A few thoughts on medicine

I’m reading an excellent book right called American Taboo, about the murder of Deborah Gardner, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga, by another volunteer in 1976. I’m not quite done yet, but thus far I’m impressed with the research the author did. He’s described the circumstances leading up to the murder very well, and I’m currently reading about the trial.

Neat fact: according to Philip Weiss, the author, “taboo” is the only Tongan word which appears in the English language.

The man who quite clearly murdered her was Dennis Priven. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a Tongan court, and spirited away to the United States, where he was supposed to be transferred to a mental hospital for treatment. That didn’t happen, and the case languished undiscussed and forgotten about by most of the world until Philip Weiss encountered the bare facts and was intrigued by them.

What put a bee in my bonnet today is the testimony of one of the witnesses, who described Priven being possessed by a devil. This testimony was used to set up a folklore basis for an insanity plea. Which, in my mind, was a brilliant scheme on the part of the defense. Knowing that possession by devils was an accepted reality, the lawyer used it neatly to lay the groundwork for the jury–palangis (white people) could be possessed by devils too, although palangi doctors called it mental illness.

Demonic possession and witchcraft have been a part of every culture. It’s a powerful idea. Someone is behaving strangely because he or she is possessed, and is “not in their right mind.” Your cows are sickening and dying because your neighbor is a witch. It’s been used as an explanation for all sorts of things, and as an excuse to persecute people as well. Many modern researchers suspect, for example, that the Salem witch trials were brought on by mental illness, or mass hallucination, rather than, say, actual witches. (My thoughts on the Salem trials will be held over for another day, dear reader. Suffice it to say that I recommend you look at a map of Salem in 1692 and ask yourself who owned land where.)

I suppose what I’m thinking about is this–mental illness, in Western society, is a well established medical diagnosis, and there are several types of doctor that deal with mental illness. Most of us in California have gone to counseling of some form or another at some point to settle our troubled minds. Mental illness is treated in a variety of ways–with chemical medications, with talk therapy, and so forth.

But who are we to say that we are not being possessed by devils? We like to jump to clean and clinical reasons for something–i.e. “Susie is not feeling herself because of a chemical imbalance in her brain.” But how did that imbalance get there? “Sometimes it’s genetic, or hormone associated,” the medical establishment counters. “Sometimes it just happens.”

Now I don’t know about you, but I imagine the devil is a rather intelligent being. It’s easy enough to be God, but difficult to be a manifestation of evil. I would think the devil is fully capable of understand neurology and brain chemistry–is it so far fetched an idea to think that perhaps the devil creates the chemical imbalance? The hallucinations? The voices? Isn’t this the sort of thing a devil should be good at? Tormenting someone in their earthly life as a taste of what may be ahead?

Ah, you say, but I don’t believe in the devil.

Sounds like denial to me.

I’ve noticed that most religions account for a devil or a malevolent spirit in some way or another. And most of us seem to need religion of one form or another, even if we weakly adhere to our religion. There are too many mysteries in the world to fathom without divine figures to lean on, in my opinion.

I’ve often found Western medicine imperfect for my needs. It tends to be reactive, rather than preventative. Take this drug and come back in two weeks. Pay your bill and then we will talk. It tends to focus on one issue, rather than the whole person. And it tends to disregard supernatural influences. There is no room for chi in Western medicine, although I can tell you that if I eat too many hot foods I experience a severe disruption in my qi. This is because I am already a hot person, so I should be eating cold foods for balance, not fanning the flames.

Oh, come on, you say. You’re just saying that too much garlic makes your stomach hurt.

Physicists are, as we speak, attempting to find and quantify qi. So there, people with fancy degrees believe in qi. Not only that, but they are seeking more information about qi as a force, and trying to discover what qi is, really. Any Chinese herbalist can tell you what qi is, and any acupuncturist can help you balance your own qi. You might find a significant improvement in you quality of life, too.

