What I Learned From Trying Eastern Medicine

Flickr / Victoria Garcia
Flickr / Victoria Garcia

Even though my 26th birthday was this year, I feel like I’m an 80-year-old woman. That is partly because I like tea, cardigans, and crossword puzzles. It’s also because, no matter how much yoga I do, or sleep I get, I seem to always be in and out of doctors’ appointments, trying a new medicine, and fighting ailments I’d expect to encounter in about 60 years.

This past year I decided to do something different. I’ve always liked to travel and experience other cultures, so I decided to experiment with Chinese medicine.

Before I knew it, I felt like I was caught in a custody battle between two parents, one who wanted me, and the other who was obligated to take me because my insurance would pay him.

History with Western healthcare.

Growing up with two parents who worked at the hospital in our culture of Western medicine, I took Tylenol at the first sign of a headache, Alka-Seltzer when I had trouble digesting, and I may have been too comfortable taking Dimetapp to help me go to sleep.

As an adult, I’ve become a more rebellious patient. I can’t be desensitized to thinking the sometimes terrifying side effects I’ve experienced from prescriptions are “normal,” as I’ve been told. And if they are “normal,” I still don’t like that my body is getting addicted to the medicines. When I finally wisened up to the reality that the medicines don’t touch the root causes of my health problems, I wondered: Would I just take these for the rest of my life to cope?

Trying acupuncture.

I had irrational fears about the acupuncture: “What if the acupuncturist puts his energy into my body and changes my personality?” But, I had reached a point of desperation.
Acupuncture is becoming more widely accepted in America, according to a study by the National Institute of Health, but it has come with a price. In 2007, 3.1 million Americans reported having an acupuncture procedure in the previous year. That same study reported that adults spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on Chinese Alternative Medicine treatments, including herbs and acupuncture.

I drove 45 minutes to see an acupuncturist who came highly recommended. He operated a little bungalow-type office, with no secretary or staff. When I first met him, he was wearing no shoes, and had a full-body smile. He walked lightly and his voice was calming. My new life aspiration was to be as happy as this guy. The appointment was nearly three hours long. We spent two hours talking about my medical history, my personal life, my job, relationships, and anything that may be affecting the way I was feeling. Then I had the 45-minute acupuncture procedure. No, the needles were not painful. I barely felt them. In Chinese medicine, physical symptoms are seen as a combination of negative imbalances from several areas, including imbalances in lifestyle, environmental stress, trauma, or invasion by external pathogens. This was very different than the 15-minute office appointments I’d grown accustomed to with Western doctors, when I’d describe my symptoms, and my history with different medicines, to give them some direction for which medicine might work for me.

After the appointment, I felt as if I’d drank the recommended 8 glasses of water a day, had been to yoga, and was falling in love for the first time. I also felt about $295 lighter, since my medical insurance doesn’t cover acupuncture. The acupuncture itself was $95. The consultation was extra. Then, I bought a ton of herbs that he said were necessary.

If I took them all as prescribed, I’d be taking 33 pills a day.

I naively thought I was signing up just for the acupuncture, but Chinese medicine is holistic, the whole package. The acupuncturist told me to stop eating dairy, meat, and sugar, on top of the new herb regimen.

A lifestyle change.

If my only job was to eat healthy and take herbs, it would have been easy. But I was lugging the herbs around in my car and swallowing them on my way to work, and at my desk, and hardly eating any real meals. It couldn’t last.

I had more energy, less stress, and no migraines. I still had some of my initial stomach nausea, but I trusted that the herbal remedy would just take some time. Acupuncture is not a one-time thing, or a quick fix, like taking a prescription medication. The feeling of relief I had lasted for about a week, and then I needed more acupuncture.

I saw the acupuncturist once or twice a month for five months. My savings was disappearing. My symptoms lessened, but didn’t disappear. Perhaps if I went more frequently, they would have.

Back to my comfort zone.

About two months into trying acupuncture, I begrudgingly saw a “real doctor,” a gastroenterologist. After all, the acupuncturist wasn’t doing lab work. The testing he did involved looking at my tongue and doing some exercises by moving my feet. I never understood quite how it worked. But, what if something was seriously wrong with me? Would he know?

In my first appointment, the gastroenterologist told me he was like an “angry bull dog” and was ready to fight (my illness, I guess?). He was unhappy and stressed out. He did most of the talking. There was not enough time to tell him my medical history. I just wanted to know if I had cancer. Show me the bloodwork. Give me some hard facts. So, I put up with his personality. And I needed to feel better, so I took the medicine. When I told the acupuncturist about taking the medicine, he told me it would interfere with the treatment he was doing. I felt as reckless as if I were found drinking underage by my parents when I told him. He laughed at the ignorance of the gastroenterologist.

The prescription, thanks to my insurance, was $12 a bottle compared to the over $300 I had spent on herbs. In a couple weeks, I started experiencing unbearable side effects of the medicine and decided to stop taking it. The acupuncturist seemed right, I thought. But I hadn’t gone to both so I could find out who was right. I just wanted to feel better.

Caught in a healthcare battle.

Throughout all of this, I tried to become my own doctor, Googling symptoms, and medicines, and herbs. Now that so many other industries have become more autonomous, like citizen journalism, and the Internet has made some jobs nearly obsolete, like librarians, could it make the role of doctors obsolete? Could I invent that helps you diagnose yourself? But who would provide the cure when I had supposedly figured out the cause? I don’t have a degree in medicine and I didn’t know whom to trust. I felt like I was alone, sick, and torn between two paths of trying to feel better, neither of which were sustainable.

The role of my insurance in the whole process didn’t help matters either, driving my “guilty” habit of going to the “real” doctor whose medicines only made me feel worse because his remedies I could afford.

I decided that the acupuncture wasn’t providing enough relief for the amount of money I was paying. So, I was left doctor-less.

The whole process showed me the amount of effort I’d need to make to truly feel better: cutting out sugars, dairy, and eating more greens, on top of taking all of the herbs. I can see how that’d be an obstacle in our culture of convenience and quick remedies, including fast food. Even times I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve still lived like an American. I’m the girl who would eat rice out of a napkin on the back of a motorcycle in Cambodia because I didn’t take the time to sit down and eat a meal. But this process showed me what it’s like to adopt a whole new way of life while in my own country, and one that made me feel much better than any prescription medicine I’d ever tried. The cost of medicine, Eastern or Western, shouldn’t come at the expense of our health. Perhaps it’d be less expensive to just fly to Korea and temporarily live there, where acupuncture is more common and less expensive. TC mark

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