It’s been over a year and a half since I stopped working with an acupuncturist, but it was only recently that I’ve been able to understand how much harm his treatments actually caused me due to his lack of professional boundaries and respect for mine as a survivor.
Last month I was doing therapeutic work on a memory I’ve had in my mind for many years. In it I was around eight years old and being held down, shirtless on the floor by my older brother. He had a knife in his hands, and kept pulling it back and lunging it at my torso, stopping just short of making contact. He took joy in my fear and panic, and the moments seemed to last forever.
But in the midst of my EMDR session on it, I came to see that his game didn’t stop at pretending that day; he kept going until he had stabbed me in my chest. Then, he kicked me while I lay bleeding on the ground, telling me that it was my fault, claiming that if I hadn’t flinched I wouldn’t have been stabbed. Any medical attention I received as a result was cloaked with the lies my parents told to cover up the abuse, the crime that had been committed.
That night, while I was bandaged and high on pain medication, my mother came into my bedroom and sexually abused me. From the second she came rushing into the room to find me bleeding on the floor, she made it all about her, not me, and certainly not protecting me from anything. I was forced to continue living with my attackers, and when my brother told me that the next time he would kill me, I believed him with good reason.
When I recovered the memory, my mind was immediately flooded with the script of minimization I always heard from my abusive family, encouraging me to doubt my experience, to make excuses for my brother and set aside my own pain. But when that passed, I could see that actually this was a huge event in my life and in the history of my body. At my core, I felt trapped, and I also internalized the idea that I could have done something differently to stop it. What I didn’t expect to come up in the midst of the memory was my acupuncturist’s treatments.
I told my acupuncturist that I was a survivor of severe abuse, and I even shared with him this memory fragment where my brother had almost stabbed me. Yet, he kept wanting to place a needle in my stomach or chest, despite the fact that these areas were extremely sensitized regions of my body where I couldn’t handle anyone else even touching without pain. When he did it, I would start quaking, with every nerve in my body burning, and I would quickly descend into panic.
When I said I wanted him to take the needle out, he would criticize me, saying that I could have left it in longer. And he insisted on repeating this experiment multiple times, despite the fact that it wasn’t at all beneficial. This retraumatized me, as he triggered the pain and terror of my stabbing and then added onto it. As a result the two traumas became literally fused together in my body, intensifying into something that’s been much harder to process and heal from today.
My acupuncturist had seemed helpful and empathetic at first, which threw me off when he began to show this other side to him. But by the time of our last few sessions, my acupuncturist’s empathy for me had vanished completely. He yelled at me for telling him not to touch a certain part of my body, for saying that I had had enough, as if my body didn’t belong to me. He told me that I ‘exaggerated,’ and repeatedly snapped that “someday you’ll have to push through the pain!”
Of course this is incredibly ignorant, as ‘pushing through the pain’ was something I spent most of my life doing. Via the 21 years of abuse that I endured from my family of origin, and afterwards by not listening to my body, by dissociating and going ahead with whatever I or someone else had decided I should do regardless of how wrong for me it was. And I know that that road only leads to more pain, there is no rainbow at the end of it. So I made a decision that having lived a life of pain, I now wanted one of boundaries and safety instead.
That someone who claimed to be a healer would question that and tell me he knew better then my own body is something I find really shocking. His aggressive behavior and lack of respect for me could never facilitate healing. I see now that his approach to chronic pain was informed more by machismo then medical science, and he projected a great deal of it onto me when I told him no.
He made many demeaning comments to me early on, usually in the aftermath of the session when I was too fatigued to respond. Such as when he minimized my trauma by referring to it as “little boy stuff,”: using a derogatory term (“little boy”) generally used to mock and make men feel small for not living up to stereotypical gender roles to describe the fact that I was physically, sexually, and emotionally abused from infancy to young adulthood was profoundly insulting.
He was also deeply homophobic. Repeatedly he ended sessions by telling me how glad he was that I wasn’t “misinterpreting the love” that comes through via the treatment. Doing so showed his discomfort, which also made me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious, afraid lest I do something to make him feel like I was coming onto him (when that is something I’d never have done in any circumstances.)
However, my sexuality does not mean that I’m incapable of reading situations and respecting personal and professional boundaries; his homophobia, however, did, and that is a huge problem. Meanwhile, there was no actual love coming through in the treatment; what I ultimately received was his anger, his judgment, his toxic spiritual condescension.
For survivors, allowing someone into our space is a precious privilege, and someone (especially who we are paying!) abusing that is a serious violation. I see now that long-term or intensive body work isn’t really right for me at all, let alone with someone who didn’t have my interests at heart. During the time of our treatments I was in a long-term emotionally abusive relationship where my boundaries were also not respected, so I wasn’t in a position to recognize these red flags. But I do now.
Let me make something clear; there is no such thing as ‘exaggerating,’ the boundaries we choose to set with our bodies are perfectly right and good. The people minimizing me were sick, toxic, dysfunctional, or psychopathic. At the time, they were all I knew. But today I don’t know them anymore. And by that I mean I can’t take them or anything they’ve said to me seriously.