The Weirdest Soup I Ever Made: A White Girl Tries Traditional Chinese Medicine

Since the tender age of 9 I have been cursed with bad skin. Zits, pimples, cystic acne, rosacea, whatever you want to call it, I’ve got pizza-face and have been struggling with it for years.

I have seen all the western style doctors and tried countless remedies from creams & gels, antibiotics, hormones from The Pill, dairy elimination diets all the way up to the Big Daddy of acne: Accutane.

All with no luck. It seems like no lifestyle change or pharmaceutical I use can help me with my skin. I’ve tried the natural, gentle route and the harsh, warfare route with minimal results. I started looking for other ways that I could help my skin. I feel like it’s a symptom of something wrong inside me, so using creams never made sense to me. No surprise that they didn’t work. Your skin is the biggest organ in your body and can tell you lots of things because it is an exit point for things like toxins, sweat, etc.

I’ve been going to a local acupuncture clinic here lately. In part to support a local small business owner, but also to see what it’s all about and try to do something good for myself. They have a Chinese herbalist there now. I had been thinking of trying TCM for a while but didn’t know where to start. This seemed like a good enough place, since I trusted the operator of the clinic.

I had my first appointment last week and it was a surreal experience for me. I’m fairly comfortable in doctor’s offices and medical settings. My mom is a nurse and I’ve always been interested in this kind of stuff. But this was different. Oh, so very different.

I really felt out of my element here, more than I have felt in a very long time. I had to fill out a form with any complaints I had. It was the beginning of the odyssey into a world unknown.

Entering the Twilight Zone

It was all just so foreign. The English was broken and incorrect and hard to understand. Do I have Hot Flesh (as in warm skin) or do I have Hot Flashes? Are either important? How do I know if my tongue is too purple? How do I know if my poop smells right or if my menstrual blood is the right colour? Is this what Chinese people just know about themselves when they see their doctors, the way I know about my B12 deficiency or if I have high blood pressure?

Do you go to the doctor if your poop is too soft and your breath is smelly? I have no idea!

So this really threw me off, I didn’t even know how to fill in the form correctly. The doctor was trying valiantly to help me understand but language was definitely a barrier.

We were crammed into a tiny little closet space filled with mysterious boxes, and a hand-knit bag taking up much of the floorspace. It was overflowing with bagged herbs the doctor had just acquired. The room wasn’t intimidating, but the whole experience for me was just very foreign, from the set-up, the boxes, and the herbal smell in the tiny space. I really felt transported to a different place.

The doctor began asking me questions about… you guessed it! My poop, my period, my exercise and eating habits and more. Our conversation was a bit stilted as I struggled to understand exactly what she was asking, and to provide her the correct answer. After a while I started to wonder what the hell I was doing there.

She was nice, but very straightforward pointing out several times that I am overweight. Duh. I tried to explain to her that I have tried everything, including surgery to lose the weight. Finally she got the point when I told her all the women in my family were fat too; she chalked it up to genetics. It’s so interesting to see what is of value in different medical systems. After that she didn’t harp on me anymore and we were able to move on.

The Diagnosis

So apparently there is a bunch of stuff wrong with me, but she’s going to try and fix me from within. She says my symptoms of bad skin, depression, low energy and excess heat are caused by some toxins within my body. I like the philosophy of treating & fixing the issue directly rather than just the symptoms as is so often done in western medicine.

I don’t know what this will be like; basically cleaning out my innards so that they can rebuild themselves correctly. But it feels kind of right (haha ask me how I feel about this statement in a month!). I sincerely believe that my skin issues are not caused by something in my skin, I think they come from somewhere deeper. I hope this doctor can help me out.

I don’t claim to understand half of this, and I probably interpreted what she said incorrectly, but this is what I learned:

  • My liver needs some help
  • I am full of “damp heat” which is very toxic
  • My kidneys need help/ to be de-toxed
  • She’s very concerned that I don’t get a period because I am on Alesse. Personally I don’t have an issue with this but it really meant something to the doctor that I wasn’t bleeding every month
  • Most of my issues are intertwined and have to do with toxins in my body and my hormones being unbalanced

She seemed very confident that she could help me though. I’m not sure how long this will take, I either didn’t understand what she told me or she didn’t tell me at all. Now for the fun part:

Oh my god, the herbs


I am daunted greatly by the 2 full shopping bags of herbs the doctor is filling for me. She’s just going through her mystery boxes and drawers in the little room and tossing little packages and large packages of herbs and barks onto the little table.

Nothing is labelled, only a few are weighed. I assume most of this is pre-packed since she seems to know what she is doing. She proudly tells me she worked for 40 years in a Chinese hospital doing this. Also that the medicine is going to taste awful. I am becoming increasingly stunned by the volume of herbs she is giving me.

This is where my own ignorance comes into play. I am so stunned because for some reason I thought this would be like in the movies where the gnarled old Chinese man at the shop gives you some bags of tea to use. I didn’t know I’d be taking a whole forest home with me! I don’t even know what these things are and the doctor can’t tell me their English names, either.

Talk about a leap of faith.

This treasure trove of magical flora (hopefully no fauna? Please let there be no fauna…) is 3 grocery bags full now and is only 1 month’s worth of stuff. With her consult it comes to $150. Evidently this is a good price as just a consult with a naturopath is upwards of $125.

I walk out of the office stunned, a little scared and totally overwhelmed. I have trouble fitting all of it into my scooter. I can’t even think of cooking them that day, a process which takes around 5 hours according to the doc. I’ve never had to prepare my own medicine before and I’m a little nervous.

While I trust this woman and her techniques, the differences are just so great from what I am accustomed to that I am having trouble processing everything. Here I am, thinking that I am a worldly person and open to new things… I’m a bit shocked at my own reaction to this. I can only hope that this becomes less foreign and strange to me as I go along.

I also hope this works.

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