I moved to Brooklyn a little over five years ago, which was around the same time I started experiencing chronic pain, so I can’t say for sure which of these elements caused the spike in recommendations to try acupuncture. I’ll venture to say it’s an even split between the two. I’m not one to conceal my ignorance: I always thought acupuncture was just something people did to say they did it, like ayahuasca or going to Prague. Any possible health benefits never even crossed my mind.
In case you’re unfamiliar with it, acupuncture is a key component of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points on your body at various depths. This form of alternative medicine is most commonly used to treat pain, but it is increasingly used to help manage stress, anxiety, and promote overall wellness. Traditional Chinese medicine believes that life-energy (known as qi) flows through pathways (meridians) in your body, and by strategically inserting needles along these meridians, the balance of energy flow can be restored. In the Western world,
it’s mostly practiced by white ladies with dreadlocks behind beaded curtains in studio apartments in Portland many practitioners think that stimulating the nerves, muscles, and connective tissue found along these pathways can boost the body’s natural response to alleviating pain.
I did not know all of this when I started acupuncture. All I knew was that if my massage therapist—who doesn’t just make me feel better physically after an appointment, but mentally and emotionally, too—recommended something, I would do it. If she told me to fellate a potato for fifteen minutes before bed every night, I would ask what kind of spud before marching right on over to the grocery store. When she recommended acupuncture to me, I didn’t deploy my usual canned response (“I’ll def give it a try!”), instead I asked her if she could recommend someone. The acupuncturist she recommended just so happened to work out of a space on the other side of the same building—which, I admit, sold me more than anything else because I’m a lazy bitch—so I reached out and made an appointment for the following week.
The next week, I was greeted by a petite redhead with whom I was immediately smitten. I had barely taken off my shoes before I started word-vomiting my entire medical history, including what medications I took, to this woman: I shared the results of my recent physical; I told her about the years-long road to finally getting diagnosed with fibromyalgia; and I went into as much detail of my mental health history as I could, from my first panic attack at thirteen to the last passage I highlighted in Codependent No More. Thankfully, the first appointment was a two-hour consultation, so there was plenty of time to ask questions and discuss what I was looking to get out of acupuncture, which, at the time, I didn’t really have an answer for. I still didn’t know much about it. And that was okay.
After an hour of talking, she told me to remove a few select items of clothing and to get onto the treatment table. I didn’t have to tell her that I didn’t mind needles; she saw my left arm covered in tattoos. Then, because I’m me, I had to embarrass myself by asking this trained and licensed professional, “How do you know where to put the needles?”
Like I’m going to pick up this practice in an hour and go home to start doing it myself moving forward. Instead of responding with, “Uh, it took me years to learn,” and gesturing at her wall of degrees and certificates, she laughed at my question and explained the basics, like why she was feeling my pulse, where the next needle would go, among other things that piqued my curiosity.
After she finished putting the needles in various points of my body, she dimmed the lights and I lay there for close to an hour. I don’t know if it was placebo or not, but I did feel relaxed lying there, forced to be still; maybe that’s all that I needed, at least in that moment. Now, I wasn’t expecting to hop off the table and land directly into a split, nor did I think that my vast collection of psychological wounds was going to just dissipate into thin air like vapor. But I did feel more at ease, both physically and mentally. We sat down to discuss my treatment going forward (once a week for eight weeks, then just once a month thereafter), and I left feeling hopeful, glad to have another person on my care team who listens and validates everything I’m feeling.
I’m almost done with my weekly treatments. Every week is different depending on what we want to work on: sometimes we tackle elevated anxiety, other weeks we focus on chronic pain. Sometimes we even dive into topics like family and relationships, work and creativity, and food and exercise—finding connections amidst it all to my overall health and wellbeing. The other week I complained about pain in the middle of my back, and I tried gua sha for the first time. (Gua sha is a traditional Chinese healing method where a smooth-edged tool is used to scrape your skin in long, downward strokes.) That shit was great! I’ve had a weird crick in my neck for a few weeks, which coincidentally (or not!) went away after another round of gua sha.
Besides reaping the benefits of the practice itself—I always leave feeling a little bit lighter, more clear-headed, and just restored in general; some weeks more than others, but that’s why it’s called a practice—I’m also reframing how I approach certain things, like my work and my relationship with it. The concept of budgeting our energy isn’t a recognized practice in the Western world; we’re conditioned to stay running on our respective hamster wheels because we equate productivity with purpose. I am learning to recognize my limits, which is more sustainable than overworking myself to the point of burn-out. And while I am very much aware of the fact that the body stores emotions—or keeps the score, as the saying now goes—I’ve also come to realize the body’s response to various emotional outcomes on a more acute level: I see my body now as a delicate ecosystem. Each element is valuable and they are all interdependent. Most of all, I’ve learned to respect—and ask others to respect—the care that I choose to seek (or not) for myself.
While I know there are folks out there who are quick to discard things like acupuncture as quackery, or a pseudo- or junk science, I am here to remind you that you deserve to find the care that works for you. Everyone has an opinion, especially when it comes to health and wellness, so just put your horse blinders on and try what you want to try (always with a trained and qualified professional, of course!) and remember that what doesn’t work for someone else may work for you—and vice versa. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many options out there—or opinions for that matter. I’m not one to quote scripture, but I believe it’s in the New Testament that it says, “You do you. Fuck these hoes.”