When patients ask their acupuncturist: “How did you get into this anyway?” I assume they often get the same answer, just as we all got the same answer from most of our peers in Chinese Medical School. We chose to pursue this as practitioners after first experiencing its benefits as patients.
The answer was sometimes different for the Asian students. Maybe one of their close friends or family members was an acupuncturist or they’d grown up around it. For this reason Asian students tended to be younger than the Americans, also generally healthier since their journey to our common destination was less likely by way of victimhood of the typical western diet. While in school I even developed this silly stereotype about Asians that they suffered from no serious health issues, which is especially ironic in consideration of where we were. Surely Chinese Medicine would never have been developed without an original demand for it… in China.
In 2001 I was still an idiot, a typical 23-year old bro, living in a bachelor pad in Chelsea with my typical bro best friends– maybe with the slight exception of at least being native New Yorkers– but bro’s nonetheless. We smoked and drank and ate fast food. Yoga was a four-letter word for us, as was water, so long as it was spoken in Spanish: “agua.”
One night while sitting in the movies with my best friend I was suddenly overcome with a cold sweat, shortness of breath and vicious heart palpitations. I was terrified, but not so much that I would breach bro-contract and actually say anything about it. I’d suffered plenty of bad drug highs that were worse than this and surely could breathe through it without enduring the humiliation of expressing any fear or vulnerability. My chest continued to pound, I continued to sweat and squirm in my seat, briefly wondering if maybe I was suffering some atypical form of heart attack or brain anyeurism, and could I possibly die as a result of this idiotic alpha code? My observation in clinical practice is part of the reason women are more likely to seek treatment than men is because they are generally more comfortable being vulnerable, an indispensable quality to life, also evidenced on the surface as they out-live men partially as a result of getting better and more frequent medical care.
After about 15 minutes the heart palpitations stopped, I regained aspiration and calmed down. My best friend sitting just inches away from me never knew what happened. It’s amazing that I never had more success as an actor.
The next day I sat alone on our front stoop smoking a cigarette. The secret events of the night before were like a distant past memory. I wrote it off as a freak occurrence that I couldn’t explain but also wouldn’t have to confront again. Instead, my thoughts were consumed by worry and anxiety around my present romantic relationship. I’d been dating a new girl for just over a month. I met her at work through her mother, who didn’t approve, which made it all very stressful.
All of a sudden I had a headache.
No, wait, that’s not a headache. I’m not in pain. What is that?
It was more like a head rush. Suddenly, I felt very foggy-headed, a subtle tightness around my temples and a mild dizziness that sort of mimicked a head rush induced by adolescent past times such as sniffing glue or vapors. It didn’t hurt, but it was mighty uncomfortable, not to mention unnerving in consideration of the night before. I put my cigarette out and returned inside, but the sensation stayed with me for the rest of the day. I was able to move around, function normally and interact with people, but it was as if there was a veil between reality and myself. With the exception of a few month periods here and there, this sensation would revisit me every day for the next 11 years.
I went to a few doctors, all of whom spoke to me for all of five minutes before prescribing Paxil or some other drug. I accepted their prescriptions, stuck them in my bottom drawer as if marijuana I was hiding from Mom in high school, and never looked at them again. I didn’t know the first thing about holistic or alternative medicine, but I knew I didn’t want to go the opposite route. I went to Barnes and Noble and bought about ten books about anxiety. I started seeing a therapist weekly, and after a few months I even quit smoking cigarettes (still drinking beer and eating junk, but it was a start).
Finally I came to just accept my anxiety as a part of me. Some weeks were manageable, others were a step or two below crippling, though I made it a point to not allow it to affect my choices or desires. I still went out with friends and pursued my stand-up comedy hobby, only occasionally turning in to sleep early on nights when it was especially bad. When it was absent it felt like the weight of the world had been lifted, my spirits were high and even naïve enough to think it was gone; but it always returned.
