Confessions of an Acupuncture school dropout

Published on September 19, 2012 by      Print
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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 .

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22 Comments !

  1. Matt Cook says:


    I really enjoyed this, barring any objection I would like to repost it on facebook for my friends.

    I come from the school of thought that we still don’t understand alot of things in the universe, and that 300-400 years ago, electricity was in the same category that today includes things like ESP and psi and, maybe even acupuncture. But you’re right. Reason and eventually scientific method will give us these answers, not mysticism, and not faith. Looking forward to reading more or your stuff. I hope you’re health continues to inprove.

    • Lee Davis says:


      Thanks, Matt!

      I would love it if you re-posted it to Facebook. I’m still into mysticism and faith, but I’m just trying to have it not be the facile, idiot kind. I don’t think real spirituality or healing would ask you to ignore science and reason. I get burned in one direction and swing wildly to the other, but really how can they be opposites? Thanks for reading and thinking about these things with me.

  2. Danielle Stimpson says:


    Lee, SUPERB piece. You took much of what I feel about many aspects and practices of the healing arts, and expressed them in a more eloquent way than I could. Thanks for making me feel more…sane? Human? Lucid?

    It’s also a pleasure to see your name again. You’ve got a great heart, please keep on following it.

    And one more thing…WEST PHILLY EXPATS REPRESENT!

    • Lee Davis says:


      Thanks, Danielle!

      Zem actually forwarded me a link to your article on platitudes, which I loved, and that’s how I found out about this website and was inspired to write an article for it. I still like community acupuncture, and their acupuncture-as-bucket-and-not-delicate-ming-vase mission, but yeah, acupuncture school was just a bust. A “learning opportunity,” as they say.

      I’m glad to see your name and know you still exist on the internet and in the real world, too. West Philly at one point forever!

  3. swami nobodhi says:


    I can see what you are doing here Lee…. and you are wrong. Whilst technical skill is very important,so is …Quality of “presence”,that makes others feel relaxed and safe. Being non judgmental. Making positive statements. Self confident yet humble. Creating a sense of trust.Working in partnership with your patient. Not being attached to the outcome of your work. Listening deeply, and paying attention to detail. Even though you may have” dropped out ” You are already ” A Healer” Lee. Healing is vibrational…… Thought is vibrational. .. …. No matter what Lee, you” are” a great healer!

  4. Exuberant J. Bodhisattva says:


    Wonderful. Thank you very much for this piece. I truly appreciated both its style and content. I’ve done some acupuncture before and I have to say, there is something to it. I feel the same about most of the healing modalities I’ve tried. Recently I’ve been blown away by rolfing, but I’ll admit that there was a level of placebo and psychosomosis involved. Sometimes I look at the quest for healing as a sort of “Choose your own placebo.” Even if there are certain “scientific” benefits to treatment, If you don’t have faith in it, it won’t work. Not to say that it’s a mind over matter issue, but I do think a lot of factors come into play. As you say, “just because something can’t be measured doesn’t mean it can’t be healing.” At the same time, just because you experienced some benefits to a treatment doesn’t mean you’ll be able to surrender yourself over to it enough to become a practitioner who pays and charges lots of money to heal others. I think your story is testament to your personal integrity. And of course, to your excellent writing. I look forward to reading more.

    • Harry says:


      Interesting. I first encountered Rolfing around ’76 (the Bicentennial !) when a running coach told me about it as a possible means to shave time off my long distance runs. During the lates 70s it pretty much faded into the background for a very long time though has recently re-emerged. Its now being highly touted and I find myself laughing when some of the younger yoga hipsters at the studio tell each other “there is this cool new modality – you probably haven’t heard of it though (<-the hipster mantra). Its called rolfing".

      Anyway, back to the point. I do think there is something to the "pick your placebo" statement as its never been clear to me that any of these things we pursue in the name of self-improvement add to the *quantity* of our lives. They certainly can make one feel better so from a qualitative point of view I have no problems recommending yoga, chiropractic, and even rolfing to folks. Does any of it make us immune from the challenges that life has to dish out ? No way. I think as long as folks realize that life skills take time and even something as vital as yoga isn't a magic pill against the problems that impact us all.

  5. School Of Sharp Sticks | The cul-de-sac – the dead end of blogging says:


    [...] Click here to see what I mean. [...]

