Thursday, 25 October 2012

Thoughts on a child-free life

In my initial post, I said that I would mainly be blogging about skepticism in healthcare. Well, it turns out that I'm actually more able to churn out random nonsense about other -occasionally rather deep- aspects of my life more easily. And, as i'm getting more involved in skepticism as a whole, it's amazing to me how it's touching all the other aspects of my life as well, reinforcing vaguely held ideas and making me much more able to express my views to other people.

The other night I was at a bit of a 'do at a friend's house, and I had a conversation with one of my friends who I think is absolutely brilliant but I don't see that often in which I found myself employing some skeptical skills unexpectedly. The conversation was about the thorny issue of children.

So, here we go. I don't want children. Here is the standard conversation that I am used to pretty much every time these words leave my mouth:
Other Person:  "Oh.... OH?! REALLY?"
Me: "yes, really"
Other Person: "what, ever?"
Me: "no, never. At least I can't see myself ever having a space or need in my life for them in the future"
Other Person: "But you don't know what you're missing!"
Me: "yes, yes I do, thank you very much."
Other Person: "but it's different when it's your own"
Me:  "I'd rather not take the chance that it isn't"
Other Person: "oh, I knew someone (or alternatively, I used to be) just like you. And they (I) went on to have 20 kids and they (I) love them to bits."
Me: "umm, right. Well I don't think that's going to happen here"

And so it goes on, time after time, as if one day, during one of these generic conversations, I'm going to go "actually, do you know what, you're RIGHT!, I'm off to procreate RIGHT NOW"

I actually believe that the idea that you'll have children is very similar to religion, in that it sadly often doesn't even occur to people that there is an alternative option. It's just accepted as routine that you'll grow up, you may get married, and you'll have kids. I doubt many people ever think to challenge this notion, and as a result I think a lot of people don't address their own concerns about becoming parents before they do, and I'm sure this is a source of great angst and sadness in the world today.

I'm often confronted with a momentary look of blatant hatred when I confess that I don't want kids to people, before they get the chance to rearrange their face.  I sometimes get the feeling this may be a "hey, damn, I wish I'd thought of that!" reaction. Sometimes I see people over-enthusiastically posting on Facebook about how marvellous their kids are and I really can't tell who they are trying to convince.

My friend has found herself having to think about whether or not she wants children, because other people are constantly forcing her to think about it. Because she's been with her boyfriend for a prescribed amount of time, the "when are you getting married, when are you having kids" conversation is being thrown at her regularly. We talked for a while and it seems she's inclined to think she doesn't want them, but its such a social norm that she almost can't believe that this could be an option for her.

As you'll know from my previous post about atheism, I agree very much with Alom Shaha's notion that atheism needs to be more visible as an option to stop a lot of misery. I think similarly about not wanting children. I'm told I'm selfish for not wanting them, that I'm abnormal, that I'm somehow doing my gender and humanity a disservice. And I am selfish, but is it not more selfish to have a child because its simply what you do, then potentially spend a lifetime suppressing low-level regret and resentment? I could start on about overpopulation, blah blah blah but that's usually just too much effort for these types of conversation.

It strikes me that, like a lot of things in life, most people take this decision on face value instead of examining it with skeptical principles. And, after questioning yourself and your deeply held beliefs and societal norms, you still want to go ahead, then fine, I sincerely wish you all the best. It seems to me that a healthy dose of skepticism- in all aspects of life- is always worthwhile.

Like atheism, I've confronted my lack of desire for children, and I accept and embrace it, even in the face of some moments of fairly serious pressure to the contrary. I have no need or space for a child in my life, and I can make my own purpose and legacy without having to create and drag a new life into the equation. I'm comfortable with my decision, I just wish that everyone else was as comfortable with it as I am. Comfortable enough that the sort of conversations above- that I and many other child-free people (by which I mainly mean women) have to go through all the time- don't have to happen anymore. Comfortable enough that its an accepted life decision and not seen as an eccentric quirk.

I could rant on for days about this subject, and I may well revisit it in future posts. I hope that's not too boring for you.

H xxx

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

A childhood story

I was a fairly robust, risk averse nipper. But, like all kids, I got the odd sniffle and sickness now and then. And, like most parents, my Mum would usually take me to see the doctor when I was poorly.

I have a really vivid memory of going to see the doctor. He was a kindly, soft-spoken chap who, as I recall, had a caring manner. And what I remember more than anything was his large leather case, filled with pastel-coloured vials of what he described as "magic crystals".

Depending on what was wrong with me, I was able to choose from a selection of colours of "magic crystals", which were then administered to me and which, in my head, made me feel a bit better. I think I only got one dose, when I was there in the surgery. Neither my mother nor I have any recollection of me taking home any "magic crystals" or having repeated doses.

