by Kate Delany
By the time I was lying on the table, electrified needles inserted across the length of my body, I was truly at wit’s end. I was in my second decade of life with ulcerative colitis (UC), a point in the disease in which, according to my gastroenterologist, “things can change.” And things had changed for me in a decidedly negative way. Having run the gamut of standard medical treatment, it was time to branch out to alternative remedies, in this case, acupuncture.
Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an inflammatory bowel disease with unknown cause or cure. Symptoms and severity vary drastically, so much so that it’s difficult to reach a consensus of what typical colitis looks like. In my twenties, my colitis flare ups were minimal and easily managed with the pop of a single daily pill. I was among the 48% of UC patients that the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation cites as living in remission, symptom-free. Occasional minor adjustments were made to my medication. I went for yearly colonoscopies deemed necessary because of my father’s history of advanced stage colon cancer. That was the extent of it.
Ten years and two kids later, my colitis had become more work. Instead of one pill a day, I was taking ten. Diet had nothing to do with it, my doctor assured me at appointments that consisted mainly of fiddling with my medicine dosage. That diet didn’t matter struck me as preposterous. A quick internet search revealed a whole slew of phone apps devoted to IBD food tracking and choices. I brought this information, as well as stats supporting the correlation between vegetarian diet and decreased colon cancer risk to my appointments.
My doctor, a kindly man who offered me his personal cell phone number to reach him during flare ups, never refuted any information I offered. Mostly he didn’t comment, just as he didn’t comment when I explained my colitis flare-ups routinely occurred in the week just before menstruation nearly every single month. I wouldn’t quite say that his eyes glazed over but from his perspective I had drawn the short straw genetically. That was the explanation. Colon problems were coded in my genes. We could best combat them with medication and regularly screenings to make sure things hadn’t gotten worse. That was the plan.
Living in a woman’s body in a man’s world, I’d become inured to having my own bodily knowledge ignored by male and female M.D.s alike. So when the female acupuncturist not only listened but also fully engaged on the topic of PMS and colitis, I felt some immediate relief, the relief that comes with having your own instinctual knowledge taken seriously. I also gained a new term to consider: estrogen dumping. I had long suspected that hormones played a role in my flare-ups and the acupuncturist provided a credible framework for understanding this.
The acupuncture itself was very similar to the session I’d had years ago with a different practitioner. That time I was hoping moxibustion (a heat therapy that involves burning dried herbs on acupuncture points) would move my gestating daughter out of her determined breech position in utero. No dice but the experience then, like the acupuncture for colitis, was intensely relaxing, even mildly hallucinogenic. Clearly, something powerful and immense had happened inside my body, something that cannot simply be sparked by relaxation CDs and diffused lavender oil.
But acupuncture did not cure my colitis. I would never be foolish enough to toss my pills and trust Gaia to regulate the maelstrom of my guts. What I got from the experience was not a quick fix. It was a much needed affirmation, namely that it was equally foolish to resign myself to a rigidly narrow path in seeking improved health. Growing up with a younger sister with Cystic Fibrosis and a father who beat colon cancer, I’d never discount the amazing advances of modern medicine.
The conventional practices that holistic and natural health enthusiasts pejoratively call allopathic have done humanity an almost incalculable amount of good. But categorically dismissing all other traditions for wellness (Ayurvedic, herbal, Chinese, naturopathy, etc) as alternative or fringe is unwise and patients miss out by having physicians who know nothing about these options. Integrative strategies seem ideal. But if an integrative practitioner isn’t available, the individual may have to integrate on his or her own.
After experiencing acupuncture’s subtle but seismic changes, I recommitted to consuming less coffee and drinking more peppermint and other herbal tea. I put my capsules of tumeric back on the kitchen counter. Remembering the pleasure of that deep relaxation, I resolved to engage in less constant mom hecticness. What I took for acupuncture was a needed recentering, a paradigm shift away from passively popping pills and anxiously showing up for doctor’s visits, hoping for a cure all.
Partaking in holistic remedies has made me a more active and confident participant in my own quest for optimal health.
Kate Delany is the author of two books of poetry – “Reading Darwin” (Poets Corner Press) and “Ditching” (Aldrich Press). Her fiction and verse have appeared in magazines and journals, such as Art Times, Barrelhouse, Jabberwock Review, Room and Poetry Quarterly.
She holds an MA in English from Rutgers-Camden and a BA in English and in Art History from Chestnut Hill College. She lives in Collingswood, NJ, with her husband and two children. She blogs about parenting, herbs, gardening, and sustainability at Tigers Eye Botanicals.