Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Care Effect

Dear Feelers,

Yes, I'm talking to you, people who feel, and I want you to ponder this post.

Throughout my education (I studied psychology at university) there was an enormous amount of discussion about something called the placebo effect. Let me explain this phenomenon:

When a person is unwell, and they go to a doctor to get medication for whatever condition it is that is affecting them, the expectation is that the medication will work to take away the symptoms of the condition, or that the meds will "cure" the condition. Sometimes, though, doctors have no cure for what ails you, and so they kind of throw a prescription at you, with both of you hoping it will work. You go home, take the pills, and lo and behold, a few days or a week or so later, you feel better. Was it the pills? If it wasn't the pills that made you better, what did?

What if your doctor gave you "sugar pills," tablets that look like medications, but are actually really just sugar, with no actual medicinal ingredients in them? What if these sugar pills DID relieve your symptoms?

When a person finds relief in their symptoms despite having taken a sugar pill, or a med that isn't intended to have an effect on their condition, that is known as the "placebo effect."

For some reason, I was taught that the placebo effect is kind of a bad thing. Let me give you an example to explain what I mean:

Depression is medical condition where pills are often prescribed to relieve symptoms. Surprisingly, if you look at the research on medications that treat depression, the studies show that the medications for depression are no more effective than a sugar pill. So basically, whether you take a sugar pill or a medication intended to treat depression, your chances of getting better are equal with both treatment options. (The caveat is that you have to think the sugar pills is a medication intended to treat depression, and your doctors can't intentionally lie to you.) And just for the sake of being a responsible writer, I want to make it clear that medications DO work to treat depression, and work BEST when they are combined with therapy as part of the treatment.

Often the placebo effect is used as a defense for people who take issue with using medications to treat conditions affecting the brain and behaviour (like depression). For people who don't want to or don't like to take medications, they generally say something like, "Well if people can get better on a sugar pill, why should a person have to take drugs? That's just big pharma trying to control us."

Another issue that the placebo effect brings up is the issue of personal control and power over the mind. Imagine taking part in a study on depression (assuming you had depression) where you were offered a pill every day. Imagine if you felt some relief of you symptoms over time, say six weeks, where you took a pill and had to measure your symptoms at the end of every week. What if at the end of six weeks, you reported that you feel pretty good, much better than when you first entered the study. Then, what if you were told that the medication you were taking was NOT a medication at all, but was a sugar pill. How would you feel? Conflicted? Duped?

People assume that we always have control over our minds; how we think, how we react, how we feel about things. I'm not sure this is true. In fact, I'm pretty convinced this is untrue, that we have control or will over all aspects of our mind.

I think the placebo effect is an interesting and subtle reminder that life has powerful undercurrents, and our brains, minds, thoughts, behaviours, respond to these undercurrents. One of the most underrated "undercurrents" is simple social interaction... talking to people, feeling like people like you, feeling like you belong among your tribe of humans.

Let's imagine that a person had depression. What are the symptoms? Lack of motivation? Feeling flat? Social isolation?

What is the effect of being in contact with people who are interested in hearing about what is happening to your body? What is the effect of being around professionals who understand the concept of "illness," that you feel unwell, unlike yourself, and that you wish you could feel like you did before? What does is the effect of being around a person who will listen to your worries and empathize with you clearly? What is the effect of simply being around people? Being cared for?

Placebo effect my ass; it's the care effect. And it's not a bad thing. We should all be able to benefit more often from the care effect.

Now should we prescribe medicinal pills in cases where a placebo is shown to be equally effective? I'm not sure what the answer is to that, but I know doctors aren't allowed to lie to their patients, and for a placebo to work, one needs to think it's a medical treatment. However, like in our example of depression, there is a treatment option that produces healthier people than taking a pill alone. So maybe we just need to rethink our concept of "care."

Popping my people pills,

Monday, May 25, 2009

Politik? Oh Canada, don't go there!

Dear Politicians,

We, the under-35 demographic of Canadians, would appreciate your attention.

We are concerned about a number of issues relating to:
- the disparities between wages and inflation
- the entry level wages of the labour force & white collar workers
- lack of benefits, including health, dental, pension coverage
- lack of accessible, affordable childcare for dual working parent families
- use of immigrants to meet labour needs

Health Care
- lack of accessible drug coverage
- lack of catastrophic/chronic condition drug coverage
- lack of specialized care for our ailing parents, lack of resources for their care
- refusal to cover specialized care/treatments for our children/future children
- imbalanced/unequal access to timely treatments for serious conditions
- lack of coverage for travel expenses that are related to treatments not offered locally

- when are you all going to get your acts together?
- where is our formerly transparent media?
- who is the government accountable to? and how can we learn of your transgressions if media lacks access (or if access is impeded) to your records?

National Parity
- divisive/dismissive attitudes towards specific groups of Canadians
- disregard/ignoring of Canadian culture
- lack of inclusion in Canadian culture (myopic concept of culture vs. a pluralistic concept)
- lack of investment in arts & culture & arts/culture education
- lack of investment in developing/identifying a collective national identity (we have far more in common than we do in difference!)

