The needles are short and thin, but that does not stop a nervous tremor from tickling my fingertips. I've never passed out at the sight of blood, but historically, when a needle enters my skin, I look the other way and squeeze my eyes shut.
"Breathe deeply," advises Susan Sandlin, the pixie-like practitioner with auburn hair. She swabs my back with alcohol, the only medicinal odor in her suite, sharp-smelling and out of place among the aromas of sage and lemongrass. Before I know it, eight needles are in, and I feel the pinch of only one, because for a moment I forget to breathe. In all, there are 10 needles in my back snaked around the vertebrae of my spine.
"You will probably enter deep relaxation, a state like sleep," Sandlin says before slipping out of the room. Candles are burning, the air is musky, and rhythmic, lulling music reverberates off the Chinese wall hangings and folding bamboo partitions.
I can't help but feel relaxed after the deep 20-minute neck and shoulder massage, but staring through the hole in the doughnut at the head of the massage table, I wonder if I will be able to turn my brain off for the full acupuncture experience. It's my first time, and I want to be aware of every sensation. My toes are cold. My nose itches. I don't feel like a porcupine, but I imagine that from an aerial view, I look like one.
I worry that I chickened out by getting the needles in my back instead of my ears and fingers and toes, but Sandlin's assured me that this experience is just as valid. I've opted to balance my qi (or spiritual energy) in a general way rather than specifically address any number of physical or psychological ailments, real or imagined, from this lifetime or past ones. (We have only two hours.)
My understanding of this process is vague; the needles are meant to stimulate my meridians and remove any blocks in my energetic pathways. It seems both scientific and mystical. Sandlin's given me a tongue exam and taken my pulse, and I feel safe.
I think about my drive through the suburbs to get here, the surprising expanse of trees sprawling beyond the office suite, how forests can be hidden within cities and how Eastern medicine can thrive in the West. And then I enter that state that's like dreaming, where you're not asleep or awake, but the images, vivid and forceful, are impossible to clamp down.
When Sandlin brings me back, I'm surprised I was away. I don't feel a thing when she slips the needles from my back, except peaceful and deeply relaxed. I feel rested without having slept and happy to have experienced something new. Never before have I felt so good on a 10-needle day.
West End Eastern Medicine is located at 1891 Billingsgate Circle, Suite B, in the Raintree subdivision. For more information, call 437-1947 or visit www.westendeasternmedicine.com.