I’m a Med School Dropout Turned Acupuncturist: My West-East Perspective
When medical doctors refused to listen to my concerns, I found acupuncture and Eastern medicine to provide care like I’d never received.
My personal struggles with physical and mental health took my lifelong dream and reshaped it into something I never could have imagined.
Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a doctor. My propensity for academia, curiosity with the human body and desire to be successful kept me on that path through high school and college, all the way to one of the top medical schools in the country. But it came with a price. I ended up in an environment that was so competitive that no one cared if I was even OK. It wasn’t until years later that I would find my true calling: acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine. But luckily for me, none of my Western education has gone to waste, as the future is integrative medicine, and I am here for it.
After graduating college with two degrees, working in an ER, doing research and crushing the MCAT, I was accepted to four amazing medical schools, and parts of my ego were at an all time high. I chose the California school for prestige and in-state tuition. But all the while, I was struggling with my mental health, so the competitive environment chewed me up and spat me out. My depression had gotten really bad after isolating to work on the applications, and my family situation was also very tumultuous, so I was feeling really unsupported and unprepared before school. I had a bad experience with a therapist/psychiatrist team that broke patient confidentiality with my family and misdiagnosed/mismedicated me. I sought solace and a sense of community in the rave culture and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. But this just made things worse.
By the time I got to medical school, I could barely focus enough to go to classes, so they started having me see the school psychologist and psychiatrist. They decided it would be in my best interest to go on medical leave of absence and return the following year. That meant leaving my on-campus housing, the only refuge from my toxic family environment, so it really didn’t do me any favors. I would drive down to school to continue seeing the therapist and the doctor, but my mental health just kept getting worse and worse.
The therapist would listen to what I had to say but never really made any suggestions, goals or plans. He never recommended substance abuse treatment, group therapy or anything, really. The psychiatrist seemed burnt out and overworked, like he was bothered by the fact that he had to see me on top of all his other responsibilities. He didn’t think critically and went by the misdiagnosis from the previous practitioner. Even when I tried to explain why it was wrong, he didn’t listen. He didn’t care. They didn’t care about me, my progress or my success.
I Found My Own Path Using Acupuncture and Eastern Medicine
I got tired of this and decided to forge my own path to feeling better. In the year that I had spent applying to medical school, I was starting to cultivate my spirituality via yoga and meditation, so once I left med school, I got a job at a yoga studio to stay busy and learn more about it. I practiced a lot and eventually did a 200-hour yoga teacher training. I started learning about spiritual practices, seeking something to help me manage my mood. I was introduced to Buddhism, which helped me raise my life condition and, I feel, led me to my current path: acupuncture.
I wasn’t seeking acupuncture. To be honest, I had tried it a few times and been underwhelmed. But I was seeking a healer with some kind of ancient wisdom because I felt that would help me with my issues. I was still cycling through different psychologists and psychiatrists with little improvement. I was also having physical issues, like heartburn and chronic bladder irritation, that I needed help with. And last, but certainly not least, I needed to figure out what to do with my life. By this time, it was too late to go back to medical school, and I was working a dead-end desk job that I hated.
Soon, I found an Ayurvedic (Indian traditional medicine) practitioner near my work who just happened to also be an acupuncturist. In our first session, this woman spent two hours with me and absolutely blew my mind. She got my entire physical and socio-emotional history and wove me a story about how the physical symptoms I was having were related to the emotions that I’d had because of the way I was raised. Everything was starting to make sense. Then she took me into the treatment room for a guided meditation, some acupuncture on my chakras, cupping, Thai massage and even some energy work. For the first time in a long time, I felt cared for.
I felt like I could really open up to her, so I told her that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. She asked what my background was, and I said medicine, and she literally said, “Why don’t you do this?” It was a lightbulb moment for me, and I left the office knowing I would study acupuncture. A few weeks later, I enrolled in acupuncture school, and five years later, I graduated and am preparing to get licensed. During the course of my education, I have witnessed and experienced numerous phenomena that are nothing short of miracles. A couple doses of herbs and an excruciating pain goes away. A few needles and a wonky digestive tract is fixed. Some energy work and months of anxiety and insomnia fade into a memory. I love what I do and the power it has given me to help others and myself.
Find Doctors and Practitioners That Actually Care for Your Health
So you’re probably thinking that I have sworn off Western medicine for acupuncture and Chinese medicine. But just like Western medicine, Eastern has its downfalls. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on herbs and treatments that didn’t make any difference. I’ve gotten bruises from the needles or felt tired after treatments. One time, I was so out of it after acupuncture, I rear-ended someone. Another time, I gave myself a panic attack by taking herbs that interacted with a medication I was on. There were times when I was in a lot of pain and tried so desperately to only use natural methods to feel better with such little relief, but as soon as I caved and went the Western route, I felt so much better.
While some practitioners, myself included, are very quick to refer to the Western doctors, I’ve had the other experience when I needed to be referred and wasn’t. Indeed, the downfalls of alternative practices are that they claim to heal everything. There are Eastern alternatives to things like antibiotics and antidepressants, but I believe it’s important to weigh the cost of these treatments and the ease of use when determining the best approach for an individual. If everyone had unlimited resources, we’d suggest acupuncture and herbs daily until they felt better, but all of my experiences have made me a realist and an advocate for an integrative approach. Especially when it comes to acute conditions—that’s where Western medicine really shines. Don’t deny yourself technology if you really need it. That is something I would like to change about the culture of alternative medicine and why I’m passionate about advocating for integrative medicine.
As far as choosing practitioners, my takeaway is that there are incompetent, competent and exceptional practitioners in every field. There are providers that will help you and providers that will hurt you. I am by no means an expert in Eastern or Western medicine, but I’ve had a lot of experience as a patient of both. I’ve been saved by both and burned by both. The common thread was the doctors that cared who helped me the most. So when you’re looking for a practitioner of any modality, find the one who you feel like really cares, and that will make all the difference.