Navigating Biomedical Imperialism with Plants and Holistic Medicine 

I was blessed to spend years learning about holistic medicine and wellness while working at an acupuncture and healing arts center in Brooklyn (that I will refer to as Shen Men moving forward in this piece). During my time there I was in and out of the hospital for different medical issues that, combined with my fluctuating mental health, left me feeling constantly drained. For a while, and to this day, my interpersonal relationships occasionally suffer(ed) because the physical symptoms that accompany chronic depression and PTSD, coupled with recovery from bulimia that negatively impacted my health as well, drove me to go inward and prefer communicating with myself because it felt like less of a risk. While working full-time I was also a full-time student and did volunteer work while interning. I’m sure many people reading this know this struggle. Looking back on my years working at Shen Men, I’m thankful because if not for my experiences there I would not be at the place I am today when it comes to spiritual growth and how I think about health.

I’m not going to try to persuade anyone that they should sever all ties to “Western” medicine and commit to a life of acupuncture and herbs for countless reasons. I’m going to tell you about why I’ve committed myself to incorporating elements of alternative medicine into my daily life and why I think you should, too.

The Classist Elephant in the Room

Growing up, and even quite often now, whenever people hear the words “acupuncture” or “holistic medicine” an image of a wealthy white person comes to mind. While ironic, given the actual history of acupuncture in Asia and the indigenous roots of holistic medicine practices, the acupuncture and “Eastern” medicine culture in NYC is overwhelmingly white and unfortunately most popular amongst wealthier communities. Luckily, there are some collectives and organizations that do offer acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, and massage therapy at prices that aren’t as high as most places offering those services and others like them. Places like Maha Rose and Tiger Lily offer services like community and sliding-scale acupuncture while private practitioners sometimes offer even more affordable options. I am in no way arguing that people who are exports in their field shouldn’t be paid accordingly. We live in a capitalist society that thrives on competition and is fueled by money so it makes sense that, like other places that exist to treat changing and sick bodies and are a part of the biomedical imperialist regime, prices can be quite high. A mentor of mine recently told me stop calling it “health care” and call it medical services because it’s never been about health or about care and the more I think about this topic the more I’m left hoping for a medical services revolution.

That being typed, I’ve seen the magic of acupuncture and other forms of alternative medicine with my own eyes. Phenomenal things apparently made possible because of thoughtful and skilled acupuncturists. For instance, and this is not to be taken as medical advice nor is it intended to make a generalizing statement about acupuncture as such given different factors that can impact results of treatment, I watched multiple women begin acupuncture treatment after being told by OB/GYNs that they would not be able to get pregnant. Within months I’d see the women return for prenatal massages because, somehow, they were now pregnant after a few sessions of fertility acupuncture. Call it coincidence, call it happy accodntrs, call it what you will. Those were not isolated incidents. Every time I ever received acupuncture treatment for knee pain related to a past surgery or for chronic pain related to fibromyalgia, I’d leave the treatment room feeling better than ever before. In fact, during one shift my knee locked in place and I was unable to walk. The pain was unbearable and I was going to go home but I asked if one of the acupuncturists would treat me. Just to see what would happen. Miraculously, I was able to walk within minutes of stepping off the table. Was it the placebo effect? Did I think it into existence? I’m not here to suggest that acupuncture is the panacea the world needs but I am here to tell you that acupuncturists are trained to heal entire bodies, including minds. For a price. The only reason I was able to afford acupuncture treatment was because of an incredible mix of a generous employee discount and the occasional kindness of a practitioner who would treat me for free. Some shifts my nausea and pain would be so terrible that I’d have to leave the front desk to cry in the bathroom. It happened often. Thankfully, though, my coworkers were amazingly kind and would always help me in any way they could even on days they would see back-to-back patients for hours at a time.

In addition to treatments, my life was changed when I learned about the benefits of essential oils and herbs. Things from headaches to nausea to anxiety and more, I learned, could be relieved with different essential oils. To this day I swear by peppermint, lavender, lemon, and tea tree oils! I recommend that you look up how each oil is used because the uses are endless. The oils can be expensive though. Some can be as high $100 for a bottle the size of single Combo cracker. I grew accustomed to seeing countless people spend hundreds of dollars a week on oils and treatment. (Shen Men was not the only place of that kind I worked at so that observation is based on experiences at different places in Brooklyn.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some places like these offer discounts and accept insurance. If you’re like me, though, and have spent most if not all of your adult life living paycheck to paycheck while barely finding time to even think about afforidng a primary care physician, let alone finding one who isn’t racist and plagued by implicit biases…while also struggling with simply existing given your past trauma and the reality that in the eyes of global policy/decision-makers your life doesn’t matter…there are many different factors impacting your (relationship to your) health. Not to mention the disproportionate rate of black and brown people who self-medicate with drugs and alcohol because of lack of fair and equal access to quality medical services. Not to mention the alarming rates of mental health disorders in low-income communities that lead to even more barriers to any kind of treatment at all. Not to mention how unwelcoming some of these spaces are to black, brown, poor, disabled, and LGBTQIA+ folx.

