My Korean War With Piriformis Syndrome

Yes, it's yet another thing that is wrong with my ass

As I laid face down, pants down, on a table as two old Chinese ladies spanked my bare bottom and laughed, I started to grow concerned that alternative medicine had led me down the wrong path. I grew up with a mother who worked for many years as a homeopathic doctor. This meant that instead of Tums, we got Nux Vomica, and instead of DayQuil, we took heaping swigs of belladonna infused tinctures. So, it is no surprise that when I developed piriformis syndrome (when a muscle starts spasming in your butt cheek and puts pressure on your sciatic nerve) and was met with suggestions for $400 MRIs and painful steroid shots, I decided to seek out alternative ways to cure my condition.

It did not go well.

The Battle of the Deer Horn

The clinic was Edenic and modern. It looked like the type of sinister clinic from the future where you might pay to have your sadness removed. I was there with a woman I’d gone on two dates with, who’d learned about my hip problem and offered to chaperone me. Her name was Yuni. They gave her a clipboard with boxes to fill out. The receptionist kept glancing over at us as I stood and rubbed my butt in front of Yuni’s face to indicate where the pain was. She gave the clipboard back. We sat and surveyed the coffee table of reading material. There were a variety of books and a few standing signs with pictures of golden eggs on them.

“What are those?” I asked.

She squinted at the text below the picture of the golden eggs.

“It looks like medicine?”

“Egg medicine?”

“They aren’t eggs.”

“They look like eggs.”

“I think they are powder. You put it in a drink and … it helps with liver disease, stress, constipation, inflammation, anxiety, stress again, studying, low blood pressure — “

“Studying?”

“Studying, yes, and low blood pressure, weak joints, swollen joi — “

“This is not inspiring confidence.”

“It’s the medicine they make.”

“From freaking what?”

She looked back. “Deer horns.”

I stood and did an awkward jig to stop my hip from getting stiff. My trust was waning, but then I thought about my only other option of steroid injections. I crouched down.

“It’s not going to hurt, right?” I asked.

“They are baby needles. Little baby ones — you’ll be fine.”

I was nervous; I picked up a book from the table that was more of a handmade binder. It was all in Korean. “What does this say?” I asked Yuni.

“It says, ‘How to punish your kids.’”

“Oh god.”

“Let me see.”

I passed it over.

“Well, here, this type of kid. It says don’t hit them.”

“That’s good.”

She turned the page.

“This one too, it says don’t hit them.”

“Wait — are there kids in there that you’re supposed to hit?”

She flipped the page. “Oh, yes, it says to hit these ones.”

“What?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh…which ones are those?”

“It says they have bad tempers and make many mistakes.” She closed the binder gently. “It says you have to hit them early so they don’t become weak adults.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes, fuck,” Yuni agreed. We sat in silence while waiting for the doctor.

“Is this a Korean thing?” I asked.

“No,” she said, closing the book, “this is a these people thing.”

The doctor spoke no English and wore a pink mask. Yuni sat. I stood and rubbed my butt for him. He nodded appreciatively and told me to lay down on a bed against the wall. I did.

He took my pulse for three or four minutes while Yuni respectfully watched the leaves move on the tree outside the window. When he finished, I went and sat back beside Yuni. He spoke at length, holding up four fingers and pointing at them one by one.

“He says the doctors weren’t able to heal your pain because what is wrong is on the inside.”

“What’s on the inside?” I asked.

“Anger,” she said. “And you have low stamina.”

The doctor interjected something in Korean.

“And,” Yuni translated, “this has been going on for four months.”

“For four months I’ve been angry?”

“No, for four months you’ve had low stamina. You’ve always been angry.”

“Pride,” the doctor said, in English.

“Pride,” Yuni repeated. “He says you are very proud and someone hurt your pride.”

“Four months ago?”

“No — sometime in your life, your pride was hurt because you are very confident.”

“But with low stamina and anger issues?”

“Yes.”

This was the moment I realized that we were no longer on a date but had instead entered the story she will be telling the next guy she goes on a date with.

“Can he fix it?” I asked.

“He says you have to get acupuncture.”

“Yeah, that’s why — “

“For three months.”

“Three months!”

“At least. Every day.”

“Oh, come on.”

“But that will only cure thirty percent of it.”

“Thirty percent of my anger and stamina?”

“Yes, but if you take the medicine, too, you’ll be able to recover eighty percent.”

“So, I’ll only have twenty percent anger?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s nice.”

“Everybody needs a little anger to get by in the world,” she said.

I looked at the doctor. He might have been smiling under the mask, but his eyes were cold behind a pair of thick glasses. Bullshit, I thought.

“What’s the medicine?” I asked.

Yuni looked at the doctor, then back, and said, “Deer horn.”

I tried not to laugh, but failed. I’d come all this way thinking I was going to get acupuncture and then had someone trying to get me to scarf down some deer horn. No thank you.

“I’ll think about it. But what about today?”

Yuni said some more to the doctor and he responded.

She said, “Today you still should get acupuncture for your butt and you can decide later if you want to do something about your anger.”

“Right. Okay. Why not.”

I was taken into the other room where they performed acupuncture on me. And then, without warning, injected five syringes full of liquified deer horn into my hip.

The Battle of the Medusa Machine

There is a machine beside the bed that looks like a robot Medusa’s head. 

“What are you going to do with that?” I asked the nurse.

She smiled and said, “Oh, you will like it. People like that.”

The nurse pulled down my pants and began rubbing a freezing gel onto my right butt cheek. As she rubbed, she said, “You are too young to have problems with your hip.” I told her I know, but that I work a lot on my computer. 

