Pins and Needles

Acupuncture, a healing practice as old as the (Chinese) hills.

Kimberly Dowling administers a needle during an acupuncture session. — Photo by Michael Cummo

“Ouch!” could be the first word that springs to mind for anyone who’s never reclined with a set of acupuncturists’ needles bristling from his or her body. It only takes the first insertion of the tiny needle to realize the process is almost undetectable; this is no penicillin shot.

“It’s a Taoist system of medicine that’s thousands of years old,” explains 33-year-old practitioner Kimberly Dowling.

In a space she shares with Fly Yoga in Vineyard Haven, Ms. Dowling runs a clinic based on a new model called Community Acupuncture. This consists of two or three or more patients at a time receiving treatment in a circle of lightweight lounge chairs. Appointments are staggered so that Ms. Dowling may perform intake at a reception desk before leading the patient to a reclining chair for the procedure.

A tape loop of serene music plays softly. Ms. Dowling describes the group layout as a cost-cutting measure: The traditional acupuncturist receives the patient in a private room, inserts the needles, and charges fees unaffordable to many working men and women. Shared space allows the practitioner to interact with more people, with a lower overhead. Ms. Dowling charges on a sliding scale of $30 to $55 per treatment.

Recently, I showed up to write about the practice Ms. Dowling opened last November, and she had kindly offered to demonstrate firsthand what she does. That meant, of course, that I needed to present a health issue. Hmmm. At 67 years of age, I’m reasonably OK. This is reckoned by my empty medicine chest. I recall how my grandparents and, later in life, parents, always turned up for a visit with an arsenal of medications — for heart, cholesterol, that twinge in the shoulder, Monday morning’s migraine, and on and on: More bottles than a kitchen counter could hold.

I owe my own relatively good health to — please don’t hate me! — a vegetarian diet with no dairy whatsoever, aside from the occasional “treat” of goat cheese. On the downside, I’m no Amazon warrior. Even though I walk my dog quite a bit, and try to cycle here and there, my energy runs the gamut from lethargic to half-dead.

I’ve been used to it from a young age. The help I sought from Ms. Dowling — if at all possible, knowing that people seek acupuncture for “important” problems such as back pain — was for my tendency toward depression. Could she treat it? Of course! she replied. Was she often asked to deal with this? Yes. Definitely: Depression and anxiety, which usually run together.

It was all wrapped up, she explained, in qi, channels of the body, balance of the body’s heat and water, and the condition of the internal organs. Kimberly — tall, thin, pretty, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, with penetrating blue eyes — asked key questions about every aspect of my health, even about the condition of my hair. “It’s ugly,” I said, and she laughed. “I meant does it fall out, or has it thinned?”

At one point I had to show her my tongue. This felt awkward, but I knew that the tongue — the color, the texture — is a strong indicator of health, or lack of, in Oriental medicine. She also felt my pulse on both wrists in three places, checking for 28 qualities of yin and yang; testing to determine if these elements were strong, weak, empty; it’s a whole microsystem.

On the depression front, I mentioned this was another springtime when I felt less than boompsie-daisy. Kimberly asked pointedly, “Did something happen to you in the spring, maybe a long time ago?” What an apt question. I’d give it some thought.

In the peaceful room Snatam Kaur sang an old Irish blessing, “May the long-time sun shine upon you / All love surround you / And the pure light within you / Guide your way on …” Two other ladies lay supine with tiny needles protruding from mostly feet, wrists, perhaps one in an ear, another above or below a knee.

The acupuncturist tipped my chair back. She swiped various parts of my body with tingly alcohol wipes, then plinked needles into the above-mentioned points, as well as one at the top of my crown. “Yes, let’s zap that brain!” I said.

As I lay drowsy, the other two women left at different intervals, replaced by another pair spaced about 10 minutes apart, each receiving her intake at the desk and application of needles on the chair. When after about 40 minutes the acupuncturist removed my needles, I asked whether one might feel an immediate effect — perhaps even a miraculous, Lourdes-style healing?

