listen to your body. [an interview with nan arita schwarz]

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On corporate ladder-climbing, a car wreck that nearly killed her, a late-30s decision to completely abandon course, and go to med school for acupuncture. 

Look, it’s one thing when you’re stretched over her sleek table, likely shirtless, waiting for her to stab you with one thousand, sanitary needles. She’ll tell you to breathe, tell you to relax, you’ll stare at the ceiling, stifle back some gentle sobs. Sometimes you’ll swear furiously. Other afternoons, you’ll just giggle like some weirdo tween finally gracing puberty. A personal go-to concerning the reactionary ‘what are you doing to me?’ spectrum is the yelp-whimper. But regardless, she’ll ignore you and stab on. She’s that good.

Maybe it’s once the needles are placed, and she hits the heat lamps alongside the lights, and you’re left there alone, to twitch and breathe, tune in or zone out, that shit starts to get real. Or, maybe its once you’re completely high on whatever it is that just happened to you, and you’re walking home and it’s kinda raining but you kinda don’t even care, because that thing that once hurt now doesn’t, or that part that once was stiff now isn’t, or that stressor that you were once loosing sleep over is now so small, so far away, that you actually can’t even recall it.

It’s better than drugs. Also, she’s that good.

But this time we don’t meet in her office. There’s no table, other than the one propping our coffees within reach. I actually manage to remain fully clothed the entire chat. Best yet, the sharpest thing around (besides her wit) is my sugar spoon. I’m talking to Nan Arita Schwarz. The brutally honest, bullshit-free, no-ifs-ands-or-butts-about-it acupuncturist and Chinese medicine doctor whose been strategically straightening up my hot-mess of a body for sometime now.

While our first appointment together centered around some structural quirks, likely residual from a prior year’s massive bike wreck, her Chi-seeking, needle-wielding ways quickly cut to issues other than ‘hey so like um, my shoulder hurts.’ Her tough-love tactics are 100% matched, if not wholly overridden by a backlog of medical (Chinese and western) brilliance. Point blank: she’s badass.

So. We’ve got our soy lattes, and we’re comfortably seated. We’re even wearing matching H&M jeans and leather jackets. Goddamnit we’re adorable. I hit the tape recorder, give her the brief ‘You seem pretty fucking fascinating, what’s the deal with that?’ prompt, and sit back as she confidently takes it from there.

“I am not a magician,” she begins. “And I am not a fucking babysitter! I’m not here to watch you every day of your life. So when people come to me who are sick, or who keep making themselves sick, there are two choices: 1) We do maintenance. We tweak things when you come in feeling shitty, so you can go back out there and change nothing and get sick again, or 2) You do your part. You do the work, as the fucking adult that you are. Make some decisions to change your life, so you get a place of feeling better.”

To critical readers, sure, she can look down from her doctoral tower of wisdom and shower us lowly ones with the advice that no one wants to take. What doctor wouldn’t encourage tuning inward? Listening to your body? Questioning lifestyle as much as symptoms? Easy for her to say, she got degrees in all things health.

But Nan sure as shit didn’t start up there. While the medical field always held a certain appeal, she essentially adopted every other career, and explored every other creative endeavor, before slowly cycling back to it in her mid-thirties. Perhaps more importantly, she had to survive a severe car-wreck, and basically get as sick as the patients she now treats, to climb back—into her body, and into her life—with a bit of perspective.

One could say, she has in fact, tasted her own medicine.

“I feel like in a lot of ways, me ending up where I am is a little bit like an evolutionary circle. I got here in a roundabout way, but I had always kind of intended to be here,” Nan explains. “My mother told me that when I was five, I marched up to her and announced, “I know three things! I’m never going to get married. I don’t ever want children. And I’m going to be a doctor.”

Equal parts surprised and amused, Nan’s mother responded with “That’s okay. You don’t ever have to get married or have kids.” When she prompted with the follow-up “Are you sure you want to be a doctor?” Nan didn’t skip a beat. “Yep.” Nan continues, “I think a lot of it had to do with my kindergarten teacher, who I loved. She died of a brain aneurism, and that hit me really hard. I cried for days, I was so sad she had to die that way. I remember asking a family friend, who was a doctor, what an aneurism was, and he was like ‘Well, a little blood vessel bursts in your brain,’ and I just couldn’t get that picture out of my head.” She smiles, “So I was like, ‘I wanna be a doctor!’

While her parents never shed any insight on their actions at the time, they began slowly, and subtly preparing Nan for such a future. “My parents were academics, both professors at Luther College,” she elaborates. “They would take me in for these cognitive tests, which, at the time I assumed all kids did.”

