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Before I detail the rather traumatizing experience of disrobing in front of my needle-wielding stepmother while a horde of her equally eager female colleagues circle around my sad, saggy flesh searching for the perfect stabbing point, I’d like to provide a quick medical history.
About once a year, while performing routine motor skills, my back goes out on me. This breakdown has been happening since high school, and the pain isn’t so much a pesky twinge as it is a white-hot dagger slowly carving the Dark Lord’s initials on my spine.
This year, Beelzebub visited early: Jan. 1, 2001. There I was, innocently shoving some soiled trousers into the washing machine, when Satan unsheathed his trusty blade once again.
Usually when my back buckles, I hobble to CVS, buy Extra Strength Doan’s (don’t laugh: I think I’m addicted), and bitch my way to better health. But I craved a permanent fix this time, something to kick some higher-power ass.
So I called Barbara Callahan, a licensed acupuncturist, nutritionist, and allergist. Barbara has a good bedside manner. She explains both the mundane and the intergalactic in easy-to-understand verbology. Today, she excitedly talks about the National Institutes of Health currently conducting one of the largest federally funded acupuncture studies in history.
Barbara also happens to be married to my father, who fully accepted acupuncture only after a minor miracle: Dad used to be wildly allergic to nutswalnuts, hazelnuts, the whole nut medley. If Dad even brushed up against an almond, he’d break out like the hush puppy cook at Arthur Treacher’s. But after receiving an experimental acupuncture treatment, Dad is now able to routinely break records for single-sitting pistachio consumptionall without getting as much as a goosebump. I’m still skeptical about much alternative medicine, but come on: That’s a helluva magic trick.
So here I am, lying facedown on an examination table in Barbara’s Friendship Heights office, my lower back ablaze with pain. (Getting onto the table was a hellish ordeal; I looked like Wilford Brimley working the pommel horse.) She’s pulling out all the stops: nutrition check, pulse check, hip New Age blood-type-diet check. (Being an O-positive, I can no longer eat barracuda.)
She’s also filling up serious epidermal real estate with a whole lotta needles. Through the face rest, I can see two hair-thin, inch-long buggers piercing my hand. A dull throb of pain pulses from a needle under my right shoulder. “Yeah, well, that’s your liver,” Barbara says. “The liver controls muscle contraction.”
Now here’s the tricky part: I’ve been a patient of Barbara’s for a long time, and we’ve been through some crazy shit togetherincluding a brief jaunt through Barbara Brennan’s School of Healing. About 10 years ago, during one of my annual bad-back stretches, Barbara, before she discovered acupuncture, waved a wooden pendulum over my lower back and then blew a really loud kazoo in my ear. (I can’t remember the exact terminology, but I do recall being sprawled on their kitchen counter, boxer shorts covering my nether regions, bare feet wedged in a bread basket.)
A few years later, Barbara decided that acupuncture fit in more with her medical philosophy and enrolled at a teaching clinic in Columbia, Md. My girlfriend and I had just moved to Columbia from Ocean City, Md., and it wasn’t long before Barbara and my father were requesting a guinea pig.
My motherfor reasons I’ll leave slam-dancing in the etherwas not ecstatic about the idea. My girlfriend was duly concerned about the familial dynamic, but she also thought the treatments would be great for the stress invading my shoulders. (At the time, I was a 25-year-old bellboy at the Columbia Inn. The only thing keeping me going those days was the fact that I had recently picked up Barry Manilow in the hotel courtesy van.)
So I said yes. What the hell. Sure.
The first session commenced with a Q & A: How was work? How was my girlfriend? Easy stuff. Barbara then ended the interview by standing and saying that I now needed to get undressed…down to my underpants. Underpants. Again with the underpants. Sure, I had been near-nekkid during the kazoo debacle, but (1) I had been in much better shape back then, and (2) a kazoo ain’t exactly a needle.
But I stripped down anyway (I’m a good son, I’m a good son). And when the door opened again, it wasn’t just Barbara who came strolling in but a whole fleet of students, mostly in their 40s and 50s, mostly women, mostly smiling politely. And there I was, a pudgy, blushing bellhop in his mid-20s, kicking back on the examination table, gut sagging out, hairless body aglow with the death pallor cast from overhead fluorescent lights, and a couple of pecs that were quickly becoming certified manboobs.
In a matter of seconds, the coven had me down in a chair, my back facing them, my hands spread wide against the examination table. I gawked up at the myriad charts in front of me, all detailing various sticking points, all looking positively painful. Then a clipboard-toting instructor walked in. It was time for the rough stuff: Although Barbara is an adept needler now, she was just learning back thenand undoubtedly scared shitless with a teacher hovering over her shoulder. Some of those early needles hurt like hell, but I didn’t want her to fail. I couldn’t take that guilt. So my father’s wife brought the pain (ImagoodsonImagoodson), and I gritted my way through it.
The individual treatments had beautiful, fantastical namesJoining of the Valleys, Abundant Splendor, Happy Calmand their effects were equally mellow: I’d sack out for hours, paralyzed with bliss, not caring if the student-administered treatments were violently altering my genetic code. My girlfriend would shout helplessly at my doughy ass lolling in bed. But like that Sloth dude from Seven, I’d just stare up at her motionless and mumble: “Can’t…move….Valleys…being…joined.”
Anyway, I lasted at the clinic for about 11 sessions. That is, until one of the treatments had to do with a needle point perilously close to an eyewhich, obviously, is uncool. Manboobs, yes; eyeballs, no.
These days, I’d trust Barbara with just about any procedure. And why wouldn’t I? When she finishes today, there is no pain in my back at all. None. Sweet relief: We’ve both come a long way. Sean Daly