Trying Acupuncture for the First Time Helped Pull Me Out of My Quarantine Fog

The pandemic wreaked havoc on my mind, body, and career. Apparently, I needed to be stuck with needles to find my way back.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but acupuncture has always freaked me out. I'm all for woo-woo adventures — I'm the only person I know who can say they've experienced an "organ massage" — but paying somebody to give my body the voodoo-doll treatment? I wasn't so sure.

But life has gone topsy-turvy, and like everyone, I've been trying and struggling to turn it right side up. Which is the only explanation I can come up with for why, after 43 years of abstaining, I booked my first acupuncture appointment. I'd just spent sixteen months losing my mind and body (and job) to the all-powerful pandemic. I was ready to get back to business, but I couldn't really remember what business was supposed to look like.

I'd heard about acupuncturist Iris Netzer, L.Ac., from a friend. As soon as we had our first phone call, I knew I could get on board with her. She did not speak in a creepy whisper, nor was she interested in talking about needles and energy pathways. She actually sounded like one of my friends, talking at a fast clip about everything from motherhood (she has three children) to her other life as a "fixer-upper," trawling eBay for vintage finds that she restores and taking Feng Shui classes on the side. Her design obsession is an extension of her profession: "I'm all about altering energy, whether it's a body or a room I'm working on," she said matter-of-factly.

The acupuncture business was quiet during the pandemic, as can be expected with a hands-on practice such as hers, but more and more people have been returning to her offices in Westport, Conn., and Manhattan. "We've all been through such great trauma and people want to get back in the groove," she said. Exactly.

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Acupuncture, a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, involves penetrating the skin with thin, metallic needles which can be activated through the practitioner's hands or, in some cases, via electrical stimulation. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the human body has more than 2,000 points that are connected by energy pathways, or "meridians." Through these pathways flows Qi (pronounced "chee"), the force that is responsible for overall health and wellbeing. When these channels become stagnant, it's beleived that poor health seeps in.

For every clinical study that fails to demonstrate acupuncture's effectiveness, there's another headline that makes the skeptic in me think twice. Recent studies bear out that treatments can help with more than just the stress, anxiety, and insomnia that are acupuncture's best known targets. The ancient Chinese medicine can also help with migraines, chronic back pain, as well as bloating and fullness (otherwise known as plain old indigestion).

Recent brain imaging studies of people who'd received acupuncture treatments showed that inserting needles into the skin reduced activity in areas of the brain normally associated with pain and lit up those known for the release of endorphins — the pain-blocking proteins that your body naturally releases during, for example, exercise and sex.

"If you take an MRI of people's brains before and after acupuncture, you will see there are spots of the brain that light up where the brain is releasing endorphins," says Jeff Gould, L.Ac., who has been on the faculty of Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine and Digestive Center for a decade. Gould, who calls himself "basically a Chinese medicine version of a family medicine practitioner" and sees patients with everything from polycystic ovarian syndrome and Lyme diseases to cancer, says the medical establishment's growing embrace of Chinese medicine is something he has been experiencing firsthand. "The frequency of referrals from medical doctors, and the variety of specialties they represent, has definitely increased since I've been at Hopkins," he said.

While there are certainly psychological benefits to acupuncture, the pain relief that patients report, "is more long lasting than what you'd expect with the endorphin release we see," he said. This makes him think that acupuncture is more than just a mind-over-matter affair. "It improves circulation and reduces inflammation in the body," he said. "It can even turn on or off different chromosomes, regulating hormone secretion," he says. And yet, for every scientific study boosting the powers of acupuncture, there is another one whose findings are less than selling.

When I asked her to explain the exact mechanics of acupuncture, Julie Barefoot, D.A.O.M., L.Ac., acupuncturist at Duke Integrative Medicine, gave me a tantalizingly vague answer: "The science just isn't there yet," she says. "There are a lot of arguments from Western medical science. Some say it's the nervous system, some say it's the placebo effect, but it's really us working with the energy of the body. We were written off as a pseudoscience, but as our MRI equipment grows more sophisticated, we're starting to understand how energy flows a little better. There's no set treatment because every treatment is created for the client at the moment. It's an art."

Still, as my appointment with Netzer grew closer, my squeamishness wouldn't let up. I put out a call on Instagram, asking if any of my friends had tried acupuncture. Maybe somebody could talk me into feeling more excited. To go by the cascade of positive responses, you'd think I'd asked if anybody had ever tried kissing somebody they were attracted to. "Asthma, sciatica, and I swear it got me pregnant, twice!" Another endorsement: "Helped me tremendously with sciatic nerve pain. Unexpected bonus: I cried uncontrollably the first few sessions, was able to release loads of pent up trauma." Perhaps my favorite reply came from my friend Kat. "It really can do wonders (though I suspect you have to go into it like an acid or mushroom trip, with positivity and belief!)"

