discovered a clinic in a nearby county that offers IV infusions of this drug for $175 per treatment! So we went there together (my friend is not allowed to drive after the IV), and surprise! It’s the health spa where my mom worked when I was a teen and we were camping under the stairs at her friend’s house. The spa has a new name now, and though the giant 70s redwood hot tub is gone, the leaky skylight has been repaired, and the smell of chlorine had faded long ago, it’s old home week for me every time we go.
But let me not mince words — this place offers deeply questionable intravenous treatments (see below) based on the discredited idea of detoxification, superfoods, megadoses of vitamins, and other alternative approaches that promise to return people to perfect health.
I grew up in that detoxing, miracle food, megadosing, obsessive exercising, perfect health community, and let me tell you: these beliefs are extremely seductive and powerfully habit-forming. When I went cold turkey on all of my miracle foods and treatments back in 2003, my health didn’t change at all; however, the underlying issues that I had been obscuring with all of my obsessive-compulsive health rituals became apparent.
My actual healing from my true difficulties only commenced when I finally let go of my alternative medicine lifestyle.
Unregulated medical therapies can be a siren call — and a refuge — for vulnerable people
But that lifestyle was very important for me when I needed it, and it continues to be important for millions of people today. The promises of alternative medicine are so wonderful that they’re hard to ignore: you can achieve perfect health; you can live without pain; you can live longer and better; you can detoxify your blood and your internal organs and make them like new; you can heal all ailments; and nothing you do or ingest will have any adverse side effects because it’s all natural.
When there are side effects, they’re nearly always attributed to detoxification, which gets blamed for almost every adverse outcome in alternative medicine (if that’s true, then why is everyone so hell-bent on detoxifying all the time?).
Each week, as I sit and wait for my friend to have her infusion, I remember the health center where I spent so much time in my teens fasting, eating fad diets, being massaged or manipulated by chiropractors, and using the sauna to detoxify myself. I also study the books in the waiting room, which are full of wondrous promises and glowing articles about this month’s miraculous superfoods.
Poor superfoods: I feel sort of wistful when a superfood gets pushed aside by a newer, even more superfood (spirulina’s future was once so bright!). I also feel almost left out: we only had a few superfoods back when I was young — just brewer’s yeast, garlic, Vitamin E (which we all overdosed on, whoops), megadoses of Vitamin C (whoops again), royal jelly (I haven’t seen that for years!), lots of juice (oof), and raw milk (ahem). Today, there’s a new superfood every few months. It’s hard to keep them straight in my mind. Are we still doing açaí berry coconut kefir waters this month, or has that ship sailed?
I also observe the people who come in for treatments. Some of the same types of people who visited this spa in the 70s are still coming here today: the health food store crowd; very sick people; worried well people; and extremely sensitive people who sit in a kind of overwhelmed misery until their practitioner comes to get them.
But nowadays, there are people here who weren’t a part of my alternative health scene in the 70s: the wealthy and surgery-enhanced beautiful people who spend a lot of money on their bodies. It’s a fascinating collection of folks.
On my last visit, I opened a leather folder that was displayed on the coffee table, and wow. The intravenous treatments were listed in a menu format (all grammar and punctuation preserved):
I.V. Therapy Menu
All I.V.s can be purchased a la carte, or in a package of 10.
Buy 10 get one free!
Traditional Myer’s Cocktail
This is our celebrated “Fast Boost IV” often named in natural medicine books and articles. Powered by potent antioxidant Glutathione as well as Vitamin C, Magnesium, and B vitamins, this IV takes only 15-30 minutes and can energize after a long a stressful week, as part of a longevity protocol, or to buffer reactions from detoxification.
One of our most popular IV therapies, CALM delivers alert relaxation and is ideal for patients with sleep difficulties, tension or anxiety. If you’ve had a stress filled week consider a Calm IV to calm your nervous system.
