The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 2 The Placebo Effect

I SIT AT HOME glowering to myself, listening balefully to sad songs on the radio. ‘Sundown’, the song goes, ‘you better take care, If I find you been creepin’ ’round my back stair.’ Yes Backside, you should take care. Though of course the creeping has already taken place.

Obviously I should have realised. Sticking pins into effigies is completely pointless when the subject of the sympathetic magic or whatever you like to call it has no idea that this is happening. People have to know that they’re the target of this sort of chicanery or else it doesn’t work. Like the placebo effect, they have to know that something’s afoot.

Moreover, they have to be open to the notion that sympathetic magic might have some power to alter the physical state. And most people today, even if they have it suggested to them that such a possibility might exist, dismiss it straight away, out of hand.

Of course I could send the Backside anonymous poison pen letters compiled from cuttings of words from newspapers along the lines of:

‘You’ll be sorry!’


If you start to feel unwell, don’t

worry about it (only joking ‒

you should worry!)’

Frankly, though, I don’t think I have the energy. And anyway the only address I have for her is the Docklands one and the Arsehole might open it. He only let me have that address by mistake in the round-robin email. Once he realised the full measure of my psychopathic reaction after telling me the basics of how he met the Backside, he clammed up completely and quickly moved all his stuff out of our house fearing that I’d soon get around to slashing his suits, hacking his ties and underwear to shreds and burning all his paperwork, books, CDs, family photos, etc. Which, of course, I would have. If he occasionally visits for something, he even parks his car some distance away and walks to the house. He hasn’t been willing to tell me anything else about her, not where she works or even what her full name is. In fact, I’ve a feeling he gave me a false name for her first name. How many Perditas do you know that aren’t dogs?

And now, Dennis thinks I’m a hopeless case, sitting at home wishing ill on a woman I know almost nothing of to the point that I’d gladly have her killed and dismembered, or dismembered first and then killed. Well naturally I would. But the belief that nothing along these lines which I might wish for is ever remotely likely to come about makes it possible for me to freely think these things. Hopefully Dennis realises that I don’t actually create likenesses of my rival and stick projectiles into them or into anything else; that I just think about it. More than is healthy probably, but there it is after just two months.

Actually I did come across an old ball of wool, wound it round a piece of card and made a dolly out of it. And needles and pins may have come into it. Scissors anyway. When I strain to resurrect and sift through the ashes of last night, I’m sure I didn’t actually say anything about dismemberment. I hope so or else he would think I’m a complete fruitcake. And … er … I really don’t think I am. Just a person whose spouse has gone off with another woman and who needs to somehow make sense of it and get over it.

I’m actually not sure quite how I ended up letting Dennis into my mind and revealing so much to him or even allowing myself to get so hammered at all. I don’t as a rule, or even ever, divulge my innermost thoughts, not even to my oldest, bestest friends or even to my mother. In fact, most especially not to my mother. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s mind is a seething cauldron of wild, outlandish notions which we all normally keep to ourselves realising that open disclosure may result in our being run out of town, excommunicated from society, banged up for stirring up every kind of hatred and tension, certified under the Mental Health Act.

So why and how on earth did I feel it remotely appropriate to tell Dennis all the daft stuff I’ve been ruminating over recently? It can only have been his arbitrating skills coming to the fore after years of teasing the salient points out of stroppy but vague adversaries ready to relate anything other than the core facts in property and other dispute resolutions. Having lulled the party into a sense of security by appearing sympathetic and understanding and having thus winkled out THE TRUTH, does Dennis then later pounce on the party and use those facts against him or her? Would he make some capital later out of my ridiculous rantings last night? I do hope not. A gentleman having taken advantage of a lady wouldn’t broadcast abroad or otherwise utilise the information gained. Well of course he wouldn’t. Who would be remotely interested anyway.

This of course is another one of my silly musings. I clearly need to get my brain washed through with carbolic or the modern equivalent, re-jigged or even entirely replaced. But I must in the meantime remember that I’m fragile and vulnerable. I must moderate my drinking when out with a gentleman and definitely not let them straight into my crazy head.

MONDAY has inevitably come around again and I’m finding I have time on my hands this morning. My work PC has died on me and my technical skills in that field are non-existent. In fact much of technology has passed me by and is a mystery to me. I’m sure if I had a brain scan, then the area dedicated to technological knowledge would just be a big blank space. I said this to the Arsehole once and he said: “Yes, and the part where all the rubbish is kept would be full, in fact overflowing into other chambers.” I took it as a joke at the time and told him that his balls were full of custard. I think that was before we started our Olympic challenge to get me pregnant, but actually I’m not sure now. Anyway, what’s so much worse about likening the contents of a man’s tackle to a confection containing mainly colouring and a thickening agent than being told you’re brain-dead in all useful departments?

And I do quite like to eat custard. As a confection.

They always say: “Switch your PC off and start it again.”

“I can’t,” I wail. “It’s already off.”

