Christina Patterson: Trust me, I'm an alternative therapist

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The Independent Online

"Write a list" wrote Stephen Russell, aka the "Barefoot Doctor", in one of his last columns in The Observer, "of all the ways you've fallen short. Then, wrapping your arms lovingly around yourself... say warmly, 'Well done you!' for every point listed."

Well, Stephen, you must be hugging yourself a lot. For starters, there's the name. Anyone born in Hampstead who drops their real name in order to sound like a Chinese peasant is not necessarily set to be a model of good sense. And so, indeed, it proves. "Make yourself fully available to at least one person today," enjoins Russell. "You simply have to be present for them in a warm, loving and open way." So warm and loving, in fact, that he is currently facing allegations of sexual misconduct.

Luckily, Russell, who has made truckloads of cash from a range of products stocked by high-street chemists, has "reached the stage of personal development" where he is "able to override" negativity. It isn't yet known whether the five women who complained about his behaviour have also reached this exalted spiritual plane.

But help may be at hand, for them, if not for him. A government white paper to be published this month, set up to tackle the issue of abuse by medical professionals, will also address the wider issue of alternative practitioners and regulation. Frankly, it's about time.

It's a terrible thing for a doctor to breach the trust of a patient by taking sexual advantage. It's a terrible thing, but it's relatively rare. There is, however, a form of abuse so extensive that it's practically an epidemic. This is the financial, and emotional, abuse of patients by alternative therapists.

Well, "patient" isn't really the word for someone who visits a self-styled expert with few or no qualifications, but it's certainly a quality that comes in handy as you begin to haemorrhage your cash. I've never dared to do the sums, but I suspect that I could have sent a child to Eton on the funds I've funnelled into the pockets of healers, homeopaths, and quacks.

How have I done this? Let me count the ways. There was the healer who pricked my ear and told me to sling out my saucepans. There was the homeopath who brought me out in welts and the Chinese herbalist, on the other side of town, who helped to calm them down. There was the couple from the Cotswolds who muttered about "bio-waves" and hooked me up to a Heath Robinson machine. There was the male colonic irrigationist, but let's not go there - please.

There was the "intuitive healer" who told me, when I had breast cancer, that she could see a shadow on my lung. After a couple of sessions with her, it disappeared. And there was the herbalist who had me doing affirmations while tapping my thumb. On the one occasion I saw her at her home, rather than her London clinic, I was stuck in traffic and 50 minutes late. She saw me for five and charged me the full whack. Her house, I was interested to note, was extremely big. And it had a swimming pool.

Why have I done this? Because, like the 70 per cent of the population that has consulted alternative practitioners, I have been desperate. Pain - the kind of pain that doesn't respond to standard medical treatments - can drive you mad. So mad that you will pursue any wild goose chase, with any charlatan, at any cost, in your desperate, deranged quest for a cure.

I'm a therapist too, actually. After attending a nine-day course run by a famous hypnotist, packed in a room with hundreds of others, I have a certificate declaring myself to be a "Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming". Since I didn't do any of the exercises, my expertise came as something of a surprise. But don't worry, I'm not planning to set myself up in practise. The others, however, were.

Slaves to the machine

Poor old Hakuo Yanagisawa. The health minister of Japan agonises over his country's shrinking population and delivers a thoughtful call to arms, only to be ripped to shreds by a bunch of hysterical harridans. And all he did was call half the population "birth-giving machines". It's an easy mistake to make, but one that has been met with demands to fall on his sword.

Actually, anyone who has seen Babel, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's mesmerising mosaic of misery across three continents, might see where Yanagisawa is coming from - a society so hi-tech that no human activity can take place beyond the blink or bleep of a machine. It's a background which makes the central tale, of a deaf-mute desperate for love, all the more poignant, but also one which serves as a salutary reminder that the Sony super-highway just might be a road to hell.

* The news that Cadbury is to take on Wrigley in a fight for the chewing-gum market is enough to drive one to a soothing cup of tea and a family-size block of Dairy Milk. Americans, apparently, consume 30 per cent more gum than their unsophisticated cousins across the pond - an inequity, indeed a wrong, that the crusading manufacturers of Crunchies and Crème Eggs are determined to right.

We all know that Americans are genetically programmed to chew the cud all day long, removing their sticky grey lumps of sugar and spit only to shovel in more chips. We also know that they voted for the chewing-gum champion, George W Bush. Some habits are better left unreplicated. The new pavement outside my flat is, in spite of Hackney's super-steam-clean team, already pockmarked with the contents of my neighbours' mouths. It makes me, I'm afraid, long for Singapore, a boring, Big Brother city with the saving grace of a blanket ban on gum.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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