The New Statesman Profile - Alternative health junkie

No longer a dippy hippy, she's created a multimillion-pound industry and has earned the blessing of

It is good to be able to spot a believer in alternative medicine, if only to avoid awkward social contretemps, in the course of which you might unknowingly compare your conversational partner with a delusional hysteric, and she might take offence. That pronoun is used advisedly - after extensive, worldwide research showing that the gender split between practitioner and client in alternative medicine is exactly inverse to that in prostitution. Which is to say, 90 per cent of prostitutes are female, 10 per cent male, and whoremongers across the globe (clients, I mean) are all male, apart from two women who live in the same street in Cirencester; meanwhile, 90 per cent of alternative practitioners are male, 10 per cent female, and their patients are all female, apart from two men (I'm not sure where they live). I wouldn't want to extrapolate customer satisfaction from these statistics. Oh no. It could be that men are historically cannier than women, and that whichever side of the producer/consumer split they're on is where the best deal is - or it could be that, traditionally, men prefer to spend at least some time contracting diseases before they go to the bother of getting rid of them.

Clearly, "she will be female" is not precise enough unfailingly to identify the alternative health junkie - and identify her we must, for she is an increasingly familiar figure in our landscape, and our very own Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, is one. Indeed, you can no longer dismiss the alternative health junkie as a dippy throwback to the hippy era, because today she's got Cherie's superwoman blessing, and is likely to be a QC with her Silks, all her marbles and an important husband to boot.

Check her person for needles - if she has one behind her ear, a la Cherie, that's a sure sign of a visit to an acupuncturist. If she has one down her fingernail, she is a regular junkie. If she has one sticking out of the top of her head, she's been to an acupuncturist in Notting Hill (they are in such demand that there is generally a mere ten-minute window for each patient, and small details such as removing needles are often omitted). If she twiddles the ear-needle, this means either a) she has given up smoking, or b) she is finding your presence stressful and needs to reshuffle her pressure points. That might be because you're checking her out, in a strange, obsessive-compulsive way (if she concludes that you are indeed suffering such a disorder, she will recommend Australian flower remedies; see below). If she smells like an old lady, she believes in essential oils (lavender, to calm anxiety, is an obvious pensioner smell; bergamot, for confidence, smells very geriatric as well - this is a bit hit and miss, though, as cabbage and wee are not essential oils). If she asks you anything strange - such as "Do you prefer cold water for drinking, or lukewarm?" - she might be not merely a believer in homeopathy, but an actual homeopath - though you will have already guessed that from her limpid complexion and beatific expression. "Fizzy or still?", however, is just regular social intercourse.

She will, without fail, use the word "holistic", not to describe anything medicinal, linguistic or ecological, but rather in some sentence where "thorough" would have done. Our current Prime Minister's wife, for instance, spoke recently about the problems of bullying in schools. "It needs to be managed in a holistic way," she said, "which recognises children being able to take control of their own lives." It's not wrong as such - it just doesn't exactly mean anything. That's a dead give-away, particularly from a highly educated person.

More money than sense is an obvious tip, but don't attempt to work out someone's wealth from accent and suchlike - that's plain prejudice (which, since you ask, comes from negative spleen energy: to rid yourself of it, sit cross-legged, press hard upon your sternum and repeat "I release my prejudice!"). Instead, carefully assess the sense of the person - if she has none at all, it's fair to assume that she has at least some money, and has therefore probably come straight from the naturopath.

Once you've identified the target, be tactful. Alternative therapies are not all the same. Some of them deal with chakra, pressure points and so on. Some of them divide patients into Vata, Pitta or Kapha. Some administer tiny, tiny amounts of substances; some work on blood type; some divine deep-seated problems by making their patients look closely at pictures of flowers and choose their favourite one (I'm not making this up). Most will also work on pets, and some can work on cars (reiki, for instance).

Some are truly hard core - don't be impressed by anyone who submits to having pins stuck in them, because although it sounds painful, it isn't (this might just be an indication of magic powers). Do, however, be impressed by anyone who submits to a weekend away-break with a team of medics who intend to starve them and stick foreign objects up treasured body-canals. That's what they do in Ayurvedic hospitals, and it is truly one for the committed (or the about-to-be). Many treatments open up welters of psychic pain that patients didn't realise they had until someone stroked their hand and said, "That must have been extremely painful." Imagine having that laid on you when you've only just had a facial.

The thing all treatments have in common is a profound interest in every element of the patient's life, up to and including whether the patient feels very sorely wronged by anyone, whether the patient thinks she has just taken too much on, and what the patient got in her A levels (but only if the patient particularly wants to share this information, having not had a chance to for some years, on account of it being kind of inappropriate to show off about it so long after the event - even though, in those days, A levels were really bloody hard, and she didn't go to a good school or anything). This is where alternative practitioners differ most markedly from GPs, who are only ever interested in whether you have any lumps or can answer "yes" to the following statements: I don't want to get up; I don't want to go to work; I don't want to eat my breakfast; I don't want to live in this coruscating darkness for one more moment.

For those who like a chat, alternative practitioners are therefore infinitely better than traditional ones, unless you're actually ill - I have a suspicion that alternatives take an alternative oath, to the effect that they'll never say "You have something seriously wrong with you". Mind you, I wouldn't know that, because I've never had anything seriously wrong with me. But then, most people tend to know in their gut if they have something seriously wrong with them, and go straight to the GP in the first place, so this is a completely unfalsifiable position. Psychoanalysts might sound as if they offer roughly the same thing, but they frequently look as if they've fallen asleep, and they rarely, if ever, notice the pink aura of humanity and peace you're giving off.

As proof of the efficacy of alternative medicine, its adherents often point to the damage it can do in the wrong hands. Real damage includes having your lung punctured by an acupuncturist, feeling really quite poorly as a result of Ayurvedic bloodletting, experiencing discomfort after colonic irrigation and starving to death on a diet of pure air. Logically, this argument doesn't work - in the wrong hands, a baseball bat can also be fatal, but it can rarely cure an ailment in a holistic way, unless all your problems do truthfully spring from a negative relationship with your father.

The disciple may not tell you how her particular therapy works, or how much older Chinese medicine is than our own sort. She will not tell you that, 100 years ago, herbal medicine was traditional to this country, and it's actually much more traditional than traditional medicine, and the shift of attitudes is actually based on a capitalist conspiracy, which laboured to take the means of production out of the hands of the oppressed. She will, instead, tell you how much better you feel afterwards. There's no arguing with that, frankly - apart from with Australian flower remedies, whose ingredients are bound together with purest alcohol, and whose beneficial effects could have been provided by absinthe.

Be aware that, in arguing with the alternative position, you demonstrate typical, western diametric thinking, which advances the debate not one jot, which stands in the way of the search for truth and which shows a violent lack of respect for other cultures. Be mindful that, when you have a funny tummy and the doctor tells you to stop eating all those pies, you too might favour a more holistic approach. Take note that being rude to people blocks your energy channels and gives you constipation (Luther had constipation, a homeopath once told me, in defence of this statement; so did Cromwell). And bear in mind that, for reasons no one can explain, users of alternative therapy often have colour therapy as well; so if all other signs fail, and she's wearing russet in a singularly well-advised way that really brings out her highlights, don't start any sentence that might end with "hocus-pocus".

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back