  6. Peter Cox says:


    No, this isn’t “wonderful”. It’s actually rather sloppy thinking. Do you want me to take it apart for you?

  7. Harry says:


    I’m inclined to hold accountable the teachers of these healing arts since they many times overload their explanations with jargon and psycho babble perhaps to justify their salaries.
    If something works then honor that and let it stand on its own without the verbal adornment. But then they can’t charge you the tuition if all they do is show you what to do.

    A less cynical view would be that in their efforts to communicate ideas and concepts of an alleged transcendental nature these teachers simply get carried away. They can be enthusiastic and well meaning but sincerity is not a guarantee for truth. At a minimum, there should at least be consistency and accord with their statements over time.

    My impression is that intimate knowledge of something like acupuncture is best acquired in the apprentice-master model. However, that timeline would usually be much longer than most people would tolerate. With the apprentice model we are talking decades of learning as opposed to a 1 or 2 year matriculation at a “healing arts” school. Most aren’t willing to go those lengths. Perhaps this is a middle ground ?

  8. Kaz says:


    Great article. I’m in a similar position – currently enrolled in TCM school in the SF bay area and strongly questioning/skeptical of this type of education. I’m disillusioned both by the extremely poor reasoning/thinking that seems to be encouraged in this culture, as well as the limited job prospects after graduation. I’ve seen many people finish acu school and not be able to make it. I’ve seen some that have been successful, but it’s not the norm. There are some employment statistics in this field, but they are hard to find and I get the feeling that people don’t want to report their lack of success in this field.

    It’s really not worth $40,000+ in loans (not to mention $$ for cost of living), and I don’t think it’s necessary to do 3+ years of pseudograduate education to become an acupuncturist. A master-apprentice model makes so much more sense for this kind of thing – but that’s hard to find.

    I also completely agree with you about how the Chinese medical system contains much wisdom and inherent logic regarding principles of wellness. I’m also involved with some clinical research on acupuncture and quite familiar with the research literature. I’m starting to think that acupuncture isn’t all that effective without the bigger picture provided by the Daoist/Confucian worldviews, i.e. people will benefit from it if they live a balanced life in terms of work/sleep/relationships/diet/etc. (diet is a really big one – if someone’s diet consists of soda, chips, and other food-replacement-items that are produced primarily for the generation of profit, they’ve essentially assumed an industrial relationship with the world… acupuncture isn’t an ‘industrial’ process; it has combinations of agricultural and pre-agricultural thinking).

    So in this case, the patients do matter. Certain segments of society will show benefit from acupuncture, and certain segments will not. Randomized clinical trials try to maintain heterogeneity while screening for certain confounding factors. I haven’t seen this type of screening done in any acupuncture studies – partly because many of them are qualitative and thus hard to generate statistics with.

    I’m probably going to leave school, just as you did. I’m trying to figure out what to do next and thinking of going to M.D or D.O. programs, although I understand how difficult those can be in terms of lifestyle, and it’s a daunting commitment. But, I am quite interested in medicine and exploring where these fields are going.

    • TMC-PTSD Sufferer says:


      40K? Try $120,000+ !!! (My school—although the admissions people will tell you 80.)

      I think the average, nationwide, to get through these programs is around $60-80k. You can check and let me know if I’m mistaken, but at my school everyone is pretty much graduating with $120-130K (or even $135K) in student loans. It’s a travesty given the egregious inferiority of these programs.

      Anyone hoping to make a respectable living in this field after graduation (if you can bare the 4 years of circular logic, wholesale denial of critical thinking, totalitarian suppression of inquiry, and complete ignorance of any and all contemporary research and scholarship) will have to spend the next several years figuring out where they can learn all the clinical and physiologic and diagnostic tools they were supposed to have learned during these endless and excruciatingly mind-numbing 4 years. The whole NCCAOM system needs to be abolished.

      Thank you so much for the original post and this amazing thread. I hope anyone thinking about going to acupuncture school in the U.S. finds this and takes it to heart! I would do naturopathic program (or study acupuncture abroad) if I were to do it again. Or, at the very least, go to OCOM or NESA—but then you still have to memorize all this crazy, useless crap to pass the ridiculous NCCOMA national boards. Maybe better to become vet or dentist or MD and do the acupuncture after. I do not think at this time that they let naturopaths get licensed this way—but they should allow osteopaths to! Look in to it. DO NOT go to acupuncture school in the U.S. if you value critical thinking, results, inquiry, excellence in clinical care (and your sanity)!

