The Penitent Naturopath

DT7252Britt’s note: There are many of us out there. We are former naturopathic doctors who left our practices, livelihoods, relationships, and maybe even some of our aspirations behind to create a new, reality-based life for ourselves. This change is hard. Once accomplished, very few choose to look back to write about what attracted them to naturopathy, or more importantly, what compelled them to leave.

When we think about the harm caused by naturopathy, we rightfully tend to think about patients. But as today’s post poignantly demonstrates, naturopathy also harms society and its own practitioners.

I, too, am a former naturopath. Britt invited me to write a guest column, and I want more than anything to support her mission. I am not going to deconstruct specific beliefs and practices here; Britt has done that more than capably in her writing. Instead I am going to share a story that is simply personal–a short account of the toll of my career in naturopathy.

I am a private person. I do not want to reveal much about the details of my life because I do not want to be identified, so I fear that my essay will be too steeped in generalities, but I am not sure that the specifics are necessary to convey my message. I, too, left the profession recently. However, I am not as courageous as Britt. I commend her for being a whistle-blower and exposing this charade for what it is. I, on the other hand, have moved on to a totally unrelated field in a new city. In many ways, I feel like I am in the Witness Protection Program, waking up every day with the relief that I have a new identity.

The other day I was at a mixer, and I managed not to talk about my past in naturopathy. It felt like a personal victory, like I had finally transitioned into my new identity. Since I have left naturopathy, I have been nervous about how to talk about myself and my past. I would find myself unwittingly telling strangers about my dalliance with alternative medicine, and then arguing with these new acquaintances about its worthlessness. I realize how emotionally charged medicine is for people, something to which I never could relate. This is one of the reasons I never could connect to the entire purpose of naturopathy.

Here’s the truth about me. I was never a true believer. So why did I choose naturopathy, a field utterly lacking in prestige, glamour, or money? For absolutely the wrong reasons. Not because I had a priest-like calling to be a physician or a burning desire to help my fellow man. Rather, I desperately wanted a professional identity, but I didn’t believe I had what it takes to make it in conventional medical school. Despite the fact that the “professors” and “physicians” at the naturopathic schools had less impressive academic credentials than I did, in my youthful anti-authoritarian way, I believed naturopathy would be a good fit for me.

Yet, at the same time, I resisted most tenets of the naturopathic faith. Homeopathy seemed absurd, IVs dangerous and “unnatural,” environmental medicine paranoid, nutrition both self-evident and a slippery slope to orthorexia, etc. Unlike Britt, I did not see myself as a dupe. I saw myself as a hypocrite and a coward. So how did I exist then for ten years in this profession?

This is something I have struggled with and talked about in therapy. Without launching into too much psychobabble, I have identified at least one reason: I did not believe in myself, some of it from childhood programming, but much of it from the weakest part of myself, the part of me that truly makes me feel ashamed. The weak self who chose to join and then decided to stay for all those years. You know this weak, pathetic self–the part of you that lets you live a false life for years.

In America people seem allergic to negativity, so when I tell them my story, they always try to spin it into a positive. “But look,” they say, “you would not have found your current profession if you had not taken this detour–look how much you gained!” Or the hideous bromide, the one bandied around so often in the magical-thinking new age community: “Everything happens for a reason.” My parents, especially, had the hardest time accepting that this was a shameful mistake. Sure, I didn’t do drugs or commit a crime, but I failed myself; self-flagellation feels better than putting a Panglossian spin on this episode. The proudest thing I have done in my life is leaving this cult–and it is a cult–and getting out, but my shame in getting involved with it in the first place is crushing.

I always thought naturopathy was a crock, but I didn’t realize the extreme cognitive dissonance until I escaped. I am still assessing the damage to my life from the other side. There’s the financial damage, the damage of lost time, the damage of opportunities missed. But the worst damage is coming to terms with the lies I told myself for ten years.

It’s interesting to me how the rhetoric of alternative medicine has been absorbed by our culture, whereas not so long ago it was only a niche vocabulary. I can hardly get through the day without someone mentioning gluten or “hormones” or organic or toxins or kombucha. I can’t even talk about this stuff in a normal way, it’s so anathema to me. But I look forward to the day when it will all seem amusing, or quaint, or neutral.

But unfortunately, alternative medicine rhetoric is not innocent. “Nature” has emerged as a nostrum, a savior, to the anxiety of living in an increasingly technological, alienating, and complicated world. “Nature” has been used to promote a dangerous anti-science agenda, one that privileges personal neuroses over public health and the common good. Contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls ecology, this Romantic notion of getting back to nature, the new “opium of the masses.” The analogy to narcotic addiction could not be more apt. But I am now in recovery, facing the unpleasant truth of my past with the integrity of my present-day existence.

1098989009_26c1285484_zImage credits: 1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Penitent Magdalen, a gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1978. 2. Johnny Grim. Some rights reserved.