Every five weeks, I lie down in a quiet, dark room and get about a dozen needles pricked into my face.It all started five years ago, when my dentist told me that I had severe temporomandibular joint dysfunction, or TMJ, which caused me to grind my teeth at night. That wasn’t a surprise – my mom has it and so did my grandmother. But even after I started wearing a plastic night guard, I still woke up with migraines from the clenching I was doing all night. I was desperate for a solution that didn’t involve going through one bottle of Excedrin a week or being in a permanent sleep-deprived fog. But when a friend suggested acupuncture, I rolled my eyes and said there was no way I was going to let someone poke me with a bunch of needles.But desperation is a funny thing. So I tried it.The first session was mostly me asking questions of Dr. Xiu, the sweet, grandfatherly Chinese man I’d chosen based purely on price and office location. Are the needles big? No, they’re each one-sixteenth the size of a sewing needle. Does it hurt? You’ll feel pressure when the needle goes in, but nothing severe. Why are there needles in other parts of my body besides the one that hurts? He explained that the body is divided into meridians, sort of like when Renaissance explorers carved up the globe – lines that ran from head to feet, weaving past lungs or kidneys or kneecaps. Sometimes, relieving the pressure on one end of the meridian could alleviate pain on the other end.It still didn’t make 100 percent sense, but I was willing to give it a chance.After the first session, I felt tired and a little prickly. Even when they’re incredibly tiny, having needles put into your jaw – a jaw that’s in such bad shape you chewed through your mouth guard and can’t open your mouth wide enough to eat popcorn – feels fucking weird. I couldn’t really tell if it worked, but I knew that I felt different. I decided to give it one more shot.
And I’m glad I did: during my next session, lying there in a tank top and short underneath a white sheet as 15 to 20 needles were poked in me from head to toe, something fell into place. I felt somehow clean, as if I was bathed in soft light. That night I had the best sleep of my life. Since then I’ve gone every six to eight weeks for an acupuncture session.Acupuncture has improved my health and also the overall quality of my life. My TMJ doesn’t bother me anymore. I sleep more deeply. I no longer get my annual winter sinus infection. I have more energy. And, most importantly, I’ve made a friend. My relationship with Dr. Xiu has outlasted my last three relationships, and I tell him the kinds of things that I don’t necessarily discuss with boyfriends: how my feet feel after walking all day, how my allergies change seasonally, where I am in my menstrual cycle.Thanks to acupuncture I’ve gotten to know and become friends with someone more than twice my age, someone whom I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise. We’ve bonded over the connections between our Chinese and Jewish heritages; I’ve picked up a few words of Mandarin. And even though I lie to myself sometimes about my health (“oh, you can totally eat a second dessert,” “of course you can still drink like you did in college”), I can’t lie to him. He’s seen me in my underwear, massaged the top of my head, and stuck needles into my sinuses to help them drain. When you’ve been that vulnerable in front of someone, it doesn’t make you feel weaker — it actually empowers you to keep going. Dr. Xiu’s needles have opened up my sinuses and my tight jaw muscles, but they’ve also opened up my mind to alternative medicine, to a new friend, and to the hope that there’s always another way to heal.