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- How and When to Be Your Own Doctor - 3/55 -
that could not be kept still. These are common problems with the older generation of psycho tropic medications, generally controlled to some extent with still other drugs like cogentin (which he was taking too).
My brother steadily reduced his tranquilizers until he was able to think and do a few things. On his own he started taking a lot of B vitamins and eating whole grains. I do not know exactly why he did this, but I believe he was following his intuition. (I personally did not know enough to suggest a natural approach at that time.) In any case after three months on vitamins and an improved diet he no long needed any medication, and was delighted to be free of their side effects. He remained somewhat emotionally fragile for a few more months but he soon returned to work, and has had no mental trouble from that time to this day. This was the beginning of my interest in mental illness, and my first exposure to the limitations of 'modern' psychiatry.
I always preferred self-discipline to being directed by others. So I took every advantage of having a teacher for a mother and studied at home instead of being bored silly in a classroom. In Canada of that era you didn't have to go to high school to enter university, you only had to pass the written government entrance exams. At age 16, never having spent a single day in high school, I passed the university entrance exams with a grade of 97 percent. At that point in my life I really wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor, but I didn't have the financial backing to embark on such a long and costly course of study, so I settled on a four year nursing course at the University of Alberta, with all my expenses paid in exchange for work at the university teaching hospital.
At the start of my nurses training I was intensely curious about everything in the hospital: birth, death, surgery, illness, etc. I found most births to be joyful, at least when everything came out all right. Most people died very alone in the hospital, terrified if they were conscious, and all seemed totally unprepared for death, emotionally or spiritually. None of the hospital staff wanted to be with a dying person except me; most hospital staff were unable to confront death any more bravely than those who were dying. So I made it a point of being at the death bed. The doctors and nurses found it extremely unpleasant to have to deal with the preparation of the dead body for the morgue; this chore usually fell to me also. I did not mind dead bodies. They certainly did not mind me!
I had the most difficulty accepting surgery. There were times when surgery was clearly a life saving intervention, particularly when the person had incurred a traumatic injury, but there were many other cases when, though the knife was the treatment of choice, the results were disastrous.
Whenever I think of surgery, my recollections always go to a man with cancer of the larynx. At that time the University of Alberta had the most respected surgeons and cancer specialists in the country. To treat cancer they invariably did surgery, plus radiation and chemotherapy to eradicate all traces of cancerous tissue in the body, but they seemed to forget there also was a human being residing in that very same cancerous body. This particularly unfortunate man came into our hospital as a whole human being, though sick with cancer. He could still speak, eat, swallow, and looked normal. But after surgery he had no larynx, nor esophagus, nor tongue, and no lower jaw.
The head surgeon, who, by the way, was considered to be a virtual god amongst gods, came back from the operating room smiling from ear to ear, announcing proudly that he had 'got all the cancer'. But when I saw the result I thought he'd done a butcher's job. The victim couldn't speak at all, nor eat except through a tube, and he looked grotesque. Worst, he had lost all will to live. I thought the man would have been much better off to keep his body parts as long as he could, and die a whole person able to speak, eating if he felt like it, being with friends and family without inspiring a gasp of horror.
I was sure there must be better ways of dealing with degenerative conditions such as cancer, but I had no idea what they might be or how to find out. There was no literature on medical alternatives in the university library, and no one in the medical school ever hinted at the possibility except when the doctors took jabs at chiropractors. Since no one else viewed the situation as I did I started to think I might be in the wrong profession.
It also bothered me that patients were not respected, were not people; they were considered a "case" or a "condition." I was frequently reprimanded for wasting time talking to patients, trying to get acquainted. The only place in the hospital where human contact was acceptable was the psychiatric ward. So I enjoyed the rotation to psychiatry for that reason, and decided that I would like to make psychiatry or psychology my specialty.
By the time I finished nursing school, it was clear that the hospital was not for me. I especially didn't like its rigid hierarchical system, where all bowed down to the doctors. The very first week in school we were taught that when entering a elevator, make sure that the doctor entered first, then the intern, then the charge nurse. Followed by, in declining order of status: graduate nurses, third year nurses, second year nurses, first year nurses, then nursing aids, then orderlies, then ward clerks, and only then, the cleaning staff. No matter what the doctor said, the nurse was supposed to do it immediately without question--a very military sort of organization.