Now, here's the thing. At no point did my dear darling mother actually bother to ask what the "magic crystals" were. We now assume (hope!) that they were some sort of homeopathic thing. They definitely looked like coloured sugar crystals and tasted like sugar. Or were they some sort of elaborate placebo designed to soothe children into believing they felt better? Or were they some suspicious hallucinogens? The point is, at no point did my mother think to question the doctor: he was in a position of caring authority and he knew best what would make me better, right? And from my perspective, a nice, caring man who my mother had trust in was letting me pick pink sweet-tasting crystals so YAY GIVE ME THE SUGAR!

Out of interest, my memory is that yes, magic crystals did make me feel momentarily better. But this is a vague memory, which may well have been clouded by nostalgia and the many years that have since gone by. why could this have been? Well, power of suggestion and placebo. As a child I knew doctors made me better: ergo, I felt better when I was at the surgery seeing the doctor.

We hear a lot about patient choice in debates about homeopathy. I guess my point here is that this doesn't always come into the conversation with patients or their carers, and that's worrying. Admittedly it was longer ago than I care to admit, but I'm pretty sure similar practices go on today. I really do hope that medical homeopathists do allow their patients more informed consent, and I also sincerely hope that all homeopathists do the same. But they can't offer them full informed consent because the data isn't there to back up their claims, or they have misunderstood the data that is there, and most importantly, the science and theories don't make sense. What sort of benefit vs risk decision can happen for a patient when they simply pick up a pack of arnica 30C from the shelves of Boots?  What kind of choice was my mum able to make when it didn't occur to her to ask any questions, and no explanation was forthcoming?

Health care professionals have a duty of care to their patients. A large part of this is about communication. What homeopathists (and herbalists, and traditional chinese herbalists, and halotherapists, and anyone else who purport to change people's health) need to realise is that, in the eyes of the public, they hold the same amount of trust and duty of care. And even if regulatory bodies aren't in place to take you to court if you harm someone, your personal morals should step in before you sell a remedy made merely of hope for monetary gain.

The air is nice up here on the moral high ground.Of course, it could always be the case that it's actually just the mind-altering effects of whatever mind control agents were in the magic crystals....

H xxx

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Domestic Abuse? Treat it with Magic Water!

Its safe to say that quacks, by the very definition of what they do, just love a vulnerable person. But even so, it makes me incandescent with rage every time I see an example of it occurring.

Tonight, my naively skeptic self has been utterly taken aback by a tweet I've seen. It was retweeted by "I'm-Not-Really-A-Dr" Nancy Malik, who I have had some dealings with in the past. These previous dealings basically revolved around a discussion about what constitutes high impact journal evidence (i.e. pointing out that books are not actually journals). This culminated in me (rather generously) offering my evidence retrieval services for any future posts she wanted to write. Homeopaths, don't say I never offer you anything.

So tonight, what's made my blood boil is this post. Homeopathy for domestic violence. HOMEOPATHY for domestic violence. Homeopathy for DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.... etc etc.

I count myself very lucky that I have never personally had any experience of domestic violence. I don't pretend to know how it feels for the many men and women who do experience it, and whose lives are relentlessly ruined by such a crime. And a crime it is, there's no two ways about it. It may have multifactorial causes, some of which may be illnesses, but, certainly in the UK, it is very definitely considered a crime. 

I'm going to attempt to be as systematic as possible here, but frankly I'm so furious I think I'm going to find it hard to collect my thoughts in any sort of semblance of order. But anyway, here goes:

So how can homeopathy help, according to "I'm-also-a-fake-Dr" Binal Master? Well, first of all: "It involves a detailed case history, which serves as ray of hope to both the patient- i.e., the one who is abused, as well as the offender. The patient has an opportunity to be heard and understood from her own perspective"
Ok, do you know what? I sort of agree with some of this. The opportunity to raise concerns in a safe place to someone who is listening is great. However, that safe place should be with someone who a) isn't being paid for a consultation b) isn't likely to make money from any recommendations they make c) is properly trained in dealing with domestic violence and d) ideally should be the police, or a specialist service who are able to give protection to vulnerable people.

Apparently, anger management (along with yoga, meditation etc) are available as adjuncts to homeopathy. ADJUNCTS?! Don't you think that anger management therapy would be rather more important than an add-on? This suggests to me- and it could be how i'm reading it- that homeopathy ON ITS OWN can feasibly be used to treat both victims- and perpetrators- of domestic violence.

The article goes on: "Some cases are due to psychiatric disorders such as antisocial personality, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Homeopathy has been found effective in such cases also, where it gives people a second chance to adapt to society and live within the community ."
Agreed, some cases can be due to a variety of mental health disorders. Has homeopathy *really* been found to be effective in these cases? I haven't checked right now, but I'm willing to bet there's no robust RCTs proving that homeopathy treats biploar for example. Are these sentences suggesting that homeopathy on it's own can treat these issues? Because I don't see anywhere suggesting that this is alongside conventional medicine. So now we've potentially got a situation where a person with a very serious mental illness is causing harm to another person (not to mention cases of self-harm), being treated with magic woo-water alone. This puts everyone in that situation at potential risk.

