The Placebo Effect

Last night I caught a bit of NPR’s Radiolab program regarding Placebos, focusing on lies that can have a healing effect. One example they spoke of was a treatment for Parkinson’s where a small device was inserted into the patient’s brain. When a button was pressed by the doctor, a small current was released, resulting in a cessation of the patient’s tremors. One doctor told a patient that he was pressing the button when he was doing no such thing. The tremors still stopped.

In the intro to the story, they brought up the notion that lies can heal. There are other stories in the series dealing with faith healers and how doctors can use the brain’s ability to translate belief into a curative. Interesting programs all and well worth a listen. Just home from listening to this, we watched the most recent episode of “The Flash” wherein there was a discussion of the useful and healthy nature of lies in relationships…that sometimes it is better not to tell someone something for their safety, health or general well-being.

All this talk of lies got me to thinking about the lies we tell each other and tell ourselves to get by. Let’s face it, being purely honest in this world is not always the happiest state of existence. Sometimes we need our placebos to get by, to stay sane, to keep getting up and going in a world that often, honestly, seems to be full of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent danger. We use these placebos and distractions to separate the cruelty of others from ourselves, to take pleasure in the simple joys and find reason to smile when, in all honesty, smiles should be hard to come by if we let the totality of the world be part of our everyday truth.

But these lies are often placeholders that keep us in stasis. Not getting sicker, but not healing. Feeling better when we are actually getting worse. We think we’re cured even as the disease continues to kill us. Do placebos really heal or do they give us a respite, a moment in the eye of the storm that continues to rage around us?

I think back on the lies that I have told myself over the course of my odd 45 years. The biggest being when I convinced myself I wasn’t trans. I gave myself a placebo built on guilt and fear – mostly fear – and I allowed that curative lie to become entrenched as a personal truth. Even as the storm of it raged around me, I was able to hide in the lie. But eventually the storm overtook my well-built levees and it all came crashing down.

And then there was the truth. And in that truth, I finally stopped taking the placebo that wasn’t healing me at all and found real healing in letting go of my fear and guilt and learning to love myself for who I was. The truth hurt. It still hurts. The world will never be exactly as I wish it to be. I cannot accept easy curative lies anymore. My level of tolerance for the placebos that used to get me through the day is so high that it is very difficult to overcome.

And so I have the truth, which has left me to face the brutality of existence. It has also allowed me to recognize the real beauty of the world and find reason to smile when there is so little left to smile about. Because for all the darkness, there is truth, beauty and love all around us.