Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, our harvest feast of abundance. It's a pagan ritual, meant to let the gods know we wish to be well fed through the long cold winter. There is a sacrifice, of course, the homely turkey. In addition to the centerpiece of the meal, it's traditional to feast on mashed potatoes, gravy, the weird green bean and fried onions casserole, (weird to me), etc. There must be pie, if you wish to be traditional. Thanksgiving foods stick to your ribs. It's part of the ritual.

In order for the ritual to work properly, there should be at least a little more of everything than is absolutely necessary. There should be too much food, too much drink. There should be a crowd of people around the table. Celebrants should plan to eat and drink a little too much. Also, there must be leftovers.

In American society, this poses something of a problem since our cultural ideal at the moment celebrates those who don't eat enough. I'm not complaining; in every society, there's stuff about food. You could say that every society has some kind of eating disorder. After all, if we do not eat, we will die.

Perhaps I shouldn't worry so much about how people celebrate this feast. After all, winter is no longer a long, dark, scary season for we Americans. In fact, Thanksgiving is not generally thought of as a ritual. It's a holiday, a time of gathering for family and loved ones. If people decide to pick at their food, what's it to me?

I am such a traditionalist!

I wish you a wonderful feast, no matter how you celebrate it. May you never hunger, may you never thirst. May it be a gentle winter. May it be so.

The ritual sacrifice, elegantly presented.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kill the bastards

Ever since microscopes powerful enough to enable us to see germs were invented, we've been against them - the germs, not the microscopes. It makes sense. Creepy, crawly, alien-like things they are, indeed. If you doubt it, google "germs microscopic pictures." Yuck!

It makes sense that once we saw them, we developed a strategy of total annihilation. The goal was to kill as many germs as possible when cleaning house, hence the rise of antibacterial soaps and sprays. Kills 99% of germs on contact. We in my society became germ killing zealots.

The scorched earth policy also applied to the body, externally and internally. The development of antibiotic creams and ointments, antimicrobial sock and shoe liners, etc. - as well as prescription antibiotic medicines - blossomed into a huge industry. We would not stop until every germ was dead.

Recently we discovered that without bacteria, we are toast. Our health, well being and sanity depend on zillions and zillions of bacteria. Some years ago, ironically at the same time we realized bacteria were becoming antibiotic resistant, scientists began to map the human microbiome. Good timing! As they learned more about the importance of bacteria to every healthy function, even thinking and behavior, it began to dawn on them that killing as many germs as possible has probably not been that great of an idea. Bacteria are clever little things; they evolve quickly. The 1% that survive the chemical shitstorm of destruction we call housecleaning and healthcare not only survive, they become stronger. This link is to an article about bacteria that feed on antibiotics.

Oops. In our efforts to be clean and clear, pure, free of germs, we have made ourselves so much sicker.

The good news is, the scientists we trust to know what's best for us are beginning to turn around the decades old common wisdom of utter destruction. This is great! The sooner the better.

If you're ready to shift away from the Kill the Bastards strategy, I suggest thinking in terms of interrupting patterns rather than destroying the bad bugs. When you wash, your goal should not be to kill every last bug. By scrubbing with warm sudsy water (just soap, no antibacterial crap please - it's very bad for you), you disorganize the bacteria. The same is true when you brush your teeth, wash your hands or mop the floor.

It's not possible to kill everything "bad" without also killing the beneficial bugs. Too many antibiotics will destroy the immune system. Weakened immunity makes possible situations in which "bad" germs become organized, are able to gain a foothold in the vastly complicated body/minds we inhabit. Weakened immunity means we have no defenses. With no power to disorganize these cells, things spiral downwards. We take stronger and stronger drugs. We get weaker and weaker. It's a terrible cycle.

But things are turning around. The way scientists think about bacteria is changing rapidly.

I should say I am not against antibiotics. They are powerful drugs that must be relied upon from time to time. A few years ago, I came down with "the flu." I had a high fever and terrible congestion + coughing. As usual I gave it some time to run its course. I drank warm liquids, stayed in bed and waited. After four days my fever was still raging and I was coughing my lungs up or so it seemed. At that point I went straight to the doctor. I had developed pneumonia. i was so sick. Within 48 hours of taking the antibiotics, I felt almost well. Wow. So yes, there is a place for these drugs.

