A Rant Against Fake Meds

200.gifSwearing ahead.

Dear Reader, I have chronic problems with my physical and mental health. While these problems are not life threatening, they are annoying and painful and adversely impact my life on many levels. This has given me a personal stake in the ethics of alternative medicine. In short – as far as I’m concerned, anyone who touts a practice that has not beaten a placebo in a scientific study can die in fire, unless that practice happens to be harmless and cheap, which most are not.


I’m a member of a Facebook group that is dedicated to funny memes and jokes about chronic illness. Yesterday I found a post which mentioned placing sliced onions around the house to catch germs (the onions are said to pull germs out of the air and when the onion turns black you know it’s working). When I pointed out that this idea has been around since before the bubonic plague and makes no sense at all, the onion users replied, “But it works!”


Here’s the thing. Onions are cheap and onions do no harm. If putting onions around the house or, as some other people do, putting a piece of potato in their socks at night makes people happy, well, no harm no foul. However, we (chronic pain patients) are the targets of all kinds of remedies that really can cause harm and that do cost money. I’ve developed a true hatred for companies that sell products with no actual value. They prey on the desperate, a word I plan to overuse here because it’s the word that fits.


People in pain are like everyone else – some of us are probably stupid and poorly educated, but most of us are not. We’re just terribly, terribly vulnerable because we are desperate for sleep and pain reduction. There’s not a pain reducing method or weight loss method (low weight is supposed to help my arthritis) that I haven’t seen, realized is scientifically invalid, and then googled anyway just in case maybe it really would be possible to shit myself thin using diet drinks or cure my bad ankle by rubbing essential oil on it.


Not only is touting “alternative” cures harmful to the wallets and/or bodies of patients, it’s harmful to alternative cures. Essential oils really do smell nice which reduces stress, and some can help my stuffed up nose, but I sincerely doubt that you can prevent cancer by putting a drop of myrrh and frankincense oil behind your ears daily. The actual benefits of oils, assuming there are any, are eclipsed by the inanity of the larger claims – which I would argue is true of most “alternative” therapies which may actually be great for some things in some cases but which make such broad claims that its impossible to support them.


My disability/disease/whatever – it doesn’t give me super powers. It doesn’t build character. It just makes me miserable and I’m desperate to fix it. So when some asshole comes along and promises that I will feel better if I take this homeopathic pill, it’s all I can do not to beg him to take my money even though I know it can’t work. To that asshole I say, fuck you for trying to prey on my jacked up neck and my ability to pop a hip out of joint by getting out of bed. How dare you try to wring my money out of my shitty ankle and my shitty knees and my exciting new trick of spontaneously dislocating my fingers? And even more so, how dare you try to exploit worried moms and terrified cancer patients and people with other serious diseases? You should be ashamed.


There are plenty of uneducated and, well, stupid people out there, but I don’t believe that they are the ones keeping things like homeopathy and juice cleanses afloat. Desperate people are doing that. And when we do things like put potatoes in our socks, well, hooray for the placebo effect, but when we spend our money on things that are useless at best and harmful at worst, then we are hurting ourselves. Don’t let predators make money from our hunger to be thinner and happier and, above all, free from pain.

Between the Lines Book Club: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

between the lines book club logoOur book club pick for February is When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. This book is a memoir by Dr. Kalanithi. Dr. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. After his diagnosis, his wife became pregnant and he wrote this book in large part so that his daughter, who would probably not remember him, would be able to get to know him.

In an essay for the New York Times, Kalanithi wrote about how difficult it was to decide how to make choices when he didn’t know how much longer he had to live:

In a way, though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. Didn’t those in purgatory prefer to go to hell, and just be done with it? Was I supposed to be making funeral arrangements? Devoting myself to my wife, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my adorable niece? Writing the book I had always wanted to write? Or was I supposed to go back to negotiating my multiyear job offers?

The path forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d just spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write that book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help: What was I supposed to do with that day? My oncologist would say only: “I can’t tell you a time. You’ve got to find what matters most to you.”