Two years later, after a night of drinking copious amounts of beer on the stoop I woke up with excruciating pain in my big toe. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before and couldn’t fathom where it came from. I looked at the wooden bed post and figured I must have banged my foot against it in the middle of the night but somehow not woken up from the injury. Curious.
23-year old bro’s don’t keep many canes lying around the house so I found an umbrella to use as a walking stick and slowly limped the three blocks to the local doctor’s office. When I walked in the receptionist looked at me confused: “It’s raining out?” she asked.
“What? Oh, no, no, it’s beautiful, I just… I needed this to walk here.” I figured this wasn’t the best time to ask for her number.
The doctor spent about the same amount of time with me that my previous Paxil-prescribers had, but in fairness to him this was no mystery.
“Any gout in your family?”
“Gout?” I asked. What the hell is gout?
He could read the confusion on my face. “I’m gonna run a quick blood test, okay?”
“Sure!” Anything that doesn’t require me to walk anywhere is fine.
Gout is considered an autoimmune form of arthritis. It’s a result of the kidneys either not excreting enough uric acid or the body producing too much, and instead it sinks like sediment into the joints, crystallizing into particles that mimic shards of glass and create painfully crippling, local inflammation. It is awful.
A nurse came in, took my blood, and I sat in the waiting room reading my book (since there were no smart phones yet). 20 minutes later they called me back into the office.
“Your uric acid levels are elevated,” the doctor said. “It seems like you have gout.”
Suddenly I was the expression of my Jewish neuroses, my inner George Costanza paralyzed with fear of Lupus and what this could mean for my future.
“What does that mean?”
“You should see if it runs in your family. It usually does. But you definitely want to avoid the red meat and alcohol as much as possible. Eat more cherries,” he advised, as if he were not speaking to a 23-year old dude.
“Cherries?” I thought. “I’ve probably never eaten a cherry in my life, and you want me to quit drinking? When? Now?”
I called my mom to inquire about my family history, but mostly she couldn’t stop laughing at my use of the umbrella and the nurse asking if it had started raining out. “Yes, yes,” she finally got out from beneath her hysterics. “Daddy has gout. He always has. Oh, so does your older brother… I don’t, but yes, you probably do. Sorry, honey.”
For the rest of the day I was depressed, which at least abated any head rush anxiety symptoms I was having at the time. I loved alcohol and hamburgers, almost as much as I hated vegetables and was completely agnostic about cherries. Cherries? I went to my regular Cuban spot to get lunch and instead of my usual pepper steak, rice and beans I ordered steamed vegetables, rice and beans. I brought it home and my roommate looked at me like I was eating another person. It tasted like cardboard and I was miserable. I wondered why this was all was happening? What was wrong with me, and what was wrong with my feet?
My feet, of course!
As a teenager I developed awful eczema on my feet. It was only in the warm weather months and mostly while active, playing soccer or skateboarding, but it was that angry type of eczema: very red, itchy and filled with puss at its worst. Mom brought me to dermatologist after dermatologist, who prescribed cream after cream, but nothing seemed to do the trick. Finally, a doctor at NYU suggested a combination of steroids coupled with a daily foot soak with medical grade soap, and that seemed to do the trick. My rash was gone and finally I could take my socks off around girls. Unfortunately after a few months I developed the most hideous, putrid foot odor that no one I knew had ever experienced before. During the summer times when I was skateboarding my bedroom was viewed as a biohazard, for which entrance was cautioned. We’d open the windows, burn incense and run through cases of baby powder but like the valeted car in Seinfeld, it was an entity, never completely absent from the atmosphere. For an approximate decade to come my feet would alternate between red and itchy or sweaty and smelly, sometimes determined by whether or not I was using my medications, other times less predictably and more frustrating. I hated my feet.
