NYTimes Letter of Recommendation: Acupuncture
Here’s a great article a patient shared with me recently. I think it does a fantastic job of describing the skepticism around and the “magic” of acupuncture. Also I want to meet her acupuncturist who also worked in film and television for years!
When I was younger, I frequently met people who evangelized for universal LSD consumption. A wider perspective, the acid-eaters tried to explain. A benevolent system. They always seemed half-dead to me, some part of them already partaking in the next world, turned away even as they stared into my face and tried to explain. I once watched one of them almost overdose on laughing gas, leering, muttering nastily at my head, his face blue as day. It was indecent, his romance with death. It should have been private. They all just seemed as if they’d willingly trade life for what might be nothing. They seemed infected by the same unexamined certainty as the religious and the insane, mistaking it for some greater ontological understanding.
And then one day I thought I should visit the acupuncturist on Hyperion Avenue. I’d driven past it every day for months. I don’t remember why it suddenly seemed like a good idea. I mean, I remember generally. I was troubled. Things were going wrong. I could produce no reason for it. I thought I might be carrying a backlog of sadness, that it had begun to corrode my life from the inside.
Because I have chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, an autoimmune disorder affecting the peripheral nerves, I’ve had so many venipunctures that the crooks of my elbows are pitted with scars. They look about the same as the scars of my friend who shot heroin for seven years. I’ve had four central lines in my subclavian vein, two on each side. One end tunneled under the skin and then fed into the vein; the other end flopped around on the surface. One of them stayed in for a year. I did six months of the flushing and dressing changes for the line myself. I’ve watched my blood go in and out, lost count of the gallons of other people’s plasma I’ve used, dirtied with autoantibodies, bled back out. I’ve given myself dozens of shots in my legs. All of which is to say that I wasn’t afraid of needles.
I was, however, afraid that I might lose my grip on reality and go delicately insane, right there on the table. My nightmares were already bad enough. I preferred to keep my inner terror invisible and unknown. I respected fear, didn’t need to transcend it, but mine was distributed oddly. There were certain things I was an ace at — I’m still a first-rate hospital patient — but it had been six years since I’d driven on a freeway. I was taking pills to get out of bed and more pills to get back in. Small, daily things were becoming impossible.
Probably the decision took place in some barely knowable part of my reasoning mind; once made, I found it easy to find the number of the place online and then drive there, park, go inside, take in the obligatory dribbling fountain and pamphlets about tinctures and powders. The acupuncturist was white, white-haired, beaming, intelligent. I went into a little room. The sheets were softer than any I’d ever felt. Eight hundred thread count? Nine hundred? Is that even a thing? It was like lying on the underside of a giant cat.
Pulses were taken; my tongue was observed. Apparently, my liver chi was trapped, which was getting the organ hot and burning up my heart energy. I didn’t care about the words. I just wanted to keep hoping this person would be able to help me. He had worked in the film industry for years and years, and started studying acupuncture when he was 40. Forty! You could start something at 40; I was 40 then. It was a revelation. I planted my face into the headrest.
Lying there, prone, holding in my flesh a number of those little pins you can’t quite feel, I caught the glimmer of an understanding that the slight concentration of energy in and around my body at that moment could just barely be distinguished from the rest of the universe. I began to understand that what I called my self was physically delimited not by my body but by a concentration of energy in and around it. I tried to determine how far out into the air it reached. Four inches? I couldn’t sense a boundary. It haloed me and faded into the surrounding space.
I began to understand that there was no such thing as death, if death meant the absolute end of something that once existed and no longer did. Imagine instead a gradual dissipation of the energy once concentrated in the general shape of the living entity. A person. A tree. A fruit on the tree. Pick the fruit and the energy stays in the center of it for some time. I’m already partaking in death along with everything else that ever lived and that lives now.
All of this flooded into my understanding in about 10 seconds. I was tingling. I was more permeable than I once thought. Bones and meat and blood, but now, also, the air. The energy all around. Once the needles were removed, I felt high for days.
Since then, I don’t think I’ve changed much. The vocabulary of the acid-eaters still makes me cringe, particularly when I hear myself using it. This is the burden of the cynic. If your cynicism disappears, even for a moment, you are dismissed by fellow cynics; worse, you court self-disdain.
Which is the real world, the world of doubt and disbelief or the world of unbelievable free-flowing magic? Or is it a steady oscillation between the two?
It has been more than a year, and I still feel better.