What they weren’t telling Nan, was that she was qualifying and scoring at a high enough level to begin pre-med studies in high school. “They were really interesting that way,” she adds, “They just wanted to see, and if I wanted to do it, they would let me do it. But they never pushed. And, I think the only reason they knew that was an option in the first place was because they were college professors.”

Nan started high school, with a syllabus stocked with impressive pre-med courses. However, after scouring an internship at a nearby hospital, she began to change her mind. “Medicine didn’t turn me off per say, but the medical profession was awful,” she explains. “Hospitals were awful. I have a really sensitive nose, really sensitive ears—even sensitive eyes. Hospitals, with their fluorescent lighting and horrible smells, they just weren’t the right place for me. Add to that,” Nan continues, “Everyone just seemed so unhappy. Nurses, doctors, patients, everyone was miserable.”

Add to the shitty real-word flow of hospitals, a totally fucking disgusting lab experience, and yeah—her doctor disinterest makes sense. “I was in lab, and we were dissecting cats,” Nan begins, “and I don’t know, maybe my cat was like, improperly preserved I think? Like, maybe it was sticking out of the formaldehyde…but I cut into it, and it was just this gastric bomb of poison. I immediately projectile vomited everywhere, and was like ‘Nope. Fuck this. I’m out.’”

After axing surgical doctor off of her potential “To Be” list, Nan tripped into a camera, and realized photography was a much more creative calling. “I wound up going to University of Iowa on a photography scholarship,” she explains. “I did a double BFA in photography, and design. But you know, the whole time I was doing this, I was taking all my other classes, like chemistry, biology, and psychology. I remember my dad always being really interested in how I was scoring in those classes, to which I would say ‘Dad. I’m not going into medicine.’”

Alongside all of this, Nan excelled at music. “I had been a classical musician for most of my life.” To the sarcastic roll of my eyes, she laughs stating, “Hey, when you’re in Iowa, there’s not a lot to do. So, you just end up doing a lot of things yourself.” She continues, “I played violin, and I was an opera singer.” Once, while bedridden in her dorm, a pal swung by with a mixed tape of his songwriting skills. “He was like ‘C’mon! Join our band!’ And I was like ‘I’m a classical musician, I don’t do bands.’ So when I was sick, he came by and was like ‘Look, you might as well listen to this. You have nothing else to do.’” She laughs, “So I did. And really, he was such a great songwriter, that I decided to try it.”

Nan continues, “For years I had always wanted to write my own music. I think I just thought I needed certain comprehensive skills to do so. But then, I just realized ‘oh right. To write music you just have to start doing it.’” She shrugs, “So I started playing in bands, and it was so much better, that I dropped out of opera workshop and orchestra.” Like sterile hospitals and their asshole attendees, the world of classical music had little draw to Nan as well. “I had always enjoyed playing,” she explains, “but in college, the competition really ups, and people get really shitty. They’re just awful to each other! They were the most horrible people I had ever met in my life. It just wasn’t a world I wanted to get into.”

“But in rock music? People are supportive of each other. Everyone is creative and collaborative, and helping each other get shows. It’s a totally supportive environment.” While first Nan would write songs on violin, then translate them for her guitarist, eventually she opted to just master the guitar as well. It was while juggling her studies, her photography, and ample concerts, that her apartment was robbed, and her super pricy camera equipment was ripped off.

“This was back in my early twenties,” Nan shrugs. “I didn’t have renter’s insurance or anything like that. They just wiped me out. Around that time I was looking to move, so I just decided to follow some old bandmates up to Seattle, and to switch from photography to design.”

From here, the part-creative, part-corporate ladder climbing began. She explains, “I worked as a designer, moved into more creative design, headed up a design department, and you know, eventually was getting into more marketing and branding work.”

Nan was counting c-notes, toasting over her sexy 401k, and—while surrounding stress levels were mounting—carrying on with her own ballar self.

Then she got T-boned.

“A car ran a yield sign. Smashed into me. Shattered my pelvis. Shattered my femur. A lot of shit. All on my left side.” Nan explains, “I was hospitalized for weeks, had to get multiple surgeries. I’m now full of metal. But,” she continues, “It was a really fascinating time. Prior to this I had been training a lot in martial arts. My body was really strong. And, you know, to go from having this really strong, really able body, to just…being broken. I mean, I couldn’t bear my own weight. I couldn’t walk. I was basically immobile for about a month.”

