The Positive Side

Fall/Winter 2004 

Chatty CATIE: What’s Your Complementary Therapy?

Interviews by Diane Peters

GEORGE CLARK-DUNNING, 42

Volunteer with AIDS PEI and GLBT collective, Internet service provider
Diagnosed with HIV: 1991
Viral load: undetectable
CD4 count: 297
Cavendish, Prince Edward Island

I had a car accident in 2000 and started seeing a chiropractor, Dr. Vince Adams, who’s also an acupuncturist. I had whiplash and stress on my joints and muscles. After a year, we saw some progress in pain relief but I was still walking with a cane, so we started doing ACUPUNCTURE as well.

Most of the needles are done on my back. I lie on the table for 15–20 minutes and more often than not I fall asleep. Then Vince does the chiropractic side of the treatment and I’m out the door.

When I started acupuncture, I was also suffering from neuropathy — from my hips to toes. It felt like shards of glass being ground into my flesh. Every step and movement hurt. Vince said: “This isn’t car accident pain, this is HIV pain. I can work on that, so let’s go for it.” I went twice a week. Within a month I started feeling benefits. I stopped taking gabapentin for the neuropathy. The pain stopped and the acupuncture keeps it from returning. I have more energy for about four to five days after each session.

Vince recently asked about my liver function. It’s not good. I have a fatty liver and early stages of cirrhosis, so now he’s working on that organ, using trigger points related to liver function. I’m a firm believer in mixing East and West. What can it hurt? One needle in 10 hurts, but other than that I absolutely love it. It’s the best money I’ve spent for myself.

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese form of bodywork that uses special needles to stimulate energy points to help the body heal itself. For more info: Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada (519.642.1970, www.cmaac.ca.)

REBEKKA VALIAN, 43

Yoga instructor and aromatherapist
Diagnosed with HIV: 1991
Viral load: undetectable
CD4 count: 640
Vancouver, British Columbia

I’ve been doing YOGA since I was 8 years old. I taught myself from a book. When I was diagnosed, being on the yogic path played an important role because I wasn’t petrified of death. I thought: “I can control my health, I can stay healthy, I can not get psyched out by this diagnosis.”

In 1998, I was hospitalized. I had only 10 T cells left and I was diagnosed with MAC. I had to quit work and was bedridden for four months. I realized I was going to die if I didn’t try antiretrovirals. It was a combination of the meds and yoga that brought me back to life. I went to Quebec to be part of a study on how yogic breathing impacts HIV. It worked for me. I was in a lot of pain and as soon as I did yoga, the pain disappeared. I got pretty depressed around that time and tried an antidepressant, but it didn’t work. Yoga brought me out of it.

Getting back to the yoga really built up my T cells — I’m at 640 now. A lot of that is the drug cocktail, but it’s also the complementary therapies — aromatherapy, massage, meditation and especially yoga.

Yoga keeps the muscles strong and the ligaments juiced up. It seems to keep everything healthy and flexible and out of the pain zone. I feel strong because of my practice. There’s the whole mind-body-spirit connection. A healthy mind keeps the immune system healthy. And everyone can afford yoga because once you know the poses you can do it in your own home. Just tune in to the rhythm of your breath and let it guide you through the stretches.

Yoga, a form of mind / body exercise from ancient India, involves breathing, meditation and postures. For more info: Canada’s Ascent magazine (www.ascentmagazine.com), Yoga Journal (www.yogajournal.com) and “Introduction to Yoga,” The Positive Side, fall / winter 2001.

SHARI MARGOLESE, 42

Community activist and writer
Diagnosed with HIV: 1993
Viral load: 1,500
CD4 count: 700
Mississauga, Ontario

In 1995 I tried MEDICAL MARIJUANA. It helped relieve my HIV-related nausea and vomiting. When I started meds the next year, I tried it again and it was really helpful. I didn’t use it regularly because I didn’t have a medical license or regular access to it. So I tried over-the-counter and prescription meds, which made me pass out. I was so exhausted I couldn’t do anything.

In 2001, they changed the medical marijuana legislation. It became a little easier to get a license. I needed to try something else for the nausea, so I got one. I’ve been using medical marijuana since then and it’s helped me considerably. I get better pain relief for my neuropathy from marijuana than I did from amitriptyline. It’s made it easier for me to get on with my day and has helped me stay on HAART.

