IT HAPPENED TO ME: Alternative Medicine (And Poor Critical Thinking Skills) Almost Killed Me

Alternative medicine is the same sort of same sort of victim-blaming, life-shaming, sacrificial culture as a fundamentalist religion.
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Alternative medicine is the same sort of same sort of victim-blaming, life-shaming, sacrificial culture as a fundamentalist religion.

I’ve loved science since my first chemistry class in high school, but by my 20s I had lost my way. 

I often say that, in an alternate universe where I was never sick and had better critical thinking skills as a young adult, I might have a PhD by now. But here, in this universe, I do not, thanks to my own expert-level motivated reasoning and meeting the wrong people at the wrong time. It has taken me about 4 years of therapy to sort out the damage.

A notable feature of the clusterfuck that was my 20s was my brief matriculation at one of the country's four "accredited" naturopathic medical schools. I had my sights set on a Naturopathic Medical degree (ND). My trajectory from science-loving teen to self-important health nut is a winding and sordid tale too long for this article.

It was in a course I took in college one dreary fall semester called Alternative Medicine and Society where I learned of naturopathic medicine.

Looking back, that course was pretty appalling. We learned about debunked spoon bending magician Uri Gellar, Traditional Chinese Medicine, homeopathy, holistic nutrition, craniosacral therapy, dowsing, wildcrafting, colored light therapy, healing gadgets, Qigong masters who live without eating, acupuncture, and the Masaru Emoto water crystal experiments

As a cultural studies course, this would have been acceptable and even interesting. However, these things were taught to us as legitimate science. Fortunately, that department didn’t last. A few years ago, it folded due to lack of enrollment.

Here is a spoon I bent with my mind (so, with my hands) at a workshop held at my otherwise reputable R1 university.

Here is a spoon I bent with my mind (so, with my hands) at a workshop held at my otherwise reputable R1 university.

At the time, I thought regular doctors were like The Borg. You couldn’t get a second opinion because they all had the same opinion. I had an illness called ulcerative colitis that I was struggling with, so I was very bitter about not being curable by conventional medical standards. 

Well, other than having my colon removed, but I rejected that option as barbaric and kneejerk.

Naturopathy seemed like a bold move forward for medical science. These “NDs” supposedly had the same science training as MDs, but could give patients more options besides drugs and surgery. 

I bought the rhetoric. I wanted to learn to treat illness at the root cause, rather than through symptom management. I wanted to understand why I had ulcerative colitis and really fix it so it wouldn’t come back. Then, I wanted to help others do the same.

I graduated from college with a degree in Nutrition, and immediately applied to naturopathic medical school. The school put on a good show, convincing applicants that it was competitive and selective. 

It certainly enabled me to justify the fact that no GRE or MCAT scores were required for admission and that everyone I met on interview day was present at orientation.

During my one month of study, I experienced condescension from instructors, shaming from peers, and generally very little support when I actually needed it. It was extremely cliquey. 

I was also told by upperclassmen that students practiced giving each other exams during 3rd and 4th year clinicals, including the prostate and gynecological variety. I was horrified at the thought. Turns out they really do that, and mostly because there are sometimes not enough real patients available for budding NDs to get their requisite clinical experience.

The campus courtyard may look inviting and peaceful, but guilt and shame lie just beneath its cozy veneer.

The campus courtyard may look inviting and peaceful, but guilt and shame lie just beneath its cozy veneer.

The coursework was disappointing, too. At the time, I was still fine with homeopathy, diets, herbal tinctures, and sweating out toxins. I was encouraged to continue with my crazy restrictive diets by instructors and peers. 

I thought I was experiencing the cutting edge of medicine. I was just surprised that the biochemistry courses weren't more difficult. I worried that if I finished ND school, I'd still need another degree in biochemistry to really understand medicine. I emailed my notes and syllabi to my friend's wife who was a few years into regular (real) medical school for feedback. She confirmed my fear that it was far too elementary, even for a first year course.

I ended up having to take a temporary leave of absence because of a particularly nasty ulcerative colitis flare, for which I was shamed and abandoned by my school friends. 

During my time off from school, I began researching the actual ND job market. It was bleak. Few in the science community seemed to take the degree seriously. For as much as it was costing me to be there (in loans), that realization sat like a pit in my stomach.

This library may not contain actual science.

This library may not contain actual science.

I was 2,000 miles from family and had no back-up plan. I got a job at a health food store to buy myself some time to figure out what to do next. I reached out to all of my natural medicine contacts I'd made through school and was met only with different shades of victim blaming.

