On Pins and Needles

I served on the Health, Insurance, and Environment Committee when I represented Centennial in the Colorado House.  One of the many bills we heard dealt with ear acupuncture.  The testimony, which I initially took with a grain of salt-actually, a truck load of salt-was that sticking pins in the ears of someone suffering from mental illness could effect a cure.  Or at least relieve the symptoms.

But I began to sit up and take notice when the witnesses, including a woman named MK Christian, began talking about the work they were doing at the state mental hospital in Pueblo.  She made it sound as if they were having considerable success.  And, when more conventional, allopathic doctors supported their claims, it really got my attention.  They said it helped the patients sleep better and reduced their dependence on medication.

I am bipolar.  As is fairly typical, I originally manifested the illness as a young adult in my early 20s.  While Churchill’s black dog of depression was my more usual companion, I had bouts of mania as well.  External events often contribute to and exacerbate the mood swings, which was certainly the case with me.

In my early 20s I broke up with a long time girl friend.  I was desperate, suicidal, broken on the rock of my sin.  I wondered into a church and, less than an hour later, came out as a newly minted Christian.  It was as if someone had popped the top of a champaign bottle; I was effervescent.

Unfortunately, a few days later I went on a pheasant hunting trip with my father and some of his friends.  Believe it or not, guns and mania don’t work all that well together.  No one got hurt, but my father, understandably, was deeply concerned with some of my bizarre behavior.  On our return to Denver, my folks had me involuntarily committed.  I was driven to the Mount Airy Psychiatric hospital in the back of a Denver sheriff squad car.

It was, no doubt, the right thing to do.  But I felt like a blood brother to McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  They put me on medication, I was compliant in the “group” sessions, and met with the psychiatrist, Dr. Walker, whose testimony had convinced the probate court to commit me.  But when I got out two weeks later, I’d had enough of the drugs.  And didn’t believe I need more counseling.  In fact, I really thought that it was my parents that should be seeing a shrink.

So, like many in my situation, I quit taking the medication.  And seeing Dr. Walker.

It was a very long and winding road from there to the point when, in my 50s, that I finally was willing to admit I needed help.  It began with another bout of mania that reduced my two wonderful daughters to tears.  Which, predictably, was followed by a visit from the snarling black dog.   But it was still a struggle for my long suffering wife to persuade me to try to find a psychiatrist. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for my former partner, he had a son with similar, but even more severe problems-so he was able to refer me to a Dr. Jay Carlson.  Smart, with a gentle and yet probing sense of humor, it didn’t take Dr. Carlson long to get me on a course of medication that worked-most of the time.  And which didn’t have too many side effects.

So, by the time that I heard the bill on auricular acupuncture,  I certainly knew enough about the illness to be aware that adequate sleep was an important component to keeping the beast at bay.  When the testimony was over, I found MK in the crowded hallway outside the committee room and asked for her card.

Within a few days I was  in her quaint old Victorian on Franklin Street, laying face down on a table, staring at the floor through a head rest while she kept up a reassuring patter as she put needles in my scalp, ears, neck, back and ankles.  “There,” she said with what I soon learned was characteristic enthusiasm, “that will be a good treatment for you, guy!  Now, you rest!”  With that, she dimmed the lights, put a heat lamp on my feet, and turned on some soothing music on the Bose.

I woke up about an hour later.  I don’t think I was drooling-or snoring-that time.  But I know that on subsequent treatments I have done both.

How does it work?  I have no idea.  I’m not really convinced that MK does either.  My daughter, when she couldn’t get pregnant, was referred to an acupuncturist by one of the high tech, high cost infertility clinics she and her husband had begun seeing.   They got pregnant with acupuncture instead.  And now they have a second little daughter-and this time without any intervention.  One time, I asked MK,  “How does acupuncture help with infertility?”  Her answer?  “I’m not really sure.”

Has acupuncture “cured” my bipolar?  No.  I still take daily medication.  And, especially in the dark days of winter, the black dog can still nip at my heels.  But I do think that it helps me sleep better.

And, by the way, on a wall of her clinic there is a picture of MK looking over the shoulder of Governor Hickenlooper as he signed the auricular acupuncture bill into law.

 

 


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