Have you ever been to a Traditional Chinese Medicine practicioner? They know all about talk therapy. And unlike Western doctors, they don’t always focus on what you, the patient, think is the problem. Oh yes, your arm may be broken, but you also have systemic problems which should be addressed at the same time, or you won’t heal properly. Traditionally, you don’t pay them unless/until they heal you.

Are there conditions which Western medicine can bring immediate relief to? Sure. Diabetes is a great example. Insulin clearly works and improves the lives of diabetics immensely. Conditions requiring surgical correction are another great example–my leg in gangrenous, yes, please, by all means cut it off while I’m under anesthesia in your sterile and well maintained operating suite. I’m not so sure, though, that mental illness is, because of our imperfect nature of the human brain, and our refusal to accept the soul into considerations for treatment.

When I was in college, I went through several periods of severe depression. This is a very typical thing for college students, I’ve noticed. I exhibited the classic symptoms which go along with treatable (with medication) mental illness, and was prescribed drugs for them. Which didn’t work. I went to weekly therapy. Which didn’t work either. When I was dragged to a TCM practicioner, I was treated to a totally different patient experience. He had trained in both Western and Eastern medical traditions, and incorporated important facets of both into his clinical setting. We sat down together in his living room and talked about nothing in particular for almost two hours. Then he gave me vials of pills and lecture.

“You are unhappy,” he said, “because you are not taking care of yourself. You are not eating the foods which you need, nutritionally, and you are also eating the wrong foods for your element. You need more cold and watery foods.”

He was right, on multiple levels. My depression did get a lot better, because I ate more healthy and I exercised more, both on his recommendations (things I think any Western doctor would encourage). But, also, eating the right foods, and eating them in balance, helped too. If I eat a small dish of yoghurt on the side of a fiery dish, it balances. If I start my day with melon, I have a better day. I don’t take his pills anymore, because I don’t really need them–he set me on the path to discovering and nurturing my body and nature. None of the Western doctors I dealt with thought to ask what kinds of foods I was eating, when I was eating them, what direction I was facing while I ate. My TCM practicioner didn’t take ten minutes to quiz me about my lifestyle and then hurry me out the door, Paxil prescription in hand. He got to know me, not just as a body and a problem, but as an entire being, and he understood my nature. Knowing my nature and who I was as an individual, he could formulate and appropriate and unique treatment for me.

If I have a broken arm, I will probably go to a hospital to have it set. Assuming I have insurance. But I will also visit my TCM practicioner, because he will give me the herbs to make it heal quickly, and heal right. If I have severe joint pain, I will go to the acupuncturist, because he understands the imbalance of qi that is probably leading to my joint pain. I have integrated Western and Eastern therapies into my life and am a better, healthier person for it.

TCM is hardly a one-shot, perfect treatment. It has pitfalls and troubling issues much like Western medicine does. (For example, some endangered species in Asia are in that position because of folklore beliefs regarding the properties of their body parts. More and more TCM practicioners are rejecting the idea that tiger penis will make you strong, or rhino horn will make you virile. Westerners, of course, continue to torture mares so that women in denial of their bodies can avoid the symptoms of menopause.)

I used to get blinding debilitating headaches. I was prescribed injectable sumatriptan for them. It worked, certainly, but the side affects were harrowing, as friends may recall. On night, a friend was convinced that I was going to die, because the side affects were so severe. I haven’t had a headache of that level in almost two years, and I suspect that my branching out from Western medicine is responsible for this.

I really believe that medical schools would be well served in supporting a dual TCM/MD program. Both medical practices bring unique learning to the table, and could complement each other very well. More and more hospitals are starting to accept the value of TCM–a friend of mine who recently went through chemotherapy was given a referral to a TCM practicioner for the side affects of the chemo. This is progress. The whole body needs treatment, and so does the soul, and it’s time for Western medicine to admit that.

[American Taboo]