Reading this book gives us an opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us. Ultimately Kalanithi found hope in the words of Samuel Beckett:

I remember the moment when my overwhelming uneasiness yielded. Seven words from Samuel Beckett, a writer I’ve not even read that well, learned long ago as an undergraduate, began to repeat in my head, and the seemingly impassable sea of uncertainty parted: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” I took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” And then, at some point, I was through.

We will be discussing the book at Arden Dimick Library on Feb 23, 2019 a 10:30AM. You can also leave comments here!

Thoughts on Reading The Age of Innocence


imagesThe Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton, is a tricky book for modern audiences. To start with, the main character, Newland Archer, is neither likeable nor relatable. He’s not a villain, simply a weak man. Meanwhile, the story lacks action. As my husband would say, “It needs more explosions.” In this book, even the most dramatic moments are delivered politely and quietly. The stakes are small, nothing more nor less than the personal happiness of three people.


Wharton’s writing has quite a bit in common with Jane Austen’s. Like Austen, the events of The Age of Innocenceinvolve small matters – clothes, dinner parties, marriages. When we read Jane Austen, we talked about how everyone in Austen speaks in a kind of code. In Wharton’s book, the author calls out the code and demonstrates explicitly to the viewer what the role of the code is, and what people are really saying:


 “The change will do you good,” she said simply, when he had finished; “and you must be sure to go and see Ellen,” she added, looking him straight in the eyes with her cloudless smile, and speaking in the tone she might have employed in urging him not to neglect some irksome family duty.


It was the only word that passed between them on the subject; but in the code in which they had both been trained it meant: “Of course you understand that I know all that people have been saying about Ellen, and heartily sympathize with my family in their effort to get her to return to her husband. I also know that, for some reason you have not chosen to tell me, you have advised her against this course, which all the older men of the family, as well as our grandmother, agree in approving; and that it is owing to your encouragement that Ellen defies us all, and exposes herself to the kind of criticism of which Mr. Sillerton Jackson probably gave you this evening, the hint that has made you so irritable… Hints have indeed not been wanting; but since you appear unwilling to take them from others, I offer you this one myself, in the only form in which well-bred people of our kind can communicate unpleasant things to each other: by letting you understand that I know you mean to see Ellen when you are in Washington, and are perhaps going there expressly for that purpose; and that, since you are sure to see her, I wish you to do so with my full and explicit approval—and to take the opportunity of letting her know what the course of conduct you have encouraged her in is likely to lead to.”


Her hand was still on the key of the lamp when the last word of this mute message reached him. She turned the wick down, lifted off the globe, and breathed on the sulky flame.


The central question of The Age of Innocence is whether one should, and whether one can, live what Archer calls “a sham life.” Archer believes that his sham life serves his family well, and protects him from want, and preserves an ideal of a beautiful society. But we (the reader, and the author, who wrote this novel after WWI) know the flaws of this society. We know, as Newland does not, that the Gilded Age will end and that the families of upscale New York are essentially the last passengers on the Titanic.


I found the following quote from Schmoop.com to be helpful in understanding the tone of the book:


The Age of Innocence is a love story, and a love story of the best kind: two star-crossed lovers who clearly belong together but are kept apart by mean people. It’s the same formula you see in all the great love stories — Romeo and JulietWuthering Heights— and practically every soap opera. There’s just something so dang romantic about impossible love. Yearning is cranked up to eleven, no one is getting sick of each other’s weird habits or nose hair, and there is so much sighing.


But this novel is also a romance of a different kind —a romance with a period in history. You know the cliché of good girls falling for bad boys, a la Grease? This is essentially the kind of romance between Edith Wharton and New York of the 1870s. Edith Wharton knows that New York in the 1870s is no good and will break her heart, but she can’t stop talking about how good it looks. New York in the 1870s is a heartbreaker, but an irresponsibly handsome heartbreaker.


Some things to think about:


  • When we ponder whether a story is about anything important, how do we decide whether it is or not? Is a story about the happiness of three people a story worth telling?
  • Who are the strongest characters in the novel?
  • What does the title mean? Is anyone in the book actually innocent? Is it an innocent age?

The Year, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

photo of Edna Wheeler WilcoxFrom public domain we have this poem about the New Year.

The Year, by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.