I was feeling nervous but open to all the possibilities when I showed up at Netzer's Manhattan office, which is tucked in the back of an old-school boutique gym, but she could not have been more welcoming. She showed me around her atelier, whose four treatment rooms have benefited from her love of design. Repurposed bookshelves and lucite end tables live side by side with antique rugs and colorful lamps; Picasso reproductions face off with a stunning black and white photograph of a very young Deborah Harry. "I'm trying to get the homey feeling so it doesn't feel clinical at all," she explained as she led me to the room where we'd be working together. (She also offers cosmetic acupuncture, which is said to help with fine lines and wrinkles.)

She left me to strip down to my underwear and arrange my body on top of the treatment table's sundry ergonomic cushions. The sheets were crisp and the air was cool. It was the closest I'd felt to lying in a bed in a nice hotel room in a long time.

Netzer, who gives her age as "a Gen-Xer," grew up in a family that moved around a lot. As a child she fantasized about becoming an actress or anchorwoman, but when an aunt ended up pursuing studies in Chinese medicine, Netzer was intrigued. "Next thing I knew, I was a student myself," she said. She enrolled Samra University of Oriental Medicine in Los Angeles, and has been practicing since she earned her Masters in Acupuncture in Chinese Medicine in 1999. The California acupuncture license is notoriously tough to obtain — it's up there with getting certified to become a sommelier — and Netzer's hard-won California diploma hangs in her treatment room.

She told me she studied my questionnaire and got a good picture of my day-to-day challenges. "You're a working mother with two young children, and you have a history of insomnia which points to some underlying deficiencies in your spleen and heart meridian." The treatment she'd designed for me would address these issues, as well as anchor my liver, which, she told me is taxed by more than my nightly glass of wine. "The liver is impacted by stress and overthinking," she said. "The liver energy regulates proper blood flow throughout our bodies, so it's especially important for women, since we menstruate."

Starting at my feet, Netzer worked her way up to my ears and third eye, using sixteen sanitized, disposable, hair-thin needles. It didn't hurt; in some cases I didn't feel a thing. Only after she was done did I start to sense anything interesting. I felt a whirling energy near the points at the bottom of my legs and in my hands.

"That's the chi," she told me when I shared what was going on. "It's a Chinese word that there's no English translation for. It's more involved than just energy, it's also like a life force that just basically moves and shakes everything up in your body." I was reminded of a New York Times article I'd just read about the millions of women whose lives and careers had been upended by COVID-19. "I literally am bloated when I'm not working because my chi isn't flowing," was how the interviewee put it. I was on Netzer's table for a reason.

She left me alone to experience the effects of the practice in solitude and silence. I tried, and failed, to drop into a meditative space. When I fiddled with my hair, a needle in my arm fell to the floor. I forced myself back to stillness. I finally relaxed, and was almost surprised when the door eventually opened.

As Netzer removed the needles — even quicker than inserting them in the first place — I asked her how she knew which points of my body to target. I thought of those elaborate diagrams hanging in the windows of mom and pop acupuncture studios, with annotated human figures that look like paint-by-numbers projects from hell. At her hand, there was no sense that she was searching for a hard-to-find patch of skin. Her style felt loose and intuitive — more like improvisational cooking than down-to-the-teaspoon baking. "Your hand kind of knows," she said. "It's a lot about the energy between the practitioner and the patient."

As I prepared to venture back into the world, Netzer reminded me that there were no easy fixes, and that a first-timer would be wise to come to her once a week for at least six weeks. And even then, there were no guarantees. "After six consecutive sessions, someone might notice some change," she said. "Whether it's 30 percent better or 70 percent, you have to wait and see." I don't plan to immediately line up a half dozen appointments, but my money's on my returning to a treatment table before the next four decades of my life whoosh by.

I walked out of Netzer's office feeling not only refreshed but brighter, like somebody had pressed the sun icon on the computer screen of my soul. Mere hours later, I met up with seven other people for my first big dinner in over a year. I'd fallen out of practice navigating large groups, but the night wasn't half as overwhelming as I'd feared. If anything, it was energizing (not to mention a million times more delicious than my home cooking).

I slept better than usual, and when I woke up I dashed off a pitch for a big writing project that I'd been wanting to do but unsure about putting myself on the line for. The fear of rejection was no small thing. The recipient replied an hour later: "YES!" in all caps. Did Netzer and her needles manifest all this goodness? They sure didn't hurt.

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