OK then; speaking out

Fainthearted male readers can go away now and come back tomorrow. You won’t want to know. After yesterday’s sex and Monday’s thoughts on criticising people – or not – we’ll mix the two and forget that we’re mostly about books.

I’m going to have a go at Hadley Freeman in the Guardian. I love Hadley, and she writes beautifully, with forceful and funny thoughts on all kinds of things. The fact that she’s wrong about what constitutes good clothes is something I’m willing to forgive her. The fact that she’s anti homeopathy is also fine. It’s less fine that she uses her clever, and therefore influential, writing to belittle and ridicule homeopathy.

Had I not been convinced otherwise, I may well have taken her word for it.

I was once totally unknowing about the subject too, but in such desperate straits that I grasped the straw. Had I not, then Daughter would have embarked on a very sudden diet at the age of five months. Now, it could have been the placebo effect that made me better that time. But if so, why didn’t I placebo my way to painfree ‘babyfeeding equipment’ after the course of antibiotics from my GP? I believe in them, and they had helped before. Or surely the second lot of antibiotics should have done the trick, and not had me wait until I poured sachets of caster sugar down my throat? Very expensive caster sugar, I may add.

Being quite anti anything new or strange, and fully expecting to find myself in the hands of a mad, and for some reason white-coated, scientist type homeopathic doctor, I was relieved to be sitting in Doctor Finlay’s surgery, spilling out everything about me and my life. £35 later I went home with my caster sugar, wrapped very deftly in small white pieces of paper by Doctor Finlay, and took some the first week, phoned him back, and then took the next the following week.

If that’s placebo, then I’m happy with it. Daughter should be, too, as she could continue to dine every day.

The fact that my Doctor Finlay was also a ‘real’ doctor is reassuring. I sent the Resident IT Consultant there, and he was so unwell that the good DF muttered that he ‘may sink so low as to prescribe some penicillin’.

DF took care of quickly disposing of Daughter’s food supply when the time came. I’d rather have placebo hocus pocus, than months of dribbling and discomfort. And it was straight into the world of Anne of Green Gables when DF provided something for croup. We crouped a lot for a few years, and it felt strangely literary to be getting familiar with Ipecac after all these years. Poor Offspring were easily duped and placeboed their way through not only croup, but car sickness (and if sugar sachets means less vomit in the car, that is surely a Good Thing?), the repercussions of tooth extraction (only with the second remedy tried), insomnia due to very bad tummy bug (teething powders, of all things), and even the acne responded. (SO sorry for mentioning that in public my dears.)

Mother-of-witch spent all her visits succumbing to colds accompanied by high temperatures, so I threw Belladonna at her with good results, although it never worked on me. And that Saturday afternoon when she coughed and could barely breathe? I read up and found two likely remedies, both of which I had in the house. Tried the familiar one first, being the unadventurous type, and it didn’t work. The second one did. The placebo effect works in mysterious ways.

One Spring I was boasting to another parent of the reduction in colds we had all experienced after taking Doctor Finlay’s ‘winter prevention’ caster sugar, when I started worrying about it having been less true that winter. My next immediate thought was dismay when it dawned on me that I had forgotten my September phone call to Lochgilphead (DF retired) and we had never taken any that year. Oops.

I now have half a shelf full of books on homeopathy, and I consult them whenever it feels like homeopathy is the right thing to go for. The rest of the time I’m satisfied with antibiotics and cocodamol. Oh, and I’ve paid for every single sugar grain of placebo effect myself. No such happiness as sugar on the NHS around these parts.

Hadley boasts of taking an overdose of homeopathic pills, to prove they are useless because they caused her no harm. It is possible to overdose, Hadley. You just didn’t do it right.

Still love you, Hadley. (And some of the clothes in Weekend are less horrendous, these days, btw.)

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17 responses to “OK then; speaking out

  1. She doesn’t know what she’s missing!

    Mind you, the power of feeling looked-after is a very potent thing.

    In this house yarrow tea helps with bad reviews and sitting on a newspaper (or magazine) (but not a book) prevents travel sickness. Also it is impossible to cry more than 28 tears if someone who loves you helps you count…

    And it is possible to overdose on herbs (see Socrates).

  2. Feeling looked-after is very important, but why did the penicillin looking-after feel less powerful than the caster sugar?

    Only ever sat on newspaper once, when some idiot (not me) had left the window on the car down overnight in a storm. On my side.

  3. Was it really just castor sugar?

  4. (Wonders if it would help with spelling too)

  5. Interesting one. It has been demonstrated (sadly I can’t link to any actual research paper) that the effectiveness of painkillers is only 25 per cent down to the drug itself, and is 50 per cent placebo effect.

    The important thing to remember about placebos is that ‘placebo’ doesn’t mean ‘fake medicine’ or ‘doesn’t really work’. It means something that works because of a positive psychological feedback mechanism, rather than because of any chemicals in the placebo itself.

    Homeopathic remedies are placebos; there’s no getting around it; they don’t contain any molecules of the substance they profess to have in them. But they do work, as placebos, in those cases where placebos have been shown to work (note: they don’t work in all cases. Pain is the most effective area).

    Hadley is only attacking the spurious ‘science’ peddled by homeopathic practitioners. On the other hand, would their placebos work if people didn’t believe in them? Is believing a deception a good thing if it makes you feel better? Does fiction fall into this category? Now you’ve got me thinking…

  6. The extremely small, almost non-existent, part of the remedy that does the remedy-ing is there, along with the sugar. If you buy the pills from Boots, then you get little cake decoration style white sugar balls, with the ‘non-existent’ (*) remedy.

