If I ever rob a bank, it will be to pay for acupuncture treatments.
If I ever leave my wife, it will be for an acupuncturist. Even a male one.
If I ever end up homeless, I will stand at busy intersections holding up a sign that reads “Will work for tiny needles inserted into key meridians.”
I used to suffer from chronic back pain, anxiety and insomnia. I used to be one of the biggest a-holes you’ve ever met. These days, I wake up refreshed and relatively free of pain or panic, and am only moderately obnoxious. Unless I’ve been drinking.
And I owe it all to acupuncture.
As an American Jew, I have — by law — multiple doctors of the M.D. variety in my family. (Where Catholics believe life begins at conception, Jews believe it begins at medical school.) I grew up being told to revere Western medicine and to steer clear of any healer who didn’t have a diploma from Cornell or better. To help narrow my choices even further, I was strongly encouraged to seek out doctors whose last name contained a “stein,” “berg” or “gold” somewhere within, and to make sure they had done their residency in New York City.
And that’s just what I did. And it worked for the first 34 years of my life — a period during which I suffered nothing more serious or perplexing than a mild case of strep throat or a hairline fracture here and there. But then I turned 35, at which point my physical and mental health decided it was time to start putting all the Jewy doctors to the test.
And they failed. Sure, they were kind enough to provide me with some fabulous drugs after spending a minute or less with me in the exam room, but as fun as Vicodin and Valium and Xanax can be and as popular as they made me with friends who lacked health insurance, the drugs did little to fix the root cause of my aches, pains and craziness.
I was growing tired of helping board-certified Semites fund their summer homes in the Hamptons and Hilton Head, so, after jacking my back for the third time in a year, I decided to give Eastern medicine a whirl. Yes, I was risking being disowned by my family and getting banned from all future bar and bat mitzvahs, but I couldn’t continue walking around stooped over like my octogenarian uncles and wincing in pain like they did whenever their stocks dropped.
And that’s when I met the Messiah — Dr. Ziyang Zhou.
Dr. Zhou (pronounced “Joe”) came highly recommended by a friend who had broken free of the shackles of traditional medicine long before I had. Still, I had my doubts, especially after dialing Dr. Zhou’s office and reaching, of all people, HIM. Directly. No receptionist involved or anything. In my lifetime, I had been treated by some of the finest physicians a ridiculously high monthly insurance premium and $30 co-pay could buy, and not a one had ever stooped so low as to answer their own phone. Dr. Zhou not only answered his, he had the gall to greet me in a friendly manner and showed no signs of rushing me as I explained why I was calling. And as if that weren’t cause enough for concern, he then proceeded to ask me all about my condition and past medical history over the phone. How could this guy call himself a doctor? To top it all off, he expressed no shame when he told me he could see me the next day. What a joke. Everybody knows you have to wait a minimum of three weeks to get an appointment with any doctor worth his salt.
It was more of the same questionable shenanigans when I arrived for my appointment 24 hours later. Dr. Zhou was cordial and calm. He looked me in the eye rather than down at some chart or note pad. He insisted on asking me thoughtful, in-depth questions and encouraging me to answer them using actual full sentences. I didn’t need this, I thought. I needed a real doctor skilled at the art of interruption and quick clinical explanations — a medical professional whose lack of time and empathy assured me they were tops in their field.
After I described the long sad history of my lower back issues — listing every injury I had ever sustained while playing sports, driving a car and having sex (sometimes simultaneously) — Dr. Zhou spent several minutes feeling around my very painful lumbar region. He then had me lie face down on his exam table and cleaned several spots on my back with a cotton ball dipped in what I assumed was panda bear tears but what I have since come to learn was rubbing alcohol.
I had heard that the tiny flexible needles used in acupuncture were relatively painless, but I couldn’t remember if that applied to when they were actually inserted into the skin. I was overwhelmed by a sense of panic as I anticipated the first insertion. “Try to relax and breathe deeply,” said Dr. Zhou, who must have derived from my clenched fists and soft whimpering that I was an acupuncture virgin. On my next exhale, I felt the mildest pinch — more like a tickle — as Dr. Zhou gracefully flicked the needle into one of the key points he had marked earlier. He proceeded to insert another seven or eight needles into my back in similar fashion, then shut off the lights and told me he’d be back to check on me in 15 minutes. He left me with a bell I could ring in case I had a panic attack.
He was back 30 seconds later… or so I thought. It turns out I had fallen sound asleep moments after Dr. Zhou left the room. I, a guy who normally took over an hour to nod off when I wasn’t injured and didn’t have a bunch of pins piercing my epidermis, had conked out on a Chinese operating table without the use of anesthesia. And then, when Dr. Zhou left me alone a second time, it happened again.
When he returned, he gently removed each needle and asked me to sit up. Remembering how much pain I had experienced when I first lied down, I respectfully declined. “Just try, slowly,” Dr. Zhou said. I braced myself for the agony as I prepared to push myself up, but it never came. I was a little stiff, sure, but no more so than after a normal night’s sleep. I can’t remember exactly what I said next, but I think it might have been “I love you.”
Just one more visit two days later was all it took for Dr. Zhou to accomplish what two weeks of inactivity and a bottle of highly addictive pain meds had ever tried to achieve. I was ready to propose.
My back rarely gives out anymore, but when it does I don’t even THINK about seeking out an orthopedist with an Ashkenazi surname. I’m all about Dr. Zhou and his magic needles. I don’t know exactly what chi is or where it’s stored or how it works. I don’t care that Western doctors don’t have a name for it or even believe it exists. All I know is that, because of how Dr. Zhou moves mine around with the point of a pin, I now walk like a warrior, sleep like a baby, and rarely if ever behave in a way that makes people want to punch me in the face. Unless I’ve been drinking.