Confessions of an Acupuncture school dropout
By Lee Davis
I was meant to be a healer. It was obvious. Why would life have given me a chronic illness if not to learn from it? And what else could I learn from it but how to heal? I could see it all mapped out before me: a spiritual path, a sustainable livelihood, a peaceful grown-up life as a healer in my community. I had no doubts at all. This was destiny. I moved across the country to start acupuncture school.
Acupuncture is an ancient and powerful healing modality that had always sort of worked for me. At least, I think it had. It was actually kind of hard to tell. But healing requires acts of faith, risk and sacrifice, and I knew I had a lot to learn. I also liked my plan and I didn’t want to change it. It was time to get life underway.
My new life was a complete immersion in a strange mix of Taoist temple and pseudo-academic pressure cooker. The theory behind Chinese medicine is beautiful. It finds microcosms of nature in the body, harmonizing its systems with changing seasons and shifting circumstances. Its concept of health as a dynamic balance of opposing forces, always in motion, was something I could think about all day.
After a few classes, the theory became specific to the point of absurdity.
It made sense in a reflexive, internal logic sort of way. “Of course the Kidneys store life essence, because water is the basis for life, and so the Kidney season is winter because water is often cold, and fear could be thought of as cold, which is the emotion of the Kidneys, plus the Kidney energy balances out the fire from the Heart, and yes, this will all be on the test.” It doesn’t not make sense, and it isn’t un-useful as a way to understand the body, but there is a fairly large leap between these metaphors and sticking pins in your legs to heal your spleen.
This was sort of important, because when we weren’t learning philosophy, we were memorizing thirty different facts about each of several hundred acupuncture points. When we asked about the specific mechanisms of healing, we had to content ourselves with either “The science isn’t there yet,” or “Because psychics in the mountains thousands of years ago said so.” I’m not a science fetishist; just because something can’t be measured doesn’t mean it can’t be healing. But when something asks you to completely ignore rationality, somewhere in the back left hemisphere of your brain an alarm bell should be ringing.
My school had a distinct culture of ignoring that alarm. There are several scientific studies that support acupuncture, and these were the good and true and right studies. The vast majority of scientific studies, especially the ones that use placebo-control and blinding, find that acupuncture works better than doing nothing, but it doesn’t matter where you put the needles, or if you even use real needles. These studies, of course, were considered to be the bad and evil and tools-of-the-nefarious-corporate-pharmaceutical -profit-conspiracy studies. The message we got from teachers, administrators and each other was to not look too closely or think too hard. We had a lot of memorization to fill our heads with, anyway. We had spent thousands of dollars to learn this practice, and we were going to be there for years. I was learning how to heal myself, Goddammit, when every “mainstream” doctor had failed. I needed this to work for me.
The thing about buying into something is that it’s literally buying.
This purchase might be as literal as a semester’s tuition, or it might be a more subtle barter of time and energy. You hope that you’ve bought healing, but you also purchase self-definition, ground under your feet, something you can point to and say, “There, that’s me! These are my beliefs! That’s my future and security!” There is a substantial disincentive to question what you bought into, to put yourself out in the cold again.
The longer I stayed in acupuncture school, the more difficult my better judgment was to ignore. There is scientific truth, but there is also personal truth. Acupuncture had never cured my illness, and now its pseudo-med school stress was driving me into the ground. I liked that vision of myself as a healer, but what I liked better was myself as a whole person. A person who didn’t disavow my brain when it was inconvenient, who could woo out shamelessly at appropriate times, but still retain my common sense. That seemed healthier and more honest to me. As usual, in spite of myself, the truth eventually won.
To be fair, I don’t think acupuncture is complete bullshit. I think there is something intrinsically healing about doing something as vulnerable as lying on a table and letting strangers stick sharp pieces of metal into your body. It’s relaxing, and sometimes you have to go through elaborate rituals in order to relax. Chinese medicine has a lot of practical advice about how to take care of your body. But three years and tens of thousands of dollars and estrangement from that wonderful human gift of reason is too high a price to pay.
When I dropped out of acupuncture school, I was terrified. I had no idea what I would do, where I would go, or what I would believe in. But it was also thrilling. I was getting a part of myself back that I had given away. My heart had missed my brain; it was a joyful reunion. Together, they’re figuring it out.
About Lee Davis
Lee Davis is a Victorian invalid and woman of letters living in the Great Midwestern Plains. She enjoys being pushed along the seaside in a wicker wheelchair by a maid named Hyacinthe, or Briony, or Rosamunde. She writes about illness and art at www.wecanstillblog.blogspot.com .