Purity is overrated, it surely is. In fact, it isn't possible. Celebrate your bacteria, y'all. Without it, you could not prevail. Disrupt unhealthy patterns, but otherwise, please respect the complexity and wisdom of your humanity, including the germs. Please? You'll be happier, healthier, and more whole.


Monday, November 18, 2013

The Evolution of Midwifery

Back in the olden days, midwives had all kinds of herbs, mushrooms and stuff to help women through the ordeal of labor and childbirth. I bet they had them chewing tree bark, I bet they had the laboring mothers chewing on medicinal leaves. I bet they tried as hard as they could to ease the pain. I'm sure of it. Wanna bet?

The revival of midwifery in the U.S. has been fraught. Ina May Gaskin and the others who brought it back into practice had to fight hard against the medical establishment of the time. Childbirth was medicalized in the 1940s. A lot of things were medicalized at that time. The common wisdom for the next two or three decades was that the doctor knew best and the patient should just do as he said, without asking too many questions. It was a very harsh moment in modern medicine. The doctor reigned supreme. Almost always, that doctor was a man.

The practice of doping women up, strapping them down, then yanking out the babies with a pair of tongs, holding the newborn upside down while slapping its ass until the baby cried, continued through the 50s and much of the 60s. It explains a lot about we baby boomers, those hideous births. Can you imagine? The husband/father/partner was not present. His job was to pace back and forth in the waiting room, his pocket full of cigars to share when the baby arrived. Babies were delivered in operating room settings. The doctors wore masks - it was truly crazy. I believe the UFO recovered memories from people who believed they were abducted were really recovered memories of highly medicalized births. But that's another blog post.

Hence when Ina May Gaskin created The Farm (her birthing commune), what she was up against was powerful. I can only imagine the scorn with which she was treated by the medical establishment of the time. This link is to a Salon article about her. A nice profile.

I understand why they had to be so macho back then, but what I've been wondering is why they're still so macho. Because they are, they really are. I've never met a midwife who didn't have an agenda, that being "natural" childbirth. EVERYONE MUST HAVE A "NATURAL" CHILDBIRTH - OR ELSE! It's a crusade. There's fire in their eyes when they talk about it. It is intense!

What "natural" childbirth means is no pain medication. Every pregnant woman who works with a midwife is encouraged to prove herself in labor and delivery. Not only must she give birth to a baby, but she must also prove that she can go the course, hang in there no matter how horrible it is, without any support for pain.

For some women, childbirth is perfectly doable without pain medication, also without a great deal of assistance, but for many, it is a life or death ordeal. In the past, these women and/or their babies died, in great numbers I should say. Every woman is built differently in body, mind and spirit. I think it's a sexist thought form that every woman should be great at having babies. It doesn't make any sense.

I've seen midwives deny pain medication for women in labor even while giving them intravenous fluids and other medications (to stop nausea, for instance). I've seen midwives try to talk women out of pain medication even when the women had been in labor for 24 hours or longer and were crying out in agony, begging for relief. What is that about?

I witnessed a midwife offering a Percoset to a woman moments after the baby was born, after talking her out of the epidural. That does not make sense. Does it?

It's brutal, attending births with midwives, I tell you. When I attended births, it was as a doula. I was there for the mother and did not have an agenda, except to assist the mother in every way I could. My goal was to go with the flow of the moment rather than follow a particular script. When they asked for pain relief, I made sure they got it. I've had to shout at midwives to make that happen, make a scene at the nurse's station. It's bizarre!

Why? Why is this cruelty still thought necessary? The dreaded epidural does not cross the placenta; it does not affect the baby. Anesthesiologists are so good with this procedure these days - women still have sensation, just not excruciating pain. Women can and do push out their babies after an epidural. Why is it still so reviled?

Why haven't midwives incorporated acupuncture and herbs into their practice? In China, certain surgeries are performed without anesthesia, because acupuncture is so good for easing pain. Why hasn't this "natural" process been integrated? The only pain relief I've seen them offer is the injection of water under the skin at the sacrum, usually for back labor. The shots are horribly painful, though afterwards they seem to bring relief temporarily. But they hurt like hell. It seems a part of the hazing to me.

