Getting in Touch with My Roots via Traditional Chinese Medicine
Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Traditional Chinese medicine is something that I grew up with, then grew apart from, and am now beginning to rediscover as an adult.
My grandma on my dad‘s side was a doctor in China. I’ve been told that she performed acupuncture on me when I was a fussy, feverish baby. I remember going out into the woods with her as a small child to pick mushrooms, and all throughout early childhood I drank plenty of awful-at-the-time herbal potions that smelled earthy and mysterious, looked almost black, and tasted very bitter. I had to drink them from a bowl while steaming hot, and all in one go. As I recall, these “medicines” weren’t to treat anything in particular, rather to support overall good health. I hated it. Today, the aromas and tastes are comforting and familiar to me, a hard earned acquired taste.
Cupping is another practice that was commonplace back then, and I didn’t come to regard it as alternative medicine until I was a little bit older and living in the States. In fact, I hadn’t thought of any of it as medicine really, or treatment per se. They‘d been practices that you do once in a while because they are generally good for you, like exercise or the occasional bubble bath.
At some point I stopped these practices. Maybe around the time that English came to be my “native” tongue and my internal dialogue was no longer held in mandarin. On the topic of healthcare, I would describe my outlook as skeptical but open to homeopathy as a complement to modern medicine, which should take the lead.
Fast forward to today. This is week two of acupuncture for persistent allergic reactions. How did I get here?
Acupuncture is a renewed effort to find a course of action for my inexplicable allergies, which have increased in severity as of late. Over the past year or so, multiple PCPs, allergists, skin tests, and blood tests told me that I’m mildly allergic to cats and a handful of pollens, pretty allergic to cockroaches, but otherwise generally fine. I don’t feel fine, I’d try to tell them then, and lately, I’ve felt less and less fine.
At the last appointment with an allergy and immunology specialist, it became clear I’d come to the end of the road on my quest to find a cause and a cure. I was told that my hives are partially the result of “sensitive skin” and diagnosed with idiopathic urticaria, or “hives of unknown origin” in plain English. Thanks, I could have told you that hundreds of dollars, several vials of blood, and many hours away from work ago. I was told that if Allegra works, to just take one every day, and I have, until it began to no longer be enough this summer. Through the experience, I came to see that modern medicine, for all of its wonders and merits, can have a blind spot when it comes to things that don’t clearly cause progressive harm to your body, but that are merely damaging to your quality of life.
In a moment of significant discomfort recently, I made an acupuncture appointment. Why the hell not.
For the the first time in a long time, I didn’t take an Allegra on the morning of my appointment. I found the experience there remarkable and unlike what I’d come to expect from medical visits. For example, after getting an understanding of what is going on, the first thing my practitioner “prescribed“ me was a recipe for soup. She told me this soup was as important in my treatment as the acupuncture, that it would help balance my body and expel toxins from the inside while she worked to draw them out from the outside.
I had acupuncture, some physical therapy for my back, and some sort of massage treatment with an herbal gel and electrodes. With the soothing music playing in the treatment room, it felt more like a spa experience than anything medical. I was there for over an hour and I left feeling the most relaxed I‘d ever been after a doctor’s appointment.
Along the way, the various people who provided the treatments gave me all sorts of off-hand advice to help with my condition, best translated as a combination of too much “cold” and “damp” energy with a touch of “wind.” Honestly, I'm trying not to dive too deep into the specifics of what that all means in order to keep my skepticism at bay for the time being, and my Chinese skills are not at the level at which I could ask even if I wanted to, or understand the answers.
Some of it was wild sounding, like soaking my feet in hot water every night before bed until I feel like I’m about to sweat. I was told to get more regimented sleep, to rise with the sun, to exercise to get my blood moving, to drink less coffee, to drink hot water versus iced, to keep myself warm, to get a bit of sun every day, and to be wary of extreme air conditioning. The funny thing is, many of these are things that my mom has been telling me to do my whole life. Never in a medical context, simply as good habits.
I was also told to stop taking antihistamines so that we can gauge the effectiveness of my treatments. I had a really rough several days initially, feeling very run down and exhausted, with frequent allergic flare-ups and naps that drained rather than replenished. To fully commit to trying this out, I'm trying to heed all of the advice above. I also cut out alcohol and stopped wearing contact lenses in case they were irritating my eyes.
I turned a corner on Tuesday, where I didn't get my first hive until almost 11:00am. I felt my energy had come back and there were even stretches of time that I actually felt good. Yesterday, I wore contacts to work and then went out and had drinks with dinner. By the time I took my contacts out at home, my eyes were completely bloodshot and itchy. Today, I'm feeling a bit set back with hives on my arms and torso, but not as badly as I felt last week.
I'm hopeful. I'm trying to be patient, to allow space for back and forth, non-linear progress. In this short amount of time, I've learned that I can survive without anti-histamines. I've also become way more comfortable allowing myself to sit with the feeling of being hot, having shifted my mindset to seeing warmth as good for me. I've been drinking a lot more liquids in the form of hot tea. I've been paying attention to my sleep, though I'm still working on the "rise with the sun" bit.
Having thought a lot about it in the past week, maybe where I stand today is that at the very least, these methods aren't doing me harm. The holistic combination of treatments and lifestyle changes points perhaps to a central objective in TCM to achieve balance. The advice that I was given by the practitioners amounts to protective measures against extreme shifts in my environment, and a focus on promoting circulation and keeping cozy, each of these such lovely and gentle sentiments.