She pauses. “It was an interesting time in my life. All I could do was lay there. Like, for ages. I couldn’t do anything. So, I did Qigong.”

I cock an eyebrow in confusion and she elaborates, “Qigong. It’s like an internal sort of energy cultivation. That you accomplish via slow movement. But it’s really about internal cultivation. It’s not quite meditation; it’s more about just sort of feeling how your breath moves through your entire body. And then, when you get a sense of what’s dead, or what’s blocked, you can use your breath to kind of get things moving again. Previous experience with martial arts was a big part of it, but Qigong was all I could do. It’s literally what kept me sane.” It was also during this recovery time, that Nan began seeing an acupuncturist, her first-ever exposure to such a practice.

Bones began to meld, surgery scars began to heal. Eventually, Nan moved from bedridden to crutches, immobile to back-at-the-cubicle. “At this point, I moved into full-on marketing and rebranding work for a smaller tech company. And, you know, I’m really good at hitting goals, and I had this whole team working for me. But, I was just drowning in stress. I was making a shit ton of money, for all of these investors back down in Texas, who I’d have to go schmooze with once or twice a month.” She pauses, “They weren’t bad guys, but you know, I was just like…’Okay. This is my life.’”

Nan started to get sick. Like, real sick. “You know,” she begins, “It’s interesting, because I think if I had entered into this job, and I hadn’t had my car accident beforehand—that severely weakened and compromised everything—things may have turned out differently. I don’t think I would have gotten sick, because I would have had more energy reserves previous to that. But, I was already running on devastatingly empty.”

Her body started wigging out, and for no apparent reason at that. She had three periods a month for two months straight. Her digestive system called it quits. She packed on 20 pounds out of nowhere. Her face broke out. She stopped sleeping. In short, the wheels started falling off. “I saw so many doctors. None of whom could figure anything out. I saw a naturopath, who just seemed to jack me up on this kitchen sink list of supplements—none of which helped.” It was only then Nan thought to return to the acupuncturist she credits with such a speedy post-crash recovery.

A smart, inevitably life-changing move on her part.

“As soon as I started seeing her, I started feeling better. Within two weeks my acne was gone, my energy was back. My acupuncturist told me ‘Well I think this and this and this are what’s going on,’ which, at the time I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but in a really intrinsic way I did. And you know, at one point she asked me ‘How much of this do you think your work plays a part in?’ and I said ‘You know what? A lot.’” Nan continues, “I had never had a problem with stress. In fact, usually I was really great with it. My thing has always been, I don’t mind stress if it’s got a positive return. But this path that I was on just didn’t have any positive return for me. And my acupuncturist looked at me and said ‘I think your body is probably telling you that.’”

Nan left that particular appointment with something to ponder.

“I had to think long and hard about whether I could even see myself doing this line of work for another 10 years. And no! I couldn’t!” she laughs. “I remember talking to someone and them being like ‘Wow, you realize you’ve achieved a lot of success. I mean, you’re the director of corporate marketing in a booming tech company, and you’re in your early thirties.’ And I was like, ‘You know what? It’s becoming really apparent to me that just because you’re good at something, does not mean you should do it.”

So she sat down and asked herself, ‘If I could do anything, what would I do?’

Nan states, “I just kept coming back to ‘I wish I had know about Chinese medicine when I was in college.’ I totally would have done that. It just clicked with me on every level. But I didn’t know of it then. When Nan finally mentioned it to her actual acupuncturist, she responded with ‘Well? Why don’t you go do it?’ Nan let the excuses pile up. “I’m in my mid-thirties! It’s too late to go back to medical school. I just can’t even imagine it. My brain isn’t as sharp anymore! The accident totally drained my short-term memory! How would I ever get through school?” She continues, “my acupuncturist just looked at me and was like ‘you know what, I think you’d find a way to do it. And, I think you’d actually be good at this. And I don’t say that to just anybody.’” Nan pauses.

“She said if you feel that strongly, you should do it.”

So she did. Within weeks, she had quit her job, and enrolled in premed classes. Luckily, Nan had crossed most of them off her list while an undergrad. But, she still tackled the ever-classics such as anatomy and physiology, organic chemistry, the works. After nabbing the required credits from both Seattle Central Community College and University of Washington, Nan applied at the Seattle School of Oriental Medicine. Incredibly tiny—with an annual acceptance rate of 14 students—and even more so incredibly prestigious, the school asked for an exceptional grade point average alongside several grueling interviews. Needless to say, Nan got in. A move she summarizes in eight words:

“It was the worst four years of my life.”

