The people who took part in this research used a series of alternative versus allopathic statements in explaining what they see as distinctive about the focus and purpose of alternative therapy. Some informants highlighted the general approach to health problems, for example holism; while others focussed on specific techniques they associated with alternative healing, such as natural remedies. What is common in all cases, however, is that they distinguish alternative therapy by differentiating it from what they see as the negative standard of Western biomedical treatment (see Figure 4.1).
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All the people who spoke with me said that serious, acute, and emergency situations are the proper sphere of allopathic medicine. For example, Roger told me that while he is extremely reluctant to use allopathic therapies, he does feel that "medicine has some very powerful weapons" to mobilize in cases of acute illness. As Richard graphically put it: "If someone comes to you with their finger half cut off you don't give them herbs to make it grow back." And Scott said, "Obviously if I got a bullet in the head then I'd just go to the hospital. If I'm having a heart attack I want to go to an allopathic medical doctor." In contrast, the purpose of alternative healing is to address chronic health conditions, a finding noted in much of the research on alternative therapies (Fulder and Munro 1985; Montbriand and Laing 1991; Pawluch et al. 1994; Sharma 1990, 1992). For instance, Lindsay told me, "If I had a ruptured appendix I don't think I'd go see a naturopath, I think I'd probably be here at [the hospital]. But, you know, for long-term things alternative therapies really helped me." Similarly, Grace said, "If it's not acute, if I'm not in extreme pain, with the kidney stone I had to go to the hospital. However, if it's not an acute thing that requires emergency service, I will turn to my alternative health care."
Holism is perhaps most often cited as a defining criterion of alternative approaches to healing (Lowenbergi992).2 Likewise, almost all of the people who spoke with me said that alternative therapy is holistic in its attention to mind, body, and spirit, as opposed to allopathic medicine, which focuses solely on the body.3 In Nora's words: "One has to engage or enlist the person's body and mind, and I personally would add spirit, into their healing. It's not someone saying: 'Here, take two aspirin, call me in the morning.'" According to Hanna, this means addressing the "whole person" rather than merely the physical manifestation of disease. In her words:
A doctor can say, 'Okay, we've removed the cancer, we've healed that patient.' But all they've done is remove the cancer and the patient can still be quite ill and develop another cancer because they haven't been nurtured and they haven't been made a whole person again.
Similarly, for Jane, alternative healing means "treating all of the person" rather than just the symptoms of the disease. She put it this way:
You can't just say we're going to treat your stomach without saying, 'Well why is it the stomach? Is it just the diet? Does this person have emotional problems or stresses on their shoulders that's causing this problem?' You have to know the whole person before you can treat any one part of the person.
According to Lowenberg (1992) a central parameter of alternative healing from the practitioner perspective is belief in the uniqueness of the individual versus the allopathic medical assumption of generic disease and treatment regimes (Mishler 1989). Thus a few informants mentioned that, in contrast to a biomedical understanding, within alternative healing symptoms vary from person to person. Furthermore, what works as a remedy for one person may not work for another. Lindsay explained it this way: "Finding out more of what of how a person works as opposed to everybody's symptoms mean the same thing, just giving everybody the same thing I think each person's a little bit different."
Preventative vs. Curative
For several of the people who took part in the interviews, alternative healing is preventative, versus allopathic healing, which is cure-oriented
(Deierlein 1994; McGuire and Kantor 1987; O'Connor 1995; Pawluch et al. 1994; Sharma 1990). Natalie, a practitioner as well as a user of alternative therapies, believes that "traditional medicine is definitely not preventative medicine; mine's more preventative." Lucy also felt a focus on preventative care distinguished alternative from allopathic approaches. In her words: "Hopefully you can prevent the disease from occurring. There are diseases today that are horrendous that medication does wonders for, but [doctors are] totally mystified in preventing." An attendant belief held by these people is that alternative practitioners are looking for the causes of health problems, versus allopathic practitioners who only consider symptoms (Schneirov and Geczik 1996; Sharma 1990, 1992). For example, Lindsay and Greg both believe that allopathic therapy treats symptoms rather than addressing the underlying cause of health problems. According to Lindsay, "The problem I have with Western medicine, they treat the symptoms, not the problem. Don't just treat the fact that the nerves are pinched; treat the fact that you can fix why it's being pinched. Don't just mask the symptom." And Greg told me that he "went back after a month and a half of the [medication] and [the doctor] said: 'So how's it going.' I said: 'Well, I still have a bad back but I don't really care or feel about anything.'"
