Health Matters: Acupuncture, addiction, culture

Maureen Goss

Contributed photo / Contributed photo

Some 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year — about 175 a day — according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Can acupuncture help addiction?” I was asked last week.

“Yes and no,” I answered.

Soon after my graduation from acupuncture school in New York City, I was interviewed at the Callen Lorde Community Health Center in Chelsea. The center’s doctors and administrators were thinking of making acupuncture available to their patients, many who had addictions. I met with a western medical doctor and the executive director.

After our introductions, we sat, and the first question came: “What would you do if we sent you a crystal meth addict?”

I knew immediately. I had been working in my school’s high-volume urban clinic for the last year of my three-year Master of Acupuncture program. We had learned various protocols to calm the nervous system under the supervision of the best in our field.

I explained that I would get them on the table and do an intake as I “grounded” them with some acupressure and massage to the feet. We could talk as they relaxed, and then I would administer some needles on the arms and legs. The last needles would be in the ears. I would instruct them on how to breathe fully as the needles worked and do some acupressure on the head and scalp.

I got the externship and worked with a western medical team to create a program where I worked for a year.

Acupuncture helps with addiction by giving the patient temporary relief from the ugly grip of that monkey on their back. It gives them relief and often inspires them to beat the addiction. But they need much more than support from acupuncture.

One young man I saw regularly was an artist, HIV-positive and clean from an addiction to crystal meth. In addition to acupuncture, he was engaged in a funded program that allowed him to work in theatre (his passion), building sets and acting. He was expected to participate in individual and group therapy sessions. Immersed in a culture that supported him, he was joyful and full of hope.

What can we do about the epidemic of addiction that has dramatically increased in the last few years? That is a not problem that acupuncture or any physical or mental health care profession can solve alone. Our culture needs to change. Culture changes when values change. Just as the young man I treated was supported to pursue and use his talent, so society needs to find a way to value each person for the unique gift they have and then allow them a sustainable place where it can be used for the good of others.