Quack goes the "doctor"
April 13, 2010 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Have you had success warning off a relative or friend from long-term engagement in quackery? Please tell me how you succeeded.

A person is extremely resistant to logic when it comes to her health and to quackery. If this were my best friend instead of my mother--with whom I have a strained relationship--I wouldn't hesitate to tell her that she might as well set her money on fire. I've come to the conclusion it's my ethical duty to try to convince my mother that she's enabling quacks and possibly harming herself in the process.

My mother was born with unquestionably legitimate health problems. e.g., One kidney, a club foot, a non-functioning reproductive system. By the time she was 16 she'd had a couple dozen corrective surgeries. She didn't get along with her mother, and I believe that my mother came to see the attention from doctors as something positive.

Fast forward to the 1980s. Mom was into a bunch of what I thought then were self-help books but what I realized later were books on the latest fad diagnosis by quacks. By then I began to realize she's a hypochondriac in the extreme. She also had a ton of prescriptions for painkillers, and she would often be asleep during the day.

[Leaving out many details in the interest of not arguing about what's alternative medicine and what's quackery. But one of the most extreme examples is that she was told she had "parasites." She was given a piece of metal to swallow. She fished it out of her feces, soaked it in vodka to sterilize it, and swallowed it twice more. The metal was supposed to send out electro-magnetic waves to kill the parasites--which she was told were in her muscles.]

Fast forward to the 1990s. Mom was diagnosed as bipolar but refused to take meds (other than PRN for anxiety) or engage in therapy. Two of my therapists also tagged her with antisocial personality disorder; had we been talking about an earlier DSM, she would have been called a sociopath. She has only 1 or 2 friends by now, no job, and is alone most of the time. She doesn't watch tv or read the newspaper, and has never been online. Now that I'm an adult, our relatives and her friends constantly express concern and bewilderment to me at her hypochondriac and narcissistic behavior. I start to see evidence that mom is spending thousands of dollars per year--sometimes thousands per month--on utter quackery. I shrug my shoulders and say to myself "Her money, her problem." I had learned where my boundaries were, and I became adept at guarding them.

Present day. I've read Quackwatch for years. I wrote to the site owner and shared some stories with him; even he was surprised at some of the treatments she'd been prescribed.

I have tried to talk to her, using different approaches. I've used the peer-reviewed literature angle. I have for years asked, when the red flags go up, if the person she's seeing went to medical school, what their residency was in, how invasive are these procedures, etc. She's on guard about it because she was recently questioned by her financial advisors about this. When they told her to cut back her spending in this area, she fired them all. She simply will not tolerate any questioning about her notions of her being very, very ill. She's nearly always in pain, whether it's from widely recognized but unprovable diagnoses or easily recognizable quack terms.

It's to the point where she's now making the 3-hour drive from her house to mine every other week and staying with me 2-3 days while she has some dental work done. She pays for it all out of pocket because insurance doesn't recognize her diagnosis. The cheapest of these visits is about $600--and that's exclusively for the exam and all the supplements he's prescribing her. Today she came back after having had injections into her jaw and facial bones, under a local anesthetic.

If you've read this far, thank you. My question is NOT about how to report the practitioners. Nor is it about how to recognize quackery.

I need to know that there are others out there who've had success--at least a little--in talking to their relative or loved one about the quackery they're engaging in. Has anyone convinced someone to stop doing it altogether? How did you do it, what did you say, how much success have you had? Do you think your success was dependent on your having a good relationship with the person?
posted by ImproviseOrDie to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It seems to me that the engagement with quackery is the symptom, not the disease - her mental health issues are the real problem, and unless those are dealt with, you're not going to get much traction.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:13 AM on April 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You've done all of the things that work on people who are thinking rationally about this stuff: presenting science-based evidence, asking about credentials, suggesting a weighing of the risks. Really, the only approach left is to try to discern the particular manner in which she's being irrational and work within that. Try to channel her particular concerns and methods of thinking about things into less invasive, harmful pursuits. If you can convince her to ignore surgical quacks in favor of spirit healing, for example, she'd still be wasting money, but she wouldn't be risking her health quite as severely.

By the way, I know this wasn't your question, but if your best efforts still don't work (and I'm sorry, but I think it's unlikely that they will given the extent of your mother's untreated mental illness and her unwillingness to accept help for it), you might want to think about telling her that you can't engage with her on this topic. Don't talk with her about her treatments and don't let her stay with you when she's having them done. And definitely don't give her financial support. You don't say where she's getting the money for all of this, but it shouldn't be from you. It may be a way to save your own sanity even if you can't save her. You may also want to consider a support group for people with mentally ill parents, as a way of coping with the stress yourself.

