What’s your approach to health? Check your medicine cabinet – Harvard Health Blog

Medicine bottles on shelves in medicine cabinet

Do all kids spy? Just me? When I was a child, I spent hours snooping in my parents’ nightstands, Granny’s pocketbook, my older brothers’ dresser drawers. I’m not sure what I was looking for, exactly, other than validation of my suspicion that the teenagers and adults in my life were keeping secrets from me.

And no opportunity for sleuthing seemed richer than the twin mirrored medicine cabinets hanging from my parents’ bathroom wall. My mother’s was kind of boring, its glass shelves lined with bottles of aspirin and antacids, plus a dusty jar of jewel-toned bath oil beads. My father’s was a treasure trove — to me, at least. An orthopedic surgeon, he had access to all sorts of paraphernalia with which he stocked his medicine cabinet: syringes, alcohol, sterile gauze, tincture of opium, ACE bandages, gentian violet, and even butazolidin, an injectable anti-inflammatory long off the market for humans, though still used by veterinarians.

Appealingly, these items seemed mysterious and vaguely dangerous. Indeed, they likely inspired in me a desire to become a doctor one day myself, to join the exclusive club whose members knew how to use such things. What I realize in retrospect, though, is that my father’s medicine chest offered a window into his attitude toward health. While often indisposed with one ailment or another, he never relinquished his doctor’s identity, never fully adopted the patient role. The contents of his medicine chest declared that no matter how sick he became, he could take care of himself.

Family culture of illness: Are you a maximalist or a minimalist?

Along with our family medical histories — the ones our physicians record when they ask which of our relatives had cancer, diabetes, or heart disease — each of us has a parallel history, what I like to think of as our family’s culture of illness. A decade ago, in Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What is Right for You, Harvard doctors Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband broadly divided people into medical “maximalists” and “minimalists.” Maximalists are more likely to go to the doctor, willingly take medication, and undergo invasive testing. Minimalists take more of a wait-and-see approach; they prefer to seek cures in diet and exercise. Groopman and Hartzband, who are married, detail how such attitudes are formed early in life, deeply embedded in a family’s approach to health and illness.

In my own family’s case, I now see that my father’s medicine chest reflected maximalism — with a twist: Dad would go for aggressive treatment, but he wanted to maintain some control, perhaps even by administering the treatment himself. My mother, in contrast, was a minimalist through and through. What a hot bath couldn’t cure, a couple of TUMS and a long talk on the phone would.

A look at our own approach to health

So, having grown up with this mixed culture of illness, what’s in my own medicine cabinet? When our kids were young, my doctor-husband and I were pretty minimalist. We kept on hand a thermometer of dubious accuracy, outdated calamine lotion, and a crusty bottle of liquid Tylenol. We weren’t irresponsible parents, but maintaining a well-equipped dispensary at home was never a priority for us. I admired a friend who was ready for anything — she always had antihistamine combined with Tylenol, Advil, and plain — but never felt moved to emulate her.

Now that our kids are grown, I see a continuation of our minimalism. But there’s also a new element: a touch of hoarding, which the substitution of spacious bathroom drawers for wall cabinets seems to encourage. We’ve accumulated from hotel stays dozens of little bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and lotion, in addition to regular-sized ones; we’re never without at least one mammoth Costco bottle of ibuprofen; and we own a hot water bottle, a heating pad, and a microwavable hot pack — none of which we’ve ever used. For what, exactly, are we preparing? The sudden onslaught of old age, which we fear might take us unaware?

Take a look at your medicine cabinet now. What does it say about you?

Follow me on Twitter @SuzanneKovenMD

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