For some, it's a massage or a facial. For me, it's acupuncture. As soon as I'm overwhelmed by stress, run down or simply in need of TLC (not to mention if ever I have a health concern), I book in for some needling. Many an issue has been resolved with a few well-placed needles.
My favourite thing about acupuncture is that it thinks outside the box and joins unthinkably distant dots. When one part of your body sounds an alarm bell or even just starts whimpering, the acupuncturist will consult all your other organs and functions – like a kind of body world summit – to find out who's really responsible.
A few years ago, a strange-looking discoloured patch appeared on my body. I went to the doctor. She poked me, squeezed me and kneaded me. "It's probably nothing," she declared sapiently. "It'll probably go away."
I don't care for the word probably where my health is concerned. The discoloured patch grew in size. I went to see an acupuncturist. She said the patch was located along my liver meridian (who said the body doesn't give you signs?). She examined my tongue. Liver issues. Let's treat your liver and see.
The discolouration disappeared within a couple of weeks.
It never ceases to fascinate me how my tongue seems to be the spokesperson for the rest of my body, how a Traditional Chinese Medicine-trained practitioner is able to diagnose a condition by studying a person's tongue. I have vague memories of Western doctors telling me to "say 'Aaah'" when I was a small child. Did they also use the same method of overview? Is it another skill the West has lost?
Chinese diagnosis, of course, uses a way of thinking that can feel very alien to a Western mind, at least at first. It's just a matter of switching your brain to a different narrative. You might be told that you have yin or yang deficiency, excessive damp, too much fire, for example. As I gradually learn to get my head around these concepts, I find that they are extremely accurate as far as I am concerned. And extremely wise. Moreover, they convey a panoramic view of health and the body that allows one to see how everything is actually connected. A method which Western medicine, in its increasingly localised specialisation, would certainly benefit from, in my opinion.
I first discovered acupuncture about twenty years ago. I lifted something heavy awkwardly and my back froze, in excruciating pain. I couldn't move. The doctor was called (it was back in the golden days when it was easy to get a GP to visit you at home). "It's a slipped disc," she said, prescribing pain killers – to be taken at four-hour intervals – and telling me to rest my back.
Within fifteen minutes of swallowing the tablets, the pain would plummet at supersonic speed, only to soar back up like a rocket during the fifteen minutes that followed, which left me in pain for the ensuing three and a half hours while I waited to be allowed another dose. My life degenerated into a yo-yo of pain, mood swings, tears and depression. "My life is going down the toilet!" I sobbed, a week later, when a friend rang to ask if I was better.
She recommended a Traditional Chinese doctor. The thought of needles pushed into my skin horrified me, but I was ready to try anything to get my life back. I somehow made it to the front door and into a taxi. I cried out at every speed bump. By the time I reached the doctor, I was a wreck of tears, curses and despair. The pain wouldn't even allow me to sit down. The Chinese doctor examined me. "It's not a slipped disc, it's a muscular spasm," she said.
This was my introduction to the unsuspected connection acupuncture makes between seemingly unrelated dots. It wasn't into my back the doctor put the needles, as I had expected – it was between my eyebrows. "Sit down," she said calmly.
"I can't – it hurts... Oh? How did this happen?"
I moved my hips gingerly, sat down, wriggled some more.
No more pain. No pain!
A few minutes later, I took the rush-hour, crowded bus home, stopped on the way to buy food from the supermarket and cooked my first proper meal in a week.
I look forward to my regular acupuncture sessions. The practitioner examines my tongue, takes my pulses (yes, in Traditional Chinese Medicine this is a plural) and listens to my concerns or needs. I lie down. I generally don't feel any pain when the needles are pushed in. Sometimes, I can't even feel them. And then, more often than not, something wonderful and extraordinary happens to me. I feel as though whirlwinds start to form around the points where the needles are inserted, and spread throughout my body like a warm, invigorating wave. On occasions, I'll feel a pain or a twinge which will travel across my body, as though flying through a channel, then it disappears. It feels as though my body becomes a hub of conversations, questions and answers and negotiations. More often than not, I fall into a deep sleep. I wake up feeling reborn. Feeling taller. Feeling truly, truly wonderful.
I guess there's something to be said for a form of medicine that has been practised and perfected for a couple of thousand years longer than our Western medicine. Old is not always passé.
With huge thanks to, among others, Rebecca Geanty (https://www.treatnorwich.co.uk)
15 November is World Acupuncture Day