Like many of you, I have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about the broader implications of COVID-19. I have researched the virus thoroughly, including how China used acupuncture and Chinese herbs to keep their death rate as low as possible. I have read countless op-ed pieces on how the country’s leading experts are predicting this will impact different facets of our society. I have diligently watched the daily press conferences, fact checking the information being presented. I have read doctor’s and nurse’s accounts of what it is like to be on the front lines treating a mass influx of patients with minimal (or no) PPE. I have read personal accounts of what it is like to be infected by the virus. I have observed how people are reacting to this new way of life: more neighbors are walking their dogs, friends are sharing on social media that they are rekindling their cooking skills, community members are volunteering to care for our healthcare workers in any way that they can (sewing masks, bringing them food, helping with childcare, donating PPE, and taking care of their pets), grocery stores are opening early to help protect the vulnerable, restaurants are donating food to feed children who normally receive their main meals at schools which are now closed, and people are expressing their fears, concerns, and grief in ways that are conducive to healing and constructive action.
Many of my patients have reached out to me, asking my professional opinion on how to navigate this wrench that has been thrown into all of our lives. Some people want to know what they can do to help keep themselves healthy and best prepare their bodies to fight off the virus. Some people ask for help processing feelings of overwhelm, grief, and fear. Whereas others are simply interested in my opinion on the whole picture. I have spent a lot of time gathering information, digesting that information, observing, mulling, and meditating. The question I have spent the most time on is – how can I help? What would be the most effective use of my knowledge and skill in this situation? How can I make the biggest impact possible?
As many of you may know, I am currently benched on the sidelines and unable to practice acupuncture due to an unreasonable amount of bureaucratic red tape. Since I am not able to be in the treatment room, I have decided to use my words to hopefully create change, movement, and ease for all who wish to listen.
The irony is, I experienced a year ago, what many people are finding themselves faced with (albeit not during a global pandemic), today. Many people are experiencing an abrupt change in life; carefully crafted plans have been derailed, life seemingly changes by the minute, routines are obliterated, families are suddenly all under one roof 24/7, there is palpable fear and uncertainty of what future life will look like, and an overall general sense of what in the world is going on!?
I would like to first start off with a teaching story. A little over a year ago my husband and I decided to uproot our lives to move across the country in pursuit of greater opportunities. My husband was in a toxic work environment that was negatively impacting his physical and emotional well-being. There were no other positions available to him locally, so he decided to broaden his search. A perfect job in Detroit, MI practically landed in his lap – he would be able to work from home, increase his salary while also reducing his responsibilities/stress, work for a company that values work/life balance, and the company would help us relocate. It sounded like wins all around. As difficult as it was for me to decide to close my practice, I knew that if we stayed my husband would suffer greatly, which is something I could no longer bear to watch. I knew that there are other acupuncturists nearby that would tend to my patients with the same love and care, so we made the difficult decision for him to accept the job in Detroit, close my practice, and move across the country.
Once we made the decision to move, we put our house on the market, picked a community in Michigan to call home, bought a house in a weekend, and navigated 5,000 other little moving pieces of closing my practice, packing, moving across the country, and unpacking all within two months. Looking back now, we laugh at how fast we acted and are not sure how we got everything done, but we did it! I even treated patients literally up until the night before we left. Our beloved neighbors showed up at my office just after I tearfully said goodbye to my last patient and had my office packed up within an hour. The next morning we started our journey, with our packed U-Haul trailer, to Detroit. We had to stay in a hotel (with our 80lb dog!) for a week while final repairs were being completed on our new house and we moved in during the polar vortex, which broke hundred year old records for how cold it was! My poor husband was schlepping boxes in -20 degrees. We quickly discovered the beauty of boiler heat.
Before we made the decision to upend our life, I contacted the Michigan Acupuncture Board to make sure I had all of the qualifications to receive a license in the state of Michigan. I was advised that since I already had a license in Maryland, that they would simply issue a license via reciprocity. This was a new law for Michigan, so I called multiple times to make sure that I was receiving accurate information, I even e-mailed so that I would have a written record. I was hoping to actually have my license before we moved, but this was all transpiring in November/December 2018 when the federal government was shut down. Michigan could not process my license because the FBI was not doing background checks while the government was shut down. We made the decision to move anyway because it would be much harder to move once Nick had started his new job, so we just had to trust that it would all work out.