But it’s expensive and there’s no way to recoup the expense. It’s difficult with kids in the house — you have hide and sneak around. And it’s not really socially acceptable. Some days I feel so sick that I can’t smoke, so I take a Gravol and go to bed. Plus, I have asthma and there are days when I just can’t get a breath.

With medical marijuana, you have control over your dose. I can give myself just enough to do what it needs to do so I’m not passed out all the time. Sometimes I need more, sometimes less; sometimes one puff is enough, sometimes I smoke two joints in a row. At first I get a buzz, and after a few minutes, the buzz goes away but the beneficial effects stay.

For more info: “Green Acres,” The Positive Side, spring / summer 2002.

TOM HAMMOND, 39

Support services coordinator at the AIDS Committee of Guelph and Wellington County
Diagnosed with HIV: 1992
Viral load: undetectable
CD4 count: 210
Guelph, Ontario

Last November a coworker who was training in CRANIAL SACRAL THERAPY wanted to practice on people, so I decided to give it a shot. I’d never heard of it before, but I’ll try anything.

She starts with a guided meditation to help me clear my thoughts and get my breathing on track. Then she puts her hands on my sacrum (just above the butt) and moves them up my body, touching lightly. You don’t even really feel it. After 10 minutes, I fall asleep.

When I started, the first thing I noticed was that it reduced my stress level. For a week after the treatment I’m very focused instead of being spaced out from my meds. I have increased energy. I can think clearly and sleep better. Before that I had insomnia, probably from my meds and stress, but now I sleep right through the night. I also have gastrointestinal problems from my meds, and the therapy soothes my stomach.

When the session starts and I do my breathing, I pay attention to my whole body and visualize the virus in my system and how my body could make the medication work better. Before I started this therapy, my CD4 count was 168, and it had been there for several years. But after four sessions it went up to 210. It could be a coincidence, but I don’t think so. It’s not a big jump but to see any change at all was “wow!”

I’m still going, once a week for four weeks, and then I take a break. It’s more affordable this way. I’ve done lots of other kinds of therapies, but this really gives me the best bang for my buck.

Cranial sacral therapy is a form of massage that focuses on the head and spine to release tension and energy blocks.

MARTIN MAILLOUX, 45

Volunteer Taoist Tai Chi instructor
Diagnosed with HIV: 1994
Viral load: undetectable
CD4 count: 760
Montreal, Quebec

In 1995, one year after my HIV diagnosis, I got meningitis. My immune system was almost destroyed; I had 18 T cells. Back then meningitis was considered terminal for people with HIV, but there was a new treatment protocol and I was one of the first patients to be saved.

Then I had to live again. I had to learn how to walk again. The recovery period was about two years. In October 1998, I went to a TAOIST TAI CHI class for people with HIV organized by Maison Plein Coeur. Despite being so weak, I enjoyed it and kept going because I realized how powerful it was for me.

Tai Chi has really improved my circulation, balance and coordination. It’s helped reduce the side effects of the meds and some HIV symptoms. After each class I felt very hungry and started to gain weight. My headaches went away. Tai Chi stretched out my muscles, which were stiff from meds. It helps reduce lipodystrophy by gradually rebuilding my legs and bum.

Tai Chi also relaxes me — I’ve stopped worrying all the time. I trust my body more now. Because I almost died, it was something to trust my body again. I have strength now and I feel it.

At first I was the worst student, but the instructor was very patient. I had other people with HIV around me who were doing their best to improve their health. It was really motivating. After a while I realized: “I’m not bad at this. I feel really good.”

One day my instructor asked me to teach. “What are you talking about? I’m a sick person.” She said that’s what they were looking for. I became an assistant in 1999 and a volunteer instructor in 2001. I now help other instructors in two HIV classes.

Generally, when you have a disease like HIV, you’re overly concerned with yourself. Tai Chi helps: You have to look at others to adjust your movements and you feel it as a group. You become “one” for a little while. That’s the magical part. Slowly, you get less worried, improve your strength and enjoy just being with others.

Tai Chi is an ancient style of mind / body exercise made up of a series of slow, therapeutic movements. For more info: Taoist Tai Chi Society (www.taoist.org).

For more info see CATIE’s Practical Guide to Complementary Therapies.