Nursing school wasn't all bad. I learned how to take care of all kinds of people with every variety of illness. I demonstrated for myself that simple nursing care could support a struggling body through its natural healing process. But the doctor-gods tended to belittle and denigrate nurses. No wonder--so much of nursing care consists of unpleasant chores like bed baths, giving enemas and dealing with other bodily functions.
I also studied the state-of-the-art science concerning every conceivable medical condition, its symptoms, and treatment. At the university hospital nurses were required to take the same pre-med courses as the doctors--including anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology. Consequently, I think it is essential for holistic healers to first ground themselves in the basic sciences of the body's physiological systems. There is also much valuable data in standard medical texts about the digestion, assimilation, and elimination. To really understand illness, the alternative practitioner must be fully aware of the proper functioning of the cardiovascular/pulmonary system, the autonomic and voluntary nervous system, the endocrine system, plus the mechanics and detailed nomenclature of the skeleton, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Also it is helpful to know the conventional medical models for treating various disorders, because they do appear to work well for some people, and should not be totally invalidated simply on the basis of one's philosophical or religious viewpoints.
Many otherwise well-meaning holistic practitioners, lacking an honest grounding in science, sometimes express their understanding of the human body in non-scientific, metaphysical terms that can seem absurd to the well-instructed. I am not denying here that there is a spiritual aspect to health and illness; I believe there are energy flows in and around the body that can effect physiological functioning. I am only suggesting that to discuss illness without hard science is like calling oneself a abstract artist because the painter has no ability to even do a simple, accurate representational drawing of a human figure.
Though hospital life had already become distasteful to me I was young and poor when I graduated. So after nursing school I buckled down and worked just long enough to save enough money to obtain a masters degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of British Columbia. Then I started working at Riverview Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., doing diagnostic testing, and group therapy, mostly with psychotic people. At Riverview I had a three-year-long opportunity to observe the results of conventional psychiatric treatment.
The first thing I noticed was the 'revolving door' phenomena. That is, people go out, and then they're back in, over and over again, demonstrating that standard treatment--drugs, electroshock and group therapy--had been ineffective. Worse, the treatments given at Riverside were dangerous, often with long term side effects that were more damaging than the disease being treated. It felt like nursing school all over again; in the core of my being I somehow knew there was a better way, a more effective way of helping people to regain their mental health. Feeling like an outsider, I started investigating the hospital's nooks and crannies. Much to my surprise, in a back ward, one not open to the public, I noticed a number of people with bright purple skins.
I asked the staff about this and every one of the psychiatrists denied these patients existed. This outright and widely-agreed-upon lie really raised my curiosity. Finally after pouring through the journals in the hospital library I found an article describing psycho tropic-drug-induced disruptions of melanin (the dark skin pigment). Thorazine, a commonly used psychiatric drug, when taken in high doses over a long period of time would do this. Excess melanin eventually was deposited in vital organs such as the heart and the liver, causing death.
I found it especially upsetting to see patients receive electroshock treatments. These violent, physician-induced traumas did seem to disrupt dysfunctional thought patterns such as an impulse to commit suicide, but afterwards the victim couldn't remember huge parts of their life or even recall who they were. Like many other dangerous medical treatments, electroshock can save life but it can also take life away by obliterating identity.
According the Hippocratic Oath, the first criteria of a treatment is that it should do no harm. Once again I found myself trapped in a system that made me feel severe protest. Yet none of these specialists or university professors, or academic libraries had any information about alternatives. Worse, none of these mind-doctor-gods were even looking for better treatments.
Though unpleasant and profoundly disappointing, my experience as a mental hospital psychologist was, like being in nursing school, also very valuable. Not only did I learn how to diagnose, and evaluate the severity of mental illness and assess the dangerousness of the mentally ill, I learned to understand them, to feel comfortable with them, and found that I was never afraid of them. Fearlessness is a huge advantage. The mentally ill seem to have a heightened ability to spot fear in others. If they sense that you are afraid they frequently enjoy terrorizing you. When psychotic people know you feel comfortable with them, and probably understand a great deal of what they are experiencing, when they know that you can and intend to control them, they experience a huge sense of relief. I could always get mentally ill people to tell me what was really going on in their heads when no one else could get them to communicate.
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