I’m hanging out on some rough terrain between conventional and alternative medicine, not sure if dabbling in both simultaneously is allowed. I can feel the tension between them as real as I did between my parents during their hostile divorce when I was 11.
Traditional medicine says that we just don’t have a lot of data to support the treatment of mood disorders with natural or dietary supplements. In the Johns Hopkins Depression & Anxiety Bulletin, Karen Swartz, M.D., Director of Clinical Programs, explains, “Aside from [a] few placebo-controlled, randomized studies … much of the evidence for supplements comes from small studies, many of which used different experimental methods and even different forms of the supplement. As a result, there simply isn’t enough evidence to show whether these supplements will work as well as standard medications.”
There is also the concern about quality control and inconsistencies with each batch of supplements. Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) holds dietary supplements to a lower standard than prescription drugs, the quality and strength of products can vary not only from different manufacturers but also from batch to batch.
The majority of physicians gives the stuff of holistic medicine the respect they would a remedy right out of a Harry Potter book and consider it either dangerous or less than helpful.
Holistic health professionals, in turn, usually disprove of the “pill-pushing” way most traditional doctors do medicine, and are not fans of synthetic medication. They view any capsule or tablet not originating in nature as a toxin, creating more work for the liver. Pills drain a depressed person of necessary vitamins and minerals that are required to build the brain juice they need for clear thinking, a smile here and there, and a sense of humor. Moreover, holistic or functional physicians fault the specialized medical model on which Western medicine is based: where each doctor gets one part of the body to concentrate on and that’s it. Psychiatrists don’t venture away from the brain, even though a case of chronic strep could be causing a patient’s OCD.
Earlier this year I rolled my eyes at any mention of a holistic doctor. “Been there. Done that. Bought the t-shirt and exchanged it,” I’d say.
Nine years ago, after being nearly drugged to death by a careless psychiatrist who switched my cocktail a few times a week and gave me 16 or so pills to take a day, I finally gave in to the peer pressure I was feeling from friends and relatives to pursue a more holistic path to treat my depression.
The first naturopath instructed me to color a wheel of my life. I suppose the purpose was to identify priorities, but considering the suicidal thoughts were pretty loud inside my head, the exercise flopped. I bought lots of his supplements and followed the directions, “tapping one cup of magnesium water over a phone book five times before consuming.” I wasn’t getting anywhere. I tried acupuncture and did yoga. Nothing helped. Then I thought I had found my perfect guru, a psychiatrist who said he embraced Eastern healing techniques. He told me to taper off my meds and we’d do some candlelight meditation. Somewhere around this time my husband found me in a fetal position in our bedroom closet, unable to do anything much more than cry. He told me that he didn’t have another few months to be scared to death to find me dead as I experiment some more with alternative medicine.
We went to Johns Hopkins, which I then dubbed the Land of Oz, and I was fixed (after a few months).
But for the last five years I have been broken again—functioning well enough to fake it, but spending too much time wishing I was done with this world and could go on to the next, wishing that my illness was terminal. My psychiatrist has been tweaking my meds every two months or so. That’s about 30 medical adjustments, involving 20 or so different meds, in five years.
While I think I have the best psychiatrist in practice today, I’m beginning to have serious doubts about psychiatry as a science. It’s so random, inexact, and dangerous. We are given these powerful drugs without a discussion about what the drug will do to other systems of our body, to our liver, or to another critical organ. It’s worth the risk if the meds really work. But when they don’t, I can’t imagine they do your body any good.
Conventional medicine doesn’t hold all the answers for me anymore.
For months I was scared to say that out loud, too haunted by that feeble image of me in the closet. But something has happened in the last two months. Maybe it’s a result of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program I’m enrolled in at the hospital, or maybe you just get less scared to color outside the lines with each birthday. I’ve moved beyond my fear of doing anything not approved by mainstream medicine. I’ve tiptoed over to the land of functional medicine—this time with a qualified practitioner–and am excited about what I learned there: that my depression probably has more to do with what’s wrong in my gut than the neurotransmitters inside my brain. I’ll write more about that in a future blog.
For now, I just want to say that the place of healing for me exists somewhere in the awkward space between conventional and alternative medicine. I don’t get the sense that there is a lot of traffic between the two worlds. Maybe everyone else feels pressured to declare loyalty to one, afraid to upset either mom or dad.
Published originally on Sanity Break.