By mid February 2019, I still had not received my license and was starting to get concerned. I was getting conflicting information from the licensing agency when I called to check on the status of my application. I decided to contact our Congresswoman’s office to see if they could help expedite my application. At this point I was struggling with not being able to work – I was tired of unpacking boxes, missing our community in Maryland, and missed being the treatment room. Within a few days I received news that my application was approved and I would receive my license in the mail shortly. I was ecstatic! I started looking for spaces to rent, found a few that looked promising, and scheduled appointments to visit them. On my way to visit the space that I thought would be “the one” I stopped at Marshall’s to look for some furnishings for my new office. I was in the rug aisle when I received a call from the licensing agency. The woman on the phone informed me that my license was issued in error and was being revoked immediately, all of the information I had previously been given about qualifications was false, and that in order to receive my license I would have to take all 3 NCCAOM exams. I knew that preparing for the board exams would take 6 months to a year. The form of acupuncture that is tested on the exams is different from the tradition I was taught, which essentially meant I needed to temporarily forget what I had spent 4 years learning, learn a new language, and countless other random facts in order to pass these exams. I also knew that the NCCAOM was restructuring their exams and were only offering them on a limited basis. I was devastated and in shock. I sat down on a rug in the aisle and cried.
That night I went through many different emotions – I was angry that I had been so careful to confirm the requirements multiple times and was given the wrong information multiple times, information that I based life altering decisions on. I was angry that because my feet were on a different piece of American soil, I was all of the sudden considered incapable. I was angry for all of the potential patients I would not be able to help, people suffering unnecessarily because of governmental red tape. I was angry that I could not contribute financially to our household and sad that my husband had to shoulder that burden by himself. I was scared that this would bankrupt us; we still hadn’t sold our Maryland house so we were paying two mortgages, plus my six figure student loan debt, which essentially meant three mortgages. Before we moved, I made sure that we had enough savings to support us while I got my new business off the ground. We had planned and saved enough to support us if I didn’t make a profit for 6 months, but I knew that I could not get my license within 6 months. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to pass the board exams. I was scared of not being able to afford food or other basic life necessities. I was sad at the prospect of having limited human interaction for however long it took me to pass the exams. I allowed myself to wallow in all of these feelings for the night, to digest my new reality.
In the morning I immediately began taking action to try to change my circumstances – I wrote a letter to the acupuncture board asking for a one year provisional license, in which time I would pass all required exams and re-apply for permanent licensure. I asked patients and colleagues to write letters attesting to my skills and commitment to patient safety. The Board agreed to review my case at their next meeting which was a month and a half away. It felt like a small win, giving me hope that life would return to normal sooner rather than later. I started the process of applying to take the board exams and researched the best tactics to study for them. That was the easy part. Then came what would be one of many difficult, long conversations with my husband about our grim financial situation. Thankfully he is a whiz at excel, he entered everything, with multiple formulas to calculate how long it would take us to dig out of this with only one income for the foreseeable future. The whole picture was worse than we thought. We felt completely defeated. Little did we know, it was about to get even worse – the Board ultimately denied my request (by did acknowledge the gravity of the position they were putting me in and apologized profusely), the new tax laws hit us hard and we ended up owing $4,000 to the IRS, our Maryland house would eventually sell, but for $20,000 less than what it was actually worth, when we officially became Michigan residents we found out how outrageous it is to insure cars here (our car insurance policy was triple the cost of what it was in Maryland), our dog decided that this was a convenient time to add rocks to her diet ($400 adventure to the vet), and the list goes on. We were literally hemorrhaging money. We were scared for the future, unsure of how we would ever recover from this, scared that we would lose everything we worked so hard for, and angry that despite meticulous planning, a huge wrench was thrown into our path.
I was ready to job hunt and accept whichever job could provide me with a paycheck the soonest, in order to return to what I deemed “normal life”. However, my husband persuaded me that my time was best spent studying for my exams so that I could get back to helping people and doing what I love. After much resistance, I agreed and decided to take this opportunity to ask “what are we suppose to learn from this situation?”.
I come from a family of very frugal people and am frugal myself, but had grown comfortable to the luxuries that two incomes afforded us. We sat down and combed through all of our expenses and agreed to cut every non-essential expense. We made our home more energy efficient to cut our electric bill by over $100/month, we refinanced some of our debt to lower interest rates, I clipped every coupon I could find to lower the cost of essential items, my husband took on odd jobs, we sold everything we didn’t need on craigslist, we combined errands to save money on gas, every day I would brainstorm a new way to save us a few extra bucks. There were a lot of dark days filled with sacrifice and denial of essential needs, uncomfortable decisions, and saying no to doing things we wanted to do, but could not afford.
But among these dark days, I observed something beautiful happening. My husband was laughing more, he was sleeping more soundly at night, his jaw wasn’t perpetually clenched, he was able to stay home a few days when he wasn’t feeling well, he was able to turn his phone off without worry when he took days off, and he was thanked for his hard work when he went above and beyond to complete the task at hand. I had not seen him flourish in this way since we were in college. Any doubts that I had about moving diminished once I woke up and observed what was happening. I knew that the sacrifices we made were worth it, we had weathered the hardest days of this storm and were coming out the other side stronger, happier, and more in tune with what truly matters. We found joy in the simple pleasures of life; taking long walks with our dog, trying new recipes, eating meals outside, working on home improvement projects, and gardening. We no longer felt the need to go out to have fun and were content with a simpler life. It was like someone hit the reset button on our life. And anyone who is married to an engineer knows that hitting the reset button resolves the problem 90% of the time!
