So, What’s Acupuncture Like?
“That’s all I can do for today. Any more, and I’ll hurt you too much. But, please. You must come back.”
The doctor had a stern, concerned look on his face. The room was dark with a yellow tinge of light near the front desk. I was 19. My ear was sore from the needles. I knew I would never return. I’d only come in the first place because of the Groupon. Tired and irritated, I leave. Meet my boyfriend in the office lobby and take a quiet metro ride back home.
“But I’m not done!” I am so mad, I’m shaking.
The doctor grudgingly turns back around and stands near the doorframe. The better nurse stands behind her, listening.
“I still don’t understand. Why do I need these muscle relaxers? Why am I having these panic attacks? Why do I need this Xanex? Why is my scalp and skin so itchy? Why is my jaw so tight? What does my colitis have to do with this? What’s going on with my body?” The hot tears come. My feet dangle from the exam table like a child’s.
“I checked you out, you’re fine. I gave you your refills. It’s not physical. What do you want, a psychiatrist?”
Not that she’d asked, but I’d been seeing a counselor for awhile, now. So no.
I didn’t want shit from this bitch. But I didn’t know what I wanted, really.
“Just forget it.” Embarrassed, sweating, and angry, I leave.
“Don’t forget to take a selfie!” my coworker coos, years later, when I leave one random Wednesday during lunch.
Dr. C runs her practice in a small, single white room on the 11th floor of a busy office building. We introduce ourselves, yet, I feel like I already know her. She reminds me of the woman I once thought would be my mother in law. That is, tiny, serious, and wickedly smart. With a not so secret passion for song.
Two curtains hang from the wall in a T shape. One divides her waiting room from the acupuncture tables. Another divides the 2 exam tables from one another. Today, with just her and I, all curtains stay open.
“Take off your clothes!” she tugs at my shirt. “Take off!” She tugs at my bra. “Keep ON!” she tugs at my underwear. No selfie was to be taken.
I undress quickly and lay on the massage table, head down, with a warm cloth blanket over my body and a heater running in the corner. I feel good. She examines my tongue. Asks about the viscosity and frequency of my periods. Asks about my bowl movements. Asks about my sleep. Asks about my exercise. Asks about my stress. Asks about my family history. Asks about my headaches. My TMJ. My colitis. My weight gain. My anxiety. She looks at me sternly while I answer. She pokes and prods as we chat for 20 minute. This is the longest and most holistic conversation about my health that I’ve ever had with anyone. Including myself.
Then, she gets to work. The needles are painless, but the pressure is steady. Like a thumb pushing down on your tightest knot. At first, the pressure dulls the pain. Slowly, though, the pain pulls toward the surface of my skin. By the time it’s fully exposed, I’m sleeping.
When I wake up, a Chinese opera CD is playing in the background. I get dressed and leave with 5 bottles of herbal supplements. I am to take 20 pills, 3x a day. They are $40. Plus the appointment, that’s $120 I hand over in cash. Jangling with pills, I get to the station, and take another quiet metro ride back home.
“Soup, salad, fruit. No oil in dressing.” This is my new lunch.
”Ouch! No! Doctor, that hurts! You don’t understand!”
I’m awoken from my Chinese-opera induced coma to an Indian woman with a swollen knee yelling loudly through the curtain. As Dr C performs her treatment, the woman makes phone calls on speaker. First, to her husband. Then, to her son. Both men cannot comprehend her struggle. She cries. She’s been housebound. Her family has abandoned her. Physical therapy is not working.
“For five days I could not leave my house. I am alone. My knee is ruined. They don’t understand.” She’s shrill, now, voice shaking. She sounds tired.
“Relax, relax,” Dr C says simply, and continues to apply an herbal salve to her knee.
On the other side of the curtain, I wait. Close my eyes and try to heal.
“You will find new job very soon. I know.” This is my new motivation.
“Your liver no good.” She scolds, months later. It’s true — my last physical, I got warned about my fatty liver. But I hadn’t told that to Dr. C.
This time, she pulls out the cups. The last time I’d seen cupping marks was on the chest of a very sick friend. They looked painful. I’m nervous. But before I protest, she flicks a cheap Bic lighter underneath a large glass bulb. There’s a quick woosh sound. When the flame removes all oxygen from the inside of the bulb, swiftly, she sticks it onto my shoulder. The suction is strong. My skin immediately swells inside the bulb. I fall asleep.
Once home, I show the bruised circles on my back and shoulders to my fiance. Some circles are bright red. Others are dark purple. The darker the mark, the more pain was pulled. That’s one way to measure progress.
When I get in the bath later that night, I promptly burst into tears. It’s one of those soggy, heaving cries that won’t quit.
“I guess you had a lot of stuff inside that needed to come out, boo.” I love this man. But I cannot tell him through my tears.
When the bath is over, I’m crying, still. I put on my pjs and go to bed.
“You say stress. Always stress. Why always stress?” This is my new reflection.
The months go on. I feel good. She examines my tongue. It’s less white. Asks about the viscosity and frequency of my periods. No more clotting. Asks about my bowl movements. Now regular. Asks about my sleep. Now easier. Asks about my exercise. Now more consistent. Asks about my stress. Now lessened. Asks about my headaches. Less frequent. My TMJ. Now lessened. My weight. Now 30 pounds lighter. My anxiety. Now lessened.
I heal. And so, I leave. For now. The pain has been pulled. I move forward.