She nodded and said, “It is bad, these days young people getting hip problems because of studying too much.” She wiped the freezing gel off of my butt, and I asked, “You’re not going to inject me with anything are you?”

“Oh, no, no injections here.”

Here was a strange version of a physical therapy clinic. I was in a large room segmented into little curtained off vibrating beds with heat pads on them.

“Oh good,” I told her. “The last place I went injected me with deer horn.”

I heard her pause as she wheeled a machine closer to the bed. “Deer horn?”

“Yeah, like for anger and stuff.”

“Do you have problems with anger?”

“No, no, never mind.”

She went back to wheeling the machine closer to the bed. I turned to look over my shoulder at it. There was just a blocky panel, and then, like loose spaghetti, the tubes spiraled out from it, each one ending in a sponge-filled plastic sucker. The nurse went about placing these suckers all over my butt and hip and then covered me in a light-yellow blanket. Then, she turned it on.

It was truly a wonderful sensation, a dozen isolated earthquakes vibrating and sucking at the muscles under my skin, for thirty minutes straight.

I went back again, and again. The nurse had two wisdom teeth pulled in the weeks that followed. Yet, still, my piriformis syndrome prevailed.

The Battle of the Essential Oils

My number one concern when looking for a massage parlor was to make sure I found one where they weren’t going to try and touch my penis. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Trust me, the last thing you want is to have to walk into a massage parlor and explain, “No penis, please! Just butt.” I asked my friends for recommendations and found a reputable place with real masseuses.

I Google-translated “piriformis syndrome” and even took some screenshots on Google images of the piriformis muscle. I slipped on my flip-flops, some gym shorts, and headed to the parlor.

When I got there, the old woman behind the counter was asleep. I stood in front of her and made all manner of uncomfortable noises before mumbling, “Excuse me?” She popped up and put her glasses on; I immediately shoved my phone in her face and said, “Piriformis syndrome.”

She took my phone, dipped her glasses further down her nose, and frowned. She looked back at me and waved over my body. I stepped back and pointed to my right butt cheek. She walked around the counter, came right up, and placed her fingers on my butt.

“Eh?” she asked, prodding around.

“Ehhh,” I said, trying to move my butt to where her fingers would hit the right spot.

She wasn’t having it; she grabbed my hand with her other and placed it on her hand that was still pressed to my butt. The universal sign of “show me where your butt pain is.”

So I did.

After a few seconds, she nodded, walked back behind the desk and pointed at a menu completely in Korean. I just nodded and handed over my card. She then led me to a room where there were t-shirts and shorts for me to put on.

I unclothed, reclothed, and walked back out to find the old woman standing next to an older man who said, “Phone?”

“What?” I asked.

The man turned to the old woman and she said something. So, he said, “Phone, picture.”

“Ah!”

I went back into the changing room and grabbed my phone. When I came back out, I saw that a new, middle-aged woman had joined them. I turned to the picture of the piriformis muscle highlighted in red.

The man took my phone and they all gathered around. Then I said, “Here, let me show you,” and I took my phone and flipped to the picture of the Korean translation. Again, they all looked and spoke and suddenly I realized they were all speaking Chinese.

All three of them then took out their phones and started trying to translate the Korean that I’d translated into Chinese to figure out what the hell was wrong with me.

At this point, a fourth had joined us, a younger masseuse who’d come in to wash his hands in the lobby sink. So he came and looked over the older man’s shoulder as they finally found the correct translation and started watching a YouTube video of a Chinese doctor performing a butt massage. They looked at the video, then at me, back and forth.

Then, when the video ended, they turned on me. The old woman grabbed me by the arm and turned me around, so my butt was facing the crowd. Then they started poking and talking as though my butt was some highly controversial piece of modern art. I’m not sure how many hands made their way around my butt — I lost count — but at some point, I started laughing and so they started laughing.

So there we were, in the lobby of this massage parlor, four old Chinese people laughing as they rubbed, poked, prodded, and discussed a white man’s ass. I didn’t see anyone enter during this weird culture clash, but if they had, I don’t blame them for not sticking around.

After this, I was led by the old woman and the middle-aged woman into a back room to a massage table. I laid face down as they stood on either side of the table and rolled down my pants to expose my naked butt cheeks. This is when, after six months of dealing with piriformis syndrome, with my bare bottom exposed to two old Chinese ladies, I started to uncontrollably giggle. And when someone giggles at an inappropriate time, someone might smack their arm and say “Oh, stop it.” But my arm wasn’t available, so the old Chinese lady, I assume as a knee-jerk reaction, slapped my ass, instead.

And then I really lost it, and so did they. As we were all laughing, not to be left out, the other woman slapped my other butt cheek.

My massage was delayed for several minutes as the three of us lost our collective shit.


I am still at war with my piriformis syndrome, but the tides have turned. I have allies; I am armed with massage balls, multiple rollers, and a variety of stretches. Between my ongoing biweekly butt vibration therapy and my giggle-fests at the essential oils massage parlor, I am certain victory is in sight.


Endnote:

A version of this essay was recently published in P.S. I Love You. This was written after that version and focuses on all of my various piriformis related mishaps whereas the PSILY piece is a bit of a longer version of just my time at the acupuncture clinic. If you’d like to check it out, you can find it here. Also, I’ve been doing “body alignment” exercises every day with a Korean youtube who says “do-do-do” between each stretch and it has been helping tremendously (along with sitting on a flower-patterned heating pad every day. Yes, I’m fucking 80 now [no offense grandma])

If you’re looking for some of my other work that’s been released:

And I have three new pieces coming out soon in Elemental (about COVID in Korea, in Human Parts (about SEX!) and in Russia Beyond (about moms). Yes, yes, you’re right, I’m prolific and diverse.