When you simply can not afford to be sick! This IV is perfect for cold and Flu season to beat or prevent the onset of a viral infection. High dose Vitamin C, and B vitamins increase white blood cell production and a special….
And so forth.
I read this menu with many minds. My first mind now is the one that does research and whose husband is a nurse educator; this mind knew that what I was reading was astonishing, completely unregulated, and medically unsound.
My second mind is the one with sociological and anthropological training; this mind was fascinated by the openly profit-based approach to health care — hello staff of Hermes! — and to the seductive pull of so many thoroughly ungrounded promises (to be fair, you can also see this menu-based and promise-filled approach in plastic surgery offices).
But I also had a third mind, which was the person I once was, who would have grabbed at this IV menu as if it were a life raft: “Just look at all the healing — omg, omg, omg! I wonder if I can afford ten treatments — which one should I try first?”
Every visit to this center was a chance to study, ponder, and reflect.
The problem with — and the need for — unregulated medical spaces
My friend did feel better after four infusions of the very off-label IV drug she was able to try at the center. It’s one of the first medications that has actually been effective for her — and it has few side effects. Her doctor is now administering the drug intranasally in his office nearer to her home (at $125 per visit) to see if that route will work as well. Excellent!
All in all, it’s a welcome success in a very long and harrowing illness. The alternative medicine world, with its seductive promises and unregulated treatments, actually helped an extremely ill and vulnerable person try a medication that could not be easily accessed through conventional channels. Thank you, unregulated medical space!
As I wrote in my previous post, conventional medicine has a very long way to go to become laudable, and this situation is one that occurs all too frequently — people can be driven away by a system that hasn’t found a way to serve and accommodate them, or people have to leave in order to find help that cannot be offered in the mainstream. So there is a place for unregulated medical spaces. There’s a place.
There are a series of bills and legal changes arising in the U.S. — including this California Right to Try bill — that seek to make experimental treatments available to terminal patients, but the process is slow and clearly not universal. It also makes desperate people wait until the last possible moment to access unregulated medical spaces. So there’s really nothing in place to meet the needs of people like my friend, which means that the unregulated spaces that exist in much of alternative medicine may actually be necessary at this point.
However, if vulnerable people are involved, then there’s also a need for some form of oversight.
The magical and unregulated promises of alternative medicine can and do injure vulnerable people. And it’s not as if alternative medicine is an offbeat sideshow. Alternative medicine is a multi-billion-dollar industry that needs desperately to be regulated, but it won’t be. Part of the mythology of alternative medicine is that conventional medicine and the AMA are evil, power-hungry, controlled by money, and invested in keeping people sick. This is a very effective way to keep people trapped in alternative medicine, and to aggressively slap away all attempts at oversight.
So we are left with truly unregulated medical spaces where people can say anything, do anything, and offer anything without being held to any standard or being subject to any regulation whatsoever. In certain situations (such as my friend’s serious and chronic illness), this lack of regulation can be helpful. But in many situations — especially when vulnerable or very ill people are involved — this lack of regulation can lead to serious harm.
Conventional medicine can be too conservative, too focused on risk management, too slow, too expensive, and too stubborn to be truly effective at the job of healing. Our fascinating mistaken cadeuceus, which confused the golden, winged staff of Hermes (undertaker, God of Commerce, and God of Thieves) and the simple wooden staff of Asclepius (God of Medicine and Healing) really speaks to the situation we find ourselves in with both conventional and alternative medicine.
Alternatives are necessary — and so is oversight when the God of Healing has been mistaken with the God of Undertakers and Thieves. Alternative medicine and conventional medicine, both doing extremely lucrative business under the shade of Hermes’ staff, leave many of us without access to safe, responsible, affordable, or effective health care.
Alternatives are necessary, but instead of doubling down on what we’ve got, let’s invite Ascelpius to help us develop responsible, worthwhile, properly regulated, and fully accessible medical spaces. That would be a true alternative to what we’ve got now.