In the moment before the needle pricks the skin, time slows and
thickens. All I hear is my blood pumping mercilessly in my ears and the
rational, earthbound side of my brain screaming at me to bolt, to jerk
my leg or arm or foot away.
But just before instinct robs me of my trust in this foreign method
of healing, in this acupuncture, I head the nervous impulses off at
the synapse pass. I breathe deeply and swallow the heady smell of
sandalwood and orchids, dried rhododendron leaves and ginger root. I
remember that pain, if experienced at all, will be temporary, while
the release of qi in my tangled, blocked up veins will heal me.
Before I can even think about exhaling, the needle is tapped in.
I remember my sister being terrified of pins and sewing needles as
a kid. I used to chase her around the house with an unhooked safety
pin, giggling as she shrieked. I even pricked myself once to show her
that it didn’t hurt, despite the fleck of blood that welled up out of
my broken skin. She never believed me. Now, as I undergo this
voluntary pricking, I find myself on the edge of the same hysteria
that threw her into such a frenzy.
The panic subsides with each new needle tap. I am immobilized, a
pillow propped under my knees, my eyes fixed on the petals of the
flower-lined tapestry pinned to the ceiling above. There is no real
pain, just the apprehension of pain. My muscles finally relax, my eyes
close. A heat lamp warms my bare feet. A needle at the base of my
right thumb soothes my sore throat almost immediately. Another at the
top of my head shoos away bad dreams and dries up my night sweats. I
will lay on my back for 30 minutes, palms open, exposed to the
sky, floating between sleep and conscious healing.
The first time I tried acupuncture was at Canyon Ranch in Tucson,
Ariz. My three-day stay at this bastion of wellness, known for its
celebrity clientele, parsimonious meal portions and spiritual desert
hikes, was a birthday gift from my parents. Apparently they thought I needed
rejuvenating. Aside from my dad’s report that Billy Zane — the bad
guy in “Titanic” — was naked in the men’s locker room, the
highlight of my visit to the ranch was a twilight appointment with a
licensed acupuncturist and doctor of oriental medicine. It was not
something I had planned or sought out. I envisioned my spa vacation
filled with facials, massages and manicures punctured with an aerobics
class or two, plenty of fresh fruit breaks and ample pool-side
But the desert does strange things to a person, and after a morning
hike into the cactus-strewn canyons of Arizona, my spirit yearned for
attention. I had tried, and liked, yoga in college, and meditation was
already a favorite pastime of mine, so I opted for acupuncture. I
imagined the clink of Buddhist chimes lulling me into a slight
sedation that would thwart any discomfort. Besides, I wanted to soothe
the chronic pain I’d had in my lower back for the last two years.
Neither physical therapy nor regular visits to the chiropractor seemed
to help. I was sure a few needles couldn’t hurt.
The idea of acupuncture, and any accompanying herbal treatment, is
to harmonize yin and yang. In Chinese philosophy, these
are the opposite traits that characterize a person, like wet and dry,
cold and heat, body and mind. Acupuncture does this by balancing the
body’s elements: moisture, blood, spirit, essence and qi. Each
element correlates to one or more of the five organ networks in the
body: kidney, heart, spleen, liver and lung. For example, blood
storage and the flow of qi are associated with the liver.
Indications that your qi is blocked might be muscle tension in
your neck and shoulders, symptoms connected to the well-being of the
When I arrived for my appointment at the ranch, the acupuncturist explained
moisture as the liquid element in the body that protects and
lubricates the tissue, and blood as the substance that creates bones,
nerves, skin, muscles and organs. Spirit (shen) is defined as
the metaphysical expression of an individual; I correlated this to the
soul. So far, these were definitions I could relate to my Western
ideology of the human being. Essence (jing), I was told, is
responsible for the reproductive and regenerative elements of the
body. Since the word “essence” is defined as core, or basic, in the
English language, it seemed to make sense that the procreative and
healing elements of the body would be at its core. But qi, that
one threw me for a loop. In Chinese thought, it is the force that
gives us the ability to move, think and feel. It flows through every
part of us. The way I make sense of the concept is to think of it as
consciousness, the element that directs my actions and thoughts.
The first thing the acupuncturist did was take my pulses. That’s
right, pulses, plural. She lightly pressed her fingers on the
inside of each wrist in three different places. I was sure my heart
was racing; I had jogged over to avoid being late. But my heart rate
didn’t particularly interest her, except that it was strong and
healthy. Apparently my kidneys and spleen were weak. That made some
sense, she said, because the kidneys are responsible for the health of
the lumbar region. The spleen relates to digestion and fatigue. When
this region is out of whack, loss of concentration usually follows.
That would explain my recent inability to focus and the stress it was
causing me. No wonder my parents dragged me to Canyon Ranch. When
I was ready, the acupuncturist had me lie on my stomach and take
several deep, slow breaths. No Buddhist chimes lulled me. No incense
burned. In fact, the room I was in was very much like one of the
sterile rooms in my gynecologist’s office. I quickly shoved the image
of steel stirrups out of my mind and inhaled. Through the open window,
the smell of desert sage seeped in and soon I was swathed in its
spice, my eyes closed, drifting.
That’s when I felt the first prick. It’s not that it hurt really. I
was just startled. I felt my back muscles tense all the way through my
neck. The acupuncturist asked me to relax and I did my best. It was
like getting your bikini line waxed: After the first rip, you know
what to expect and somehow that dulls the pain. A few minutes later I
had eight stainless steel needles sticking out of my lower back and
between my shoulder blades. They were strategically placed in areas
where qi runs closest to the skin’s surface, the theory being
that it’s easier to alter the flow at these locations. I stayed
immobile for about 40 minutes. Soon I was asleep, intoxicated by
visions of the desert.
When the needles were removed, I didn’t feel any different
physically. I’m not sure what I expected — maybe a miracle. Instead I
felt the familiar ache in my lower back and wondered aloud if the
treatment did any good at all. The acupuncturist prescribed two herbs,
one to strengthen my kidneys, which are located directly under the
soreness in my back, and the other to balance my digestive system. She
also gave me the name of a colleague back home in San Francisco.
Mentally, my head felt clear and I was calm. I walked out into a cool,
cloudless night. I felt relieved. The next morning the pain in my back
was gone — completely.
I now see an acupuncturist regularly for ailments ranging from
colds to stress to broken bones. I take Chinese herbs and ointments to
soothe my coughs, ease muscle pain and help me sleep. Each visit, my
acupuncturist asks me how I am and ushers me into a room with a pink
flowered tapestry pinned to the ceiling. Next to the table where I
lie, a pair of chimes sits soundlessly on a shelf. Incense burns in
the hall outside the door. As the first needle taps my skin, I close
my eyes and dream of the Arizona desert.