Most of these informants defined alternative healing by claiming that alternative therapies are natural, versus allopathic medicine, which is chemically produced (Pretorius 1993; Sharma 1992); or in Natalie's words, poisonous: "They push pills, and pills I do not like taking, except for the odd vitamin. I don't think there is anything you put into your body that's so poisonous like a pill. I think it will keep you alive, but that's all it's doing; it's not really healing." For Lorraine, natural healing is associated with spirituality: "I do believe that God puts, for every disease or upset, a remedy in a natural form. I don't mean that I'm averse to taking penicillin or anything, but if you can help it, I don't believe in taking chemicalized things, synthetics."
Several of these informants said that one difference between allopathic and alternative approaches is that alternative healing takes time, versus allopathic treatment, which produces quick results (Glik 1988). "Homeopathy takes a little longer sometimes," said Grace, and Lorraine argued that "The main thing that people must understand is that this is not a 'one, two, three month you're finished' situation. Natural healing is the whole body, not just this, this, and this we're correcting: it's total health." Furthermore, these people value the fact that alternative healing takes longer than allopathic healing, and several of them linked the speed of allopathic results with trauma to the body. In Nora's words, "I really do think that allopathic medicine is really slam bang. It's very fast but it can also be quite brutal in the effects it has."
Most of the people who participated in this research said that alternative therapies are different from allopathic medicine because they are noninvasive (Coward 1989; Cant and Calnan 1991; Goldstein et al.1987; Sharma 1992). In telling me why she chose a midwife for the birth of her child, Laura said, "I wanted a home birth because I wanted to avoid unnecessary medical intervention during the labour and delivery." Likewise, in describing foot reflexology, Lucy told me this:
It's a non-invasive treatment. What have you got to lose? If you're prepared to undergo the knife, and all the problems and complications that could happen, rather than looking at another method that may be able to prevent surgery, why would you not think about it?
These people also believe that the invasive nature of allopathic medical therapy puts them at risk of "clinical iatrogenesis" (Illich 1975:22). For example, more than half the people I spoke with were concerned about unpleasant and/or dangerous side effects caused by medication (Monson 1995; Pawluch et al. 1998a; Vincent and Furnham 1996). In Laura's words, "Garlic and vitamin C may not work as well as an antibiotic, but it works enough to justify its use and it doesn't have the side effects." Some informants told me they felt allopathic medication caused them to develop additional health problems. "I've seen too many people who've gone through on antibiotics," said Lindsay. "They get loaded with these antibiotics and then their body is open to everything." Some were concerned about becoming addicted to allopathic medications (Sharma 1990).
According to Marie, "It was very hard getting off the muscle relaxants, the codeine, the over-the-counter pain medication. It took actually over a year to get through all of that. It was quite a struggle." Others, like Jane, were concerned about having to take medication forever:
I'm still not on blood pressure medication. I've had high blood pressure for five years now, because anyone I know who has gone on the medication, you never come off of it. Some people when they come off the pills, boom: they've had a stroke or a heart attack because the body can't regulate itself without that medication any more.
In contrast to the dangers they felt were inherent in allopathic medical treatment, these informants believe that alternative therapies are non-invasive, non-iatrogenic, and consequently safe to use, a belief mirrored in general lay perceptions of alternative approaches to healing (Boon et al. 1999; Boutin et al. 2000; Johnson 1999; Low 2001b). Grace put it this way: "What the ear candling can do, they go back to their doctor after it's been done and the ear's fine, or maybe just a little more cleaning needs to be done. It's gentler, it's safer, it's less traumatic." Similarly, Nora argued that, "There's nothing in homeopathy. You could take the whole rack and other than having a real lactose kind of over-reaction and sugar reaction, you know it's not going to harm you."
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