Our Sense of Self

WineFest Revelers: Who do they think they are?

By putting on funny hats, do these WineFest revelers become someone different–better, more interesting, unique? Does being a member of the Grand Pubas change the way they think about themselves? Does it enhance their health in the same way having a pet increases life expectancy?

By putting Vicks Vaporub on my big toe for year, did that ointment make the ugly toe fungus disappear? Or was it because an authority, a doctor friend, told me he’d had good results from this very off-label folk remedy? He might have told me to wear a funny hat for a year and ended with the same beneficial results. I don’t know.

But I do know this: I can wear sandals without socks again. But I don’t know how much of my healing was “just in my head”–nothing but placebo.

But hang on a minute here. You can find dozens of sophisticated experiments and meta-analyses (studies of studies) that show an amazing thing, and a disturbing thing if you are Big Pharma: the power of a sugar pill, saline injection, mock surgery or its equivalent is often more effective at pain reduction, disease remission and healing than the multi-million dollar purple pills that are foisted upon us by the blur of a doctor.

That same purple capsule filled with NutraSweet by a true giver of care–the old-fashioned kind that knew us, listened to us, touched us literally and figuratively cared for and about us–would likely have as much or more power to make us well as the prescription simply because that kind of investment in our “hope and wholeness system” (let’s call it) is triggered by our high expectations of improvement.

We think, therefore we are.

With modern American health care, what are our expectations? To be heard? To be nurtured? To be treated with care? Not likely.

But where’s the funding to help us learn how to effectively use this powerful, knifeless, gadget-free, hard-wired healing system that is hidden in the power of a placebo? What we have here is the solar energy of the soul. The Big Boys are not so interested because the ultimate source can’t be patented, bottled or advertised on the Superbowl.

Do you have examples of the power of belief, suggestion or outright benign deception that made you or someone you know better? Please share, as I’m hoping to use this topic for the next Floyd Press piece I’d like to have done by end of day Thursday.

Serving Suggestion: Read The Placebo Prescription and The Placebo Effect: the Triumph of Mind over Body.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I trust old folk remedies and simple treatments more than the standard mainstream medical ones because of the general lack of side effects. I also believe our attitude and sense of comfort is an important part of healing. I believe in the integrity of the body to heal itself if not inundated with toxicity.

    I’ve always wanted a leopard pillbox hat ever since Bob Dylan sang about one and I think laughter is just plain good medicine.

  2. I agree with you. I am a very strong believer that our health is a result of many things. What we eat, our attitude and how we think, proper supplementation, and plenty of diverse exercise.

    I have been struggling to recover from tendonitis in both legs now for a year. A result of extreme over-use, caused by fast walking up to 10 miles a day, for 5 days a week. Add to that fact, I’m 65, and have been doing physical work requiring standing and walking all of my life.

    During this year, I’ve been to 5 doctors to find a solution. Not a one of these doctors did anything that helped my legs. As a matter of fact, they did more to cause the problem to become worse, than they did to help.

    As a person who believes in natural cures, I’ve burned up the net looking for information about what makes for healthy tendons. Now after a year of listening to doctors and getting worse, I’m doing it my way, the natural way.

    It’s too soon to be sure, because I gave the doctors a year, but now here’s what I think is the cure for my tendon problem. Tendons are gristle or cartilage strips that attach the muscle to the bone. Tendonitis happens when the tendons get dry and brittle. With too much use, hair line cracks occure in a dry brittle tendon.

    So my research was to find out what makes a healthy tendon and why my tendons became dry and brittle. I don’t believe age alone has to be the cause. Why do tendons get dry and brittle with old age, not that I’m old you understand. I believe it is because they aren’t getting all of the many different supplements they need.

    In my case I was taking, to the best of my knowledge, the supplements that are needed. What I was missing was enough water. I was in a high pressure commission sales job, where every minute and every customer and every sale counts. If you don’t produce in the top of the sales team, your gone. So I did! But in the process I was neglecting the need to take a break and have a drink. And this became a habit, even when at home I didn’t drink enough.

    One other thing. Tendons heal very slowly. When the hair line cracks happen, the cracks become inflames and burn and sting and hurt for about 3 to 5 weeks. Then the pain goes away. What none of the 5 doctors ever told me is that just because the hurt stops doesn’t mean the tendon is strong again. So when I started feeling better, I’d be up and out and back at working just as hard as before, and bingo! Tendonitis again!

    Through my own research, I’ve found out that it takes months for the tendon to regain it strong tough condition again. So my prescription for myself now is; plenty of water everyday, keep taking my supplements, and move very slow and easy for at least 6 months. That last one, move very slow and easy for 6 months is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. I’ve become programed to be jet propelled, being slow and easy will take a lot of effort for awhile! And keeping a good attitude and believing you will find the answers is very important.

    So I believe you need to go to a doctor for some things. I use doctors to get a diagnosis, listen to the information they give me and then do my own research, to find out the cause and what I need to do to eliminate the cause.

    But keeping a good attitude and believing, is by far the most important part of the whole thing. There have been so many times this past year that I began to get discouraged and feel like I was never going to get over this. But after a short time of feeling down and hopeless, I’d pick myself back up and get on the net and do some more research. And then I never stopped my daily meditation. And it was in a moment of meditation, that my prescription for myself came together.

    You have got to believe you can do it and research every avenue and put it all together yourself. The doctors won’t. Their concern is for the money. Supplements and water and faith and moving easy, doesn’t make them money! Take care of yourself!

  3. “Your wife is dying!” The ER doctor’s eyes were wide and frightened as he told my husband he would have to put me on the helicopter from Rocky Mount’s hospital over to Roanoke. Severe sepsis was the diagnosis and I was unconscious since Dick drove his pickup onto our sidewalk and piled me into the passenger seat. No time to wait for an ambulance, located down in the woods as we are.

    I remember little bits & pieces of that event, but when the chopper lifted off and I heard the WHOP-WHOP-WHOP of the blades, I knew I was going to live. Deep breaths, a breezy ride (what is this, MASH? I remember thinking) and, I’m told later, a team of doctors met the helicopter.

    My organs were failing, one after another, bladder, liver, lungs, right down to congestive heart failure. Roanoke assigned a specialist to each failure, and after 15 days in the ICU replete with vivid colors splashed on the walls and visions of sitting in a wooden chair that was floating in space while nurses and doctors casually walked by…on air..I slowly and gradually regained my health.

    It took an entire year to recover my strength from that ordeal. Placebo? No, not really, but I was told the Roanoke doctors say among themselves that the Rocky Mount patients survive because the whole town prays for them.

    And I did know, as that chopper lifted off, that I was going to live.