I'm so sorry that this is happening to you and your family.
posted by decathecting at 11:24 AM on April 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm not qualified to say that your mom is mentally ill, but it sounds like qualified people have already done so. When someone's problems go that deep, you can't just talk them out of it.
posted by amethysts at 11:44 AM on April 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have to say that her behavior has addiction written all over it-- not just the painkillers, but you mention that your mother associates the doctors with positive attention. This can be enough of a reward that each procedure brings the same "high" (though that may not be the only reason she gets that reward, but it's the first that you've identified). She protects her addiction by retreating from the world, by summarily dismissing anyone who questions her, and is unwilling to see any alternative to her view of herself (which would threaten her addiciton). restless_nomad is right-- the quackery is the symptom, and you very likely are looking at a "process addiction" here. Perhaps if you reframe your approach by treating it as such, you will be able to help yourself, first and foremost, and then also be of better use to her.

Somewhere between 60%-80% of those living with mental illness have co-occurring addiction. I speak from personal experience on this one-- your mother's behavior is all too familiar.
posted by mireille at 11:52 AM on April 13, 2010

Best answer: Yes, it does sound like the quackery focus is a symptom of a greater illness. Focusing on the quackery will do you no good. The real focus is to get treatment for whatever deeper going on (mental illness, addiction, etc.)

But, maybe you could get her mental care by focusing on her associating medical attention with 'positive attention'. Try to redirect her focus from quackery to actual care somehow so that she feels she is getting the same positive reinforcement, but you will know it is from a more valid source that actually CAN help her.
posted by Vaike at 1:10 PM on April 13, 2010

I have very VERY rarely had success with the "second opinion" argument. As in, "I'm not sure this bottle of homeopathic medicine is really helping your sprained ankle. Maybe you should see a doctor for a second opinion."
posted by ErikaB at 1:10 PM on April 13, 2010

Have you considered trying to have her committed? She sounds like she is hurting herself with all the quackery, could that be grounds? I mean, that thing with the dental work sounds horrific.

(I know nothing, this is just an idea I had. I wish you all the best.)
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:36 PM on April 13, 2010

I have never had any success with my mother in this situation. She and my stepdad refinanced their house last year to pay for some extreme "longevity" treatments (human growth hormone and the like) and now they're at least 50 grand in the hole for it. Growing up, they subjected me and my sister to every quack in the book. I was raised on soy milk infant formula. I was never allowed fluoride (I have the most cavity-riddled teeth now). Never got braces because Mom thought the metal in my mouth would poison me. We all took pills of wormwood and drank tinctures of black walnut (don't remember why). We hooked ourselves up to a little machine that ran an electrical current through our whole bodies, to kill all our "parasites," which were causing all diseases and cancers. I voluntarily put myself on a raw-foods diet in high school, to try to get over mono faster, and when I added a course of hydrogen peroxide to the mix, I nearly landed in the hospital. Mom is also in a cult, and plenty of money has gone to that, too.

I have never made one inch of progress with her. She is simply not interested in entertaining alternative versions of reality. After a particularly brutal clash with her over the 50-grand hormone therapy, my grandparents (her parents) finally took me aside and explained that my mother had a psychotic breakdown in her late twenties (probably drug-related), spent several weeks in the fetal position in a mental hospital, and ever since then, she's believed in all this bullcrap.

Moral of the story is, she's just not quite right in the head. You can't reason someone out of something they didn't reason themselves into.
posted by sunnichka at 6:20 PM on April 13, 2010

Response by poster: You've all provided very valuable answers. Thank you. In suppose I already knew that the answer was she's mentally ill and I can't talk her out of anything. Every once in a while I feel at my wits' end with this behavior. I have in the past taken a break from our relationship when the behavior has become too much. Because her illness is so resistant to treatment, it will be this way as long as she is alive.

To decathecting: No, I don't provide her any financial support. She's independently wealthy via inheritance, and she's a spendthrift in all areas, not just this one. She recently fired all her financial advisors and lawyers when they made a case for her reducing her costs in this area.

To TooFewShoes: No, it's not possible to have her committed. Another member of my immediate family is seriously mentally ill, so I'm familiar with what it takes to do it. She is too well able to take care of her daily needs, and she's not detached from reality. (Well, general temporal/corporeal reality, like what day it is and where she is and her ability to recognize others.)

To sunnichka: Thank you for sharing your story. Your childhood sounds hellish. I'm glad that you, like me, have relatives who validated your suspicions that it was her, not you.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:01 AM on May 4, 2010

My heart goes out to you.

You know, my biological father is just as crazy, and I finally just cut off contact with him. It was a very hard decision to make, but as soon as I made it, I felt so relieved. I feel less fragile, day-to-day, not having to dodge his constant stream of quackery. (Like how he could heal my aura over the telephone.)

You said that you've "taken a break" from your relationship with her before. I just want to say that that sounds like a perfectly understable way to stay sane yourself.

If you'd ever like to vent, please MeMail me! Hell, it would probably be great for me to be able to vent back!
posted by sunnichka at 8:03 PM on May 6, 2010

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