In Africa they have a saying:
“When two elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled.”
I started writing this book, Toasters Don’t Roast Chickens, on a wonky spiral pad, in one of those soulless rooms that smell of well-thumbed magazines warmed under strip lights that are on all day, a place where the chairs don’t quite face each other,.
I spent endless hours sitting in waiting rooms in surgeries, A&Es and medical drop-in centers, with a baby wanting feeding under one arm, and a three-year-old needing help to breathe hanging off the other. My sad, anxious, little three-year-old boy in my lap, concentrating so hard on every breath. Waiting to be processed.
Like so many parents, I had been sure there was something wrong with our child. More than just another cold, at least. But everywhere I turned I was told I was wrong, or just worrying. Or worse, I was an O.A.P. (over anxious parent).
That is, until we spent two days in four different waiting rooms. First, we were told there was nothing wrong; then there was something wrong; and finally Ben was treated. But then, I was told there was nothing more that could be done to make him well.
And I was expected to accept that.
Ben was three years old, exhausted, pale, thin and depressed. He was predicted to live with severe allergies, eczema, asthma, intermittent ear surgery and on steroids, with all their side-effects, for at least a decade, or more.
Having glue ear made him profoundly deaf in one ear and hearing impaired in the other. This makes it very hard to get to grips with phonics at school and resulted in associated learning difficulties.
All that conventional drugs could offer Ben was “management”. For all the syrups and suppressants all the doctors, specialists and pediatricians threw down him, they could only suppress the worst effects, ease his symptoms and manage the condition.
But that’s all.
They couldn’t cure it, or make him better.
One cold January, I found myself in my pyjamas, at midnight, facing yet another stranger wielding the solution of an emergency prescription for antibiotics. I looked at my scared little boy; he was tired of the routine, resigned to the process, and his lungs didn’t work. I decided that night that he deserved more than this, and that I wanted my sense of humour back.
I searched everywhere and in the end it was as simple as opening a book; a book with a different perspective.
It took just one moment to change his fate, a fortnight to release him from the numbing drudge of living with a chronic condition, and less than a year to really put him back on his feet.
I am not here to tell you that one treatment or another is the best thing since stay-on lipsticks that actually don’t leave red crescents on the rim of your mochachino cup. There was no magic bullet with Ben. What made the difference was that, as a mum, I was the right person in the right place to make integrated health decisions that were right for my child.
That cold January night, I took a deep breath and a long look at my son as an individual. I had felt all along that things were being missed. I knew his personality, what his home life was actually like and how he responded to his world 24/7. I was closest to him and the facts; I was there while his history was being made, every step of the way. I was best placed to make the links and informed choices that applied to him, personally. I could also see clearly when things worked. I could see the whole picture.
What I know now is if you only rely on prescription drugs it is like only using a toaster to cook with, you will never eat roast chicken.
It is not about right or wrong, or having to choose between mutually exclusive opinions. It is about balancing modern medicine’s strengths with the understanding that sometimes other things work too.
Our conventional medicine is embedded in a foundation of theories, with methods of testing, statistics and sound empirical experience to prove them effective and applicable. No other system is as informed about the human body. It is very good at emergency treatment and we all still need a doctor in the house.
However, if the drugs worked all of the time they would have done so by now.
Although it is claimed that there is no certainty that alternative treatments work – in truth, there is no such promise with orthodox treatments either. Despite orthodox medicine’s search for a common procedure for all people with a certain condition, any success with any individual is down to chance and cannot be relied upon.
Neither is it about monotone chanting and closing the toilet seat to improve your finances. I don’t wear sandals (well I guess I would if I could have Blahnik on them), but I certainly don’t knit my own yoghurt, shrouded in crystal-fringed Kaftans waving a dream-catcher.
What I found was that the answer is not with the allopath (conventional doctor) and nor is it with the homeopath, or osteopath, or naturopath. They are all options; genuine, effective, valuable ones when used appropriately. They are all routes you can choose to take towards an integrated approach to well-being.
It is about making our own health our job, one that takes into account our individual uniqueness. An integrated approach looks at our environment, our behaviour, capabilities, beliefs and values, recognising the innate resources we have available to stay effortlessly on an even keel.
I found the answer is in the quality of the questions you ask. I realised it is essential to take responsibility; not in a passive, positive-thinking way, but about our ability to respond. I learnt that the Latin meaning of the word doctor is “teacher”. And I learnt that, outside the seven minutes on average that we see our doctors for, we mums are the ones who often have to make the decisions. And some of those decisions may be ones that make the difference.