“It was hard,” Nan laughs. “Really hard. Like, of 14 students, three dropped out within months. There were points in that first year where I just thought to myself ‘oh my god, I’m never going to make it.’” She continues, “You know, you’re not only studying all these aspects of Chinese medicine, but at the same time, you have to study western medicine—because it’s the United States, and to get credentialed, you have to pass biomedical boards. So you’re studying everything from just internal medicine, to oncology, to gynecology, to mental illness. All from a western point of view—you have to know it all.”

Nan elaborates, “Chinese medicine isn’t separated that way. It all revolves around different systems, and that’s kind of the beauty of it. It doesn’t look at things like ‘this is this’ or ‘that is that.’ It’s all a manifestation of these channels, so in a lot of ways, Chinese medicine is much more malleable, much more logical. It’s easier to really track a pathological source, instead of say, just chasing around after symptoms. That’s kind of the limitation of western medicine.”

Despite the quite-foreign material, demanding study requirements, and all-consuming lifestyle that came along with classes (she tried to work at first, then quickly resided to living off of savings), Nan watched and worked alongside acupuncture experts. “You’d see these amazing doctors treat people,” she exclaims, “and they’d figure all this weird-ass, convoluted shit out. It was incredible.”

Sure, solid study habits and a perfect in-clinic attendance were helpful. But an additional, unseen skill usually worked to, as Nan put it, “Separate the good Chinese medical practitioners from the crappy ones.” She explains, “I think some people naturally latch on to that sense and that movement of what we call Chi. And I think, for me, I latched on even faster, since I had been studying martial arts for years, and I had to practice it so intensely after my accident.” Nan continues, “I don’t necessarily see Chi. I mean, you can see it in faces, and eyes. But for me, I feel it more. You learn to feel it as you’re running your hands over a body.”

“I remember everyone doing it with their right hands, and I didn’t feel anything. I was just like, ‘well okay, maybe I just don’t feel it.’ and then I used my left hand, and was like ‘ooohhhh I feel everything!’ One of my teachers came up to me and said ‘I feel it in my left hand too.’” Nan elaborates, “I realized—just with playing music my whole life—that I play strings with my left hand. I do everything with my left hand. It’s my really feeling, tactile hand.” She shrugs, “But yeah it was pretty fascinating.”

By the time Nan finished her fourth year, she finally felt like she had a grasp of things. Perhaps as further evidence to the solidness of her newly chosen path, as soon as she graduated, things just “fell into place.” Nan tackled her boards early. Even started her credentialing the day she graduated. Fundamentals in Chinese Medicine? Done and done. Chinese Herbal Medicine: NBD. Biomedical boards? Boom goes the dynamite. While doctors only had to pass their boards by a pathetic 30%, folks in Nan’s field of expertise were required to score at least 70% or higher. Two months after graduation—some four-and-a-half years of studying later—Nan opened her clinic. A top-floor, corner office within one of Capitol Hill’s elegant mansions. No commute necessary.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

She explains, “Probably six to eight patients followed me from my school clinic, who I had been treating for several years, so that was great.” Nan laughs, “I remember telling one of my teachers ‘It’s my first week and I only have five patients.’ And they were like ‘It’s your first week and you already have five patients? That’s amazing!’”

Even with such a successful start, Nan’s clinic only continued to grow. By her second month open, she had between 12 to 15 patients per week. Today, she’s comfortably hit her stride. “These days I see between 30 to 35 patients per week.” Nan explains. “At first I was like, holy shit, I’m really tired! Like, I’d see six patients a day and just be exhausted. But now I can see ten per day and I’m okay.”

She smiles, “And that’s why I need my weekends.”

“My whole philosophy,” Nan leans forward, “is hey. If you know how to take care of yourself, take care of yourself. But if you’re here, seeing me, it must be because you need help with it. So let me help you. And it’s kind of as simple as that. I’m not someone who’s going to be like ‘you need to be here.’ It’s more, ‘if you’re here, let me help you.’ And if I think I’m not helping you, I’ll tell you to go somewhere else.”

She continues, “the most important thing—and I find this for myself—is I think the source of your good health comes from how you live your day. And for me, it was really obvious that what I was doing, I mean not even just my job, but what I was doing throughout my day, wasn’t making me feel good, or happy or fulfilled. You know?” Nan pauses, “I wasn’t going to do well. And you know, I might have been able to do what I was doing for a lot longer if I hadn’t had my accident. But starting in my forties, I would have begun falling apart. It just happened sooner because of the car wreck.”

