In Chinese Medical School one of the first things we’re taught is to not needle without the supervision of a licensed practitioner, and one of the first things we learn is that almost everyone needles without the supervision of a licensed practitioner.
First of all, it’s fun. Once you realize you can insert painless needles into particular points on the body to “magically” elicit healing responses of varying degrees it becomes as tempting as driving a car with only a learner’s permit. Secondly, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have loved ones suffering as a result of medication falling short of the job. People need help. There’s no time and usually less money, and this is how Dad became my first regular “guinea pig” (his words).
80 year-old man - Chief complaint: Back pain
Dad had been a great athlete, better than I was I’m pretty sure, though he’d never admit so. He played soccer and tennis through college (a whole school’s more than I) and first impressed Mom on a date by leapfrogging a parking meter in his early 40’s. I’m presently 39 and the only thing I can imagine leapfrogging is my pillow into bed.
Somewhere around 70 his body broke down and it seemed with every year his walking stamina was reduced by a full city block. Hip and low back pain, swollen arthritic hands, and macular degeneration in his only functional eye was what scared him most. Understandably, this coincided with a perpetual frustration, the prequel to Depression, and I felt helpless watching my once engaging, charismatic pops transform before my eyes into Cycloid B, sad old man: One word answers, conversations cut shorter, and a subtle but palpable withdrawal from most social cyphers. This is hard to see in a parent – even harder to change in one.
For two years our weekly appointments were malleable around my schedule. Dad had turned from once successful, Manhattan ad executive to struggling, suburban real estate agent, and his schedule was pretty open. Every week I would await his arrival, which was usually a few minutes early, and every week he (inadvertently) tried to make me into a better acupuncturist via his own agenda of relief.
I’d treat him on my bed, face down, sometimes face up, probably attempting whatever “point protocols” I’d just learned that week, always ending with some “Tui-na” massage on his aching back. Results ran the gamut as they tend to, especially with new practitioners and less compliant patients, and I began to “suspect” that he was coming to see me each week just to see me.
On days that I had the bandwidth I would sit and explain to him why it was important to eat healthier, to drink more water and less wine, and even counseled him on how to better manage the pathological patterns that had developed in his dynamic with Mom. Dad was smart, and I’d watch him nod his head in accord with my logic, then come back the next week and shake his head at himself, ashamed, staring at the floor: “I know, son. I gotta do better. I gotta do better.”
I would hear those same four words in almost all of our conversations for the rest of his life.
It was the first time I observed the little boy inside my father’s eyes. I could see in his gaze the fatherless child he once was, somehow presently in need of my guidance. My once omniscient, hilarious patriarch looked so unknowing and sad, which in turn made me sad, and on my tougher weeks I secretly hoped he would cancel our appointment. I was going through my own personal and career struggles at the time and couldn’t always fend off the black cloud that seemed to follow him into my tiny apartment.
I’d kiss him on the cheek: “How ya doin’, Pops?”
“Ohhh, I’m alright I guess.”
American Male translation: I’m awful, but don’t know how to communicate so.
It seemed like every lead he’d get or hope he had for the sale of a house would fall through, and every week was a new marital conflict with Mom. My once very supportive father barely had two dollars to rub together and it broke his heart that Mom had to work so hard in battle of their reverse mortgage. I only wished that I’d been unaware enough to not see the parallel between his professional disappointments and my comedy career. I got Dad’s sense of humor and affinity for writing, also his Gout disease and easily lost temper, which is hard to be around. In case literal mirrors and ATM receipts weren’t enough, I had a living, (barely) walking, weekly reflection of my own dumbfounded struggle to get a break.
Eventually Dad gave up on real estate (as I did comedy), mostly because he wasn’t making any money, but also his waning energy and visual acuity made driving around town showing houses more difficult. His third and final career would be planning dinner each day for when Mom came home from work. That, crossword puzzles and cheap wine kept him relatively busy for his last years.
In one of our last father/son talks (I as the father, he as the son) I encouraged him, as tactfully as possible, to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. The only thing more difficult than convincing a functional alcoholic that they’re an alcoholic is doing so to a parent who’s been drinking for his entire life. For some reason westerners are only able to grasp the concept of the tipped scale when it comes to cigarette smoking. Every other suggested cause and effect is met with: “But I’ve been doin’ this my whole life!”
I gently explained to him for the hundredth time the physiological mechanism by which daily alcohol (or processed food and lack of water and vegetables) might exacerbate his symptoms, also how his consistent intoxication might be contributing to the distance between he and Mom. I never had the strength to add “between he and I” as well.
To my pleasant surprise Dad actually attended the meetings, but never considered quitting drinking, instead naively questioning the rest of the world’s most famous organizational source of sobriety.
“You mean to tell me,” he once confided, “that these people never have a drink? I can’t believe that. I’m gonna ask one of them after a meeting.”
“No! Dad, don’t do that. You don’t have to do that. Trust me. With the exception of the occasional member who might be lying, none of them drink at all.”
“Wow. I can’t believe that.”
He really couldn’t.
He kept attending, but much like our acupuncture visits I think he just liked the company and the something to do. In his final years I never saw him drink a glass of water or eat a real breakfast, nor skip his glasses of wine. Although the doctors never assigned him any formal diagnosis, it came as no surprise to me when he passed away from heart failure last month.
Thirty years prior, as a six-year old I’d gotten him to quit smoking with one simple utterance: “Daddy, if you don’t quit smoking you’re gonna die,” and he never lit up again. Apparently logic and supportive evidence persistently delivered by a grown-up doesn’t carry the weight of the wanting look of a child.
I’m not mad, nor do I entirely blame Dad for his condition. I believe there is some karmic assignment to all of our states of being, but equally that we are mostly active participants in it. We’re all “getting old,” sure, though it’s evident that we’re all doing it differently. I suppose I can understand skepticism about acupuncture, as we can’t see the “chi” or channels, and some people just require tangible evidence detectable by the human senses. However there is no longer any mystery about the toxicity of sugar, and I think we’re past the generation that fails to recognize functional alcoholism as alcoholism. My opinion is that the moment sensational pleasures take the place of interpersonal and creative ones we are in danger of becoming perpetually more dependent upon them. “Let me enjoy my life!” Dad would bark back at Mom when she’d nag him about his vices. He’d shuffle off into the living room, full glass in hand. I never saw the joy.
It’s quite simple and scientific, and if only the concept were as drilled into our collective conscious in the same way “smoking kills” has been since my generation: All vices, whether tobacco, alcohol, sugar or sexual overindulgence, serve the same purpose as do anti-depressants. A faux surge of dopamine, which must by the laws of physics rob Peter to pay Paul, which means not only fail to address the root of said depression but also contribute to new branches of symptomology. I realize it is easier said than done, but sadness, albeit uncomfortable, is a part of the human experience to be embraced and transcended, not muffled and avoided as a psycho-spiritual equivalent to Advil for headaches. It requires courage and strength and patience, which frankly sucks, but is apparently the only way. I’ve now had hundreds of patients since Dad, and request of them all the time: Don’t try. Just do better, please. There is no such thing as “trying to do better,” which instead I interpret as an intention to transform so long as no great adversity is involved, which is basically paradoxical. Heal, not so you can live to be 104, but so the years between 70-85 aren’t so sad.
Love you, Dad.