Andrea Dickerson receives acupuncture at the Washington DC VA Medical Center.

'I didn't want to live like that anymore'

Andrea Dickerson, a Marine veteran and assistant editor for The American Legion's Media & Communications Division, shares a personal experience of receiving acupuncture at her local VA to help with injuries she received during her time in the military.

As I limped through the doors of the Washington DC VA Medical Center, I carried along the same restless feelings of nervousness and anxiety I normally experience on a day-to-day basis.

While I approached the security guard at the front desk, I fumbled for my veteran ID card in my wallet. All I could hear was the sound of my heart beating as I stood in line waiting to proceed. I was so wrapped up in the moment that I barely felt the strain on my back, knees and feet that constantly ache.

I inched closer and closer until the guard waved me through. I could hear people behind me having a conversation about how old I might be and why I am here.

My face suddenly felt hot and my hands began to shake. I was seething. All I could think about was what got me to this point – my service in the Marines. Until that moment, it never really dawned on me that most of the women in the building – veteran or not – work there. Regardless, I was on a mission.

As I piled on a packed elevator, I ran my eyes across the embroidered patches and hats the other vets on the elevator were proudly wearing. The elevator slowly ascended and my stomach tightened as if it were being tied in a knot. To take my mind off things I wondered what type of treatment the other veterans were seeking, and I thought to myself, 'Have they been through the things I’m going through?'

Then I heard the elevator ding. Finally, I made it to the right floor. I wandered back and forth through the long white hallways until I found the Integrated Health and Wellness Program. I checked in and waited in a nearby waiting room for the practitioner to come get me.

I tried to watch TV as I could feel stares from the people surrounding me who all appeared to be much older than me. For the first time after turning 30, I actually felt young again, even though I don’t look a day over 18.

I heard a soft voice call my name. She greeted me with a smile and hug and walked me back to her office. I took a seat in a chair facing her and we talked like old friends. I detailed all the aches and pains that were troubling me as the practitioner gazed at me attentively.

My nervousness began to fade slightly as I took off my shoes. I got up and comfortably positioned myself on the table adjacent to us. I closed my eyes as warm bean bags rested on each side of my back. Rolling up my pant legs, the acupuncturist placed her hand on my knee as she decided the points where she wanted to place needles.

I felt a hand slip into mine, and another hand on my wrist checking my pulse. My heart was beating right out of my chest. I didn’t even want to breathe. As I felt a temporary paralysis come over me, I began to feel a great deal of anxiety. I suddenly thought about all the work I had back on my desk waiting for me.

Was I selfish for being there? There were so many other things I could have been doing. I could have just taken some pills for my anxiety and pain. I probably could have continued to suffer through the side effects.

I didn’t want to live like that anymore. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I couldn’t live without my prescriptions. I often found myself saying I’ll be ok if I can just take my meds.

I felt a slight pinch and the practitioner asked me if I was ready. 'No,' I said to myself. Is it too late to change my mind? Although I was hesitant, I nodded up and down.

She quickly inserted the needle in my foot, and I jumped a little. I could feel the needle as it entered my flesh. Calm down, I told myself. It’s not that bad. It won’t be as painful if you just relax.

So I opened my eyes and looked straight up at the ceiling as the natural light from the open window behind me illuminated the room.

I felt another pinch, and I nodded again. I didn’t feel the needle this time. But I did feel something. As I began to relax more and more, I felt a euphoric sensation come over me. Although the fluorescent lights in the room were off, the light in the room seemed bright.

Suddenly without warning, I did something I had not done in a while. I smiled. I felt it creeping out of me like a guilty pleasure I wanted to indulge in. As overpowering as the moment was, I committed myself right then and there to giving the acupuncture a chance. I shifted my attention back to the session.

Several pinches and nods later, my knees and feet were surrounded by needles. I felt like I was floating on air. Working her way up to my face, the practitioner let me know she would try a few points on my face and ears.

I obviously had no clue what I signed up for. I’m not even a fan of needles! I thought I was just participating in a very low-key study. I don’t know where I thought I was going to get stuck, but I was not expecting to get my face poked and prodded.

I took a deep breath and let her continue. But I was really ready to go. I think the acupuncturist could sense that I was getting tense. She asked if she could place her hand under my back.

Awkward, I thought to myself. But I obliged. To my surprise, it wasn’t that bad. I clearly needed to loosen up.

I got my pulse checked again, and I felt the needles being withdrawn from my body.

After the practitioner helped me sit up, I realized that I felt great. I was on a natural high. I’m glad I went through with the treatment. Although the effects aren’t long-lasting, I would actually prefer acupuncture over pills any day – and that is something I never thought I would be able to say.

My only hope is that the VA makes their alternative treatment options available to more veterans. I hope that people will take a chance on this and try it out.

It pains me to go to different events on Capitol Hill and meet families of my fallen brothers and sisters in arms who felt like their only option to battle their pain and opioid addictions was to take their own life.

It is up to us and my generation – the post 9/11 era vets – to carry the torch and continue to demand more options and better treatment.