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Voodoo or Valid?
Alternative Therapies Benefit Those Living With HIV

By Sue Saltmarsh

May/June 2005

Voodoo or Valid? Alternative Therapies Benefit Those Living With HIV
"That Voo Doo That You Do" was the sign posted on the wall of the area set aside for the panel discussion that I was taking part in for the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). Other areas in the large room were set aside for topics that included "Tattoos and Body Piercing," "Nutrition," and "Handling Stress," all topics of interest for people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as the staff and support personnel from CDPH who were in the audience. I sighed and took my seat along with a massage therapist, acupuncturist, mental health counselor, and a consumer/activist who was there to testify to the benefits she'd experienced from her alternative therapies.

I have worked in the HIV/AIDS field for 12 years, first as an herbalist, then expanding to include intuitive chakra balancing and ear candling. While the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration cite lack of "scientific research" confirming the value of such healing approaches, I have accumulated nothing but positive anecdotal evidence from the very people who experience the benefits. To those linear thinkers who shrug off the validity of anecdotal evidence, I ask, what possible motivation could these people have to lie about it? There certainly is no profit motive, as there is for pharmaceutical companies and HMOs.

When my clients tell me they're sleeping better since they started doing a releasing visualization before they go to bed, I believe that's true. When my clients tell me their liver function test results are better after six months of milk thistle, I believe it's true, even before they bring in their lab results that "prove" it.

The fact is that this disease, perhaps more than any other in human history, provides all of us who are healers -- allopathic or alternative, Western or Chinese, internists or intuitives -- the opportunity to come together and find whatever works for each client we treat.

No one modality is going to be the silver bullet that defeats this disease. Pharmaceuticals have been developed that have near miraculous effects against the virus, but too many of them carry the high cost of debilitating side effects. Herbs, acupuncture, massage and energy work can't handle HIV alone, though there are neither the financial nor the side effect negatives to deal with. So even though my work is too often dismissed as "voodoo," I will continue to do it and hope that primary care physicians, insurance companies and other kinds of healers will continue to get more curious about it and see the possibilities of integrative care.

I recently had a phone call from a doctor who was treating a client of mine and she said, "I just have to come right out and ask this -- what exactly is it that you do? Our client is doing so much better handling his stress, his anger, even taking his meds more consistently. He says it's because of the work he's done with you, but he really couldn't explain it."

My problem with this kind of question is that I am so eager to have a meaningful dialog that I tend to babble on with way more information than the average doctor has time for. So far, she hasn't taken me up on my offer of a free trial session, but I won't give up hope! In any case, the short answer is, everyone has their own physical and metaphysical energy. The Chinese call it qui or chi and identify it in terms of meridians.

I identify it by chakras. There are seven basic chakras and each one has its own "job" to do getting you through your life. Since most people have no awareness of this energy field, oftentimes the first thing that has to happen is a sort of expansion or activation. I believe that helping a person to find and use their own energy in the best way possible is extremely important, no matter what their health status.

If you understand that physical symptomolgy also has emotional, mental and spiritual aspects, you can approach it from all sides instead of limiting yourself to the strictly medicinal. If you learn to make consistently empowered, positive choices, it's easier to adhere to your medicine schedule, to eat as well as you can, to give your body the rest it needs and deserves, to honor your feelings and respect yourself in all ways.

In the work that I do, old issues are also addressed since people tend to store up the "baggage" of past experiential learning, traumas, woundedness and failures to the point where sometimes they can't move forward under the weight of the past they carry with them. When you have a method for identifying and clearing out that baggage, you take your power back from those things that limited or even victimized you in the past.

One of the things I love about working with people with HIV/AIDS is some of the amazing stories of redemption, change and growth I've heard. And because they have had the experience of taking themselves out of the dark, they also have a hunger to continue, to be healthy, to grow, to make this life count. There's just no time for bullshit and so they are ready and willing to do the work even when it's hard or painful or ugly.

So they meditate, do yoga, have regular massage and acupuncture, take herbs and vitamins, eat thoughtfully, rest better and strive for balance in their chakras and in their lives. T-cells increase, viral load decreases, neuropathy eases, liver function improves and of course, all of that can be measured and charted and presented as proof that something is working.

All they know and all I observe is that they feel better. Quality of life may never be valued as highly as the correct CD4 count, but at least I know that, to my clients, being able to like the life they're living is the truest measure of successful healing.

Sue Saltmarsh has been working as an alternative therapist within the AIDS community for the last 13 years. She attended the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in New Mexico. Upon her certification as a clinical herbalist, she returned to Chicago and began her education in intuitive chakra balancing. She worked for three years as an herbalist at the AIDS Alternative Health Project and, for the last 11 years as herbalist, energy worker and ear candler at Project Vida.




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