The Bottom Line is Self-Empowerment
We are each the utmost authority on our own health. We are not the utmost authority on someone else’s health. Even when someone is making an unarguably bad choice (quit smoking already) we are not the expert on what’s inside them. We are experts at our practice, and we can be of most use by providing tools to help them self-empower in their healing process: contextualizing what is happening, potential outcomes, risks and benefits of therapies, setting achievable goals, etc. The modern model of the unquestionable doctor-god is problematic in that it directly disempowers healthcare seekers, which sows a lack of agency and prevents self-actualization, especially in the presence of trauma. When in doubt, try “Tell me more about that” and dive right in.
Folk Medicine Lineages & Differing Norms
Home herbalism, and folk medicine in general, is a nonhierarchical practice that disrupts white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other manifestations of the Supremacy Paradigm Bullshit Parade, simply through virtue of being accessible to and the provenance of normal folk, both currently and historically. In other words, it’s ours because it was always ours and we continue to make it ours, by using folk medicine and teaching others.
There are many different schools of thought in herbalism; they are all right. We accept this basic premise as a gesture of mutual respect across cultures and a rejection of patriarchal white supremacy.
Sometimes, an herbalist or other flavor of folk healer may engage in aggressive criticism or censuring of other practitioners’ perspective; this is a manifestation of internalized supremacy. The way that Western Traditions herbalists use herbs is not more right or less right than how Ayurvedic practitioners work, for instance. We may differ on the language we use, our philosophies of energetics, even our understanding of the role of organs in the body, let alone how long we brew tinctures or whether we call alteratives “tonics.” Debate is essential to further our understanding of herbs and healing, but it must originate from a place of curiosity and collaboration; the practice of cutting each other down in order to promote one’s own world view as the only “correct” one harms the art as a whole. All this is to say: it is a nonhierarchical art. We can all be herbalists, we can all hobble and putter and figure it out, and we can all enthusiastically leap into making our own mistakes. As long as a folk healer is practicing their art ethically (toward people, plants, and everything else), and is not potentially hurting anyone, we all get to be right.
Honor the Past
Another aspect of our work promoting self-empowerment is acknowledging and validating others’ fears of their health status and necessary herbs/medications/procedures, and then to STRIVE ACTIVELY to make sure those fears aren’t realized. Helping others navigate their health status from a place of power is important, and we are given the opportunity to touch on fears when serious health conditions, procedures, or medications are present. From a trauma-prevention model, these fears could be said to stem from a deeply rooted disempowerment around our bodies and health choices, especially in communities that are actively disempowered by the existing power paradigm. Our fears are justified and have been realized over and over throughout our lives, in recent memory, and in ancestral memory. As healers, it is incumbent upon us to not pretend the fear isn’t a valid self-protective mechanism, but to embrace the ways we have all learned to survive, and strive to help folks self-empower to confront them.
[If this is news to you, google “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” and picture your family narrative if that was your mother’s brother; or, next time you fill out a form in a medical office, consider what your responses might be if you were not cis-gendered.]
Beware of Dog(ma)
Often when a question arises about contraindications or herb-drug interactions, someone eventually chimes in with the suggestion to stop the medication in question. The myth that natural medicines are best for all people always is a trap to avoid. This is an ableist white supremacist cisnormative worldview that “others” everyone who has been included in the multifactorial socioeconomic factors that influence health determinants. I run up against this often, as I straddle the home birth and hospital birth communities. Don’t presume that your life experience and advantages are universalizable; they’re not. There are many reasons why someone might be best served by pharmaceuticals, surgery, etc. Your goal as an herbalist is not to get someone off their meds, unless that is their goal, but to help provide the tools they need to accomplish their goals through their own agency. Herbs can be helpful as adjuncts to conventional treatments, or for a different issue entirely.
A Word About Polypharmacy
For people with complex medical conditions, a helpful act of allyship is to examine polypharmacy. Polypharmacy refers to taking many medications at once, and the problems that can arise from drug-drug interactions, dosage errors, and over-medication. We can help clarify why they’re taking each drug, ensure the dose is correct, and that there are no interactions causing more problems. Sometimes, worsening conditions are actually drug interactions, especially with elders because many conditions affect them differently. For instance, confusion is a clinical sign of a urinary tract infection that can be mistaken for dementia. Have the person request a polypharmacy evaluation from the nurse at the primary prescriber’s office, and offer to help interpret. If one dose is adjusted, one drug is found to be a duplicate, or an alternative medication is found that doesn’t require treating side effects, then our clients are healthier, happier, active agents of change in their health (and suddenly it gets a lot less complicated to provide herbal adjuncts). Do not fall prey to tunnel-vision: interdisciplinary collaboration with prescribers is essential in promoting self-empowerment and autonomy.
More to come on this extremely fertile soil, I promise!
This is an excerpt from Heart & Hearth, my radical family herbalism column in the glorious Plant Healer Magazine. If you don’t already subscribe to the best magazine in herbalism, you can click the link in the sidebar to learn more (and subscribing through that link supports my work, so thank you!)