As we were able to continuously reduce our expenses and simplify our life, we slowly started to see progress and felt like we could breathe again. We could now financially handle the unexpected $100 expense, we had money left over at the end of the month, we could start rebuilding our savings accounts, the stress started to lift. As I reflect now on all of those hard days, I am grateful for them and the numerous lessons they taught us. I am grateful that life didn’t “return to normal”. We learned that our marriage is rock solid. We learned that we were wasting money and time on things that aren’t essential and no longer brought us joy. We learned that we were happier living a simplified life, absent of many modern luxuries that have been marketed as necessities. Our desire for a vacation diminished because we had designed a life and routine, which was composed of just the right balance of responsibility, purpose, joy, and rest that we no longer felt the need to escape.
At this point the roadblocks I continue to face regarding my license are almost comical. I made studying for my exams my full time job, studying 50-60 hours a week and was able to pass all three of my exams by the end of February of this year. I was exhausted from studying, but ready to get back to the treatment room. As I waited for my board certification to be processed, I notified the licensing board that they would receive my certification any day now and requested that they expedite my licensure once they arrived. They replied, informing me that they are not currently issuing any acupuncture licenses due to a legislative error that was made and needed to be corrected. However, due to COVID-19 it was unlikely that it would be corrected anytime soon because legislators are overwhelmed with drafting emergency legislation to address the pandemic. There is no longer anything I can do to navigate the situation, other than wait patiently. I am at peace with this – it has been a long year and I am grateful for the break. As much as I am itching to join hands with my fellow healthcare workers and help in any way I can be of service, for some reason it is not meant to be. A significant portion of my training was focused on learning how to help people heal from traumatic events and I have a sinking feeling in my gut that that is the reason I am currently sidelined.
There is no doubt that living through this pandemic will cause trauma in ways that our society has been sheltered from for many generations. Doctors are having to tell critically ill patients that their loved ones can no longer visit due to visitor restrictions, women are giving birth without their partners present, nurses are suppressing feelings of fear to care for our loved ones, doctors are having to play God when deciding how to ration lifesaving care, many men, women, and children are quarantined at home with their abusers, all of it feels unbearably heavy and overwhelming. However, I, and my fellow acupuncturists, will be here to help pick up the pieces. To help your bodies transition out of a constant state of “fight or flight”, to listen to your harrowing accounts on the front lines, to help you process the profound grief, to help you remember how to take care of yourself, to help you navigate life when it all seems impossible, to remind you of your strength and resiliency, to help you sleep soundly again, and most importantly, to eventually help you move forward. We will tend to you, the way you tirelessly tended to our community members.
For those of you not on the front lines, life looks drastically different, ironically, almost polar opposite. While the healthcare workers, grocery store employees, farmers, and critical infrastructure employees are working around the clock to meet the current needs of our society, many of us are under strict orders to remain in our homes. It is difficult for many to accept, myself included, that the way in which we can have the biggest impact during this situation is to be still. It is difficult to be still when we are observing our loved ones on the frontlines go to work each day, braving long hours, difficult decisions, and exposure to the virus. It seems counterintuitive. However, I urge you to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. I urge you to look at this as an opportunity to do some deep reflecting, connecting, and re-evaluating.
Modern life keeps us busy with many seemingly “have to’s” that most of us have been robbed of the benefit of quiet down time. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a patient tell me “I am so stressed because I have to do xyz”, I would be wealthy enough to retire at 30. My normal response is “Do you? What would happen if you didn’t?”, which is normally followed by a period of justification and eventual realization that maybe “xyz” is not more important than getting a good night’s sleep, stopping long enough to eat a nourishing meal, or spending down time with loved ones. Well we now find ourselves in a strange moment in history where many of the “have to’s” have been canceled, for everyone across the country. And many are now contemplating how to make best use of this time. The instinct to pass the time by doing something heroically productive is incredibly strong and nearly possible to ignore, this is America after all. There are memes circulating on social media encouraging people to learn a language, clean out that messy junk closet, take an ivy league class, all encouraging escapes from the scary concept of being alone with your own thoughts and taking a pause to reflect on life.
I encourage you to peel away the distractions – turn off the tv, set your phone up so that the only notifications you receive are from loved ones, unplug yourself from the 24/7 news cycle (set up a time each day to check in, to stay informed on important developments), and simply be. It will be uncomfortable and many will feel waves of different emotions. Sit with them and resist the urge to distract yourself from what you are feeling. Modern life encourages us to consistently move forward, make progress, and fill our time – but what if we didn’t? What if we stepped off of the hamster wheel? What could happen? What would that look like?
