I grew up with a utopian level of healthcare. My dad worked for a tech company that invested in things like in-office swimming pools, free gym memberships for the entire family, and health insurance plans that had a $0 copay for all services. Literally zero dollars. Needless to say, I took my health 100% for granted as a kid.
My dad was laid off during the economic crisis when I was in college, and though I never went entirely without healthcare, I did have to start paying for it and being much more strategic about when and where to seek it. Before delving into my feelings about home remedies, I’d like to note that I am a huge proponent of getting medical care when you need it, and of making that care accessible to everyone. I believe in building networks of providers who can offer a therapeutic relationship rather than an authoritarian one, and I work to spread knowledge to my students and community about who those providers are. I keep a record of queer- and trans-friendly providers in my area so that when one of my students needs medical help, I can point them to a provider they can trust, instead of leaving them on their own to mine providers’ websites for clues on whether they will provide affirming care. For many, having access to an affirming provider on the first try is critical, because feeling unsafe while seeking medical care makes a person doubly vulnerable, and much less likely to try again.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen specialists for several serious issues, including chronic joint pain, a searing ovarian pain that comes and goes with no regard for my menstrual cycle, and severe anxiety and PTSD. For issues like these, quality professional care has made the difference between a life where I needed help standing up from a chair, and a life that feels like a life again. (Side note: sometimes you have to FIGHT for quality care, especially when your symptoms have defied the typical explanations–more on that, perhaps, in another post.) There have been many times in the past few years when I’ve had to pause and be grateful for my ridiculously low-paying job because at least it comes with good health insurance–a privilege that I have learned to organize my life around holding on to.
However, because it’s still hard to afford copays when you live below the poverty line, and because, as a survivor, it is not my first instinct to bare my body to strangers for inspection, I have become more attuned as an adult to the difference between situations that require professional care, and situations that I can handle on my own. I began thinking about that distinction when I read a first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I was surprised by the animosity the authors had toward the medical field, and how they despised that doctors held all the knowledge about women’s bodies. I didn’t identify with their experience because I felt that I knew quite a bit about women’s health, from a variety of sources including school health classes, my parents, and an American Girl book called The Care and Keeping of You, which every kid in my neighborhood had copy of. However, as I read through that first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and then through seven subsequent editions (I ended up writing my master’s thesis on it), I realized how much I actually didn’t know–or wouldn’t have known if not for the incredible feminist health collective that continues to update and publish the book.
Ultimately, between reading Our Bodies, Ourselves, and asking incessant questions of my midwife friends and the doctors who oversaw my five egg donation cycles, I learned so much about reproductive health that it actually changed the way I approached my medical care. Whereas before, mysterious abdominal pains would send me immediately to WebMD or the doctor’s office, afraid for a variety of organs whose location and functions I didn’t really understand, I ultimately learned to differentiate between a sharp pain in my intestines (caused by gas) and a sharp pain in my ovaries (caused by scar tissue from the egg donations). One of my midwife friends even gave me her extra speculum, and I learned what my cervix and the inside of my vagina look like. All of these things made me feel empowered to decide when I needed to see a doctor (like to diagnose the ovarian pain) and when I just needed to lie on my left side and wait five minutes for gas to work its way out of my system.
What really excited me, though, was when I began to realize that the distinction between home remedies and profession medicine is, in some ways, a false distinction. I started thinking about this when I read A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s incredible analysis of the diary of Martha Ballard, and 18th century midwife. Early in my PhD research on the history of reproductive medicine in the United States, I found an obstetrician’s logbook from the same era. I realized that the two practitioners were using the same substances (like the rye-grown fungus called “ergot”) to treat their patients–one in the woods of Maine, and the other in a New Orleans hospital. In short, if you go back far enough, medicine was herbal remedies. Before pharmacies sold drugs, apothecaries sold herbs–the same herbs that women like Martha Ballard grew in their gardens. As we’ve come to rely more and more on doctors, hospitals, and a very scientific-seeming medical world, we’ve lost some of those healing knowledges that our foremothers were raised on–even though those were the same knowledges that in many ways informed the creation of our medical field.
However, it is interesting to note that not all of these home remedy knowledges have been lost–even to the bougiest city-slickers around. Do you drink coffee to help you wake up? Did your mother feed you prunes or fiber cereal to help you poop? Have you ever eaten a spicy pepper and noticed how it cleared out your sinuses? It’s not as if we don’t understand the ways in which natural substances can affect our bodies. It’s just that it doesn’t always occur to us to turn to them.
As I’ve started looking into home remedies, I’ve begun to feel a greater sense of friendship with my body. A few years ago, I felt like my body was an enemy–something that constantly hurt and made me miserable. I spent all my time and money trying to get it taken care of–facing a range of providers from angelic to creepy and triggering. I hated my body for what it put me through, both physically and emotionally. But once I started taking its upkeep into my own hands, I began to love it more, and ultimately to identify it as mine, and as me. If I’m having a sore throat, I now go to the cabinet for honey and ginger instead of to the urgent care clinic for a long wait and a rote repetition of “take three Advil and wait it out.” If I have a yeast infection, I use yogurt and apple cider vinegar instead of paying a $40 copay for an appointment, a lab test, and a pill. If I have a headache, I drink two full glasses of water and wait. If I’m feeling anxious or restless, I take a 15-minute walk in the sun instead of a klonopin. If my digestion is off, I listen to my body’s cravings, and usually it tells me what it needs. I have teas for almost every occasion, and most of the time, they help.
I no longer feel that I have to turn my body over to someone I may or may not know or trust to get care. In fact, the more I learn and take care of my own body, the more I’ve been able to demand the healthcare that I need. Even just tracking my menstrual cycle and paying attention to how my body reacts to foods has made it possible to cut many rounds of appointments out of my diagnostic care because I can confidently tell my doctors that my joint pain does not respond to changes in my gluten or dairy intake, and that I don’t think my ovarian pain is due to cysts. Though I certainly don’t know as much as I would like, I want to learn everything I can about my body and how it works, and to take care of it by myself whenever I can.
Being able to handle my body’s day-to-day healthcare needs on my own–without turning automatically to drugs or medical professionals–has made me feel whole and healthy. I feel like an ally to my body, instead of an enemy. I have learned to trust that if it’s hurting, it’s usually trying to tell me something, not trying to make me miserable. I still go to the doctor when I need to; diagnostic imaging and certain medicines have been essential to my health. But knowing that I can use materials from the earth to heal my body from day to day has been healing to my soul as well, and in a way, has made me feel like the earth itself cares about me and wants me to be well.
How about you? Does your family have any remedies that have been passed down through generations? Are you as obsessed with apple cider vinegar as I am? How confident do you feel in understanding and responding to your day-to-day ailments? I’d love to hear from you!