Howard Jacobson: In the world of complementary medicine, trust an acupuncturist to get to the point

Funny how knowing what you are can make you feel better. A great weight had fallen from my shoulders
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The Independent Online

I'm with Prince Charles when it comes to complementary medicine. Whatever makes you better - nettles, needles, garlic, Ginko, crystals, crushed carnations, other men's remedies, other men's wives. If they work for you, take them.

In which spirit of open-mindedness I recently found myself in the consulting room, if that's the correct term, of an eminent Harley Street acupuncturist. Ostensibly he wasn't putting needles in me, he was putting them in my wife; but if man and wife are one flesh, then a needle in the one is a needle in the other. Didn't feel a thing, I have to say. But then you don't. No pain, just fatigue immediately after. Which is why I was there. If you are any kind of husband you don't allow a fatigued wife to go wandering around Harley Street on her own. You go along to show support and lend an arm. The only trouble was, since man and wife are one flesh, I began to feel fatigued too. And the working assumption regarding fatigue in our marriage is that when both of us are, I, as the man, must be more so. Heavier bones, deeper veins, greater surface for fatigue to lodge in, etc. So she ended up having to give me her arm to hold on to.

Before we left him, though, the acupuncturist eyed me in a way I found uncomfortable. Though I share Prince Charles's enthusiasm for unorthodoxy in medicine, I have had some unfortunate experiences with chiropractors and osteopaths, most of whom cannot see me without wanting to lay me on a bed, roll me on my side, put one hand under my lower vertebrae and the other on my clavicle, then snap me into their idea of the shape I should be. Apparently, to the trained (or do I mean the untrained) eye of unorthodoxy I am on a slant. Which goes to show how conventional even the most unconventional are when it comes to assessing and treating the human body. What's wrong with being on a slant? Why do osteopaths and chiropractors find it so hard to believe that people on a slant might like being on a slant? Anyway, the acupuncturist, I thought, was looking at me the same way.

You learn to straighten up and change the subject when people start inspecting you like that. "So does acupuncture work for depression?" I asked innocently.

He is, my wife's acupuncturist, as befits his profession, a deliberate and painstaking man. He regarded me, without speaking, for what seemed an age. "Only mild depression, and only for some people," he said at last. And then, "You are asking because you are depressed?"

"Only mildly," I laughed.

He arched an eyebrow at me. "What are you depressed about?"

Funny question. What is anybody depressed about? World poverty. Global warming. Iran. Getting old.

Out of those I chose getting old. "Getting old," I said.

He pulled that face which people older than you pull when you bring up age. That "I am older than you but I am not depressed" face. As though one person's absence of depression should settle the matter for someone else.

"My body's falling apart," I told him.

Big mistake. I could see him gauging my alignment. Any minute he'd notice I was on a slant and get his needles out. If anything can straighten a man I'm sure acupuncture can. And better that than an osteopath trained in Buchenwald using your spine like a Rubik's Cube. But have I not said, I like being on a slant.

"Which part of your body particularly?"

That was easy to answer. My eyes. Only the day before I'd been to the eye hospital to have them investigate a floater that had suddenly appeared at the periphery of my vision. A big black apostrophe with a long tail, like a one-legged spider. I'm punctilious about apostrophes so I wondered if the floater was punishment for pedantry, the way Macbeth's delusional dagger was punishment for villainous intent. It could, I suppose, have been worse. I hate "hopefully" and the phrase "in terms of". What if I'd been visited with those? A floater at my age, caused by a thickening of the vitreous humour - out vile jelly! - can stay with you for life. Imagine waking up to the word "hopefully" or the phrase "in terms of" inscribed on your right eyeball every morning until you die.

It occurred to me that acupuncture would probably be effective against floaters too, but the thought of having needles in my eyes, to whatever effect, decided me against mentioning them. "To be honest," I said, "when I say my body what I really mean is my mind. My mind's not right. No novelist's mind is right. It's an occupational hazard."

My wife was paying for an hour and we'd only used up 40 minutes, so bringing up the depressions incident to novel writing wasn't costing us. It wasn't the writing of novels that depressed me, I hastened to explain. Indeed I loved writing novels. What depressed me was finishing them. And as it happened, I had only recently finished. More than that, the novel I had only recently finished was about to come out. And having a novel coming out is second only, as a cause of depression, to not having a novel coming out.

Why? For the same reason that men are sad after love-making. Because you have given your all and there is now nothing left to look forward to. Because - again as after love-making - the praise you long for never quite materialises. Because the world does not stop on its axis. Because other people go on making love and writing novels, though you have set an example for both that should prevent anyone else from trying ever again. Because ...

I noticed he was shaking his head. "I don't think," he said, "that you are one of those people for whose depression acupuncture would do much good."

It is a shocking thing to be told you are beyond treatment. "Why not?" I asked, my voice trembling.

He put his fingers together and stared up at the ceiling, summoning every one of his 50 years of professional experience. "Because," he said, "because" - and now, for his final diagnosis he was looking deep into my eyes - "because I think you're just a depressed Jew."

Funny how knowing what you are can you make feel better. It was as though a great weight had all at once fallen from my shoulders. Let no one tell you complementary medicine doesn't work.

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