I Tried It: One Stressed-Out, Overly Caffeinated Editor’s Acupuncture Journey

How going under the needle chilled me out.


Under the needle. | Shutterstock.


That’s the best way to describe it. Like a troop of misguided butterflies has taken up residence in the center of my chest, just beneath the breastbone, making me jumpy, anxious, like I’m about to take the stage in a school play, or like I’m hiding from a serial killer.

I’m not sure why I’m so nervous, only that I’ve always been this way. Photos of me as a little girl show my index finger poised at the side of my thumb, ready to pick at the skin around my nail (something I do to this day; it’s a wonder I still have thumbs). Lately, though, with work and house-hunting and general Life Stuff, the butterflies have turned into more of a softball-size lump, a heavy gelatinous mush of nerves I can’t quite shake. Which is how I found myself lying on my stomach with a bunch of needles sticking out of my back a few weeks ago. 

I initially reached out to acupuncturist Dory Ellen Fish for research. I’ve heard all about the wonders of acupuncture, but it seemed like a weird sort of witchcraftery: No one could tell me exactly how it worked or why it worked, only that it did work, and that Dory Ellen Fish was the best in the game. So, in the name of journalism, I booked an appointment.

Dory Ellen’s practice is on the second floor of the White Lotus building in Bryn Mawr. I walked in clutching a Starbucks coffee the size of a small baby, jittery from the hour-long drive and rush hour traffic. (I know, so cliché — the over-caffeinated editor rushing frantically to an appointment in which she learns how to relax.) Only when I met Dory Ellen, I didn’t wish she would hurryupgofasterIhavetogetbacktowork, which is how I often feel around very Zen, slowly methodical people. Instead, I felt silly for being so ramped up. Her office (woodland music, Feng Shui, tea), her mannerisms, her voice, all of it was soothing.

Dory Ellen and I talked for an hour before the treatment actually began — I told her what I was hoping to learn about the ancient Chinese practice, and then some of the problems that were nagging me (anxiety, fatigue, a desire to physically harm people who eat crunchy things on the train). She listened in a way that was less clinical than my therapist and more compassionate than my usual GP. It was refreshing.

“Your problems stem from your liver and stomach,” she explained matter-of-factly. My condensed explanation: The stomach regulates energy; the liver regulates mood. When the pathways to these become blocked, you have pain and symptoms like mine. Dory Ellen would insert needles into points that correspond with these organs in an attempt to unblock them. The needles themselves are very small — wispy, hairlike strands that need to be encased in small plastic tubes so that they don’t break when inserted into the skin.

I lay on my stomach on a table (on top of a therapeutic infrared mat of crushed amethysts!) and Dory Ellen began inserting the needles. Some I didn’t feel at all; others pinched and felt tingly (this means that the needle reached a point of blocked energy; the feeling is called “qi,” which is the body’s energy buzzing around the needle and resetting itself). Her prediction that my stomach and liver were the culprits was correct: The needles only hurt when they were stuck in a spot that corresponded to these organs.

I relaxed immediately, the caffeine jitters fell away and so did the niggling irritation from the commute. And, this part might ring false, but it’s not: I actually felt that knot in my chest melt, almost instantly, like someone had given an Ambien to those butterflies so they’d finally, finally stop fluttering. I sank into the table and felt my body become electrified — tiny jolts of energy every few minutes — and deliciously numb at the same time. This must be what an acid trip feels like, I thought.

Some people feel energized after acupuncture; I felt blissfully drugged. Even as I sat in the death crawl of traffic on 76 on the way back to work. Even as I rode the elevator up 36 floors next to a man who violently chewed his gum like it was his last meal. The calm lasted for about a week or two, and then life, coffee, and loud gum-chewers seeped back in. My colony of butterflies has since settled back into my chest. I need another fix.

According to Dory, it’s recommended to get treatments every other week or so, at least in the beginning, and then once a month for maintenance. But it’s expensive (she admitted that her posh sessions, at $120 an hour, are pricier than treatments at other practices, which can run as low as $50), so a weekly fix isn’t exactly in the cards for me yet. But I plan to make acupuncture a part of my monthly wellness routine. It makes me nicer, calmer, less jumpy, and less likely to openly glare at loud gum-chewers (or loud newspaper-page turners, or crying children, or Quiet Car talkers).

Dory couldn’t explain to me scientifically why acupuncture works, so I still don’t have that answer. But I don’t need it anymore, and I’m not looking for it. Some things are better left unexplained.

The Details: Dory Ellen Fish Acupuncture, 1026 West Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, 215-247-2211.