The Time I Tried Acupuncture

I’d had a headache for a little over 18 months when I decided to try acupuncture. My headache disorder is called New Daily Persistent Headache, which basically means I woke up one morning with a headache that just wouldn’t go away. I tried a multitude of treatments with increasing side effects and discomfort with little success, and I grow more and more desperate for answers with each passing day.

In spite of all this, it takes me several months to commit to giving acupuncture a go, even though it’s the thing that so many other headache sufferers recommend to me. It seems, at times, that every single person who has ever had a headache, has tried it with some degree of success. I drag my feet for several reasons. Acupuncture is expensive, and Medicaid doesn’t cover it. $65-$85 a session adds up pretty quickly.

“But, what if it works?” Someone asks me once when I am voicing my financial concerns. “Wouldn’t it be worth it?”

The answer is actually a lot more complicated. Because what if it does work? Where does the money come from? How do I keep going? And, also if it works, what about all of the time and energy I’ve wasted on tests, and procedures, and treatments already? Won’t I feel like a real dodo? And, then, I just have to ask myself, how can it work? How can some strategically placed needles cure, at this point, an 18-month headache that hasn’t been broken by anything my Board Certified Neurologists have thrown at it?

Now this is not to say that I don’t believe that acupuncture holds answers of relief for many people. It undoubtedly does. The Shih-Chi, regarded by many as the earliest known records of the practice of acupuncture, dates back to 100 BCE.

And, acupuncture was already most likely a well-established practice at this time. Beyond being an impressive fact to throw out at parties, I guess what this proves is that acupuncture is old. Far older than modern western medicine. It’s a practice that has stood the test of time and great technological advancement and still helps a lot of people manage all sorts of illnesses and ailments. That’s pretty impressive.

This is what I tell myself for a long time before I decide to actually give it a try. I find an acupuncturist out of sheer convenience, located at a MedSpa next to my favorite BBQ joint. I suppose I walk past the place enough times en route to gloriously delicious baby back ribs, that I start to associate the smell of smoking meats with this particular acupuncture option. So, it automatically becomes a legitimate and well-reputed establishment, having passed the Rib City smell test.

I drag my feet for as long as I possibly can, and then I just wake up one morning and decide to make a consult. I’m surprised that I can get in the next day. Once the appointment is made, I read about the acupuncturist. He’s legitimate in a not just next to my BBQ joint sort of way. In fact, he’s kind of a big deal. He teaches Chinese Medicine at the top school in Colorado. This makes me feel even better about it. I get a little pumped.

When I go to my appointment, he is and isn’t exactly what I’m expecting. He looks to be about fifty, average height, a little balding. He’s wearing khakis and a loose fitting cotton button up. It reminds me of a fishing shirt, the earthy peach color, and big breast pockets. He has sandals on his feet and a pair of reading glasses hanging around his neck on a lanyard. When he puts them on the tip of his nose, he looks professorial.

He starts out by giving me a five minute rundown of Chinese medicine, including diagrams he draws on the back of my patient intake forms. I appreciate his expertise and listen closely as he explains how chi flows through my body along with my blood, a life-force.

He explains that many factors throw the chi out of balance and acupuncture is, in this regard, an act of restoration. I like this idea. I’ve long thought of my headache as something broken inside my body, a short circuit or a flipped switch. This idea of restoration reminds me that there was time in my life before I had a headache, one that seems so far away, just out of reach. But maybe getting back isn’t as hard as I thought.

Next, he asks me a whole bunch of questions. About my headaches, yes, but also my diet, exercise, menstrual cycle, stomach problems, allergies, and a whole slew of other bodily systems and functions. He takes copious notes on his iPad, which I find slightly out of place in this office of Chinese scrolls and bamboo plants, dried herbs lining the walls in jars. The iPad is almost comforting. Makes him seem like the perfect combination of old and new. I think, this is good. This is what I need. Then, he asks me when the headache started.

I take a deep breath. “October 28th, 2013.”

Okay,” he says. “So, what happened in September of 2013?”

“In terms of what?”

“Anything. What was happening in your life? How was your health and family?”

I don’t answer right away. I think really hard. I had a stressful job, one I wasn’t very happy with, but was already planning my exit strategy. Nothing had changed in my situation at home. No accident. No trauma. I just woke up one day, and it was there. I tell him all of this with a shrug.

“In Chinese medicine, we believe there is always a trigger,” he says. “We are going to keep coming back to the origin of your headache. We are going to figure that out.”

I give him a vigorous nod. This sounds impressive and insightful, and while I honestly have no idea what he’s looking for or what he thinks he is going to find, I want him to find something. For the first time in this whole headache process, I actually want it to be some emotional trauma I haven’t processed, some singular stressful event that somehow threw off the microscopic alignment of my body. I want something simple.

He asks me to lie on the table, on my back, facing upward toward the ceiling. “Now, you might be surprised to find out that I’m not going to necessarily put any needles in your head or neck. That surprises a lot of people.”

This admission does surprise me a little. I had a picture of myself, my forehead rife with needles, a human pin cushion. It just seemed obvious. Now, my curiosity has peaked, and I am enthralled by this process. Where will he stick me? And, how will he know?

