A few years ago, I was in a writing group called Merry Muses with two close friends while we lived near the sea in Venice Beach. One night, alongside our bowls of fruit and chunks of dark chocolate that accompanied our reading materials, our hostess served a special “ladies tea” she had bought earlier that morning from an herbalist at a spa in Santa Monica. Reading through the list of ingredients on the tea was impressive—there were at least 15 items in the mix. The brew was a golden brown with caramel overtones and came wrapped in white linen paper smelling of cucumber essence. This was all fine and dandy but deep down inside I knew the herbalists of Santa Monica serving the new trend of herbal blends customized to each unique human were a watered down version of the truth.
The truth as I knew it was an older, spry man with a wizened face named William Woo Yiu Fai who sat at a small table in the bowels of Chinatown. His table was cluttered high with papers next to a wall lined with sticky notes. He sat there in the middle of Fuk Yin Tong Herbal Trading Centre day in and out, while his wife manned the store counter, giving his $15 consultations to anyone who walked in complaining of a certain ill. After spending two years battling severe ups and downs with my hormones surrounding my menstrual cycle and feeling weakened in the adrenals from a foodie’s roster of weekly cocktails and a strenuous hiking schedule, I finally ventured in to meet him.
I handed over my $15 bucks and told him my woes. I was tired. I was seeking energy. I was getting older and having my womanly chi suddenly alternate between rage and lethargy on a whim. I didn’t want a fancy woman to hand me a cotton robe and an Indian flute soundtrack and a bag of weak chamomile and exotic sounding mellow dried fruits. I wanted medicine and could he help me?
It took him ten minutes to look at my tongue, stare into my eyes, review my ears and sit silently listening to my pulse. He then told me that I shouldn’t eat the spicy Indian and Thai foods that I love because my nature is too hot. I should drink water at room temperature as to stop “shocking” my digestive system which is more like a tepid miso soup than a cold vichyssoise or a boiling stew. He said it was time to ask my medical insurance company for my first colonic because my tubes could use a flushing. He said the rest of me was healthy but 42 years of ingestion (and some of those years including cigarettes and other not so great ingredients) had taken its toll so I needed a reboot. He said my menstrual woes and random headaches were connected but he could push a reset button in me with a special tonic tea if I followed his instructions properly. While I sat in a dark back room with my feet in a bucket of water for a $10 ionic detox treatment that helped my body go back to a more alkaline state, William’s wife carefully measured and poured six $25 bags of herbs, roots, barks, dried mushrooms, powders and other ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for a 6-day regimen. The bags weighed five pounds each—no dainty envelopes here.
For the next 6 days I followed William’s instructions to pour an entire bag of ingredients into a 4 quart-dutch oven and cover the lot with water. I then boiled the pot followed by a low simmer for 1-2 hours as the liquid condensed into only one cup. I then drank the cup. An interesting phenomenon occurred. On the first day the brew was unbearable; it tasted and looked like bitter mud from an ancient forest. But as the days went by and my body started to assimilate the ingredients, the taste magically went away. By day six, I was drinking in slow measured sips rather than chaotic, gulping gags. I found that so interesting, that the fluid had entered my cells with its nourishment in such a way that my body now fully welcomed it.
In one week I felt brand new. My sluggishness was gone. My need for a 2 p.m. nap had dissipated and I was upping my daily yoga to an hour and a half without a problem. Of course I don’t have x-rays or a hefty insurance bill to showcase the changes that took place in my liver or kidneys but the way that I feel is assurance enough for me, even now two weeks later when the effects are still lasting and real. I even went through a menstrual cycle which was surprisingly mellow and didn’t deter me, as is usual, from walking miles up an overly steep hill.
When I was leaving the store that day with my bags of tea, I asked William when I should come back for a follow up appointment. He told me whenever I was feeling bad again. I was reminded that Chinese herbalists and practitioners of TCM pride themselves on not getting paid when a client is sick, but being paid to keep a client well. Following those instructions for wellness were now all on me.