I lost faith in doctors when I was thirteen or fourteen. I had gone to my physician for a checkup I needed in order to compete on my swim team, and he looked up at me with consternation upon seeing a scab on my leg where, a couple nights before, I had heated a knife and sliced out a dime-sized cluster of warts, these ugly little growths I’d felt self-conscious of all my life.
“What is this?” he asked.
I told him.
“Ho!” he said. I’d never heard a Vietnamese man say ‘ho!’ before. “That was very heroic of you — but we have stuff for that.”
His tone gave me the impression that he was insulted, but I didn’t understand it at the time. I bet he thought about how contaminated my surgical conditions had likely been, and how lucky I was to not have gotten an infection. I bet he thought about how clean and modern and painless and simple it would have been for me to just dial up the hospital, wait on hold, make my appointment, clear my schedule, keep the appointment, wait in the lobby, get the bastards removed with dry ice or nitrogen or whatever they’re using now, and finally pay for whatever fees and salves I would then have to pay for.
Or, I could heat my pocketknife over my bedside candle one night while I was reading in bed, slice the fuckers off, and go to sleep.
Yeah. I stand by my decision. Well done, teen me. In case you’re wondering, there’s no scar and they never came back.
In assessing modern medicine, I keep Andre Gide in mind. Gide wrote a book called The Immoralist (among other great works) in which he castigates the relevance and inherent paradoxes of morality, and I quite liked it in my early twenties. He used to hang around with Oscar Wilde, too, whom I greatly revere, and they used to exchange axioms and epigrams together. Most readers will recognize his most famous one, the witticism which I use to remind myself of my principles in judging many things, and particularly medicine: “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” The suitability will not be immediately clear, so allow me to explain.
In math, science, architecture, the arts et cetera, no respectable professional will say that the absolute answer has been found to any question in his or her field. This reluctance results from the extremely rational fear of the next expert proving the assertion incorrect by the simple application of a different perspective. Until recently, physical science considered material things solid; now these things are known to be particles in a mostly empty void like stars in space. This new understanding changed many things in math and natural sciences, and many people were made fools overnight.
What allowed some scientists to keep their dignity was their reticence in assuming an answer. Answers are funny things. They presume to be splinters of an overarching, all-inclusive and ultimate truth, but while a so-called ultimate truth would need to be timeless, answers are too specific for elasticity or longevity and are changed out for more-contemporary answers all the time.
Ha ha, yeah. . . Answers.
Gide’s “truth” is the same thing. He knew that the answer, truth, or whatever you like could be perfectly suitable to one question or another, but understood also that a truth transcending all problems, for all circumstances, from every perspective, and for all time to be very, very unlikely. I see medicine as modernity’s various truths or answers to its questions about health. I see medical problems changing with the times, morphing in response to ever-changing atmospheres and causes, answers transforming to match reincarnating problems. Illnesses have always come from different causes but with the same symptoms, or different symptoms from the same causes, and medicine has done its best to keep abreast of it all, by god. Medicine’s best is an educated guess in many, many cases however, and it’s healthy to remember so.
Another healthy thing to remember is, you can trust yourself. I believe that if you’re not too lazy or too proud to do a little research, the best doctor in any sufficiently common case is you. Very nearly all people are on some regimen, diet, or health plan of their own device at all times already, anyhow. Self-medication is ubiquitous. Everybody’s prescribed a massage for themselves to relieve a cramped leg, or applied pressure to stop bleeding, or performed oral surgery on a loose tooth (yanked it) and everyone who reads this has everything they need to do the research necessary to cross-reference different medications and treatments. All the same, some people go to the doctor when they get a headache; others refrain from visiting a trained professional so obstinately that, once the ambulance arrives, EMTs chastise them for having brought themselves to the brink of death. There must be a balance, one would think.
Me? I don’t suppose there ought to be a balance, myself — at least, not if “balance” means going to the doctor half the time. The body is not a feeble thing by nature. It can be made weak, but it isn’t designed to be weak. Humanity has survived for approximately four-hundred-thousand years, says archeology, which means that global climate shifts, meteor bombardment, diseases, predators, war, famine, and even poor judgment have failed to kill us thus far. If there’s anything I like to have faith in, it’s the magnificence of the human body.
The mind, however. . . I’m not sure I’d trust it to babysit my child — but I digress. The body is built to last, anyhow.