- lack of sustainable energy initiatives
- no commitment to sustainability in general
- no environmental accountability for corporations
- lack of community or local environmental resources ("green" info hubs for paint/toxic waste/electronics disposal, workshops on simple changes to reduce waste/consumption)
- lack of incentive for the public to overhaul their own homes and habits (tax rebates for cyclists?)

Now that you know my concerns, can you start talking to me? My grandmother is sick of the attention, frankly, and I'm getting impatient.

Your faithful dissident,

PS. President... erm... Prime Minister Harper: Stop with the divisive USRepublican style politiking. It's just gross, distateful, repugnant, low, base, and well, frankly pathetic. Aren't we better than that? Grow a pair and act like a man, a leader of men, if you will, instead of a school yard bully. (Yeah, I'm referring to your attack ads that are ickily McCainian in style.)

Friday, May 22, 2009


Dear Criers, Laughers, and Pressers of Grim Lips,

You ever just wake up one day and think, "I'm not in a bad mood. I'm not sad. I'm just not happy. In fact, I just feel like crying?"

Well, I wake up feeling like that, and today is one of those days.

I like to call them my "Tender Days."

On Tender Days, my insides feel as if they have been run through a cheese grater, and I feel like I'm pulpy, swollen, and would burst into a river of bodily fluids at the slightest provocation. In fact, on days like today, I'm known to cry at commercials, laugh and cry at the same time at a stupid joke, or sit on the bus trying to maintain composure as evocative thoughts loll around in my head.

In short, I spend Tender Days perpetually on the verge of tears, and every little thing, both kind and cruel, real or remembered, makes me weep.

So I'm feeling a little tender, and I've been weeping a bit as I cruise around on my daily run through the various media I like to read. I'd tell you what I'm tearing up about, but I really don't want to dwell, and you needn't depress yourself too.

I'm going to sign off the web for the night. I'll try to distract myself by baking some strawberry muffins. I'll give you the recipe to save for your own Tender Days in a coming post. Maybe they'll help you feel a little lighter too.

Crying over my cupcakes,

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Counting My Beans...

Dear Bean Counters, both of the professional and involuntary varieties,

I am an involuntary bean counter.

You see, lately life has been difficult. In the past year or so I've struggled enormously to secure stable employment, and in doing so, I have had some interesting - noteworthy, let's say - experiences. I've also learned a lot about "reducing expenses," but more on that later.

And so, being thrown into poverty, basically dependent on pocket change showing up whenever it wants (not often enough) and the goodwill of those who love me, has caused me to reevaluate life in general.

Since I haven't had work to define me or organize my time, I've basically had to spend a year convincing people that, yes, I am indeed making an effort in life, and that no, I don't sit at home all day laying on my duff and watching Soap Operas or Oprah.

So I spent a year working on long term goals, for the most part, that have little tangible yield, but that will eventually do something for me in the long run. (I have a five year plan, as opposed to a 5 month plan, is what I like to say.)

In this process, I've gotten an interesting glimpse into social priorities, and I've been able to compare these priorities long and hard against my own.

Social Priorities I have come across are:
- high income
- clear indications of material gain
- complete self sufficiency
- an active social life (with the ability to cover the associated costs for yourself and others!)
- "things" (yes, I said it, material goods that others can admire is a social priority)

My Priorities (after much practice and exploration) are:
- affectionate and mutually empathetic relationships with those I care about
- a capacity to learn and adapt this knowledge to suit my needs
- the ability to do what I can when I can, and to admit when I certainly cannot do a thing or an aspect of a thing

So what I have I gained from my evaluation of my priorities?

The most important conclusion I have arrived at is that my relationships with people matter simply because I need the people in my life for their support. Furthermore, I know my friends need me for the same reasons. It's interesting how difficult circumstances and an openness about them can inspire some unconventional conversations and strong acts of love. (Mind you, I've also had some of the opposite reactions, and have had to reorganize a few relationships because of that.) I'm feeling more secure in the relationships I do have, and much more willing to give people the benefit of the doubt if an ambiguous scenario presents itself.

While a number of people have voiced concerns about my apparent "inaction," I've actually spent many hours learning about various subjects: For example, I now know that vinegar actually really is an effective disinfectant, and that most household cleaners can be made from things in the cupboard and fridge. I know how to plant a vegetable garden, and I know how to create a rotating indoor garden so that one can have fresh greens and herbs at any time of the year. I also know how to make homemade fertilizer, and how to cure a diseased plant. I know a lot about caring for sick fish using just a few types of salt. I have also learned that store-bought baking can just never compare to the baking I have learned to make. I have also learned what career it is that I want to pursue, and I have a much better idea now, after some research, of how to pursue this career. Also, homemade iced tea, and fresh lemonade are delicious and deceptively easy to make... the mixing of tasty summer drinks has possibly become an art that we have lost touch with due to our preprepared/prepackaged everything.