As for going up against the medical establishment, I wonder how it is midwives haven't noticed that obstetrics has changed drastically since 1971, along with the rest of modern medicine. I don't know of of any hospital where super medicalized labor/delivery is the rule of thumb. What is going on?

Yes we do a lot of C-section births, including for women who worked with midwives and were offered no support for their pain. I have several theories on that, too. That's another blog post.

May midwifery soften now that it's mainstream. May midwives learn how to ease pain with herbs, with acupuncture and other natural methods. May they befriend the anesthesiologists, work as partners with them when that is the best way to bring the baby into the world. May they back away from the macho model of childbirth. May it be so.


Friday, November 15, 2013

The Gift of Denial

I am in awe of corporeal intelligence. I'm talking about the wisdom of the body that is not in any way related to consciousness or thinking. Swelling that takes place after an injury, for instance, is the body's way of stabilizing the injury. Swelling is the body's way of creating a splint. An adema caused by inflammation - not injury - or a condition that is out of control or ongoing (chronic) has to be addressed, but injury related swelling is normal and even helpful. When the body's response is alarming, we always want to stop the symptoms, but unless it gets too extreme, the body is quite good at self care. If only we would listen.

Shock is one of the ways the body grapples. I'm not talking here about the kind of shock that takes place after a grave injury. That is shock in its most extreme form, when the person turns blue and is utterly unresponsive. In that case, they must lie down, be covered with a space blanket. Call 911 right away in that situation.

Even at its most extreme, shock serves as a psychological cushion. It is a protective state, part of the survival instinct.

People suffer from mild states of shock on a regular basis. Right after a bad breakup, or just after being fired, though we might appear to be fine, we aren't all there. It's hard to connect with any kind of emotion in those moments. We are in shock.

The grief often arrives a day or two later. I remember the phone call when my sister died. She was very ill; we knew her death was imminent, but the news still put me into a state of shock. It was early morning when I received the news. I decided I would go to work anyway, and set out on my morning commute. Halfway there, I realized the fullness of it - my sister had died. I turned around and walked home.

Mild states of shock also accompany good news. Imagine the look on the face of the person who has just won the lottery, for instance. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Shock is one of the ways we shield ourselves from the full impact of certain events. It is the way our intelligent bodies give us time to process a big piece of news. In healthy people, the shock gradually dissipates, allowing the person to integrate whatever it was that happened.

Denial is a form of chronic shock. It, too, is protective. Those who are in denial are often judged. I think of the mother who can't believe her daughter has an eating disorder even though it's clear as a bell to everyone else, the person who refuses to believe his lover has been seeing other people, the office worker who doesn't see how a co-worker is undermining him or her, the addict who believes he or she can stop any time they want to. It's not uncommon for other people, outside of these situations, to be incredulous. How could she not know? Well - she's in shock. That's why she doesn't see it.

Often, receiving a scary diagnosis creates a state of shock in the person receiving the news. Much of what people think of as a patient's fighting spirit could also be seen as a state of denial. It depends on the diagnosis, of course, and the personality of the person receiving the news.

I'm not one of those who thinks that breaking someone else's denial is always a great idea. I'm repelled by the practice of intervention, for instance, in which people gang up on the person in denial to bully them until they see the truth. If these people were capable of handling whatever it is they're denying, they surely would become conscious of it on their own, yes? I say yes. They're doing the best they can.

Life is tumultuous. You never know what's going to happen next. None of us are super heroes who can take it all in stride right from the get go. We are tender, highly emotional beings. Things get to us. This is part of what makes us so adorable, at least I think so.

Here's a link to a Mayo Clinic article about denial.

Should you receive shocking news or a bad diagnosis, give yourself time, please, before making decisions about what to do next. Treat yourself with kindness and gentleness, at least for a day or two, OK? Give yourself time to take it in. While in a mild state of shock, it's hard to make good decisions.

Actually, will you please always treat yourself with kindness and gentleness? Please? Thank you.