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Acupuncture + Depression: Building a Fire in Your Life | Hardin Acupuncture

Acupuncture + Depression: Building a Fire in Your Life


[This is the intro post in a series that will explore depression and Chinese medicine]

I like the magic of building fires. Do these certain tasks – gather kindling, make a pyramid, add a lit match, fan like crazy, add bigger sticks. Then (if you’re me) pray that they catch. And they always do! I’m not a particularly savvy fire-builder, but I always manage to get one lit.

Self-care is like that. We do these certain things – eat well, exercise, rest – so that we’re ready to catch fire. We may feel soggy or burnt-out or uninspired, but we seriously never know when the spark will come. And we want to be ready for it; we want to be flammable.

About a year after I finished graduate school, for a mix of reasons, and really no reason at all, I became severely depressed. Part of it was practical – “Oh my god, I have to make a living and I’m seeing five patients a week!” And part of it was existential – “Who am I, why am I here, how shall I live?” I still don’t know why it was such a perfect storm of debilitation.

I just know I spent many days crying by a tree outside of my house. (That poor tree had no idea what to say.) My family was worried about me. (They didn’t know what to say either.) At several desperate moments I thought about going on medication, but I knew that I needed to go through this. Not around it or over it or under it. (I’m not wholesale against medication – I do believe there are times when it can be helpful; it just wasn’t the right choice for me.)

So I set about creating the conditions to catch fire, even though I couldn’t even remember what that felt like. I created a schedule for myself every day, and I followed it without fail. I went for a walk, I meditated, I ate good food, I slept, I saw my patients. I walked to my acupuncturist’s office once a week.

I know that creating and following a schedule sounds like the most mundane thing in the world, that it could never help alleviate depression so deep you don’t even want to move. But it does and it can. (The heart thrives on rhythm.)

I got no joy from these experiences at all. I was just going through the motions. But I was stacking the firewood.

By anchoring my actions in something other than how I happened to be feeling, I was reminding myself that the depression wasn’t who I actually was. It was the weather at that particular time in my life, and yes, it sucked to have it perpetually gray and raining in my psyche. But there are deeper layers where, truly, the fire is already burning, even if we can’t feel it.

It’s possible to be deeply OK even when deeply depressed. It doesn’t seem like it, but it really is.

My recovery wasn’t dramatic. I think sometimes it can be, but for me it was just a gradual realization that I didn’t feel depressed anymore.

One spark came while riding in a car with my friend. She took a turn a little too fast and the car swerved. She righted the car quickly and everything was fine, but for a moment, the loudest thought in my head was, “I don’t want to die.” I thought, “OK, good to know.”

Another little spark came when I was crying near that poor tree in my backyard. A movement across the lawn caught my eye at one point and I was up walking towards it before I had time to think. I found a turtle and felt just the tiniest glimmer of delight. I realized that some part of me was still curious, was still drawn towards movement and life. If I could just keep gathering the kindling long enough, I could return.

And I did. With a much deeper trust in that place in me that is always burning. I didn’t fully answer those existential questions before I returned, but I vowed to, as Rilke says, “live the questions.” They are a jumping off point for a richly lived experience here on earth, not a cause for despair.

Remember that all things which happen
To you are raw materials
Endlessly fertile
Endlessly yielding of thoughts that could change
Your life and go on doing forever…
So fear not, my friend.
The darkness is gentler than you think.

–Ben Okri


(Image source: Sam Howzit)

Hardin Acupuncture
1804 Chislett St
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
Tue 10-6
Wed 12-7
Thu 12-7
Fri 10-6
Phone: 412.927.4768