I discovered how critical it is to be guided by observation, to see what is going on and not just to look at the circumstances. All symptoms are connected. Symptoms are the rabbit produced from the hat in the magic show our immune system produces: to focus on the rabbit is to ignore the magician.
I now appreciate that the definition of well-being is being well balanced and it’s the immune system’s job to maintain this equilibrium. Like a tightrope walker, balance is about handling imbalance. There are two categories of illness: disease and dysfunction. We either have a bug or some part of us is not working well – life is bugging us. To divide problems into these two categories helps to decide a suitable treatment for them.
The good news is, it turns out there is only one alternative treatment to our conventional methods. Usually we treat allopathically (contrary to suffering), ie stopping symptoms by using ANTIhistamines, ANTIbiotics, ANTIdepressants, and so on.
The alternative is the “law of similars” – to treat with the body. Neither should be dismissed, and more often our body is distressed in both ways, and a combination of the two is required.
Most importantly, it brought me to understand three overriding principles that are traceable back to Hippocrates. The first is to ‘treat the person not the disease’, and who knows our own children better than us? We are the people who know best the people our children are. The second is that ‘prevention is better than cure’ and we mums are at the heart of that role daily, especially when prevention includes good sanitation, nutrition and chilling out. The third is to ‘do least harm’. I have found it more useful to turn that around and ask what I could do that would “do most good”. Either way, as mums we naturally have in our hearts the best interests of our children.
This does not by any means make us perfect parents, but we are experts in our own children and all we need is a little information. We are smart, competent and capable, we are the generation that lives in the eye of the information age, and we have the technology at our fingertips, literally, on a QWERTY keyboard. Unlike doctors, we don’t need to keep track of every disease. We can easily learn just as much, if not more than a GP, about the relatively few we have to deal with.
We have the chance to ask questions and, more importantly, find answers that mean something to us. Our great, great, great, grandmothers didn’t; they had to bind wounds with toasted cheese and suck on small frogs to draw the poison from a sore throat.
I was born in Africa, a continent not just far away in airmiles but a world away in economic, educational and welfare opportunities. I respect the chance we have here in the UK to determine for ourselves our course of action. We have choices.
I have spent six years trawling the Internet, reading the papers and attending the lectures, researching where we fit into our environment and what our actions, abilities and beliefs mean for our health. Travelling around the Third World, where I was born, to here, through applied sociology to psychoneuroimmunology, from 500 BC through medieval Christianity to conventional, modern medical practice.
It can seem like one huge mass of inconsistent information, facts, figures, opinions, arguments and counter-arguments, all backed by their own trials, tests and statistics. However, I believed there had to be a simple way through the confusion for us parents, and all this could be reduced to just a few fundamental principles, some useful tools and a short list of essential questions to ask. I wanted it never to be difficult ever again for any mother to be heard, to believe in herself and to do the best for her own children.
Busy mums like us have a lot on our plates, but healthy children eat and sleep well and they have the energy to get through a full day. They concentrate better and focus easily. They are able to enjoy those social diaries that we taxi them around. They can grow to their full potential, become self-assured, rounded humans and enjoy better prospects as they fulfill their aspirations.
What more could we want for our children? And having healthy children means life is not as exhausting for us. In fact it’s fun and it is sooo worth it. After all, who do you want looking after you in old age? Someone who can lift you onto a bidet? Or a hobbling inventory of drugs who needs more help getting out of a chair than you do?
I am a regular parent with far too much housework, kids’ homework, working from home and working-out by doing the school run. All I really wanted was to get it together enough to enjoy a glass of wine instead of reaching for it in desperation. I am now conscious about health, I hold it as a value and prioritise it. I no longer take my body for granted. But I am no different to you, not so you would notice down the frozen pizza aisle in the supermarket.
As parents, we agonise over the right schools for our children, read suitable books and buy well-fitted shoes, so why not put as much thought into choosing better health for them?
From one parent to another, if I can do this, you can too.
I am the one who only has left-over Christmas paper when there’s a birthday present to wrap and has to buy greeting cards in bulk. The unfolded laundry never makes it to the kids’ drawers, and breakfast is usually still on the table at lunchtime. I am no alpha-mum, and yet I managed this. There aren’t rules, there are principles and useful tools and effective questions – the questions you ask are the key to everything – that will help you to keep your medicine cabinet half empty and your glass half full.