    It might work better on my kind of spells than yours.

    * Silver nitrate was good for anxiety. Have just remembered the good old cat hair remedy, which does just that; helps those allergic to cats. (First eat your dose of cat hair extract…) Yum.

  7. That’s a good description of placebo. I can see that it was my calm motherhood-like behaviour as I doled out the sweet, and therefore tasty, medicine which took care of Offspring’s ailments. But why sometimes only the second or third remedy?

    And when DF prescribed the travel sickness remedy to someone’s travel sick dog, what made the dog believe in homeopathy?

    And Nick, you’re a boy, so how come you’re here?

  8. I’m with you on the homeopathy and find it almost comical that so many people are so strongly against it.

    My husband, who was completely allergic to cats – so much so that two hours in a house where cats had been would leave him looking like he’d gone three rounds with Mike Tyson – took a homoeopathic remedy for cat allergy- (against his better judgement possibly because his mother-in-law had suggested it first and he thought it was all hocus pocus) .

    He found that he was able to spend time with friends who had cats, with no reaction to them at all (the cats I mean not the friends!)
    After using the remedy on such occasions for a year or two – only doing so because he saw how well it had worked – he forgot to take the tablets on one visit to a house with several cats, and discovered that he no longer needed them.

    Nowadays the only reaction he gets is if a cat licks or scratches his skin.
    He didn’t believe in it at all and would have been delighted to tell my mother that it hadn’t worked, so can’t see how it was a placebo effect.

  9. Glad to hear it, Linda.

    My mother-in-law turned up with Rhus Tox when I was eight months pregnant and had chicken pox. She said it would help. I felt it was unlikely, and besides that, rather late, since I already had chicken pox.

    I daresay it might have un-chicken poxed me a little (!), and I should have been more sympathetic. But I was hot and uncomfortable and I itched. And they had to disinfect the maternity ward when I’d been, which is just what one likes to hear.

  10. Linda – the cat thing is easily explained. It is a curious fact that cat allergies tend to get less virulent the more you are exposed to cats. Now we see how this worked with your husband: taking the remedy gave him the initial confidence to start being around cats more, and obviously at first he didn’t expect it to work 100 per cent, so probably tolerated the allergy for a while. The allergy would have been easing the more cats he came into contact with, until finally disappearing. This is shown by the fact that when he forgot his pills, later, he found he didn’t need them anymore. But it was simply that his immune system had adapted to cat dander.

    The thing is, there is not really any such thing as ‘alternative medicine’. If a medicine can be shown to work, by scientific methods, then it ceases to be alternative and becomes simply ‘medicine’. This has never happened with homeopathy, even though it is available on the NHS due to its royal endorsement. Again, perhaps this is a good thing, if placebos are a valid form of treatment.

    As to the amount of the substance present in the pills – sorry, Ann, but there is zero amount present. Not a tiny amount but zero. Homeopathic dilutions are so extreme that they divide the original amount by far more than the number of atoms present in the original droplet. Several million million times (add more millions). You MIGHT get one molecule present in every 100,000 jars or so, but it would be sheer accident, and there would be other stray molecules of gold, tar, uranium, cat etc in there too, from the air.

    Right… down off my high horse now.

  11. “Linda – the cat thing is easily explained. It is a curious fact that cat allergies tend to get less virulent the more you are exposed to cats.”

    I can state with absolute authority that (certainly in my case) this is not true!!

    Sorry Nick, but only someone who has never suffered the ‘Mike Tyson’ brutality of the kind of cat allergy that Linda describes, and I know so very well, could say this so breezily.

    Have never tried the caster sugar remedy but this makes me want to give it a go.

  12. Nick – you wouldn’t be a cat fan, by any chance? My (mild) allergy to cats took years to develop, so being around cats did that, rather than the reverse.

    So, where 6c is ‘the weakest’ remedy strength, with nothing in it, and 30c the sometimes more useful one, which is stronger while having less of the nothing in it, then 200c must be… I can’t work it out. But it’s the one I once heard a horrendous overdose story about.

    Discussing health is almost as invigorating as discussing the weather.

  13. Glorious day here!

    I grew up with dogs and guinea pigs and budgies so for 25 years I never suspected that the occasional explosion of misery I suffered was linked to friends’ cats. It was only in my mid-20s when I catsat for a friend who’d gone to work abroad for several months and I, still oblivious, turned into a wreck of a human being – increasingly so as the weeks went on – that it became apparent that my hairy little lodger, Mr Spuds, was to blame.

  14. I’m afraid there is no way he ‘tolerated’ the allergy for any amount of time, Nick.

    Your comment…’even though it is available on the NHS due to its Royal endorsement. ‘ almost made me fall off my chair laughing. Since when did the NHS alter its medical opinion because of Royalty?

    Sorry, but this sounds like you are clutching at straws.

    On the other hand, there was a study of pigs which showed homoeopathy as successful than either a placebo or the standard dose of antibiotics (when they got ill during the fattening process). Animals don’t fake it even if they knew they wanted to.

  15. That’s right! Tell him off, Linda! I did warn the boys to stay away, but Nick is a cat lover so has to defend his cats, I suppose.

    Nick – don’t mess with Linda! Or you’ll look like you’ve been up against Tyson. Maybe.

    That wasn’t really a threat.

  16. Nah! I’m a pussycat really!

  17. Then no wonder that poor husband of yours is in such a state! ; )

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