Snake oil: (n) a quack remedy or panacea.
Anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes with me knows that I’m a pretty intense student of history. Old houses, old stories, books set in far away times? Gimme. There was the time on a trip to Biltmore where my partner and I ended up getting to see a few of the archive rooms and rooms used for storage of historical furniture and artifacts pulled from the estate over the years. “Are you going to be okay?,” he asked me. I couldn’t hear him. I was already on my hands and knees crawling under a claw foot tub to get a closer look at its feet. As we entered room after room, I looked at him with my heart pounding, my hands shaking. “I’m having a stroke I think. I am levitating. I will never recover from this day,” I told him.
In the late 1800s, Asian immigrants brought oils from Chinese water snakes to be used as a salve on aching muscles. So rich in Omega and fatty acids, and unlike anything Americans had used before, snake oil caught on, but there was an issue: all the snakes in the Americas didn’t have the same make up as Chinese water snakes and therefore anyone trying to duplicate this magic potion was essentially just selling jars of whatever oil they could find. Snake oil, once a truly helpful potion, had now become synonymous with fraud.
Soon after, traveling hucksters would infiltrate cities and towns, brandishing potions and solvents to cure what ailed residents they found there. These residents, desperate for relief for everything from thinning hair to chronic pain, handed over their hard earned money for usually what amounted to mineral oil or water. Snake oil salesmen gained a reputation akin to the guys we see on TV today yelling cheesy rhymes and peddling used cars from tiny dealerships, cars with a myriad of issues under the hood. Whatever these dudes were selling, it wasn’t legit and after a while, no one wanted it.
When my best friend hauled out her basket of vitamins one afternoon, I looked at her with disbelief.
As she went down the list, pulling bottles out one after another like items from Mary Poppins’ magic purse, accompanied by monologues of all the woes they would certainly cure for me, a voice in the back of my head kept shouting, “Snake oil! Snake oil! Snake oil!” But, for several days afterwards I couldn’t get her speech out of my head; what if these little pills actually made me feel better? Finally, after a large glass of wine one Friday night, I got on a boutique vitamin website (who even knew there was such a thing) and took a few quizzes. My results: I needed iron, more energy, something for my hair and skin, something for stress, something for inflammation, something to regulate sleep, and a few more just for good measure. I used a promo code and clicked “Buy now” feeling hope and dread. The last time I took vitamins with any regularity they were shaped like Fred and Wilma. These likely were no different in function but quadruple the price. The packaging may have been different, but I was nearly positive I had just bought a vial of snake oil.
When my snake oil arrived, in its modern packaging with bright colors and trendy font on the box, I hate to admit, I got excited. At best, I’ll actually start feeling better. At worst, I just blew $50 on placebos. That night, I tore open the first pouch. “Hi Ashley!,” it greeted me in bold print. In a smaller font it told me to “Always maintain a kind of summer even in winter” a Thoreau quote I’m guilty of overusing myself to seem deep and well read on the internet. (I am those things by the way. And I also really love summer in case you were wondering.)
About 10 minutes after I swallowed what must have been every pill ever made in the world — nine total — I felt…sleepy. My packet contained a pretty large dose of magnesium which is touted as a natural sleep aid. Were these vitamins…working?
I’m a fatalist. I’m also most days what can only be described as a “clenched fist with hair.” My glass isn’t half full or half empty; I’m more so concerned with who had the audacity to touch my glass in the first place. For every one thing that could go right, I naturally assume 10 will go wrong instead. My partner, a consummate optimist, frequently assures me that most everything usually turns out fine in the end. This always elicits the same response from me: looking at him expressionless while blinking my giant eyelash extensions over and over. When I told him I had ordered fancy vitamins he was overjoyed. “Everyone needs to take vitamins, babe. This is great. I’m really happy for you. Are you drinking more water? You should drink more water.” I stared at him as outlined above. “I mean. I’m sure they won’t work. But I may as well try something,” I shrugged while I threw their fancy box in the trash can outside.
Historically speaking vitamin pouches made me feel so jittery that I once told a co-worker, “I think I’m going to crawl across the ceiling.” After a week or so on said supplements, I’d quit them and tell myself vitamins are a hoax for people with more money than sense to blow on tiny pills promising fancy things. This time though, I felt…dare I say it…good? I was sleeping better. I had more energy during the day. My skin actually looked better. And, because I was taking 100 pills every night, I was drinking a lot more water than usual.
I was taking care of me, whole entire me, and it felt really, well, great.
Maybe self-care can look like candles and a bubble bath, but maybe it can look like tiny packets containing miracle elixir too. Manicures and a new sweater are great, but what if healing yourself from the inside was a whole new approach to self-care? After a few weeks of nightly snake oil treatments, I was feeling better than I had in years. I was also screaming to anyone who would listen, “Y’all take some vitamins!” I was, by all accounts, a snake oil salesman except this time, the snake oil wasn’t bad snake oil, it was that first kind, the real kind.
Taking care of my insides usually feels as glamorous as taking care of the oil in my car; unseen upkeep generally isn’t my thing. But I let myself get so desperate, so run down that I was willing to try anything to feel even a little bit better. As a woman, I oftentimes wonder if it’s in our nature to have a baseline of martyrdom coursing through our veins. Some primal need to put ourselves last, but then tell everyone we know how bad we feel in return. I decided to take steps away from doing that in hopes of becoming better for those around me, but also for myself. No one wants to feel bad all the time and no one wants to hear how bad you feel all the time, especially when adding a few good habits can change that, turns out.