“The first thing I need to do is really get a read on your pulse,” he says, picking up my right hand and pressing his fingers to my wrist. “This will tell me everything.”

I think, woah. It almost feels like some kind of magic—and not in a silly or belittling way. His presence, as he stands at my side with his eyes closed, feeling my pulse, letting my body talk to him, tell him what he needs, feels like something wholly outside of my realm of understanding. As though this man with the glasses on the tip of his nose is some kind of conduit for forces I can’t even begin to comprehend. I’m a little in awe of him.

This lasts for about the first 30 seconds of him feeling my pulse. Then, I start to get a little fidgety, this direct, constant human contact lasting much longer than I had expected. I close my eyes and wait another 30 seconds, and he’s still holding onto my wrist. He shifts slightly, presses a little harder. He’s standing so close to the table that I can feel the fabric of his pants graze my arm, right where his crotch is. Now, I’m thinking about how close my arm is to touching my acupuncturist’s dick. This is probably not what I’m supposed to be thinking about.

What if my anxiety is making my pulse jump and he puts the needles in the wrong place? What if I’m failing acupuncture? Is that even possible? Just when I think I can’t take it anymore, he releases my wrist. I think I audibly sigh, but I wiggle my shoulders in what looks like a relaxing motion, so he thinks I’m just settling in. Then, he moves around the table and repeats the whole process on my left side.

When he starts to place the needles, he focuses mostly on my left side. Foot, ankle, knee, and hand. It hurts more then I expected. I’d always been told that the needles are so small, you can barely even feel it, but the way he inserts then flicks and twists, I certainly do feel it. And, the needles in my hand and wrist ache with the small movements I can’t help but make, trying to find a comfortable way to rest.

“It’s not so bad, right?” he asks me.

“I’m doing fine,” I say.

“Really fine?” He says, putting a needle in my right knee. “Or fine as in you’re going to go out to your car and call your mom and tell her how awful it was?” I laugh and don’t say anything because now it seems like he is a prophet of some kind. I should have paid closer attention to his worn leather Jesus sandals. He moves toward my head next. He kneels down and stares intently at my ear. I get self-conscious. I bet there are blackheads in there.

“The ear is a map of the rest of your body,” he tells me. Then, he pulls a 3D diagram of an ear off the wall. It almost looks homemade, like paper-mache. It’s marked off into zones, labeled with black paint. “There’s over 40 acupoints in your ears.”

My heart jumps a little. I hadn’t considered needles in my ears. And, definitely not 40. I close my eyes as he sticks the first one and I jump a little at the sting of the insertion.

“Sorry,” he says. “These are a little sensitive.” He settles on two needles in each ear. Not so bad. I have twelve total inserted all over my body.s

Then, he turns the lights down and leaves. There is soothing music, chimes I think. This is supposed to be the tranquil part. That’s what my best friend told me. She found the whole experience, lying on the table, breathing deep, to be incredibly relaxing. I take a few deep breaths. Wait for it to wash over me like a wave or a cloud or another type of flowing movement. But, all I can think about is how my ears kind of itch and my hand aches with the needles, and I can’t get comfortable on this table, and I’m maybe a little cold but also not, and maybe also I have to pee, and I wonder how long I have to stay like this. Time stops, or slows, and I start to get a little twitchy, waiting for him to come back in. I jerk my hand without thinking and pain shoots up from where the needles are placed in my wrist. I think, now I know I’m failing acupuncture.

It feels like hours go by before he comes back in and pulls all the needles out. My ears bleed a little. He lets the blood pool for a few seconds before blotting it away. “Sometimes, we need to just let it flow,” he says. “Now, how’s our headache?”

I want to say it’s better, believe that it’s better, but it’s not. Maybe a little less sharp than it was when I walked in the door, but I’ve been lying down with my eyes closed, and I know that’s why. I tell him, “about the same,” and I can actually see a little disappointment flare up in his eyes.

“Well, my ego wanted us to make some headway at this first session, but it might take a few.”

“Okay,” I say. “So, when should I come back?”

“Tomorrow,” he laughs. “We should be doing sessions at least twice a week for several months. In China, they do ten days in a row to start treatment. But, I’m only here Tuesday through Thursday.”

I mumble something about my availability next week and then scoot out the door. That’s a lot of time and discomfort and money. I make a second appointment with the woman at the front desk for the following Tuesday. She tells me if I want to pay for the next five sessions up front, they’ll knock $10 of the total. I politely decline and give her my Visa. When it’s all said and done, I’ve been there for about an hour and a half total. My arm and leg are sore for several hours after the needles have been removed, and I get tiny bruises at all of the insertion sites.

The following week, my grandpa has to spend a few days in the hospital, and I miss my appointment. I don’t call to reschedule, and I don’t go back. Maybe I’m a little embarrassed. Maybe I’m a little weirded out by the whole experience, the process of it. Or maybe I just didn’t find the magic I was looking for in that little room with the bamboo plants. Maybe it’s on to the next thing. As long as I have this headache, may there always be another next.


Photo Credit: Tomás Fano via Compfight cc

Stephanie Harper

Stephanie Harper received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Fairfield University with an emphasis in fiction. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, HerStories, The Montreal Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Haiku Journal, and Spry Literary Journal. She lives in Denver, CO.

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