I’m glad that there are some organizations that bring alternative medicine to underserved neighborhoods. They may be met with skepticism, at first, but they are there. Sadly, given the costs of training for some of the services these places provide, the practitioners tend to be white. Not all. Most. At Shen Men the practitioners were surprisingly diverse. It was refreshing. Not surprisingly, most of the people who came in for treatment or to buy products were white and wealthy. That could be for a number of reasons but the bottom line is equal access to these services is what is needed. I could go on and on about the ways that medical services in this country have negatively impacted marginalized communities. I could tell you more about what you already know about racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia in hospitals (and other places and spaces) across the country. I won’t. I’ll just say that if more people had equal access to alternative medicine at affordable rates according to income, the medical services industry would be impacted in a drastic way.

Healing My Black Body

One thing I learned from my coworkers that impacted my life the most is the power of herbs. In addition to different books I read in the small library at Shen Men, I learned about the different purposes of certain plants as commonly used in medicines, teas, and steams throughout history. Healers from different continents, across oceans and seas, were using the same plants, the same berries, the same roots for the same reasons! From chamomile flowers to Kava root, lavender to rose petals, cinnamon to turmeric, passionflower to lemon, and so many more, the special benefits that accompany careful these herbs are abundant. I’m sure that brujxs, witches, gardeners, and other people with even a tiny bit of knowledge of the healing powers of plants are rolling their eyes. Further, I know there are some of you who disavow alternative medicine in the name of science or some other reason. Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone go home and flush their SSRIs while laughing in the face of the “Western” medicine and floating in a tub of valerian and sea salt with bergamot oil dripping down their temples as palo santo burns atop a smoky quartz incense holder. (Though, that tub idea does seem like a great way to welcome the next new moon.) I am suggesting that you consider looking into alternative medicine in order to supplement your usual self-care methods. Maybe there’s a community acupuncture collective in your town or a local small business that offers herbal remedies at a low price (if you don’t have the time and/or resources to make your own). What started as a form of self-care for me turned into a small business. If my small business fails because people read this and decided to make their own teas and tinctures I’d be thankful because a huge issue is accessibility with most of this stuff.

I stopped taking prescription medication (but will never argue that everyone should) years ago after my second suicide attempt and I’m vocal about my experiences with mental illness because there isn’t enough dialogue about mental illness in the black community. It can feel alienating to fight alone while trying to be a strong black woman on top of other systemic issues impacting our communities. Since I stopped taking medication, I had to get creative with self-care when binge drinking, bulimia relapse, and depression naps interfered with therapy and other forms of healing/recovery. It took me accepting that healing is a process, it takes time, and it takes being honest with oneself about how the mind and body are working together to keep you alive. It takes a holistic approach to self-care, treating all of you instead of parts of you. Recognizing that there are multiple puzzle pieces that go into solving the full picture that is health and wellness. Accepting that your picture may look drastically different than others’. My favorite tea blend that I make is hibiscus, passionflower, and valerian. To me, it’s the equivalent of smoking half a joint then spending three minutes in a steam room. Not only does it calm my mind when I’m feeling particularly manic or restless but it also helps with my PTSD nightmares. Is it the placebo effect? Do I think those effects into existence? I don’t want to know because when you’re managing often debilitating mental illnesses the feeling of genuine peace of mind and calm is powerful. Today I curled up with my DBT workbook while sipping some of my favorite tea. Some days I rub some lavender essential oil on my temples and collarbone before therapy on my college’s campus because I know that right before I break down and cry I’ll take a deep breath and the aroma will slowly help me relax in order to avoid exasperating my lung conditon.

I used to participate in community acupuncture but I cannot afford to anymore. I used to stock up on essential oils but I cannot afford to anymore. Instead, I incorporate different elements of alternative medicine into my daily life  by making my own teas, practicing acupressure and reflexology on myself, and promising myself to keep in mind that a holistic approach to self-care is healthy, necessary. Sometimes I fail, healing is a process. Finding medical services that accept Medicaid and are also staffed by non-problematic people in an inclusive space is difficult. Finding time between school and work and interning and political activism to spend hours in a walk-in clinic is difficult. Finding the time to go to the right place only to be reminded that you’re a pawn in the biomedical imperialist regime is difficult. Incorporating different philosophies and practices of alternative medicine into my daily life has helped me start to heal in a way that is true to myself and doesn’t leave me relying on “Western” medicine alone. I may have to seek the help of certain specialists for chronic health issues more often than I’d like to but on this journey of healing I’m thankful for alternative medicine.