I believe things happen for a reason, Mark. A friend of mine is very fond of these words, and at one or two moments of disappointment, this has helped to provide comfort and consolation to the people he cherishes. It is a wonderful idea, implying a great sense of faith in the universe, even at those moments when it seems to be treating us most unfairly. Perhaps I find greater resonance in these words because my friend is not a student of Daoism or some other school of eastern philosophy – rather he works for a media company in Soho and rather enthusiastically indulges in the fast, hedonistic lifestyle associated with that industry.
Having been working as an acupuncturist in south London since 2008, I find it interesting to look back over the path that has led me here and to ponder whether I can see a pattern to past events. Did those things, both good and bad, happen for a reason? Is there some discernible pattern to be found?
My very first memory of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine is of catching a glimpse of a current affairs television programme that my parents were watching. I was perhaps eight or nine at the time. There was footage of an acupuncture treatment being administered, and I think that my parents found the whole thing rather bizarre. For my part, I was left with the impression that it probably had some great benefit (after all, this was post-Star Wars and the concept of the Force had already introduced to us the mystical potential of utilising universal energy) but was probably also very painful. I was also left with the impression that acupuncture was the type of thing that only bohemian, white, middle-class people would do – like veganism or visiting a kibbutz.
About ten years later, I was seated on a District Line tube. Behind me, three people in their early twenties were swapping stories about acupuncture and its benefits. Somehow, even at this very moment, I can recall reflecting upon how profound the impact of this experience might be for me. I had already become interested in meditation, and to hear somebody exclaim that ‘acupuncture had changed their life’, I was certainly intrigued. From this moment, it was probably inevitable that one day, I would make the leap of paying a stranger hard-earned cash to stick little needles in various parts of my body. Things happen for a reason, Mark. I wonder if my life might have worked out rather differently if I had not been sitting in that train carriage that day.
In my twenties, I fell victim to the onset of ME. Myalgic encephalomyelitis is a severely debilitating and often very long-term condition. The following twelve months were possibly the most difficult of my life. Weight loss, aching joints, insomnia, headaches, aversion to light… Of all the symptoms I experienced, the one that defined the condition for me was the constant fatigue (for some sufferers, muscle pain is the most severe symptom). Walking even a handful of steps or turning the pages of a newspaper was exhaustive. Looking back years later, it is difficult even for myself to fully comprehend the extent of my physical weakness.
Family and friends were very supportive during this time, for which I remained grateful – after all, ME was a barely understood disease in conventional medicine terms. The main component of my western medical treatment was an endless stream of blood tests. Once these all proved inconclusive and I was subsequently labelled as suffering from ME, I was rather relieved. I had a name for my illness and was able to rest assured by the exclusion of other possible conditions. To be fair then, I can say that I was provided with some genuine sympathy and comfort from various western medical professionals, and any practitioner of holistic medicine will understand the importance of these two things. However, I was provided with neither the means nor the hope towards a cure (nowadays, I find the word cure a little trite and generally lean towards some unwieldy phrase such as realignment of internal disharmony, which itself probably sounds quite trite to many other ears). Then comes the really exciting part of the story.
Eighteen months into my illness, a family friend recommended that I visit an acupuncturist. By this stage, having ventured out far and wide into the world, I no longer felt any cultural exclusion from non-conventional medicine, but, living on sickness benefit having had to move back home with my parents, I certainly appreciated a sense of financial exclusion. Somehow I discovered the existence of teaching colleges of traditional Chinese medicine, where affordable acupuncture treatments were available from supervised final year students (little did I realise that one day, I would be one of those student practitioners taking my first steps as an acupuncturist). Subsequently, one Thursday afternoon in bleakest November, I made my way to Old Street and the premises of the London School of Acupuncture. What did I expect to find?
The teaching clinic at LSA had a lively, colourful atmosphere. It was always quietly busy and the presence of other patients in the waiting area was reassuring to somebody who had no experience of things such as this. It helped to convince me that this was not some last, desperate recourse by a hopeless victim of a debilitating disease but rather a positive, proactive course of action. My actual treatments were a little uncomfortable at first, due primarily to my weakened condition. Nevertheless, I persevered, and before long I was looking forward to my weekly treatments, during which I would often slip into a deep, satisfying slumber.
It was November when I began my course of treatment. One Thursday afternoon in early Spring, walking back to the station after an acupuncture session, the sudden realisation penetrated my light-hearted, cheerful disposition that I was cured. I still had some considerable ground to cover in order to consolidate my recovery, but I knew that the corner had been turned. My life had been returned to me. It was one of the most wonderful moments I have ever experienced, and to sit here now and relive it as I write this sends a shiver of delight and excitement shooting through me.
It was difficult to readjust back to living a full existence in the world, but I had no choice other than to persevere. In the years that followed, I actively pursued my ambition to be a writer. Despite my efforts, however, I had little material success, and after some time spent travelling abroad, a pivotal moment took place in an Indian restaurant back here in Sheffield. I was with a group of doctor friends, one of whom was talking about her experiences working with an acupuncturist. During the conversation, one of my friends looked over at me – ‘You should become an acupuncturist, Mark’. The idea seemed exciting when mixed with good company, curry, and red wine. I had been aware that I was looking for a new direction but had been unsure of where to look, and now this idea stayed with me, germinating in the deeper parts of my consciousness. A few days later, I investigated online, came across the website of the British Acupuncture Council, and began to research exactly how one went about becoming an acupuncturist.
Twelve months passed, much of which time was spent working on my great unpublished novel. At the end of the twelve months, despite great effort lavished upon agents and publishers and lots of writing and rewriting, my book remained great and unpublished. By this time, I had been accepted on to an undergraduate course to study acupuncture. Once the course began, it took only a couple of weeks of fairly intoxicating study before I realised that I was falling in love again, this time with Chinese medicine.
Having spent my own year working in a student clinic under the auspices of knowledgeable and highly talented tutors, I set up a practice in south London in 2008. My first premises was in Dulwich. Now I work at the Awareness Centre in Clapham and have a low-cost clinic in a G.P. surgery in Camberwell.
I feel incredibly lucky. I have met people who have never found something that they love to do. At an early age, I fell in love with writing, which ultimately did not work out, and then I found something else that I love just as much.
Which brings me back to my original thought. Do things happen for a reason? The experience of suffering from ME was stark, dispiriting, emotionally painful. There were many times when I really did feel that my life was over. Yet now, I work as an acupuncturist, a practitioner of the same healing discipline that spurred my recovery. Humbly, I try to utilise my acquired skills to facilitate self-healing and thus to bring joy into other people’s lives. At the same time, my ongoing learning of what is a vast area of knowledge (with manuscripts going back 2, 000 years) helps me to find greater meaning in my own life. Is it possible, therefore, that falling victim to ME was part of some universal plan that has ultimately led me to a position where I feel I truly belong? Is this an example of things happening for a reason?
I do not know the answer to this question. If the answer is yes, and things do always or sometimes happen for a very specific reason, I wonder if these reasons may be so universally sublime that we could never begin to comprehend them. Certainly, I am able to point to an example in my own life of great personal good coming from great ill. In contrast, it must be difficult to see anything coming from the terrible violence and ethnic conflict in recent years in Sudan or the suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For me, the real interest lies not with finding an answer to whether things do or do not happen for a reason. The question itself is what I find interesting. That’s one of the things I love about acupuncture and Chinese medicine – it is always filling my head with lots of wonderful questions. Perhaps, these questions themselves can sometimes be the first step towards a healing journey.