When we are faced with a difficult situation, we usually cannot control the circumstances but we can choose how we react to them and we can choose to learn from them. The coming days may very well be the hardest days of our lifetime. And I encourage you to be aware of how you are spending them. It is ok to be scared, it is ok to be concerned about the unknown future, it is ok to be angry, it is ok to feel all of these feelings. However, it is not ok to project suppressed feelings onto others. If you are scared, declare it and express it, instead of lashing out in anger. We are all carrying impossibly heavy burdens right now and many cannot bear to be on the receiving end of misplaced feelings. Take a breath before you speak, think about the words you are about to put into the world. Ask yourself – what purpose do these words serve? Am I creating goodness? Am I spreading kindness? Would I want someone to say this to one of my beloveds? Sometimes despite our best intentions we make mistakes and speak words we regret speaking – when this happens I encourage you to apologize; your recipient will appreciate the sentiment and you will free yourself from guilt.
Overall, I encourage you to spend some of your quarantine time being still, reflecting, and evaluating what is working in your life and what is not. Then you get to plan how to redesign it! Think back to life two months ago and remember what your spirit and soul longed for – was it more connection with nature? Time with loved ones? A way to use your creativity? A nap? Time to move your body more? You have now been granted the time and stillness to integrate these quieter activities into your daily life.
Additionally, as many of us face financial insecurity, I encourage you to take a hard look at your whole financial picture and understand how your hard earned resources are being utilized. Are all of your financial commitments necessary? Are they worth the hours spent working? Are there ways to reduce your bills and thus reduce time working? As humans we are designed to seek pleasure and modern life has trained us to believe that a significant form of pleasure is experienced when making purchases; the phrase “retail therapy” is deeply ingrained into our culture. However, research shows that purchasing objects only results in short term happiness, which results in constant consumption to maintain a certain level of happiness. This is detrimental to our environment, as it creates excess waste and consumes precious resources. It is also detrimental to our mental health because it requires long hours spent working, to maintain a steady stream of purchases. Before you make your next purchase, ask yourself: Is this item necessary? Will I still be using it months/years from now? Do I have space for it? Is it worth the cost of hours worked? Do I already own something similar that I can repurpose? If I lost my income tomorrow, would I regret purchasing this? There is joy that comes with “making do” and finding creative solutions to needs using the materials that you already own. In the past decade, shopping has become effortless, with goods magically appearing on our doorsteps within 24-48 hours, that the art of “making do” has been lost. The next time you find yourself going from “I need x” to clicking “add to cart” on Amazon in less than 60 seconds, I encourage you to pause and think for a moment – is there a way to satisfy this need using items I already own?
Lastly, I encourage you to think about your ancestors and all of the wisdom they bestowed upon you. Our parents and grandparents have lived through the Great Depression, slavery, WWII, 1918 Flu, 2008 Recession, immigrating to a new country, and in a world where cell phones, Amazon prime, and social media did not exist. Reflect back on the stories they shared with you and habits they had that made you laugh, but were formed in an era when abundance was not the norm. Over the past year, I have found myself adopting many of the habits I learned from my grandmas. I was lucky to have spent a significant amount of time with my grandmas growing up and picked up a lot of their frugal habits. When the reality in front of us seems overwhelming, remember that our ancestors have lived through similar times of despair, scarcity, and uncertainty. During which time they learned how to adapt, rely on their community, and find joy in simplicity in order to weather the circumstances of their lives. This resiliency is in our DNA, we too will weather this storm. It is my sincere hope that we, as a collective society, will emerge on the other side wiser with a greater appreciation of the preciousness of life.
In closing, I would like to admit that I am nervous about sharing my story and vulnerability with the world. I want to make clear that I am acutely aware that my struggles are vastly less severe than the struggles of many people. I am privileged to have the struggles that I do. However, I want to address something that I observe happening on many social media platforms. There will be times when someone chooses to be vulnerable and share something they are struggling with. Inevitably, someone will comment that the poster’s struggles are not that bad, that they shouldn’t be complaining, and xyz is much worse. This is extremely dangerous. Every human has their own unique struggles. Some are more severe than others, but chastising another human being for being vulnerable conveys the notion that only extremely severe struggles should be voiced. It perpetuates the idea that struggles are to be shouldered in solitude. If this were true, humanity would not exist. We could not have evolved as a species if we all operated as singular beings. Ultimately, I think that is what we can learn from this pandemic – we need each other. Our similarities are greater than our differences. We all have unique life experiences which lead us to craft our own unique perspectives. Let’s all take some time to do more listening than speaking. Our nation’s children are watching how we choose to react and will use our actions as their template for how they react to the world’s future problems. We have the responsibility to teach them to act with kindness, grace, and thoughtfulness.