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Believing in acupuncture – a Story for the Disdainers

ZhangZhongJing and Hua Tuo, two ancient hippies and forefathers of acupuncture and herbal medicine.
Hello, this is my first contribution to the Heart & Hands  newsletter, and I have of course waited to the last minute to write something. I didn’t feel inclined to give Health Advice, and was wondering, what to write about? Summer is finally here, a time for Fun and Relaxation. Advice never seems to come to mind as part of Fun and Relaxation, so I thought I would just tell a story instead.

As a child playing make-believe, imagining what I would be when I grew up, I never stuck pins into my dolls and pretended I was an acupuncturist. It was probably just as well, as I don’t think my parents would have felt easy about that sort of play. I do remember giving those poor dolls surgery though: amputating limbs and putting them back on again, making splints, doing dental work, and giving them radical hair cuts; all of course perfectly normal behaviour for a child.

I imagine if my adult-self could go back in time and tell my child-self I would become an acupuncturist and stick pins into people to make them feel better, I would’ve traumatized that child with the very idea. Sticking needles into someone to make them feel better? It just doesn’t sound…logical. In fact, the reverse would seem more likely.

When I reached adulthood and my 20’s and the feeling of independence and immortality that comes with, I decided to put both to the test. I mushed dogs in Northern Ontario, regularly slept outside in sub-zero temperatures, paddled whitewater rapids, climbed mountains, rode and got thrown off horses, ran a couple hours a day and pedaled a bike 2 hours just to get to work for an 8 hour shift.

One day, I hurt my back. The pain did not go away the next day. Nor the next. Nor the day after that. In fact, it got worse. This was unacceptable. Heath problems didn’t happen to me, because I was active, fit, young and didn’t eat fast food. But ironically enough, I had to quit my job and move back home, taking a job as a pizza delivery driver. It was the only thing I could do with the least amount of discomfort. I tried everything that regular conventional medicine could offer: pain killers, muscle relaxants, ultra-sound, x-rays. Nothing showed up and nothing got better. The doctors just shrugged and told me to rest and take the pills. It was demoralizing and the drugs hurt my stomach.

I went to physiotherapy, chiropractic and massage. The direct manipulation of my back just made it more inflamed. By then, the only thing I could do comfortably was lay flat. It was now almost a year since I first injured it.

Then a friend recommended that I try acupuncture. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. The idea alone of someone putting needles into me made me queasy. I had absolutely no belief that it would work. At the time, I thought it was some new-age medicine some old hippie had dreamt up. I had no idea that some long-haired and bearded “hippies” did invent acupuncture, but well over 5000 years ago.

I was desperate though, and willing to try anything, so to the acupuncturist I went. I was very nervous. She gave me a pillow to hang on to, and I squeezed it and my eyes shut.

It was not a miracle cure with one treatment. There was no choir of angels and hallelujahs as I sprang from the table and did cartwheels around the room. But I did feel something. My back felt different. It was subtle, but it was at least something. My acupuncturist told me to come back the next day. She told me that the way acupuncture worked was it reset the energetic pathways, and that at first, coming several times a week was needed to undo the “habit” of the muscle spasms and pain my body had gotten used to. In six weeks, I could sleep without pain, and ride my bike. In two months, I could carry a light backpack and do some hiking. I even sat on a horse and we walked gently down the road, pain-free. I not only got better, but I learnt something about myself:  Just because I don’t believe in something, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And acupuncture worked, in spite of myself.

After graduating from acupuncture school in 1995 however, there was still a lot of disbelief in my person. Now I was an acupuncturist, but I thought to myself, “people are suggestible, it’s a placebo effect, they imagine they feel better, and then they do.” I had just spent thousands of dollars on learning a skill I was still not quite sure worked “for real”.

Around this time early in my career, a fellow acupuncturist introduced me to a Doctor of Veterinarian Medicine who practised acupuncture on dogs, cats and horses. She had received her training in Holland, and had been practising on animals for 13 years already. She needed someone to help her at the veterinarian hospital in Victoria. With her referral giving me permission to practise on animals (it is illegal for acupuncturists without a veterinarian license to do acupuncture on animals without a referral from a DVM), I would give treatments to dogs while she was away.

That first day at the vet hospital, I went into the treatment room where a beautiful Irish Setter was laying flat out on her side, every limb rigid in a spasm of pain. Her owner would throw sticks and toys in the cold ocean for her to fetch; winter or summer, it didn’t matter, it was her favourite thing to do. But she was getting on, and the cold ocean dips had taken their toll on her muscles and joints. I gently inserted the needles and used moxabustion to warm them up. After a short time, she was able to lift her head and wag her tail. She heaved a great sigh and closed her eyes as the pain eased from her body and her muscles lost their rigidity. She had no idea that me putting needles into her was supposed to make her feel better; she was a dog.

But it did.
Now, finally, I believed acupuncture worked.
I guess there’s a reason it’s been around for 5000 years. Those ancient hippies were onto something, after all.

Yours truly,

Melissa de Haan, TCMP 
Community AcuPunk at Heart & Hands Community Acupuncture
Victoria, BC Canada
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