By Kay Neth
Over the coming months, the subject will enter alternative health treatments, some intended to address a specific ailment, others designed to promote general well-being. And then we shall see what happens. The patient will share her experiences and assess her treatments in future issues of Greener. Her column is our petri dish.
The patient's medical history is not particularly striking or novel, and any interest it holds will stem from this banality. It suffices as an ordinary litany of health problems, one potentially experienced by many people alive and seemingly well in this country, living amid certain toxins, certain pressures.
The patient's medical history is characterized by relatively minor ailments, mental, emotional and physical, some undiagnosed, others treated pharmaceutically (with, among other medications, Paxil, Zoloft, Effexor, Celexa and beta blockers). Treatments have been marked by varying degrees of success. As noted, this history is unremarkable, for the time and place in which it has unfolded. Conditions or complaints of a periodic or chronic nature have included: depression, anxiety (social and generalized), attenuated attention span, moderate directional impairment, frequent stomach upset and ear infections.
The pills my publisher gave me
I tell him that I have stomach aches, that I have for years. Earaches, too. And trouble telling left from right. "It's all related," he says. He is sure of this. I am not. He gives me a bag of pills: supplements. All shades of green. Greener, green. Well. I'm to take five kinds a day, he instructs me. Like a doctor. (He's studied alternative therapies for years.) He circles their names in the manufacturer's promotional pamphlet. Acidopholus, for immune-system functioning and digestion. Enzymes, to aid digestion. Two kinds of blue-green algae, to increase energy, stamina and brain power. Bifidus, for the health and well-being of my colon.
"Have you thought about a colon cleansing?" my publisher asks.
No, I say. And I do not plan to think of it.
He has another idea. "What do you think of a health column? You undergo treatments for earaches, neurological problems, stomach problems. You'll tell readers what you're thinking and feeling."
I say I'll consider it.
This pleases him. He has his experiment. I watch him warily as he jumps up and down in excitement and claps his hands. Like a child. This is my 30-something-year-old publisher. A mix of Boy and Mad Scientist.
Two weeks pass and I'm tired of swallowing the green pills everyday. They don't seem to do anything. So I give them up. I take other pills, though. I use birth-control pills, and for depression and anxiety, I take 20 milligrams of citalopram hydrobromide a day. It's a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, an antidepressant, a cousin of Prozac. It does something right, I assume, because I feel better when I take it. But depression, fear and self-hate still hang out in the dark alleys of my brain, planning a comeback.
Produced by Forest Pharmaceuticals, citalopram hydrobromide is sold under the festive but nonetheless medicinally purposeful-sounding name Celexa. Break it down: Cel hints at celebration; lex denotes law. Hence, "You will enjoy yourself." Between Celexa and the birth-control pills, my gut sometimes feels as though it's being squeezed with a pair of tongs.
I told my publisher, Larry, about how even when I was taking the green pills, my stomach ached. He says the good of supplements is felt over time. And they may not help my aching stomach if it's a side affect because of the way medicine takes over the body. Celexa slaps my neurons around and tries to make them behave. It moves through my system and dominates it, declares it the province of Forest Pharmaceuticals. Naturopathic or holistic care is different, Larry says. It works with our body, discovering its secrets and woes, leading it gently to healing. Western medicine, especially Western psychiatric care, often lets us forget the source of our problem so we never find out what went wrong.
And I've always wondered what went wrong with me. Why don't I have a sense of cardinal direction, or sometimes even left or right? Why did I want to kill myself for six years? Why can't I keep my room clean? Why can't I concentrate? Why can't I get things done?
In college, before I got my first antidepressant, and before I began to go to the free therapy sessions offered by psychology grad students, my brain was betraying me, the unexplained depression and anxiousness was giving birth to some kind of madness. For a period in college, I bought Whole Grain Total cereal at the campus convenience store. Once I'd eaten all the cereal, I tacked the empty box to the bulletin board in my dorm room. First there were just a couple boxes, then a few more, and within less than a month's time, 12. I started to believe that the boxes were sentient, inanimate but somehow alive, and evil. I let no one touch them. They had a power I didn't understand. But I began to feel some sympathy for them as the months past. I began to love the boxes, and I cried and told them I was sorry when I took them down at the end of the school year because I was moving.
Now, why did I do all that?
A hypothesis: I pushed my fear of a hostile world and, later, my need for love, onto something safe, something that didn't even breathe. It was a matter of projection and dislocation, normal responses to anxiety. "Schizophrenia," my publisher says. Idiot, I say. We are pleased with our Psych 101 vocabularies.