“Maybe it's you’re too negative. Maybe your body attacks itself because you have low self-esteem.”

“Maybe you need to cut more carbs, or it’s an allergy you haven't discovered yet.”

“Maybe you need this or that supplement, or a chiropractic adjustment, and have you read Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra?”

“Maybe you just need to meditate, or exercise more, or do yoga?”

“Maybe this one healer can help you because she totally helped my friend and I heard she performed remote psychic surgery on a guy from 1800 miles away!”

I even met an old hippie in an RV on the side of the road for an inexpensive “acupressure” session. Shockingly, I was not raped or murdered. Not shockingly, none of the above interventions did jack shit. However, I did hate myself a whole lot more.

A wall of things that did not work.

A wall of things that did not work.

More walls came down. My personal life and finances began to crumble and on top of my poor health, I couldn’t cope. I permanently withdrew from ND school, but not because I had stopped believing. It was just becoming a logistical impossibility. All signs pointed to “Get the Fuck Out.”

I made a few more desperate grabs at health. I made an appointment with a naturopath who said that because my body temperature ran slightly lower than 98.6 (it was 97.1), it meant that I had some thyroid issues. 

He ordered some hormone blood tests and prepared a custom medicinal powder for me to mix into smoothies. It contained herbs and desiccated animal glands. He asked me to name it, so I called tearfully called it “Happy Powder.”

Happy Powder in tote, I was still sick. I made a phone appointment with a homeopathic ND who practiced in another state. Homeopathy is not just a synonym for natural. It is the delicate art of separating patients from their money by giving them sugar pills or water and claiming that it contains medicine. 

She recommended all sorts of remedies that did not work at all. I called her once, in tears, saying I had just passed a half a cup of blood into the toilet. She told me it was probably because I was not being diligent enough with my regimen. I cursed her out and hung up on her.

My roommate found me crawling around on the floor looking for the phone to call 911. I was nearly blacking out. She drove me to the emergency room where I was admitted for three weeks. I weighed 100 pounds. After my release, at 26 years old, I moved across the country and back in with my parents.

Back home, I tried more alternative medicine for three more years before ending up in the ICU with acute kidney failure and out of control inflammatory bowel symptoms from all of the useless drugs and supplements I was ingesting without proper follow up with a qualified medical professional.

I decided that perfect health wasn’t possible for me, and decided to have the total colectomy. I had not fully transitioned out of my hatred for modern medicine and conspiracy mindset. I had just decided that I didn’t care about being perfect anymore. I just wanted to end the UC flares and eat food again. I agreed to the surgery and all of its risks.

Now I am healthy. Turns out, there’s this thing called a J-pouch, which I now have. I also finally got real help for my mental illness, too. I made friends who don’t moralize food choices and who accept me as I am. I got married to the best person on Earth.

I still have a very complicated relationship with food. Since my surgeries, I’ve allowed myself to eat an unrestricted diet in order to maintain emotional stability and so I ended up gaining a lot of weight. 

I’d like to be thinner, but my mental well-being takes precedence. I have to let go of all of those memories of people complimenting me on how great I looked when I was obviously sick and painfully thin. I had to let go of how pious I felt when I was eating “right.” 

Someday, I hope to get to a place where I can handle a real healthy lifestyle without conflating determination with obsession. And maybe…someday…women will be allowed to be fat.

These quinoa biscuits I baked in college look like turds. Pass the nachos, por favor!

These quinoa biscuits I baked in college look like turds. Pass the nachos, por favor!

Even with the extra junk in the trunk and one fewer internal organ, it’s so much better over here in the light. It was not a quick fix and it was not easy, but the biggest difference for me was that I am seeing a real return on my investment, financially and emotionally.

I'm certainly not the first to say this, but alternative medicine is a fundamentalist religion. It is the same sort of victim-blaming, life-shaming, sacrificial culture that my husband dealt with growing up in an evangelical church. We discuss our parallel experiences often. Alternative medicine is a salvation based religion, except that instead of an eternity in heaven, you get perfect health.

As for my health future, I’ve left it up to chance. I do the best I can at managing my life, and if I end up sick again someday, I will be better prepared to handle it because of these experiences. 

I teach science at a two-year college, and the greatest reward is helping my students learn to apply critical thinking to unknowns and understand how knowledge is really acquired in this world. 

I don’t know how much good I am doing, but at this point I feel as though this is an appropriate application for my suffering.