The Awkward Place Between Conventional and Alternative Medicine


natural-homeopathy-therapyI’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.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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15 Responses
  1. Hi mate! I’m still here 🙂 Keep listening to your guts. I often say ‘if someone waves a fish over my head chanting then slaps me in the head with the fish and makes me feel better’ then I don’t give a HOOT how it works! As long as I feel better.

  2. MKO

    I do get less scared to color outside the lines with each passing year…I’m developing courage and confidence as I get older. Keep blogging Therese; we are all right here with you.

  3. Popsie

    Wow Therese, this is one of your best articles (for me anyway). Excellent piece. One thing you have not lost is your ability to write, and connect with others through your writing.
    Thank you for sharing your struggles and insights.


  4. Lynn

    Fascinating! (As usual) I’m straddling the same fence, in trying to manage my Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which I’m beginning to suspect has a link to my “irritable brain syndrome” (e.g. Depression/Anxiety/ADHD). I’m curious about the brain-gut link you are uncovering, as I’ve found my low-carb regimen (recommended by my Holistic Nutritional Counselor) is VERY helpful for my moods, energy, and focus. Unfortunately, my conventional M.D. took me off the very low-carb plan and added some carbs, in order to address digestive issues. I’m always hesitant to mention one practioner’s advice to the other, but they both work for ME, I have hired THEM, and so far, they’ve each been very open to discourse about diet, symptoms, supplements, medications, exercises, etc.

    I’m looking forward to future blog posts from you about this topic, because I, too, was way over-drugged by a former psychiatrist. I know that my parents were, at one time, very concerned about the trial-and-error process of psychotropic medication management. The side effects of the drugs themselves are what drove me to try to manage this by alternative means.

  5. B

    Thank you once again for another great article. You have hit the nail right on the head not because you write well. You are not afraid to be honest about how you feel.

    I personally feel Depression is overly diagnosed. No one is seeing the patient as A PERSON as long as prescription drugs & natural drugs keeps flowing & the gravy bowl is kept filled by Psychiatric & Physicians. This abuse is encouraged by the Pharmaceutical industry most Physicians are either ignorant or to busy to question.

    I had my children be seen by psychiatric & councilor at large medical center. This was a big mistake. Children are quite resilient & do much better than we are made to believe. My kids did not come from a divorce home so what is the excuse? We overly indulged? Really? My children’s shrink call it now ” Generation Trauma.” Wow! how do they know this? I sure don’t know.

    Parents are the best scapegoat for all the ills our children young and old suffer. Lets stop bashing parents & start seeing what’s going on. Depression & stress can not be all used for rudeness or bad behavior.
    Cut off & Estrangement is being used as another method to keep the bank account for ever secure. Depression & mental illness is not any difrent to any other illness one needs family support not Cut off.

  6. Tracy G

    With mental illness receiving more attention in the media, perhaps dialogs between treatment camps will increase as well. Good luck with your exploration.

  7. Mary

    Gut problems here along with depression/anxiety. I believe it’s the Vagus nerve that connects the brain and gut. I can’t seem to find resolution to either issue. I’ll be waiting for your update on diet changes. Ironically, I am eating a slice of gluten-free toast tonight for the first time with hopes of a positive change!

    1. Mary, there is something called “leaky gut” you might want to check out. Not all doctors buy into this diagnosis but it might be something worth looking into. Good luck

  8. Hey Theresa, I’m glad you’re venturing out and trying other methods. I, too, wonder about psychiatry. I’m not knowledgeable about bi-polar but I know that for clinical depression exercise and placebos have proved as effective as medication, You might want to check out the benefits of fish oil. I hope you find the right answer for you. God bless.

  9. Sophia

    The irony of traditional scientists criticizing other treatments for depresssion is that the research on depression medications or CBT is sloppy science at best. This might be due to the lack of proof for the underlying neurotransmitter depletion theories. The research just shows some people receive partial benefit from these treatments.

    It’s unsurprising patients want a better outcome to increase personal wellness in their lives, and will turn to whatever might seem to work – which is equally likely to be conventionalmor alternative treatments. The point is not to say a person should prefer one type of treatment in over another, but be aware and make informed decisions.

    I agree that having a discussion (besides the drugs or not topic) is imperative to healing depression. A great resource for this is Jonathan Rottenberg’s book “The Depths”

  10. myra solomon

    we could be two peas in a pod. I have been resisting trying “EFT” for some time, because, well, it just sounds so hokey. but i’m getting more and more desperate. Has anyone ever heard of this? or tried it? “Emotional Freedom Technique” also called “tapping”
    I am feeling like the first replier, Sam: i don’t care what it is, if it works. but i would be more motivated to make the attempt if i read that someone on here has experienced it.
    thank you so much for this website. it is helping me stay on this planet.