      • TMC-PTSD Sufferer says:


        bear not “bare”. Sorry! Maybe you can fix it for me!

      • TMC-PTSD Sufferer says:


        (here it is with those 2 typos fixed)

        40K? Try $120,000+ !!! (My school—although the admissions people will tell you 80.)

        I think the average, nationwide, to get through these programs is around $60-80k. You can check and let me know if I’m mistaken, but at my school everyone is pretty much graduating with $120-130K (or even $135K) in student loans. It’s a travesty given the egregious inferiority of these programs.

        Anyone hoping to make a respectable living in this field after graduation (if you can bear the 4 years of circular logic, wholesale denial of critical thinking, totalitarian suppression of inquiry, and complete ignorance of any and all contemporary research and scholarship) will have to spend the next several years figuring out where they can learn all the clinical and physiologic and diagnostic tools they were supposed to have learned during these endless and excruciatingly mind-numbing 4 years. The whole NCCAOM system needs to be abolished.

        Thank you so much for the original post and this amazing thread. I hope anyone thinking about going to acupuncture school in the U.S. finds this and takes it to heart! I would do naturopathic program (or study acupuncture abroad) if I were to do it again. Or, at the very least, go to OCOM or NESA—but then you still have to memorize all this crazy, useless crap to pass the ridiculous NCCOM national boards. Maybe better to become vet or dentist or MD and do the acupuncture after. I do not think at this time that they let naturopaths get licensed this way—but they should allow osteopaths to! Look in to it. DO NOT go to acupuncture school in the U.S. if you value critical thinking, results, inquiry, excellence in clinical care (and your sanity)!

    • TMC-PTSD Sufferer says:


      40K? Try $120,000+ !!! (My school—although the admissions people will tell you 80.)

      I think the average, nationwide, to get through these programs is around $60-80k. You can check and let me know if I’m mistaken, but at my school everyone is pretty much graduating with $120-130K (or even $135K) in student loans. It’s a travesty given the egregious inferiority of these programs.

      Anyone hoping to make a respectable living in this field after graduation (if you can bear the 4 years of circular logic, wholesale denial of critical thinking, totalitarian suppression of inquiry, and complete ignorance of any and all contemporary research and scholarship) will have to spend the next several years figuring out where they can learn all the clinical and physiologic and diagnostic tools they were supposed to have learned during these endless and excruciatingly mind-numbing 4 years. The whole NCCAOM system needs to be abolished.

      Thank you so much for the original post and this amazing thread. I hope anyone thinking about going to acupuncture school in the U.S. finds this and takes it to heart! I would do naturopathic program (or study acupuncture abroad) if I were to do it again. Or, at the very least, go to OCOM or NESA—but then you still have to memorize all this crazy, useless crap to pass the ridiculous NCCOMA national boards. Maybe better to become vet or dentist or MD and do the acupuncture after. I do not think at this time that they let naturopaths get licensed this way—but they should allow osteopaths to! Look in to it. DO NOT go to acupuncture school in the U.S. if you value critical thinking, results, inquiry, excellence in clinical care (and your sanity)!

    • TCM-PTSD Sufferer says:


      This little ditty pretty much sums up the cumulation of my 5 years (yes, while the admissions folks told us 3 1/3 to 3 1/2 years, the program is really 4 years and many people do not get through it in that time frame. It took me longer because I have been to 3 schools, always looking for a decent one and finallyI just settled!)

      Sung to this version of What I Did for Love: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HudT60L9MrU

      ==
      Kiss 10 grand goodbye, and that’s just one semester
      Clinic shifts, CHIM, CC3;
      Lest we not forget Shang Han Lun/Wen Bing, pharmacology.

      Look me in the eye,
      And tell me this is “med school”
      Organ-based astrology;
      And we now regret what we could have learned. It’s a travesty.

      Gone, four/five/six years (for)ever gone,
      (And) now we fumble on—
      TCM brainwashees

      Eighty grand’s a lie. “Bright future” now upon us?
      Debt in perpetuity.
      Our regret now beset’s what we did not learn
      What we could have learned
      What we should have …

      Learned… all we could have learned
      Had they heeded calls
      (To) fix the DTD series.