One year after my first gout attack I started dating a vegetarian girl who was in the process of applying to Chinese Medical schools around town. She was smart and different and I was interested in her unique and passionate perspective on things. She claimed all of my conditions were related, with a singular root cause of them all, which to my western mind sounded absurd. She drank water only warm or at room temperature, which I thought was completely absurd. Once early in our relationship I came down with a terrible cold and instead of reaching for my usual, Nyquil or whatever OTC remedies common to laypeople, she insisted I see her herbalist in Chinatown. I acquiesced and came home with four brown bags of what looked like sticks, seeds and shrubbery and instructions on how to cook them into a decoction.
“How do you know what’s in them?” my brother inquired, skeptically.
“I don’t know,” I responded. “Do any of us really understand the contents of Nyquil or Tylenol?” I trusted my girlfriend and figured she wouldn’t lead me into danger.
I drank the disgusting herbs and a few days later I felt better. Sold! A few months later my girlfriend would start Chinese Medical school, conveniently located just five blocks east of our bachelor’s pad. She introduced me to her martial arts class and before I knew it I was really drinking the Kool-Aid – which is to say water without ice in it. Slowly but surely I even accepted vegetables and sobriety as normal parts of life.
After our relationships ended my interest in the holistic healing arts continued to grow. Whenever I had an injury from martial arts class I would go to my local acupuncturist and be cured within a few sessions (of course my muscles were a mere 27 years old and easy to heal). As my hopes of becoming a famous stand-up comedian started dwindling I considered another career to supplement income. I still wanted to do perform, but figured if I needed another job to pay my bills it should be something interesting. With all due respect for different personality types, I knew I’d have no chance of happiness waiting tables or answering phones. I craved a deep dive into something of substance, something academically profound to satiate my mind as well as my rent. I pondered over it for months and finally came to the realization that I wanted to study Chinese Medicine.
I’m not sure who said it first, but a popular cliché in medicine is: You cannot heal others until you first heal yourself. By the end of Chinese Medical school the rash on my feet completely disappeared. I honestly couldn’t even tell you when it happened! One day I looked up and just realized, “I don’t get that anymore.” They still get a bit stinky at the end of long summer days, but no more than those of “normal people” and surely nothing like they were in high school. Instead of my historically annual gout attack that would typically arrive at the end of summer, my attacks now arrive once every five years, and instead of painkillers with a litany of side effects I just have to call in a script of sticks, seeds and shrubbery to cook up and I’m good to go. For years doctors told me because of my strong genetic disposition, I’d have to take gout medication daily for the rest of my life to ward off attacks. Now approaching my mid-40’s I’m still yet to need them.
Anxiety’s been the most difficult – dramatically improved but stubborn to disappear, as it is obviously tied to the fundamental human condition. But I’ve never gone on medication, never had another panic attack, nor compromised my choices in life due to symptoms. Without a shadow of a doubt I attribute all of my physiological growth and transformation, not only to Chinese literal medicine, but even more so to its accompanying dietary and lifestyle recommendations that I’ve followed with perpetually more discipline, and subsequently better results.
It is exciting to watch my patients, also some friends and family age in reverse as they change their habits and mindsets, and their faces and bodies follow. Peoples’ complexions begin to glow, their bodies transform, they get stronger, their stamina is better and they feel happier. My hope in this text is to induce the same wide eyed excitement I felt about Chinese Medicine when I was introduced to it, also to impart the same tools for self-healing that ultimately got me grounded in clean, odor-less feet and truly saved my life, as I shutter at the idea of what my destination would have otherwise been. I am grateful to everyone who has taught me, all of my teachers who have been generous with information, everyone who’s ever put a needle in me, and especially those who allow me to insert needles into them. Although it is impossible to love all of our patients, it’s important to keep in mind that in a society where comfort and medications are the standard, every patient that walks through our door falls somewhere on the spectrum of warrior: Open-minded, courageous and vulnerable with a willingness to experiment outside the box. This is all we that we can ask.
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