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Byron Shire
September 26, 2023

When western medicine doesn’t work 

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The Scream by Edvard Munch.

Once I finally admitted I needed help with vicarious trauma, I tried a few techniques to ease my troubled mind. 

Lord knows I needed to – the screaming nightmares were acute, and my head felt like it was going to burst. 

Talk therapy only seemed to make things re-triggeringly worse, pills made me feel dead in the water (only a slight exaggeration), and cognitive behavioural therapy was hard work for limited reward. 

A psychologist friend referred me to an EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) practitioner. ‘What wacko crap’ I thought – moving the therapist’s fingers in front of my face while I thought of yucky things that had left me frightened of my own shadow. 

But it worked. It worked so well over ten sessions that I could feel those experiences shift from some uncontrollable frantic part of my brain, to a sedating and manageable zone. It was physical, metaphysical, remarkable, and successful. When the groobles come hunting me, I have a whole armoury at my fingertips – literally – with tapping my go-to practice. 

At the time, EMDR/tapping was seen as fringe. Not so now. 

Another time, we were in the heights of the Andes, and days’ travel from medical help and my eyes got progressively foggier and my vision blurry.

I was convinced by our guide to go to a healer with a car-battery blender in the markets, and what felt like half the village stood around while he translated my symptoms to the large smiling woman shaman. 

She listened carefully and started putting potions and herbs and liquids into the blender. 

The villagers were laughing at this almost blind westerner game enough to try local concoctions. 

Then she grabbed a bucket from beneath the table and grabbed a handful of live froglets out and plonked them into the blender. Before I could say ‘I am a vegan’ she whizzed them up, cackling with expectation. 

Pride, pressure, hope and fear stopped me backing out, and I drank the still shimmering mixture struggling not to puke. It did nothing for my eyes, but that night it did give the definition of food poisoning a real work out. 

And so to toads. I was staggered at the vitriol and tsk-tsking directed at the participants and ‘healers’ with kambo over the last few weeks. 

People who have not healed by traditional means will try unconventional methods to get better. 

Suffering breeds risk, because the pain of untreated existence is sometimes too great. It is as though there is one great big roller-coaster medical experiment going on with trial and error exploration by those who have not been helped by traditional means. And that is one way we find out what works. 

Vomiting my guts up and shitting my dacks is not my go-to idea of a remedy, and neither was the wiggle-finger-eye movement, and drinking amphibians. 

But reading the commentary from locals was like watching a throng baying for revenge. Lock them up! Increase the penalties, tar and feather the false shaman! 

Australia is the only country in the world to outright ban kambo as a medicine. 

And yet last week, I met some folk still engaging in its use and teaching underground. That is the heart of the problem. Driving use into the illicit dark zone does nothing for safety. 

Other countries not blighted by some generational rum-rebellion addiction to banning everything see beyond reactionary penalising and toward harm reduction. Prohibition is never the answer if community safety is really your goal as opposed to the false warm glow of the big stick. 

Surely, we have learned by now that banning things actually can do more harm than good. What lessons haven’t we learnt from the war on drugs? 

We have safe injecting rooms for illicit drugs, and we need more of them. We are moving toward safe spaces for the use of mushrooms and amphetamines. Similarly, we need safe rooms combined with education to reduce the risk of death from kambo and other exotics. 

It is true that there have been no studies that show any medicinal benefits with kambo. 

So I guess all those people are burning themselves and putting toad secretion into the wound then cramping and excreting because they are masochists who think vomiting and diarrhoea is more fun than the movies. 

Or maybe, just maybe, like psychedelic assisted therapy and medicinal cannabis and other previously derided substances/practices, it might just do some good. I really don’t know. 

The users I met swear by it. 

What I am sure of is this – education as to alarming dangerous symptoms, regulation about the need for onsite paramedic help, a blanket immunity from prosecution if emergency services are called – these things save lives. 

I have been so desperate for help that I have tried physical and mental practices that seemed cray-cray. 

One worked, and one didn’t. 

I am really glad that the prohibitionist lynch mobs didn’t get to the government first. 

Post Script – the blurry eyes turned out to be a tear duct infection, treated with antibiotics once I returned to the big smoke. 

♦ David Heilpern is Dean of Law at SCU, and a former magistrate

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  1. A thousand points to you David!

    Who really knows…and what doesn’t work for some, may for others.

    Hence why our ban on everything or worse, mandatory uptake, is so ignorant and foolish.

    Western and traditional medicines should be able to co-exist and compliment each other. Yin and Yang.

    From my experience however, the western crew claim the moral high ground and diss their fellow healers a little more than the traditional folk. We shouldn’t fear the unknown.

  2. Yep that frog secretions worked well with the 2 people who died from the secretions given by their egotistical “ gurus”

    • Very tragic. Increased chance when things are forced underground as noted Rod.

      Deaths due to western medicine (incorrect dose, mixing, abuse, allergies) are more frequent than we, or the media, may care to recognise or report.

      Balance, education and dose of empathy can help.


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