It’s said that time heals all wounds, but that’s not entirely true when it comes to matters of the heart. In my case, needles cured my wounds. To make a long story short, I spent two years hanging on to one of those excruciatingly messy on-again, off-again relationships. About a year after our final breakup, I still felt stuck.
I was dating new people and enjoying my life. So why was I tearing up in unexpected places? On the J train to Bushwick I’d be overtaken by a wave of sadness and muffled tears. A breezy phone call with a friend could leave me feeling blue for hours. The more I tried to think and rationalize my way to getting over the breakup, the sadder I felt. And to top it off, I was frustrated for still feeling these uncomfortable feelings. Shouldn’t I be over it by now?
I was scared I’d done permanent damage to my brain and heart over my ex — that all of the prolonged and unnecessary hurt had become either 1.) a bad habit I couldn’t shake or 2.) a chemical imbalance. After another unexpected crying spell while on a perfectly pleasant bike ride, I decided I might need antidepressants to help me get out from under the pain.
I wasn’t completely sure antidepressants were the answer for me, but as a first step, I logged onto my insurance company’s website to search for a physician who I could talk to. As I scrolled through the options, something entirely different caught my eye: a Chinese medical doctor who also performed acupuncture. I’d read that acupuncture could work miracles on everything from fertility issues to shoulder pain. I wondered, could it also be the cure for a broken heart? I figured I’d give needles a try before committing to serotonin in a pill. All I had to lose was the $15 copay.
So how does acupuncture work? Megan Bielinski, a nationally certified acupuncturist in Milwaukee, explains, “[It] is still a mystery to the modern world, but in a nutshell, acupuncture affects the nervous system. Research shows that people treated with acupuncture have increased levels of dopamine and serotonin. The acupuncture meridians are essentially energy highways. Unblocking stuck energy allows the body and mind to clear the clutter and function better.”
But what about the *feels faint* needles? Joyce Lilly, a doctor of acupuncture, says, “Acupuncture needles are nothing like the needles at the doctor’s office. I can fit 30 acupuncture needles in the hole of a vaccination needle. They’re the diameter of human hair, but they’re made of stainless steel. I flick them into the body, and it doesn’t hurt.”
I scheduled an appointment. A week later, in a tiny Chinatown clinic, it was time to find out firsthand if acupuncture heals the heart. The waiting room held a mix of ages and races, and there were signs in Mandarin and English advising guests not to slam the front door. I was nervous about the impending needles, but hopeful. After a few minutes, the middle-aged doctor called me into a closet-sized treatment room. Fully dressed, I sat on a paper-covered massage table and explained my angsty story to him. I told him I was still devastated from a breakup that happened almost a year prior, that I was desperate for some relief, and that I was scared I’d never feel like myself again. He kindly asked a few questions about my diet, exercise, and sleeping habits — which were all pretty normal. I just felt achingly sad and teary while I did Pilates and walked to dinner with friends. He took some notes and asked me to lie down. He proceeded to roll up my jean cuffs and gently flicked tiny needles on stress meridians in my ankles, wrists, hands, and scalp. “Breathe normally,” he instructed as he turned out the lights and closed the door behind him.
I was desperate for some relief, and that I was scared I’d never feel like myself again.
I spent the next 20 minutes trying not to feel anxious about the needles and staring at the beige drop ceiling. This isn’t working, I thought. The doctor re-entered the room, removed a few of the needles, and repeated, “Keep breathing.” When the door closed behind him for the second time, I took a deep breath. Incredibly, I felt a full release that started from my scalp and traveled down to my toes. I thought I’d been crying for the last year, but that was nothing compared to the tidal wave of deeply rooted tears that came on the acupuncture table. I swear, the needles hit a wall of blocked energy that simply needed to be released. After the first session, I could think about my past relationship without feeling emotional. After the second session, I went a full week without crying. After the third session, I cried tears of relief that I wasn’t sad anymore.
Were my results normal? Iris Netzer-Greenfield of New York’s Acupuncture Remedies thinks so. “Acupuncture can heal all kinds of emotional distress. Some people hold on to emotions and anxiety more than others. Acupuncture releases stagnation so pain can subside.”
Bielinski agrees. “Acupuncture is meant to help the body heal itself,” she says. “When there is an imbalance in the system, acupuncture can be used to help the body navigate temporary ‘speed bumps.’ Results vary. Some people notice a change after their first treatment, and for others it can take three to four treatments to feel a change.”
While I recognize that acupuncture might not work for everyone and certainly won’t always be a viable alternative to antidepressants, it did work for me. I’m happy to report that it’s been well over a year since my last acupuncture session. Now when I do occasionally think about my ex, it’s with a very healthy feeling of being glad it’s over and that I’m in a much better place without him. As Ariana Grande would say, “Thank U, Next.”
If you are experiencing mental illness and are in need of support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.