This week's problem: Anne's husband suffers from a chronic illness. Although it's controllable only by drugs, he's looking for another cure, visiting expensive, and so far useless, alternative therapists. His current therapist says it will take years to uncover the cause. If Anne gets upset by the cost, he gets angry, saying she doesn't want him to get better
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The twinkling lights of alternative therapies, spelling out, as they do, the words "instant cure", can seduce even the healthiest among us. But anyone suffering with a chronic illness, like Anne's husband, would be superhuman not to spend at least the first year after diagnosis positively marinating himself in their promises. Barely will he have sprung from the acupuncturist's table than he will hurry to the Chinese herbalist to down cupfuls of vile-tasting, boiled-up mushrooms.

And most people will congratulate him, for two reasons. One is that it's possible that Anne's husband may find a remedy that hits the spot, and the other is that even if he doesn't, he's actually empowering himself by taking responsibility for his own health. This search keeps something precious alive: hope.

But I think Anne has spotted the catches in these congratulations. She realises that the chances of alternative cure are incredibly slight, particularly since by now it's clear he doesn't have the belief that is so necessary to effect any cure. And she can see that the idea that his search is empowering is so much nonsense, since he appears to be just as much a slave to alternative therapists' remedies as he might be to those of more orthodox doctors. The practitioners of alternative remedies can be just as cruel and controlling as the worst GP.

And as for hope, it is not precious or useful if it's only a destructive dream, preventing the patient from coming to terms with reality.

No doubt her husband feels that because he's out of control in this one area of his life, he's out of control full stop. This fear makes him spend too much money, and now he's punishing himself even more by attending a therapist who believes, cruelly, that he carries the cure to his problem within himself. If only he could uncover it.

But it's the answer, not the cure, to his problems that lies within himself. And the answer, it must now be clear, lies in his acceptance of, rather than his resistance to, his disease. If Anne really loves her husband, she'll be understanding about his search for a solution and the desperation and anger he feels about his disease. But she should point out that despite what some people claim, disease can sometimes thrive on being fought.

If, instead of griping at the cost of his crazy treatments, she asks her husband to think of embracing, rather than resisting, his disease, she will, by her concern, be helping to effect not, perhaps, a cure but an alleviation of her husband's pain.

readers' responses

Please ask your husband to go to one practitioner with a range of skills or at least a single practice where qualified staff can co-operate in finding respite.

Complementary medicine does work. Go with your husband to find a practice where a range of treatments are offered so that you know the practitioners will work together to find a positive result for him. Then give it time. It's not useless or a waste of money. I know.

Mrs J A Dart

North Devon

I am in my sixties and have worked through everything from aromatherapy to hypnotism, none of which has done me any good.

Modern orthodox medicine recently helped me through a bout of pneumonia, affecting the heart. But it worked, and that is the point.

A positive attitude and "thinking fit" will work for anyone.

Go along with the doctors, for they certainly will not do any harm, whereas alternative medicine wrongly or inappropriately applied can harm you and cost a packet.

Michael Paterson


However hard it is for the people around someone who is chronically ill (and it can be very hard), it can never be as awful as for the person suffering the illness.

Every morning they must wake up and look at a world that seems cruelly healthy and unaffected by their pain and suffering.

Putting aside the question of whether alternative therapies can work, and whether or not doctors have all the answers, if there is anything that can give hope to someone in this position, then let them hold on to it with both hands.

If they can get up in the morning and feel that this might be the day when things for them change, how can anyone deny them this?

Remember your pain might be great, but theirs is so much the greater, and perhaps their hope could become your hope. Who knows, perhaps "miracles" can happen.

Krysia Jones


Your husband's current research methods are expensive and, so far, unsuccessful. Far better to pool his knowledge with that of others, and obtain an unbiased opinion on what works and what doesn't. All therapists, his doctor included, tend to feel that their treatment is best. You need help to pick your way through the minefield.

Alternative therapies can be somewhat addictive: they offer hope, and the undivided attention of someone who focuses his or her entire attention on us and our health. Unfortunately, the unscrupulous few will exploit that dependency.

With knowledge of his condition and a supportive self-help group, your husband may find that his needs for these therapies decreases, and he may well realise his folly without you having to tell him. Good luck.

Elizabeth Mac Isaac


Anne should consider herself lucky that her husband's chronic illness is treatable by prescription. My wife suffers from ME [myalgic encephalomyelitis], for which there is no known cure or even medicine to alleviate the symptoms.

My wife also tries every form of alternative medicine with my approval. We are both willing to try anything, regardless of cost, that will help to restore her to a "normal" condition.

Our life now is virtually non-existent because my wife cannot eat "normal" foods and she feels very embarrassed about apologising for this whenever we are invited out for a meal, but we have learnt to live with these restrictions.

I accept them because I love my wife more than anything else in the world and my sole ambition in life is to see her cured.

Nothing else matters.

Mike Brown


next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I think my husband loves me. He sometimes says he does if I ask. Or rather he says: "I wouldn't be here if I didn't, would I?" But he never cuddles me, even though he knows how much physical affection means to me. We have sex about once a week, but he finds it difficult to kiss. When he goes away he rarely rings home, and never says he misses me. If I'm low he doesn't appear to care at all, and would rather die than speak about what's troubling me, but he will go out and buy me expensive scent. Friends say he adores me, but I feel so unloved. I sometimes so long for him to reach out and just hold my hand that I feel I am dying. What can I do?

Yours sincerely,


All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, 'Independent', One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.