She explained that sometimes the pain was worse before it got better. I took this to mean emotional as well as physical pain, and later in the afternoon I suddenly recalled where that bit of springtime unpleasantness might have come from:

I had a happy childhood culminating in a year in Europe: Nothing fancy — my family of five toodled around in a little German Borgward, and we ended up in an American school in Rome. Again, nothing fancy, but we learned a pinch of Italian, a dollop of Latin, and in the seventh grade we read every last chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, one a week so it wasn’t too grueling; in fact, it was magic. The whole year was magic.

And then we plummeted from the sublime to the toxically ridiculous, returning to the public school system in the San Fernando Valley.

I had no idea what junior high culture expected of me. A gang of greaser girls threatened to beat me up every day for a month. The “sosh” girls snickered at me in the girls-room mirror, and basically I felt as if I were fighting for my life until I learned to buy a trainer bra, a tube of lipstick — the color was beige that year — pantyhose and, oh dear! I never really cracked the code.

Post-acupuncture last week, I slipped into despair, which I took to mean the process was working. This was catharsis of the grand old Dr. Sigmund variety. Kimberly Dowling had led me to a realization that had eluded a number of shrinks over the years, and the slim needles had perhaps unblocked pathways to the psyche: Once upon a time, the spring had meant the end of a golden age in my young life.

I booked myself into coming weekly sessions: We’ll see how it goes. In fact, at the time of this writing, some four days later, a kind of state of grace has taken hold. Of course, these lovely moods can’t last … or can they?

In the meantime, the brilliant young healer is open for business. You can learn more at, and you can email her at, or call at 774-521-7552.

She also treats back pain.

How acupuncturist Kimberly Dowling, M.A.O.M., Dipl. O.M., Lic. Ac., got her groove

“I’ve always had a passion for the homeopathic arts, but when I met acupuncturist Helen Neumann [Vineyard Complementary Medicine in West Tisbury], I found myself asking a thousand questions. I knew on the spot I was destined to do that myself one day.”

Ms. Dowling is dyed-in-the-Vineyard-wool: She was born here, her father Douglas a civil engineer, her mother Jeanne a nurse at the Tisbury School, which young Kimberly herself attended. She graduated from MVRHS, then went on to Purdue University in Indiana — her dad’s alma mater. She majored in psychology with an emphasis on language acquisition, which she put to use when she spent her junior year in Florence, immersed in the Studio Art Centers International. She fell in love with a young Italian man, and lived with him in Prato, a small city north of Florence where few people spoke English, forcing her into an accelerated language acquisition of her own.

But to adapt an old saying: Life is what happens when you’re falling in and out of love. Ms. Dowling returned to the States and, more specifically, the Vineyard, had a daughter, Adelaide, now 8 years old, and found the art of acupuncture calling to her.

“It normally takes 36 months to complete the training,” she says. “I took a full four years at the New School of Acupuncture in Newton, traveling back and forth. In the first year, Adelaide was with me, then she stayed with my sister Jeanne and with my mom. I placed myself on a dual-track study of both the Chinese and Japanese methods.” (Short answer to the distinction: The Japanese use smaller, thinner needles, with shallower insertions.)

“They’re both effective,” she maintains. Ever passionate about her key interests, she traveled to Japan a year ago to study with Japanese masters.

Ms. Dowling also deals in Chinese herbs, ordering them up from her Boston school dispensary. “Chinese herbs are complicated, but very powerful when used knowledgeably.”

When it’s suggested to her that she appears to be a medical intuitive, Ms. Dowling nods thoughtfully. “Even as a child I often blurted out insights. This guides me more and more in my practice.” After a long pause, she says, “I always somehow knew I was a healer.”

Every Wednesday from 4-6, Ms. Dowling treats war vets suffering from PTSD. She does this at the American Legion across from the Tisbury School. This involves a simple needle for the ear and, as with her community practice, it’s done in a group.