I woke up yesterday morning with a stiff neck that had escalated to a region of sharp pain by lunch. I took some painkillers and got through my evening classes, but the pain woke me in the middle of the night and I could barely move. As soon as I got up this morning, and carefully put on some clothes, I walked down to the local Chinese medicine clinic.
I might never have noticed the clinic just around the corner from my house if someone hadn’t taken me there once already when my knee was sore. It’s got a wooden sign and a glass front obscured by a lush garden of potted plants. Today, the whole front of it was hidden behind a formidable black SUV, parked nose-to-nose with a white SUV.
There’s a high wooden counter in the entrance, facing the big window looking out at the SUV. The wall behind the counter is stacked with packs of Korean ginseng and other boxes and jars that look like they might be the ingredients for a witches’ potions.
The doctor wasn’t right there, so I took a seat on the bench in front of a sign suggesting that I call ahead to make an appointment. I could hear him talking to a patient in the examination room. I could hear her protests and shrill gasps of pain. I felt like I was eavesdropping, even though there wasn’t a door. I considered taking a card and going home or just outside to call for an appointment. But it seemed silly, since I was already there, and the shock of pain I felt every time I moved my head or left shoulder convinced me to just wait and see.
From the bench, I was looking into what could have been any traditional Taiwanese living room. The furniture was all made of heavy wood. There was a full tea set on the low table. The big flat screen TV was on: I watched the news about the impending typhoon with shots of all the damage done in the last big storm, and interviews with people who are getting ready for this one. There was a shrine against the far wall and a big, green, glassy Buddha.
A middle-aged woman walked in carrying what must have been gift sets of mooncakes this time of year, and a small bag of green beans. She noticed me, but didn’t say anything to me and didn’t slow her quick march to the seat facing the TV. She shouted a greeting at the doctor; he shouted back. He came out and saw me.
“My neck really hurts. I can’t move,” I told him in Chinese.
“Where? Here?” he asked in English. He probed at my neck with firm fingers. “Ah, here.”
“Ow! Yes! I want to cry!” I felt my eyes tearing up.
Say what you want about Chinese medicine, but it always impresses me how immediately Chinese traditional medicine doctors can locate the exact source of your pain.
He walked back into the waiting room. I thought I could quickly take a picture of the very intimate scene of his living room. He came back out just as I was focusing my cellphone camera. I dropped it guiltily. He smiled at me.
“Come here,” he said. I followed him into the exam room. A woman was straddling the low bed, bent over with her forehead on the surface of it. Three suction cups were pulling up big bubbles of the skin of her neck. The doctor sat me in a chair and immediately started rubbing my neck and shoulder.
“Right here,” he said, pushing a finger into my neck, “and right here.” He pushed a finger into a spot between my shoulder blade and spine and I saw the world flooded by the blindingly clear light of terrible pain.
“Mmmm,” I whimpered. He wiped some Vaseline on me and stuck a suction cup on, pressing whatever it is that forms the vacuum seal and pulls your skin up in an ugly bulge.
“Oooh, very bad,” he said. He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Very black.” He dragged the suction cup around my neck and shoulder and it pulled at my skin. I know what it would look like: a big, ugly hickey. All I could do was bite my index finger and concentrate on not embarrassing myself and all other foreigners by shouting or crying.
Imagine the good air goes in, and the pain goes out…
I thought about that from yoga class and the visualized all the little blood vessels in my neck and back bursting open so that the pain would not be trapped inside but could be released and flushed away.
The other patient sat up and continued chatting with the doctor. I didn’t try to understand what they were saying. She was very pretty. Probably older than me, but with short hair, a shock of purple in the front. That’s so trendy right now. I want a purple streak in my hair. I bet she drove the big, black SUV out front. A rich lady coming for relief of the sore neck that comes with having lots of things to worry about. I was in my pajamas, wearing crocs. I felt self-conscious.
“Don’t play with your phone too much,” said the rich lady.
“Oh, no,” I said in agreement. I wasn’t sure if that had anything to do with it. Had she and the doctor agreed that was her problem? Had the doctor told her that was my problem when I wasn’t listening? But I would agree to anything now to stop this pain.
The doctor put four suction cups on my neck.
“Do you want ___?” he asked the woman. I didn’t know what he said.
“Do I need to?” she asked.
“You should,” he said. The doctor sat in a chair at the end of the bed. He laid a pink hand towel on the bed behind her, and told her to lay down. The towel was under her neck, and grabbing either end, he pulled her toward his lap, until her head was hanging off the table. He took off his shoes in one smooth lift and put his feet, in clean white socks, against her shoulders and pushed with his feet and pulled her head with the towel.
I watched, trying not to stare, trying not to move too much. Then he used the towel to pull her back up to a sitting position, slipped on his shoes, and bounced back over to me to remove the cups.
“Do you know why you have this pain?” he asked me.
“I don’t know. I just woke up yesterday…”
“You don’t sleep well,” he said. Before I could agree, he added, “You eat too much cold things.”
More likely from playing with my phone too much, hunched over in bed or in the sofa in weird positions, I thought. Or maybe it’s the result of my recent exercise binge, or the new dumbbell dancing I came up with, where I dance around with dumbbells to Uptown Funk before I go to work.
But I did have ice cream the past two nights. I’d skip it if it meant never feeling like this again.
The doctor told me to relax and cracked my neck on the left, on the right, and my back between my shoulder blades.
“Can you move your head?”
I could. It was still sore, but a shrug wouldn’t make me shriek.
The doctor slapped on two medicinal patches, the ones that feel cold against your skin and smell the way Chinese lozenges taste. He told me I was done and I walked out with him behind me. He walked behind the counter and I went in front of it.
“Two-hundred dollars,” he said.
I gave him the money and we smiled at each other and gave little nods of our heads, like bows.
I forgot to ask how long I have to keep these patches on. It still hurts, but it’s closer to being terribly uncomfortable than intolerably painful. Despite all the strange herbs and roots in jars, Chinese medicine isn’t magic. I can’t expect to feel great immediately, bippity-boppity-boop. I do have this bottle of ibuprofen, and as long as I don’t take it with cold water, I think I’ll be fine to teach tonight.