      Hundred-(twenty) grand or die. Waddawe (really) know how to treat now?
      Xiao ke, Gao lin, Piglet qi?
      Now you fret you didn’t get what you came to learn
      What we could have learned
      What we never learned.

  9. Hindsighting says:


    Thank you for sharing so eloquently about your experience. I am a recent Acupuncture school drop out and your article exactly matches what I’ve been feeling/thinking during my time in. Reason seemed to be very much discouraged in my program. That TCM is several thousand years old and shows great promise in dealing with pain management did not negate the need for understanding and clarity when learning TCM concepts. My brief time in hopelessly muddled my thinking processes as I did try to adapt to the so-called “circular” thinking TCM is supposedly founded upon. Most of the time I ended up cramming things into my brain and accepting them as valuable no matter the alarm bells that got triggered. Not to mention the migraines. I think I am still recovering…

  10. Carol says:


    Hi Lee,
    Loved this eloquently writen article! I was a bio major in college and am suspicious of anything that can’t be substantiated by science. Having said that, I do want to tell you that in the veterinary world, we’ve seen acupuncture work to bring blood pressure down in hypertensive dogs (immediately), and have seen lame horses walk after treatment. Many vets have gotten certified in acupuncture after seeing good results in patients. Its obviously not a placebo effect since the animal has no clue what the expected outcome would be. I therefore think theres something to it, and feel it can be a valuable tool to help those with chronic health issues. It’s perhaps a matter of science needing to catch up to the wisdom of ancient medicine. Would not be the first time! Hope you are doing well and feeling better! -Carol

  11. Josh says:


    Really enjoyed the article. I am in my last year of medical school and recently was talking with a certified acupuncturist who began telling me that “mainstream” medicine was bunk, and that everything except for emergency room resuscitation was not “true healing.”
    The thing that really got me was how when I asked what schooling was require certified acupuncturist he begins to state that they take all the same science classes MD doctors take so he felt capable of discrediting all of western medicine.

    One thing I have learned in studying medicine is the more I have learned the more humbled I become, realizing that there is so much more to know, and how complicated medicine is.

    This person in particular repeatably used as proof of his supremacy over western medicine that he was able to get a patient to stop taking albuterol inhalers through acupuncture alone… a N=1 doesn’t make a good science yet it is anticdocal evidence like this that feeds the fires of eastern naturopaths claiming that western medicine is some sort of huge evil.

  12. Kevin says:


    Hey, I’m wondering what’s happened since you left school? I did the same thing, drove from one coast to the other, and am in my first semester of TCM school in sunny California, hopeslessly trying to learn the points and figure out how to enter this field, while at the same time, bankrupting myself and not finding good work.

    What do you think? Should I stick with it, or walk away?

  13. Robbo says:


    Hi Lee
    Many thanks for your informative discourse on the reasons you abandoned your acupuncture training.
    Now, I am a mature aged person who embarked on acupuncture training in Australia. I found classroom situation was very social. All like minded people in pursuit of being acupuncturists… everyone was starry eyed (mostly the chinese students in the beginning.Maybe thats the real reason for me going to college.
    I lasted only one semester (owe about $8000) for the first semester of education.
    I also began to feel that there was a lot of bullshit associated with tcm.
    In this modern enlightened age with high technology instrumentation, it is possible to rapidly determine the nature of illness.
    You know….. the use of modern science to establish a definitive and precise diagnosis of illness.
    TCM practitioners use as a means of diagnosis, the primary tools of pulse diagnosis & tongue diagnosis.
    Both are very subjective and capable of misinterpretation.
    It’s also a real test of faith to believe that an organ system has its own unique pulse.
    More the case is that it is utter bullshit. I have also received much acupuncture and although I have wanted to believe that it worked on me…. it didn’t. Maybe there is something in chinese herbal medicine… I just don’t know.
    Some of the students I have talked to, swear they will never use western medicine again… favoring only chinese medicine. Well, my feeling is that should they suffer a very serious infection, they probably will be the first to go to a western doctor.
    Many of the lecturers hold very advanced qualifications in tcm… why… well maybe they just get swept along by their peers.
    Also, if they truly were making vast amounts of money in the practice of tcm, why would they be mucking around with teaching students.
    What tcm colleges and universities do, is peddle education … what you do with the education is left to you to determine.
    Lastly, in a gold rush, who do you thinks makes the most money?? answer : the people selling the fools the shovels, tents and picks.


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