Still, some people go to the doctor for “checkups,” which apparently are intended to catch problems before they become serious, an idea which sounds pretty good at the outset. Consider though the obvious relationship between checkups and hypochondria: hypochondriacs believe they have symptoms of an ailment which a doctor says does not exist; people who go for checkups believe they may have phantom symptoms only a doctor can say do exist. A good doctor will be incensed at this comparison, and he or she should be, because he or she knows how much training and studying goes into a medical degree, how much diligence and care goes into his or her work. An unscrupulous, lazy, or perhaps merely money-minded doctor will scoff, too, but for very different reasons which are easily surmised. Checkups are not harmful if one has a good doctor, though. It’s just like taking your car to the garage for a professional once-around — if the professional knows the car well, then it should come out at least as healthy as it went in.
This is where the trail divides in the wood. It may be said that these concerns about doctors are neurotic or phobic, but it can not be said that I’ve indicted the medical industry unfairly, or even to the extent to which it has already been convicted. I choose to cross-examine the patients, rather. After all, they alone made the choice to pay someone else to do the research and suggest a mode of treatment. Much unnecessary woe can be avoided with responsibility and a little self-reliance.
Consider the question of pills again, please. How many people are on an anti-anxiety medication? Anti-anxiety meds have side effects ranging from awful to magnificently horrendous, with nausea, depression, impaired thinking and impaired judgment on the mild side, and mania, rage, vivid hallucinations and violent behavior on the other. How many of these people tried working out daily first? How many tried meditation or California-style yoga? How many prescribed a nice quiet read on the beach for themselves? Or — and sorry if this is blasphemous — but how about a cigarette and a beer?
The history of humans using beer to relax cannot be overstated. Benzodiazepines (the most widely used anti-anxiety medications) were introduced in the year nineteen-sixty. That’s fifty years ago at the time of this writing. The reader will smile to understand that beer has been used to combat anxiety for six-thousand years. It’s practically the first thing mankind invented after the drum. And tobacco? Hell, even psychiatrists will prescribe cigarettes under certain circumstances. It wouldn’t do to die of cancer, of course, but it’s worth mentioning that a shorter, calmer life is presumably preferable to a longer one spent in nausea and depression and punctuated with bouts of impaired judgment and thinking. If some doctor were to walk up to me and offer me a red pill in one hand and a blue pill in the other, saying, “Here, son, you look a little upset,” I’d say, “Thanks but no thanks, doc. I’d be much obliged if you could draw me a pint and spare a smoke, though.”
What can I say? I like my medicines tested — very thoroughly tested. I don’t trust lab coats much, certainly not like I trust a six-thousand-year-old track record. Beer may not be the healthiest remedy, but it’s clearly the most honest one.
The reader will understand that I’m talking with my tongue in my cheek, sure, but what I intend to say should be agreeable enough: one ought to take a moment or two to reflect on older, more obvious solutions to problems for which people automatically seek doctors. Many of today’s treatments are tomorrow’s charlatanery. If the colloquial terms charlatan or snake oil mean nothing to you, you probably know one and have purchased the other from him. Beer and cigarettes might sound sinful, but even the pharmaceutical companies responsible for producing “bennies” admit that the judgment and thinking of their patients is hindered. How many of these people are there? Forty years’ worth of patients! And how many people with anxiety, exactly? Only forty million. Makes you think about the actions of the American public a little differently, doesn’t it? Imagine forty million people walking around, nauseous, depressed, unable to think or make proper decisions — oh, and let’s not forget the rage and violence, either.
What’s sinful now?
Pharmaceutical companies say they’ve got a pill to fix “X” problem so long as one can afford to take it daily, but the pill won’t work forever unless its function is a basic one like thinning blood (aspirin) or killing bacteria (penicillin). Even these two time-honored medical traditions will be impotent against the issues of the year 3000, I’d wager. Beer and cigarettes? You bet they’ll be comforting the overworked and underpaid until the sun marries the moon and all the cows actually come home.
So the next time you’re feeling as though a metropolis of responsibility and woe were pressing you into the dirt, and you forget that you’re a surviving hero of four-hundred-thousand years worth of genetic and social fine tuning, consider putting your feet up with a cold one and a cool smoke before you reach for the psych meds. Humanity still seems alright after all those suds and tobaccy. Ain’t nobody can tell you what the benzodiazepine eaters are going to look like in six-thousand years.
Cheers, and Happy New Year, Friends!