Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Totally alternative

As many of you are aware, I attended the University of California at Berkeley - a great school, to be sure, and one with a very interesting history. Even people who don't know much about Northern California or about the University probably have at least heard of the Free Speech Movement, the student protests during Vietnam (people's park), leading to this idea that all Berkeley students are hippies - which couldn't be farther than the truth, particularly in this day and age. But one thing that came out of all the craziness of the 60s at Berkeley was a program affectionately known as DeCal, which stands for Democratic Education at Cal.

As an incoming freshman, I learned very quickly about the DeCal list, and why it was so interesting and exciting to people. DeCal is a program where students can earn university credit by teaching classes for other students based around a particular subject, as long as they have a faculty advisor willing to sign on to the class. Students must come up with a legitimate topic, syllabus, and assignments, and students taking DeCal classes earn what is essentially one or two units of elective credit for taking them. The list of typical topics range from Female Sexuality to All About Garbage to Edit the Literary Journal to The Poetry of Tupac Shakur. The DeCal list was sometimes 10 pages long, four classes to a page, and you got into a given class (generally) by showing up on the first day and hoping there were enough spots for you to get in. I took a DeCal class one semester called The Erotic As Power, which was all about things like porn and erotica and female empowerment and stuff - a mind-opening class, one during which I met a real-life porn star (Nina Hartley) and visited a strip club in San Francisco (full nude). Some of the classes gained strong reputations and followings; Female Sexuality, for example, ended up with multiple people teaching in multiple sections because there were too many people to fit in one classroom. I never did take that one.

My college boyfriend was interested in many things. He was particularly interested in religions and spirituality (he ended up being a Religious Studies major), but also in just about anything that might be considered unusual or different. Our junior year, he asked me to take a DeCal class with him (one of only two we took together) called Complementary Medicine. This class, held in a large lecture hall, pretty much consited of different guest lecturers discussing their particular alternative therapy each week, with a quiz at the end to show we'd attended class and could earn credit. I've always been interested in less-than-traditional things myself, including alternative medicine. Heck, my uncle is a chiropractor and I've been receiving chiropractic treatment (at different times in my life) since I was quite young. Also, my dad was convinced of the cold-warding and -improving properties of echinacea long before you could buy it in pill form, and I was treated to the disgusting flavor of an echinacea tincture in childhood. College Boyfriend went to massage therapy school and earned his certification while attending UCB, and I was his favorite subject to use to earn his required practice hours. The whole process was fascinating to me, and every week he'd tell me what he'd learned about the musculoskeletal system, or about the different types of pressures and strokes used in massage (my favorite one to say remains depotement, that quick karate-chop style that makes the recipient want to make noise that sounds like Tarzan).

Anyhow, when the DeCal list for that semester came out and College Boyfriend proposed that we take the class together, it didn't take much convincing. I showed up even when he didn't, and learned about all kinds of things - about biofeedback and how it was just starting to be used to help patients regulate their own pain management, about beesting therapy and why it could be a successful treatment for some types of arthritis, about accupuncture and aromatherapy (lavendar? Calming. Citrus? Energizing) and craniosacral therapy and osteopathy. I learned that altertative medicine wasn't just for hippies and didn't just mean taking tinctures of herbs that didn't taste very good. Mainstream medicine was just starting to embrace some of the ideas of alternative medicine, that Western, traditional medicine wasn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of what was good for patients. Since I took this class, many alternative therapies have become far more mainstream and accepted into our culture. I myself have had accupuncture (done over the course of many months at the clinic run by accupuncture students in Berkeley, and quite helpful), Chinese herbal therapy, massage therapy, and used things like cranberry extract to ward off bladder infections.

Back in the middle of February (that's two and a half months ago), I started developing bumps on my face. I thought they were hives. They itched and were red and rashy looking, and I really didn't want to look like that for the wedding. Luckily I'd already made a dermatologist appointment for an unrelated issue that resolved itself by the time the appointment came around. But I went in to the derm. anyway to ask them what the bumps were and how to get rid of them. I'd already changed all of my body products, detergents, etc. to see if I was suddenly allergic to something, and it continued, and benadryl made me so sleepy I could only take it at night (and it still only helped a little). The dermatologist told me it was some sort of acne, and pulled in another derm. while I was there to confirm. She put me on doxycycline. I was dubious that this was acne, even if it was stress-related, because it didn't FEEL like acne. I've had acne, off and on (mostly on until a couple of years ago) since I was 12 years old, so I know from acne. But they insisted, so I started taking the drugs. It didn't get any better. It got a little worse. I started taking two benadryl at night which helped a little more, but also made me groggy all day long.

It came time for the wedding and my face didn't look any better. I slapped on some makeup and prayed nobody stared too closely at my cheese grater-textured skin. I joked with people about how the day after the wedding I was going to wake up and my skin would look fine. But it didn't. It was actually worse, and the bumps spread down my neck and chest and to my upper back. When we got back from California, I looked and felt awful, and seriously considered wearing makeup all the time (I normally don't wear any) just to spare people from having to see it. But I was worried that would give me actual acne on top of whatever the weird bumps were. I knew I couldn't afford another derm. visit (I gave up on the doxycycline because 1. it wasn't doing anything positive, and 2. it had negative side effects) and couldn't afford the $30 for another primary care visit plus a 3 months wait and another $50 for the allergist (have to do PCP before I can get any referrals, thanks HMO!) I started talking to my friend Julie about it, who is a big proponent of alternative therapies. She recommended I visit an apothecary she'd had a lot of good experience with. So I went in, told them my symptoms and what I'd already done to try to correct the issue, and they sold me two products, a tincture for liver/skin and a topical essential oil.

I started using them. Then I stopped using the essential oil (blue chamomile), because it just irritated my skin more and smelled bad. The more consistently I took the tincture (60 drops 4 times a day in a little water, and MAN is it gross), the better my skin started to get. After two months of getting creeped out every time I touched my face because of how it DIDN'T FEEL LIKE SKIN, ACK the skin on my face is finally starting to feel less bumpy, less red, less itchy and rashy. It's not smooth yet by any stretch of the imagination, and my neck is still not quite there, but it's SO MUCH BETTER than it was just two weeks ago. I don't know if it's actually the tincture I'm taking, or if it's just finally de-stressing from wedding stuff, or if I'm getting over some sort of allergic reaction that's taking forever to go away, or if it's just a placebo effect. Whatever it is, my face is starting to look and feel normal again. I'm going to take that stuff until the bottle is empty, and maybe next time I have some sort of health issue that isn't bothersome enough to pay a copay to see the doctor (ie, not anything infectious or health threatening), I'll go back in to the apothecary. I seem to have good luck with alternative medicine.

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