Acupuncture is the perfect way to start the day. Just as in my work life, I believe that words and numbers holistically capture certain phenomena, I also believe in the whole yin-yang concept more generally—that Eastern and Western medicines can be combined to soothe the mind and the body. For me, physical and mental states are intimately intertwined, and while acupuncture impacts organic functioning, it is also incredibly relaxing and energizing—kind of like motionless yoga. So these days, as I suffer from fairly intense pregnancy-related nausea (not just morning sickness, but all-day sickness), acupuncture is one of the few remedies that enables me to get out of bed and carry on throughout the day. And today is another busy day, this time in the office.
It was probably graduate school that made me more open to the powers of other healing systems. Some of medical anthropology’s foundational work comes from in-depth studies of so-called traditional medicines, like Ayurvedic (Indian) and Chinese. Rather than looking at the efficacy of a particular medicine or procedure, these studies look at the body’s healing system in a symbolic way and extrapolate from that as a means of understanding the larger culture. Traditional medicine (of which acupuncture is one modality) is premised on the mind-body continuum that always made a lot of intuitive sense to me. And it is incredibly effective for dealing with many chronic conditions including gastro-intestinal issues, allergies, muscle-skeletal aches and pains, and headaches. It has even been used to help people detox from drug addiction.
In graduate school, I studied Western biomedicine and examined what the Western medical system tells us about Western culture. But all that feels like a long time ago. And although I am often nostalgic for my graduate-school days in the truly spectacular city of Montreal (despite the long dark winters), in reality it is much more fun not being part of the feudal system of a university. Leading interesting projects is ultimately much more energizing. It’s also fun to chitchat with my colleagues/friends about clothes, food, and whether or not Bruce Springsteen is cheesy. So, despite my nausea, and even though I was out late last night with my margarita slugging friends (seltzer for me), I am happy to be at work, thinking about smoking.
In NYC these days smoking is a very charged issue. Last spring, a city ordinance was passed that made smoking illegal in most bars and restaurants. As a nonsmoker, I love it. I love not having to wash my hair or dry-clean my clothes immediately after spending an evening at a bar. I also like not having to breathe other people’s smoke. At the same time, I have come to understand why a number of people are upset about the smoking ban and how extremely difficult it is for some chronic smokers to quit smoking.
I learned a great deal about smoking through my ongoing work on a smoking-cessation initiative. Because of the serious health issues smoking can cause, DOHMH is very committed to providing incentive and assistance to NYC residents as they attempt to quit smoking. The data show that most smokers have tried to quit at least once. The in-depth phone calls that I have had with a wide range of New Yorkers who have requested help kicking the habit—over 34,000 responded to an initiative that offered free nicotine replacement therapy—made it clear to me that addiction to cigarettes is both physical and mental (again, the mind and body collaboration).
Some smokers feel like they must smoke when they are stressed out; some use smoking breaks as a time to get away from daily responsibilities and carve out alone time. Others light up because a family member or partner does and it is part of the fabric of their interactions. Still others feel smoking makes it easier to meet people in social situations. And then there are those who literally cannot imagine life without cigarettes.
And yet everyone I spoke to wants desperately to quit for as many reasons as there are reasons to smoke. Today, I’m working on a project that will ultimately help to clarify the range of barriers and motivators to quitting. This mainly entails looking through the transcripts of my phone calls with smokers. What’s clear is that quitting is challenging because it’s so emotionally charged. Besides the physical aspect of craving a smoke, many people have mentioned that having a partner who smokes makes it difficult for them to quit. Several people have mentioned that not being able to smoke in bars has helped them in their quitting process, and parents who smoke cite concern for their children’s health as the single biggest incentive to quitting. As we learn about further barriers and motivators, this information will be used to develop interventions—such as providing free patches, or connecting people with quitting-support services—to assist in the quitting process. (Acupuncture is also used to help people quit smoking, so personally I also promote that tactic.)