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John Bird: When it comes to health, have faith in the alternatives

"Faith has got much to recommend it, but also to turn you running away from it. Faith is a mixed blessing, but I’m glad there were alternatives open to me when I needed them"

Charlatans

I lie down discomforted. I stand discomforted. There’s no escaping the pain in my back. Has this been brought on by yoga? One ‘down dog’ too far? Too much pretending that I’m a seagull, a butterfly, or whatever other position the instructor inspires us to commit?

I have spina bifida occulta, which is one missing vertebra in the small of the back. The occulta bit means that it isn’t manifest and isn’t the lethal wasting disease it sounds like.

But then, having only one missing vertebra is a wonder, given that my mother was a ‘fecking (her description) heavy smoker’ and said that it took 10 Woodbine cigarettes to birth my five brothers, but a pack of 20 for me. If you follow the received wisdom about fags, I should be full of health mutations – and have much bigger problems than a missing vertebra.

Often, the evidence means you should throw the key away on certain people, but I kind of ‘faithfully’ give them another chance. I only got out of the sticky stuff because other people had faith in me, with me showing very little evidence of being better than I had been

Recently, I also heard that as a child who witnessed (what’s now called) domestic violence, I should have very slow responses, especially when driving. Up to two seconds slower, they say, with law courts in Scotland now taking account of domestic violence experiences when they hear road accident cases. As someone who’s never been in an accident, except when others have banged into me, I’ll need to stay vigilant as the years pile up.

The other day, coinciding with the onslaught of my bad back, I received an email from Humanists UK, who used to be the British Humanist Association, celebrating with glee that NHS funding for homeopathy in London is set to end in April. That they’d finally helped snuff out NHS-funded homeopathic treatments in the capital, with funding cut off to the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, formerly the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital. Aside from some recalcitrant pockets in Bristol and Glasgow, we’re about to be free of support from what humanists say is charlatan medicine that doesn’t work.

The victorious email from Humanists UK coinciding with the onslaught of an age-old back problem of mine was a strange moment. Almost as if the bad back underlined that Humanists UK had probably avoided back problems among its membership.

And that perhaps I should become one. How come, you may ask?

Back in my twenties, when I was badly injured, the hospital and GP gave me painkillers and muscle relaxants for my ferociously painful back. Eventually, I crawled into a Chinese doctor’s surgery on the recommendation of a man who’d used the service before. The Chinese doctor, though perhaps not licensed in the UK, gave me acupuncture. I walked out, and back into work in heavy engineering.

Over the years, I’ve tried the NHS. But aside from giving me pills they couldn’t get me up and walking. Therapy was offered but I had to be pain-free. So whenever the back went, I’d head for the very people that Humanists UK (presumably) think are charlatans and deceivers. I tried, as well as acupuncture, the Alexander technique, which got me walking straight and upright in between my outbursts of collapse. I tried osteopathy, and even homeopathic medicine, for very severe outbursts of anger. This was not related to my back, as I was forever arguing aggressively with people in pubs and at work, and a homeopathic concoction quelled my outrages for a commendable period of time; even if humanists cannot conceive of such an outcome.

Once, in terrible pain and crying with a back spasm, I was given pethidine in University Hospital Lewisham which solved the immediate problem. When I asked the doctor – having never had an all-encompassing spasm in my life – what was wrong, she told me I ‘had a bad back’. She was right, but she said she had little in her medicinal armoury to aid her in aiding me.

A few years later, a firefighter in the USA had to deliver me to hospital. After a soothing injection to ward off the pain, I was advised to rest. And then, a few days later, an osteopath got me back on my feet.

Perhaps the problem from Humanists UK’s view is that to do alternative, you need to have faith. And faith is, unsurprisingly, light years away from them. Perhaps it was faith that got me to take my eight-year-old to a cranial osteopath to cure her of (four years of) eczema that had proven untreatable through the local GP surgery. The cranial bloke did it in three visits, costing £40 a throw.

Perhaps it is faith. If I didn’t have faith in humankind’s ability to sort the shit out eventually, I might drink myself to death very quickly. But then again, I do describe myself as a Catholic-Marxist, which means there’s probably a shed load of faith in there.

Often, the evidence means you should throw the key away on certain people, but I kind of ‘faithfully’ give them another chance. I only got out of the sticky stuff because other people had faith in me, with me showing very little evidence of being better than I had been.

Faith has got much to recommend it, but also to turn you running away from it. Faith is a mixed blessing, but I’m glad there were alternatives open to me when I needed them.

Perhaps there might be room for both strands of health provision. So much of alternative medicine is criticised for ineffective delivery. And likewise, there are critics of traditional Western medicine.

Perhaps our friends at Humanists UK, who are only looking out for our best interests, should realise there are those amongst us who swear by the results, and can quote chapter and verse of the ‘miracles’ of success. The reason I use the word miracle is because if, as the British humanists say, it’s all waffle, then it can only be a miracle.

And that in spite of the waffle, some of us do get better.

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