So our tecky guy is sitting in my room at my desk fiddling with the works while I look out of the window and drift off into deep space.

I DON’T as a rule take much interest in women I know blabbing on and on and on about their babies and children. Obviously it’s because I’m jealous. Given the fact that many women of my age don’t yet have children, either by design or like me because nature seems to have decreed it, it’s not such a problem as it might once have been in times past when most women were well into nappies by their mid-twenties and had finished off child-rearing entirely by their mid-forties at the latest and would have been frankly horrified at the thought of producing an infant after the age of thirty-five.

But sometimes people do say things that make your ears prick up. For instance, my friend Danielle already has three toddlers under the age of five, all born in September. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what might have precipitated their conception. Danielle is terrified of injections, even having had the pin-cushion experience of three gestations and births with all the associated blood tests, pethidine jabs and episiotomy repairs. So you’d think that when she took her offspring to the doctors for their inoculations, that they’d scream the building down.

Not at all apparently. Danielle is only worried about having needles stuck in herself. She knows they don’t really hurt but it’s like people and spiders. We know the spiders won’t hurt us but we’re still terrified of them. So when she drags her kids off to a vaccination session and all the other mums are fussing like mad over the babies who as a result are purple in the face and bawling their heads off before they’ve got anywhere near the consulting room, Danielle by contrast is sitting with her kids unconcernedly reading books with them in the waiting room and the kids don’t turn a hair throughout the whole process. She feels a bit guilty at not reacting to what the children have to go through, however, at the end of the day, it’s better for the children than being made to feel hysterical by the power of their mothers’ unspoken suggestion.

To me the above is an example of the way in which having some information in advance of an experience can affect the outcome beneficially or adversely. Danielle’s children benefit from their mother’s unspoken certainty that nothing bad is about to happen to them. I had virtually zilch advance information about Dennis and accordingly I wasn’t able to prepare myself one way or the other. I therefore floundered and flapped about like a beached fish. The Backside doesn’t know I’m sticking pins into an effigy of her, or at least thinking about it, and thereby goes about her business unaffected. If she did know, there’s a chance it might at least unsettle her. Or, more probably, give her a bloody good laugh which, I admit, is a solid enough reason to give up the sad and hopeless obsession.

I SUPPOSE placebos must have been about in some form or other for thousands of years, for just about forever really. They must be as old as speech itself. Ever since girls started to be told they had to stay in the cave and tidy up and not go out bear-hunting with the boys or else they’d never get a male to want to grab them by the hair one day and drag them off to the next cave to mate with them.

Though the news is awash with disasters, mostly at a social level people want to hear nice things about other people. Even derogatory gossip is toned down with the use of innuendo and euphemism. If you were to say blatantly horrible things about people, others might well start to shun you. Sarcasm is about as far as you can decently go.

So basically people like, in their everyday lives, to hear nice things and they’re influenced by what they hear.

If I’d been told horrible things about Dennis, then I probably wouldn’t have gone out with him at all. But if I’d been told he was a really nice guy, which it appears in fact he is, I would have presented a more open, friendly aspect towards him. I would have been less nervous and suspicious. We might consequently have hit it off from the outset. I’ll never know now.

There seem to be all sorts of manifestations of this idea that we’re influenced by what we know, or what’s been communicated to us. For instance you can’t tickle yourself successfully and it’s quite difficult to scare yourself. On the other hand if you’re told a house is haunted and you’re left alone there for the night, at the very least you’ll probably be apprehensive, though me, I’d be peeing myself in no time.

There’s something called parasympathetic rebound when someone is so terrified or worked up that the whole metabolic system reacts and tries to calm itself down however but reportedly it can make too good a job of it and the heart stops beating. This can happen during sex apparently. Fat chance of it happening to me at the moment then. However, maybe the Backside will succumb during an especially passionate session with the Arsehole. I speculate upon his abilities to produce the heights of passion, though after eight years of marriage those memories have become a little hazy. Still it must be a possibility with the Backside. I’ll have to hope he hasn’t lost his edge during all those years of copulating for the almost sole purpose of breeding. At least towards the end anyway.

The power of suggestion is immensely strong and conversely the lack of any suggestion, as in the case of me and Dennis, can lead to a lukewarm outcome. In one medical study, some subjects weren’t informed that any therapy was being performed. Hidden medical treatments were performed with some people, as well as open ones with others. The results showed that hidden administrations of pharmacological therapies and non-pharmacological therapies (i.e. placebos) were far less effective than the open ones.

I’ve started reading books and articles and things about placebos and their darker counterpart, nocebos; the effect of mind over matter. Yet there aren’t any statistics that I can find about how well prospective couples get on with each other when they’ve been given leading information, good or bad. I suppose I must’ve been quite impressed, even if only subliminally, that Dennis wasn’t just any old surveyor, but that alone didn’t act in a positive way. In fact, I was intimidated by the information. And I had no advance personal information about him to possibly balance things out. Still, maybe the next person I date will come highly recommended so perhaps that will improve the prospects considerably.

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