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Yes, I'm From the Alternative Medicine Field, and Yes, I Take Medication

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My ME/CFS had been at a “functional” level, by ME standards, for a long time. 10 years, to be exact. I had studied nutritional and nutraceutical sciences for my undergrad, and was now studying naturopathic medicine. I was interning part-time at a teaching clinic on a focus shift for patients with ME/CFS. Food was my medicine, my body was my temple, vis medicatrix naturae was my mantra and I was a doctor healing thyself. Then during one winter semester I got the flu. Two consecutive colds later, I began noticing changes in my body I could not explain.

In chronic illness, your body becomes an ocean, you the sailor. You master its waves in order to gain some semblance of control. You learn to sail its storms. When one hits, you develop a go-to ritual for recovery. This is hammered out over time through trial and error, and everyone’s routine is unique to their body. Except now, my go-to routine created more waves. Every supplement I had relied on like a life preserver felt akin to poison when I took it. Even supplements as innocuous as vitamin C. I was now developing allergic reactions, paradoxical reactions, and could be found muttering under my breath “wtf” on the daily. It was as if I had been thrown into a completely different ocean, its waves defying all reason, knowledge and logic. Detoxes, juicing, every diet ever known to man, nutrition, hormone balancing, cortisol regulating, REM promoting — you name it, nothing was responding as it had before. Nothing in my human physiology or cellular biology textbooks could explain what was happening in my body. I felt my $150,000 education was thrown out the window, if I couldn’t even help myself with it.

Insomnia was the biggest change. Every night before bed, I would just lie there. Completely exhausted, I would be wired staring at my ceiling. Was this the “wired and tired” feeling so many of my patients described? The one I offered acupuncture and supplements in hopes of increasing their sleep even if by just by a hour? So many of them explained sleep only happening in “small bits,” a light “cat nap” here or there. This was exactly the experience I was having. It wasn’t that I doubted theirs, I just never realized how pronounced the experience was. It’s one thing being across from someone describing it, it’s another being the person living it. I knew then what had happened. My ME/CFS had likely progressed. To say I was devastated is an understatement. I felt as if I was drowning in waters I could no longer negotiate with.

I tell you this story because I am passionate about alternative medicine. I have been helped, have helped many and have seen many lives changed using it. It improved and sustained my quality of life for years. When and if I recover, I will go back to a field I love so much and dearly miss. I also tell this story to convey another side. When you have a disease, for which little is known, there is something you learn very early on. That is this: The more you learn about the human body, the more you understand how much we don’t know about it. There’s a lot we don’t know about it. I don’t know why my insomnia is happening. The root cause of ME/CFS remains unknown; research thus far shows overwhelming changes in nearly every bodily system.

I tell this story because I take sleeping pills. I take them on and off to have a better quality of life. Taking medication was never an easy decision, and I am very educated on the side effects of sleeping pills. They are scary, and I worry about them. However, the cost of not sleeping at all was huge. For three months I did not sleep at all. When I say not at all, I mean none. I have never felt so deteriorated both mentally and physically in my life. The benefits of getting some sleep, although poor quality, far outweighed this. This cost benefit analysis is a very personal one, and the decision was not an easy one for me to make.

I tell this story because medication policing and shaming needs to end. There is so much stigma, especially from the fields I’ve studied and worked in. I distinctly remember one professor saying in front of a classroom of students, that anyone who takes sleeping pills needs to “address the real issues in their life” and stop taking them. I’ve even had a partner hide my sleeping pills on me, because he “didn’t want me taking anything that wasn’t natural.” Believe it or not, that relationship didn’t last. I also had a roommate confide in me, as if it were her “dirty little secret,” that she needed medication to stabilize her severe OCD. Severe OCD that she resisted trying medication for because she was afraid of side effects and stigma. She judged herself so harshly. How could she authentically stand behind her values as an alternative healthcare provider, and have a reliance on medication? She grappled with this for years, and struggled greatly. She now regrets not trying medication sooner. For her, it allowed her to be in the program, and decreased her symptoms so she could pursue her dreams.

painting by the author of a woman holding a plant in one hand and medication in the other
By Christina Baltais

Medication is not the answer. Alternative medicine is not the answer. I think the answer lies in letting people feel safe to explore and find what works best for their bodies and their circumstances. There is a time and place for both. I use both, have been helped by both, and think shame and stigma need to be removed from the equation. I’m tired of people continuously feeling they have the expertise to know how to navigate an ocean better than the sailor who lives in it. I’m tired of people talking down on others and making sweeping assumptions and judgments. As if medication is just a quick fix and something you unconsciously pop in your mouth like a pez candy. A “quick fix” because you “don’t want to deal with the issues in your life.” As if ME/CFS is something I can fold neatly in a box, throw a stamp on and mail off and be over and done with.

I’m tired of it, because it’s not true. I am here to tell you it is not true. I’m here to tell you it’s OK if you use both, one or the other, or none at all. The answer of what works best for your body can change over time too, and reflecting and re-evaluating is a constant part of the process. I am here to tell you to listen and trust your own body, and find what works best for you. Your body knows best.

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Originally published: December 1, 2017
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