Sunday, January 1, 2012

Kissing Under (and other alternative uses of) the Mistletoe

Under the Mistletoe. Photo by Alina Oswald
Happy New Year! 

Some of you may have kissed or been kissed under the mistletoe, but did you know that the mistletoe is famous all around the year, not only on January 1st? Some people use it as a complementary (alternative) therapy, together with more daring treatments... Here's how long-term AIDS survivor and award-winning, legally blind photographer and others in his SWAN (Surviving With AIDS Network) used it back when there was nothing else to use, other than AZT. 

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Excerpt from Chapter 4: Self-Reflections of Journeys Through Darkness, A Biography of AIDS


Journeys Through Darkness
While the conventional medicine didn’t have much to offer at the time and the only treatment available was making them extremely sick and weak, people living with the virus were desperate to try pretty much anything that could remotely improve their quality of life, and they would listen to anybody who could possibly offer them a chance to survive. AZT was a first positive step toward finding an AIDS treatment, but not all patients could manage staying on the drug.
    A lot of them felt so sick while taking the medication that they quit caring about living. If the drug, which was supposed to keep them alive, made them feel so awful, what was the point of being alive in the first place. Some would rather be dead and end the suffering altogether.
    Other patients believed in a conspiracy theory, that the Big Pharma (the large network of drug companies) was trying to make money off AIDS patients and that the chemicals in the AIDS drugs were poisonous and doing them more harm than good. So a lot of infected people refused to take the AZT or go through chemotherapy. They attempted a more natural approach to fighting their AIDS. 
    A lot of those attending SWAN workshops also became extremely interested in alternative treatments. Therefore, a lot of alternative medical practitioners showed up at SWAN meetings to inform the patients of other ways they could fight the virus.
    “There’s a lot of fakery in the world of alternative treatments,” Weston explains. “And some practitioners were preying on people with life threatening, terminal illnesses. [But] if some [medical] doctor came to you and said that you were gonna die because you had this [disease] and there was nothing available to help you, and then somebody else came and said ‘I know something that they don’t know. I’ve got this thing that could help you.’ Wouldn’t you be tempted to try it?”
    During the SWAN meetings alternative medical practitioners showed patients how to keep themselves healthy using therapeutic nutrients, Chinese herbs, and acupuncture. They also discussed very extreme therapies like Ozone therapy, auto-urine therapy or the benefits of various plant extracts and enzymes. That way, patients could get a better understanding of the various possibilities available—other than just chemicals—to treat their HIV. That way, AIDS patients could become more proactive fighting their disease.
    Alternative treatments were very expensive and patients who wanted to try them couldn’t afford to try every one of these treatments. Most of the patients were on disability and didn’t have much money to spend on experimentation, even on those who could potentially extend their lives. In addition, it would have been very time-consuming, plainly not smart and simply not possible for each individual in the SWAN group to experiment with every one of the available alternative treatments.

    So, SWAN participants decided to take turns, and then get together and share what worked and what didn’t work. If it worked, than it was worth the money. If not, then the others didn’t have to give it another thought.
    Each member of the SWAN group volunteered to try various things. For example, one person would take herbs, another would attend an acupuncture session or try urine therapy, while yet another individual would go through a session of Ozone therapy or take yoga classes or massage therapy sessions. And regardless of their experiences, either if they found them helpful, successful or just plain gross, participants would come back to the following SWAN meeting to discuss and share their trials and thoughts with the rest of the group.
    Weston himself has tried some of the most extreme treatments. “I did try drinking urine,” the photographer confesses. “Because one of the Chinese medical practitioners said that some people got very good results from drinking their own urine… so I did that. And I don’t believe that it really did work, but I was willing to try anything.”
    Another treatment he also tried required injecting himself with a substance called Iscador. Ten injections cost eighty dollars. Iscador was a therapeutic homeopathic preparation created from mistletoe, a very poisonous plant, which is fatal if ingested.
    But the mistletoe story doesn’t start with AIDS or with Christmas. In ancient times, pagans in Northern Europe held orgies before mistletoe altars. This reverence translated into the Christian ritual of hanging mistletoe over doorways at Christmas time. The pagan orgies became, through the years, the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
    Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows in the bark of trees and does not obey many of the laws of the plant kingdom—it stores up chlorophyll and stays green throughout the year, indifferent to light. The name “mistletoe” comes from a Celtic word meaning “all-heal,” thus its historical use as remedy for pretty much everything from nervous complaints to bleeding wounds and tumors. Many years later, traditional Chinese and Korean medicine discovered a variety of uses for mistletoe.
    In the early twentieth century, Rudolf Steiner, the creator of anthroposophy (a human oriented spiritual philosophy) introduced the plant to modern medicine. He used medical mistletoe, called Iscador, as a potential cancer treatment and mistletoe extract injections as immune system stimulants.

All Text and Artwork Are Copyright Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Very interesting, I never knew that about mistletoe!

  2. Thanks for posting your comment. And yes, Iscador has been used by cancer patients and also HIV/AIDS patients. I did some reseach on the topic while writing Journeys Through Darkness, a biography of AIDS. Back in the eighties and early nineties, before the advent of HAART treatments, many AIDS patients were willing to try pretty much anything to stay alive. I learned a lot about it while telling the story of Kurt Weston, an AIDS warrior and award-winning visual artist, and also a wonderful friend.
    Thanks again and wonder-filled 2012!