Last week I had a cold. It was one of those ones you get after you haven’t slept properly for a few nights (and in my case, because I’d been pushing myself to work hard for once). I felt terrible, but being British, a man, and generally lazy I made no effort to go to the doctor. And, of course, I had no Lemsips, Beechams or any kind of medicine at all in my flat.
Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because my Chinese flatmate Will gave me some medicine. When he first offered me some I half expected a herbal remedy. But no, he produced a packet of tablets which consisted of two types: white tablets for the day time and black tablets for the night time.
I’m the kind of person who always reads the label on medicines. Not because I understand the technical jargon you find on them, I just find it reassuring to pretend I’m capable of deciding what the tablets might do to me. In this case though my knowledge of the Chinese language (i.e. none) prevented me from undergoing this ritual.
As a result I was apprehensive about taking the tablets. Which I found worrying in itself, because I completely trust my flatmate and know he wouldn’t give me anything dangerous. So why was I afraid, and what was I even afraid of? What’s more, I was more apprehensive about taking the black tablets than the white tablets. I thinks it’s probably because I’ve never taken (or even seen) a black tablet before.
In the end I just took both the tablets anyway, after realising that a) I was being irrational, and b) I felt so crappy that I was prepared to try anything. But because I couldn’t read the ingredients I wasn’t really convinced they would work, and instead thought ‘at the very least the placebo effect might kick in and make me feel better.’
When I told Colin this story we both got a bit unsure of whether the placebo effect can take place if you’ve already considered that the thing you are taking might work as a placebo. I’ve had a similar thought before about headache tablets. If I have a headache and take two headache tablets I always start to feel better about 20 minutes later (the only exception being when I’m hung-over). But, I always ponder, is this simply because I assume they will work, stop worrying about my headache and get on with things. Or is it because the paracetemol, caffeine and so on in headache tablets actually works on me. I imagine it’s mainly the latter, but live in fear that if I ever lose my confidence in headache tablets that they will no longer work on me.
In the case of the Chinese flu tablets, I did feel better the next day. It might be because of the stuff in them, or it might be because of some placebo effect. Or it might be that I had a good nights sleep for once. But I still decided to not take any more, and left it up to time and nature to get me better.
So what is the point of this rambling parable? Well, I feel like I learned a few things. First, being able to read labels makes me feel much happier about taking medicine. Second, black tablets are slightly intimidating. Third,I don’t care if its a placebo effect thats getting me better as long as I feel better. Finally, I should buy medicine before I get sick.