Here’s a little story about stress. Twenty years ago, I had my first acupuncture treatment. I’d been suffering from heartburn and stomach pain for months, so I went to the doctor and she gave me some pills. They helped a little. I went to another doctor and had an endoscopy. He said everything looked good in there. I went to a (very expensive) holistic doctor who suggested I take baths with lavender oil.
Frustrated, I called an acupuncturist. I was living in San Francisco, so there were plenty to choose from. The man I saw was soft-spoken and kind. His clinic was paneled in golden wood, and each treatment table had a different rainbow-colored sheet on it. I liked acupuncture a lot. After that first visit, I took the bus back to work, where my boss did a double take and exclaimed “What did they do to you?” I asked him what he meant, and he said “I’ve never seen you so relaxed! What is that? Drugs?”
I hadn’t taken any drugs, just an acupuncture nap, but I did feel profoundly relaxed and open-hearted. Watching the city through the bus window, it looked like everything was sparkling. I was hooked, and went back every week.
Here’s the problem. My stomach never stopped hurting. So I was prescribed some herbs, and dutifully swallowed the funky-tasting powder three times a day, but still no change.
After a few weeks of little progress, my acupuncturist started asking more questions. Was anything bothering me? Was I happy? I was startled to be asked about my feelings when it was my stomach that felt bad. I smiled and told him everything was great. And it was: I lived in a beautiful city, I had a loving partner and great friends, I had a pretty good job.
Still, my belly was angry. I’d been getting treatment weekly for two months when my acupuncturist sat me down and said something shocking: “I can’t help you right now. Something’s making you unable to heal, and you need to figure that out. Until you do, you’re wasting your money with me. I’m sorry.”
His words echoed in my head for a long time, but I was confused. It was five years later that I finally understood what he was saying. That’s when I realized how scared I often felt, how insecure, how I didn’t know where I was headed in life. I started practicing yoga, and I noticed how I held my stomach muscles tight most of the time, how I kept my breath shallow and locked up high in my chest. I started breathing deeper. I started telling the pain in my stomach that things would be okay.
And it went away. Not immediately, but it went away, and I no longer have major problems unless I find myself storing stress inside instead of finding ways to acknowledge and handle it.
In gently dismissing me from his care, that long-ago acupuncturist taught me a hugely valuable lesson. I learned that my body responds to my mind, and that often you can’t separate the two. (These days, mainstream medicine believes the same thing!) I learned to be more honest with myself about my worries. And, now that I’ve become an acupuncturist myself, I learned that sometimes the most important thing I can do for people is to help them find that body/mind connection in themselves.
So thank you to that San Francisco acupuncturist in 1995. You didn’t cure me, except for the part where you did. And thank you to the people who sit in my treatment room and trust me with their stresses and fears. I’m honored to figure things out with you.