The image of those boxes pinned to the wall, like a dozen brightly colored beetles in a display case, sometimes makes me laugh, sometimes worries me, but only seems strange when I forget what it feels like to look at life through the lens of illness, to wobble on the top of the fence dividing clarity from myopia. There are still times in my life when I'm there, barely balanced on the fence, and I think I can fall either way.
I think antidepressants have helped to correct some of the faulty wiring in my head. I think they also allowed me to ignore or forget certain memories and feelings. In therapy I'd face those memories and feelings and try to do something about them. Therapy is a kind of natural remedy-a slow, careful trip through the mind, through memory and emotion. It's expensive. Drugs are cheaper than counseling. That's the power of the pharmaceutical industry. It runs through my body; and it runs through medical schools and doctors' offices, through the insurance industry, through the economics of our country-a river of money and pills. Since college, I've fallen out of the middle class and don't have health insurance, so I can get pills for free at the public health clinic's pharmacy-which I'm glad for. I just wish therapy was also so richly subsidized.
A few days ago, I went to see a doctor at the public health clinic. My eyes became glassy and hurt as I held back tears. The dormant unhappiness in me erupts at doctor appointments, when I have to consider things I don't usually think about: what I'm feeling, whether my medicine is working, whether I need another dose or another drug.
What does this drug do to my brain? I ask my doctor. When I take it, I don't have to think about my problems, about why I was depressed, why I was anxious and why I am still sometimes both. That's forgetting, not healing, isn't it? She did not answer but promised to find the names of therapists with sliding scales for people like me, people with problems and no money. Later my throat hurt and I, despite its cost, bought a fruit drink infused with Vitamin C and echinacea. I hoped for an instant cure. I didn't get one. I should know better. A fruit drink is not therapy. But I'm always looking for a quick cure. When I bother to look.
The first experiment
My publisher sits on my couch. Beside him is me, along with a bag of naturopathic and homeopathic remedies he's bought at Whole Foods. My sore throat has become excruciating and is now joined by an earache. I'm feverish and laughing manically. I have six articles to finish in three days. But my publisher is calm. He writes on a pad of paper the remedies I'm to take and how I'm supposed to take them. Echinacea Supreme (the label promises "Ultimate Support for Healthy Immune Function"). Wally's Ear Oil (oily ear drops with garlic and mullein). Oscillococcinum ("Nature's #1 Flu MedicineTM"). Yin Chiao formula, a Chinese cure for the flu, and, according to the label, "changing seasons." And more green pills.
My publisher offers me a shot of wheatgrass (my first ever). It's the color of Astroturf. He's also arrived with a big container of thick split-pea soup from the Whole Foods deli, which I eat. I like it but it has a strong salty taste. "Is there bacon in this?" I ask because I am totally committed to maintaining my lacto-ovo-pisci-vegetarian lifestyle.
"Nope," my publisher answers. I should trust him. He's a vegan.
I keep eating. "Are you sure there's no bacon in this?"
He nods. I finish the soup within 10 minutes. "Jesus, that was good."
"It should be," my publisher says. "I doctored it up a bit."
"I doctored it up a bit. Amino acids." He adds contemplatively, "You know, that's probably why it tasted salty."
What a freak! But I'm better within a couple of days. Usually, I have to suffer these kinds of symptoms for a week, at least.
I call my publisher. "You know that stuff you gave me? I think it helped."
Then I realize that for him, my experiment with holistic and natural healing isn't really his experiment. He believes in this stuff with the same kind of faith my psychiatrists have had in serotonin reuptake inhibitors. And there's a large segment of the world's population for whom wheatgrass, amino acids and echinacea aren't a novelty.
They are a novelty to me. And in a way, I'm new not just to natural healing, but to healing, period. Sometimes I've been too poor to see a doctor, or too busy, or too indolent. And sometimes I enjoy being a little wounded, a little ill. Pain brings me self-awareness and a reminder of my body, and sympathy, and some safe satisfaction of the Freudian death instinct-that irrational desire to destroy ourselves.
In some ways, I'm more afraid of health than illness. A therapist once told me that as my depression lifted, I'd have to find something to fill the void it left. Pain had built a nest in my self-concept, I suppose because it was a salient part of my adolescence. So, what was possibly the worst thing in my life was something I was scared to let go of; it was all I knew. I could trust it.
Being depressed was me, and sometimes it still is me. Not knowing left from right is me. The periodic stomachache is me. Because suffering is me.
Oh, woe is me!
But not anymore, right? And I have this column, treatments lined up, big plans. Read all about it! "Girl Reporter Experiments with Natural Remedies, Heals!" At least that's what's supposed to happen. We'll see.
See the next issue of Greener, when the HANDLE Institute addresses Kay's neurological quirks.