By nature, I'm a people pleaser, and I have often said yes to things that have stretched both my energy and resources. Today, I know my limits a lot better, and I no longer feel ashamed to tell a person that their expectations are impossible for me to meet... so yes, sometimes even those small social graces like buying and mailing a birthday card can be impossible for a person who is stretched to the wire financially. And no, sometimes I can't even call on your special day because really, I can't even afford a phone, let alone the long distance charges. But if a person involves me in a thing I can do, or has an expectation that can be fulfilled, I'm prepared to do that, and generally I'm very happy about it. (Yes, I do want you to drop by my house on your birthday, and I will bake you birthday muffins that you will dream about and wake up craving!)

So this bean counting adventure of mine hasn't been all bad. And some good has come out of it too!

I'm working on a book which was inspired by "noteworthy" events of recent past. I'm working towards my career goals. And yes, finally, I found a modest job that is going to cover some bills and set my back on my feet again.

So do you want to come over for iced tea and chocolate cupcakes? I have some in the fridge waiting for you.

Scrumptuously yours,

Saturday, May 9, 2009

No one is safe from a sterotype...

Dear Trusted Adults, Carers of Children, Mothers, Fathers, Sisters, Brothers, and Friends,

Some less than light reading excerpted from the Globe and Mail (Click on the title to view the entire article):

Bullying in Childhood May Help Trigger Schizophrenia
By Paul Taylor

"Children who face relentless bullying from their peers are at elevated risk of developing psychotic symptoms by the time they reach early adolescence, a British study has revealed.

Previous research has shown that bullying can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide. But the new study, by researchers at the University of Warwick, is the first to link bullying with psychotic symptoms, which include hallucinations, delusions, and bizarre and paranoid thoughts.

Essentially, the stress caused by severe and chronic victimization may be enough to push a vulnerable person over the edge, leading to full-blown schizophrenia, Dr. Wolke speculated.

He noted that stress spurs the release of cortisol, a hormone that might alter the developing brain. What's more, being treated badly can have long-lasting effects on the thought processes of an impressionable child.

Further research would be needed to confirm that bullying can be the spark for schizophrenia.

The latest findings, published in Archives of General Psychiatry, are based on an assessment of 6,437 young individuals.

About 46 per cent of the kids had been victims of bullying to some degree. The children who experienced a great deal of bullying tended to be the ones who were most likely to suffer from psychotic symptoms.

But Dr. Wolke emphasized that the odds of developing such symptoms must be kept in perspective.

"You have an increased risk, but it doesn't mean that most of the children who were bullied developed psychotic symptoms," he said in an interview."


And now to highlight how attributions are assigned to those living with mental illness, and to behold the appearance and evolution of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination; from the comments section related to this article:

this is just my opinion from Toronto, Canada writes:
Could be a chicken vs egg issue. Maybe kids who are predisposed to mental illnesses tend to be picked on more because the other kids think they're 'weird'..?

Nature Lover from Canada writes: Not only that, but kids who have psycological disorders don't "get" the triggers that make them annoying, and they are poor judges of situations that could cause other kids to lash out at them. As much as we could "sanitize" schools with anti-bullying messages, the reality is that kids are just unformed adults who don't always behave in a civilized way. So if kid A is "bugging" kid B, be it verbally or physically, kid B may react chldishly to the situation, hitting back etc. I've seen this all before and the mother of kid A will jump in and accuse kid B of being a bully, when it was really kid A's behaviour that precipitated when went down.


And last but not least, a comment from sum crumb summarizing the reality/absurdity of what the hell is going on with these comments:

sum crumb, from Canada wrote: Interesting presumptions about children with potential predispositions to psychosis floating around... "weird"... "childish"... "annoying"... "poor judges"... will the value attributions associated with mental illness never end? And now we're laying these myths, labels, and stereotypes on children?

Speaking of bullies, remember how we call the adults with mental illnesses lazy, unmotivated, and social leeches? Isn't that bad enough? How about we just leave the kids alone (with the assigning of labels and misplaced value attributions), and rotate around this discussion of children and mental illness VERY carefully... preferably with a ten foot pole?

These are children afterall, and we do want them to have the rosiest, as unblemished as possible, future, no?

Labels are harmful, no?

Or have the bullies just not got around to understanding these basic facts of life yet?

(Thanks to the bullies who are flying their flags even here, on a topic like this. Do you people have ANY morals or sense of ethic?)


So I guess the final message is: Bullies never die, and ignorance lives on forever?

I hope we do leave the kids alone. Let's let kids just grow up and be kids? Let's not let little people (children) grow up and live forever under any of our misplaced and/or ignorant banners, huh?

Crossing my fingers that we cross the bridge to a brighter side, but not holding my breath,

PS. Why isn't anyone discussing parenting and intolerance to bullying? Are we really supposed to accept the "kids will be kids" mantra? Kids WILL be kids. Some kids will be nice kids. Some kids will be less nice. Other kids will be jerky kids. They will be the kids that their parents brought up... so this says something, I think. Something about parenting...