The post goes on to give handy tips for what people should do in the event of domestic violence, including not isolating yourself, asking for support, and seeing a doctor. Now, this is all very well and good, but I think we've missed out one rather important step here: what about the police? what about getting yourself out of a potentially dangerous situation as soon as possible? At no point is this suggested, and the general gist of the article appears to be "but it's happening for a reason, so let's treat the reasons and see if it stops". Actually, no. GET YOURSELF SAFE first. If there are reasons, then yes they should be treated, but this is secondary to the safety of anyone who is in this situation, for whatever reason. 

Summing up, "Dr" Master states:
"Homeopathy is a safe and effective way to treat the victims as well as the culprits of domestic violence. It focuses on the way patients have reacted to events and the personality of the patient. It helps to bring complete harmony of physical, mental and social well being."

It's safe, is it? It's safe to treat violent people with an inert substance, and to suggest that the victim treats themselves with inert substances in the meantime, in the vain hope that whoever is being violent will eventually change? Is it effective? What evidence is there for this effectiveness, because there are no references on this post and my word, you should be backing up claims like that. And what about the safety of the homeopathist, who most probably has no training in dealing with volatile and violent- or vulnerable people?

And here's the absolute worst bit: At no point in this article does it state that domestic violence is wrong.

On thinking about God.

I think I have probably always been an atheist. I can't remember having any revelatory moments in which I realised the idea of God was dead to me, and I also can't remember ever really, truly having a need for a god. I remember a few occasions, in those awful dark moments that pounce on you in life, that I wanted a church to go to. A physical place of comfort, which would surround you with warmth and love and knowledge that everything in the world would get better eventually. But I don't think that really had anything to do with an actual wish for a god. And in actual fact, I feel really quite uncomfortable in churches, like at any moment i'm going to be found out and burnt at a stake.

What I realised quite recently, though, is that this has never actually been a conscious decision to not believe in God. And how could I have been reasonably living as an atheist for so long without ever really confronting how I came to be this way?  I was actually quite startled about how little I knew about atheism (or agnosticism, for that matter)

I was so, so lucky in my parents, who I think both had a Catholic upbringing (I say think because I have literally no idea what religion my Dad is. We've simply never had that conversation). Their attitude was very much: "let her make her own mind up when she's ready". Though my Mum believes in God, she thinks that if he is so omnipresent, there's no need for her to traipse to a church when clearly she could be getting on with something more interesting. I'd never say it to them, but I'm so thankful to them for letting me just drift along pretty much ignoring anything religious. I went through a bit of a phase of deciding i might be Buddhist as an early teen (yes, yes- I was a bit of a hippy-goth type creature, and I refuse to be ashamed of it), and my Dad in that way which is typical of him showered me with leaflets for the Newcastle Buddhist Centre and even bought me a book about being a buddhist. Even now I'll claim occasionally to be a Buddhist, but this is only when I'm grasping for an excuse to make someone else kill a creepy crawly because I'm too scared to.

I'm also utterly unknowledgable when it comes to religions, including Christianity. I'd just much rather find out other stuff about people than their religion. I want to know if they're nice people, if they're funny, what they do for a living, and who they think will win the Great British Bake Off, rather than which church they go to or whether they believe in the right god or not. I figure my ignorance is bliss, provided I spread it liberally over all religions. Although offering a Jewish vegetarian some bacon brownies may not have been my best moment.

There is a reason that I've been thinking about my own lack of belief, and that reason is a Skeptics In The Pub talk by the (exceptionally charming) Alom Shaha. His talk was brilliant, and I found I was sat there thinking 'why have I never thought about any of this before and yet it all makes SUCH SENSE'. (I'm really not going to go into every thought I had during his talk, except to say... *swoon*). I bought his book, The Young Atheist's Handbook (whilst attempting and failing to not blush and make a stupid joke about only buying it so I can feel young) from him and voraciously read it over the following week. I found myself doing all sorts of thinking about my lack of belief.

Now, I would absolutely love to write an eloquent, concise review of his book but I doubt I'd do the genre of book reviewing justice. I'd just like to say that it's very beautiful, and that you all should buy it, if you haven't already. I've found that since reading it, I'm a whole lot more confident and vocal about not needing belief in god now and in discussing this with other people without having fear of offending anyone. At least I know my own lack of belief now stands up in the face of my own questioning. And, in the face of that, I started reassessing a fair bit about the rest of my life- how I feel about love in the wake of my divorce, for example. It sounds a bit far-fetched that one little purple book can do that sort of thing but I guess sometimes the most profound moments appear very unexpectedly.

Anyway, all of this is a very long-winded way of saying: I have thought about it, and I'm now very confident that I just don't have room or need in my life for a god. I'm fine (and actually weirdly comforted) by the thought that this is it: there's nothing beyond, no afterlife, no higher being, no destiny... Just this, and this is what we make of it ourselves.

Oh, and if you're wondering: I think Danny will win this year's Great British Bake-Off, but I want Brendan to win.

H xxx