Report from New Orleans and Acupuncturists Without Borders
Early in my stay, a resident of the Algiers neighborhood told me that having your city devastated “is like your spouse having a stroke. You still love him, and he’ll never be the same. You really don’t know what will happen next. You’re kind of waiting for the next part of the sky to fall.” She said that “dealing with Katrina and its aftermath is like trying to get off crack. Your body is at battle every second, and cannot relax. Your desperate for a little hope, a little good news.”
The comparison was not lost on me. In fact, Acupuncturists Without Borders is primarily using a protocol of ear points developed originally to treat persons “detoxing” from drug use. This battery of points helps relieve, among other things, insomnia, extreme muscle pain and joint stiffness, blood pressure fluctuation, high levels of anxiety or depression, headaches, and fatigue. When given the opportunity to describe what they wanted help with physically and emotionally, the people we were treating referred frequently to some or all of these symptoms. We’re talking about the kinds of things experienced by someone coping with intense or violent change.
It’s true that I’ve done some previous work with the style of acupuncture we’re using in Louisiana. However, nothing could prepare me for how consistently profound these treatment experiences proved to be for those involved. It was incredible to watch people people’s bodies relax for the first time in three months; see raging migraines and nagging backaches loosen their grip on tired, tired souls; have people return to thank us for their first peaceful sleep in weeks. As a set of patients settled into their chairs and into some deeper breathing 10 or 15 minutes after being needled, it was clear that some perspectives were shifting a little, allowing for moments of hopefulness and joy.
Acupuncturists Without Borders is using a social style of acupuncture where patients are seated, fully clothed, and usually in a circle with the others being treated. This makes sense in a practical way, whereby we can set up treatments almost anywhere. But, it also engenders a trust in the process and in the practitioners. Meanwhile, each individual treatment benefits from the positive energetic and emotional connections of all those treating and being treated.
The idea of treating everyone with the same point combination made me uncomfortable at first. This wasn’t Chinese pattern diagnosis, the art to which I’m committed as a practitioner. But, as soon as I had done a few auricular (ear) treatments, using the five detox points almost exclusively, I got over my theoretical difficulties
Along with the relief of specific physiological symptoms that the acupuncture yielded, the community treatments meant that an individual got a chance to feel some tangible results of physical recovery while also witnessing it in the face and posture of others. Any individual’s exhales or, literally, sighs of relief, got to further infuse the treatment space, and to release stuck qi on a much wider level. In the best moments what ran between participants was a pulse of benign creative nurturance, in the face of numbness, grief or rage.
Through this softened space and between the softened gazes of those being treated, other people, with curiosity, would enter, on their way to get a tetanus shot, have a prescription filled, or find bottled water. Liking what they sensed, the passerby would frequently be the next to sit down for a treatment. I’ll describe a specific instance along the sidewalk outside the Common Ground free health clinic.
A woman from the neighborhood is walking by and sees several of her neighbors sitting in an oddly meditative manner. Mr. Ali, who has had three unsuccessful surgeries on his cervical spine in the last 15 years is looking at me with heavy eyelids and asking me how the acupuncture can so quickly make his neck looser. I am trying to answer as simply and quietly as possible, and I’m being helped by another man being treated, a 60 something year old cab driver. Mr. Clarke studied Mao and Chinese culture when actively a Black Panther in the 70s. He’s identifying a point I used on Mr. Ali’s arm as lying along the Triple Burner channel. Lamar is a middle-aged painter and contractor who has been working 12 and 14 hour days since the flood. His forearm and fingers are numb and he cannot sleep. Francine is a 49 year old white woman who is working 10 hour days at the one welfare office of New Orleans’ seven which survived. She is here for the third day in a row to get help quitting smoking, a decision made in the throes of the emphysema like coughing that has racked her since the mold set in. She knows of these men but has never spent any time talking to them. She and Lamar are almost whispering to one another, both crying periodically, which gets the attention of a small orphan dog which has made its way to their feet. The clinic’s only pharmacist, a woman from Detroit, has been sleeping in her chair with one leg elevated since the needles went in a half hour ago. She had asked for help with an acute migraine and a swollen ankle. The woman passing through catches eyes with another man who’s getting a treatment, a man appears to know well. He’s been orating irrepressibly since 5 or 10 minutes into the treatment. He’s looking at her saying
“Lord have mercy…. Wow…… Like I’m in high school…….. This is alright….. Aint this something…… Feel like a bird…. Like a body ought to feel in this world….. Aint this something…. Somebody discovered something…. Lord have mercy……. Makes my back straight and takes my defenses right down……. Like a bird I tell you….”
And the passing woman shoots back
“Well, go on and fly…”
Her only question is if the needles will hurt.
And, several people close their eyes and reassuringly shake their head.
“Like a little bug bite”, Francine says.
She sits down with her neighbors.
It was hard for me to leave. It’s the work I want to be doing. It needs to be happening everywhere. Two themes emerged for me in New Orleans. One was how completely the natural and unnatural disasters had torn back the layers of our social fantasy to make even more glaring the injustices of our everyday lives. Secondly, I was reminded when economic bureaucracy dissolves enough that peoples’ natural collective initiative is less stifled, just how much creative cooperation flourishes, how quickly people choose courage and contact.
I want to know, when the layers get put back, when a normal bureaucracy returns to Louisiana, when the Good Samaritan Laws expire, how do we continue the kind of work Acupuncturists Without Borders and Common Ground is doing? How do we find ways to make free group acupuncture a norm, not only something for victims of storms and those suffering from drug addiction? How do I do this in Philadelphia? How do we continue to find ways to move from charity to solidarity? Can we go ahead and notice how essential these kinds of interactions and this kind of medicine is for our real security?