“And look, I’ve had to struggle with a lot of things because of the accident,” she adds, “there’s scar tissue and pain from surgical areas, there’s lots of metal in me, but in a general sense, what I do in my day is really fulfilling for me. So, I’m in pretty good health. Because what I do with my day is positive for me. So many people come see me and there’s no reason they’re as sick as they are, except that they’re inherently unhappy. And mental health has so much to do with physical health. If you do that? You know, you can do whatever the hell you want, within limitation, right?”

She smiles, “I always get these people like ‘wow I bet you live really healthy.’ And I’m like, ‘Look. I love coffee. I love cake. I love potato chips, and you should see me drink scotch.’ But, it’s well within reason. I’m not excessive about any of it.” Nan shrugs, “The trick to life is enjoy your life. Try not to be too excessive in anything that’s going to have negative results, and you’ll probably have a pretty happy life. But the key is live a happy life.”

“My grandfather smoked like a chimney until he was 60,” Nan continues. “He ate nothing but hamburgers and meatloaf. But he lived to be 97 years old. There’s no reason this guy should have lived to be 97 years old! Except that he had a happy life. He lived a great life. Or Leonard Cohen! I mean, Jesus Christ that guy beat the crap out of himself. So, I just kind of look at that.” She pauses, “but then I see people in their thirties and they’re already unhealthy, but they’re also stress cases, have massive anxiety, they over-think and worry about everything. And you know, yeah. The truth is, if they don’t get a grip on this, they’re probably going to have some serious health problems when they’re 45 or 50.”

Nan explains, “my life philosophy is to keep it simple. I realize everything isn’t black and white, and that sometimes it’s harder to keep things as simple as you’d like, but…I do think it’s pretty simple.” She leans forward, “this whole thing with romanticism, or your idealism of what ‘the perfect life’ should be…like ‘if I have this and this and this, I’ll be happy…’ this ‘oh if I get married my life will be perfect’ or ‘if I have kids I’ll feel fulfilled.’ But the only people who think that way are the people who have the luxury, the time, the money, the life that allows them to think that way.”

“So we live in this society where, here in America, people have that luxury to think about all these things! And then they make their life really complicated because they over-think all this shit,” Nan exclaims. “You go to countries with severe poverty or war or death, and they’re not worried about this shit. This shit that we stress out about and make ourselves sick over. Honestly,” she states, “I think a lot of our problems are caused by our own making. We make things more difficult than they need to be.”

“Some days I don’t want to be an acupuncturist or a Chinese medical doctor at all. I just want to be a professional bitch slapper, you know?” She bursts out laughing. “Smack someone upside the head and be like ‘get over yourself.’” She smiles, “but only some days.”

Nan continues, “Look, I’m adopted. My sister and I were adopted from Korea. So, I’ve always grown up with this really ingrained knowledge that my life would have been totally different if my parents hadn’t happened to walk into the orphanage the day I showed up.” She pauses. “That’s why I got adopted. Because I showed up that day. When they came in. They just picked me up. Because that’s what they were told. They were instructed to ‘take the baby that arrives the day you show up, because maybe they’re not already sick.’ So in so many ways, my life that I have now is total, 100% pure luck.”

“I wasn’t born into this life. I lucked out into this life.”

“So, I always kind of grew up knowing that. I remember I went to my dad once, probably around 12 years old, and was like ‘hey dad, what do you think my life would be like if I were still living in Korea?’ And, you know, my parents are very straightforward. My dad just looked at me and said ‘well? You likely would have already been a prostitute. I mean, you’re a girl, and you’re 12. But you know, you have really light skin for a Korean, and you have little features, so…you would have at least been a really high-end prostitute. But yeah, you would still would have been a prostitute.’ And that just took me aback. You know? Like, at age 12, you’re worried about what color socks you’re going to wear to school,” Nan exclaims. “I mean, it was probably a little harsh to hear at age 12, but it was also the truth. And, it really hit me, ‘I should really make the most of these opportunities.’”

Nan leans back. Crosses her legs. “So, it’s kind of frustrating for me when I see people who are just like ‘ohhhh I’m so worried about this and I’m so stressed about that!’ I just want to say, ‘you have so much opportunity, and you have no idea.’ But it’s because you have no idea. So, how can you say that to someone who has no idea, right? Sometimes I just want to throw people into these situations, so they know how good they have it.”

“I’ve always known how good I have it.” She smiles, “But, maybe I just look at things differently.”

(Got issues? Well duh. Go see Nan: http://nanarita.com/.)

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