Why The Kids are Alright

There’s this thing called a “Wellness Room” that some high schools offer. (We do, here in Belfast, Maine.) It’s for students and staff, run by volunteer professionals in a variety of modalities, to help reduce anxiety, stress, pain, illness, and provide a little education about somatics and self-care.

Do teens really need something like this? How stressed out are they, really?

Yes. And: quite. And: should you think otherwise, I invite you to take a trip down memory lane…way back…for some of you, way WAY back…to when you were a juvenile, and just: recall. I am gonna do that, too, right now, so we feel our old hearts soften like roasting potatoes.

1988: I was a pretty good student, with fine intentions, well-behaved mostly. At a certain point, though, my guileless interest in life got overrun by irritation with my parents, angst over the condition of the world, constant crushes and heartbreaks, and nothing but hot distaste for authority. Jaded, at the ripe old age of 17. OUT, I just wanted out.

My best friend told me the school nurse would let you rest on her cot, if you needed it. I tried my luck during study hall. Sure enough: when the nurse asked me, “Why are you here?” and I said, “Oh, I, um, well. You know.” – putting on my best distressed yet glum look – she sighed and said, “Well, do you want to just lie down for a while and see if you feel better?”

Wherever this school nurse is now – she worked at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale PA in the 1980s – I wish I could find her, kiss her hands (if she’d let me), and thank her as profusely as I could without making her feel weird. Because she saved me. Nine times out of ten, if I was going to see her, I really felt like I was coming apart at the seams.

I turned out okay, but it was her and other key adults in my life who made the difference for me: who had the courage to look beyond my posturing or sassiness and encouraged the struggling spirit within.

Guidance Counselor RoAnn Blood and I standing outside the BAHS Wellness Room, shortly after it opened in April 2012

Guidance Counselor RoAnn Blood and I outside the BAHS Wellness Room, shortly after it opened, April ’12

Our Belfast Area High School Wellness Room is a haven, a safety zone for the distressed, be they student or staff. In the British sci-fi classic, “Dr. Who,” the Doctor only endures his 5th regeneration in the TARDIS’s Zero Room: a place cut off from the rest of the universe, meant for recuperation. That’s what our wellness room is like.

We have professional practitioners – massage therapy, Reiki, chiropractic, etc – who volunteer their time and expertise to the aid of headache, pain, sports injury, total exhaustion, anxiety. With signed parental permission, kids can drop in for 15-20 minute sessions during free time.

(Staff can come in any time they want, if they can get away. “Ten minutes is better than no minutes!” I call after them, after they arise from the table, smiling and blissful, grab a quick drink of water and scurry down the hall. “See you in a few weeks!”)

I want every teenager to have a chance to catch their breath, starting with the ones where I live. I needed it when I was their age, and Lord knows they need and deserve it now. I don’t have kids of my own (out of choice: not into babies) so maybe that’s one reason it’s easier for me to see them as people, not problems.

The kids are alright because they are going to be fine soon enough. “Just make it through the next four years,” I encourage them, if they drop in all hung-about in the face or in a frenzied lather. “It gets better. I promise you.”

They give me the hairy eyeball. “No really,” I insist. “Hang in there. If you can get through this, you can get through anything.”

The kids are alright because we have cultural amnesia. Go ahead and lament today’s teens all you like: that’s a loathsome, boring, favorite American past-time, and has been ever since girls first bobbed their hair and boys put on plus-fours; probably before that. Kids have been rotten for centuries, and have produced moderately successful generations regardless.

You remember? That horrible half-world between being an old child and a young adult? Everyone wants you to act responsibly and behave yourself, but no one feels ready to give you any power over your life. It would bring out the worst in anyone, especially one with turbulent hormones and a curfew. (If you don’t remember this, I don’t know that you really got to be a teenager, but congratulations anyway.)

The kids are alright because they are you: they are me. They are small versions of whoever will be running the world in fifteen, twenty years. I don’t have much faith in institutions, creeds, manifestos or trends, but I do have faith in people, and I have faith that these kids are going to do the best they can. They certainly are trying their best, right now.

I can’t help it: I am a massage therapist. I’m trained to love, and treasure the glowing heart, bright spirit, and incredible wonder of every human I touch. Regular massage therapy makes a difference for?…just about everybody. And even in 15-minute increments, for kids in between Science and Spanish class, it can mean the difference between recidivism and resilience, acting out or growing up.

To find out more about the Belfast Area H.S. Wellness Room, and the one that started it all – Camden Hills Regional H.S. Wellness Room – please check out the article that was written about both schools in the Bangor Metro magazine, March 2013 “School Serenity: Wellness Rooms at two area high schools are empowering students to speak up for their wellbeing.”

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All The Warm Things

“Oh my God that’s amazing.” I was just beginning the session and my client spoke aloud. Was her effusive praise directed at my hands? My technique? The massage oil? Essential oils? The linens she was on, or the music I’d selected?

No, no, no, no, and no annnnnnd….no.

It was the warm towel I put on her feet.

“I know you think I come here for your massage,” said another client, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. “But I don’t. I come for all the warm things.”

It’s important that we care about our career: our reputation, amongst our colleagues and the community; our sense of trajectory, in terms of improving our work, introducing new modalities as it seems appropriate; and re-marketing/re-branding ourselves so that we get a regular influx of new clients. (People still need to discover you for the first time, even if you’re doing what you’ve been doing forever.)

I have to say, however, that based on my nearly 15 years of experience as a massage therapist – and nearly 20 of receiving it on a semi-regular basis – the client doesn’t care about any of that. Take heed! The client wants to be warm! Cozy! Swaddled, if I may. “Burrito-ed” is how one of my friends puts it.

Not stuffy or sweltering, but…nestled. Tended.

Warm.

It’s November here in Maine. We know we’re going to be cold for a long stretch, at least until May. That’s where the warm towels come in.

If your landlord permits it, having lit candles in the room not only creates a feeling of warmth but in the winter adds (albeit microbits) of warmth. Plus it's just pretty.

If your landlord permits it, having lit candles in the room not only creates a feeling of warmth but also adds  (albeit microbits of) warmth. Plus it’s just pretty.

As a professional licensed massage therapist, I am many things to my clients. But the most basic service I give them all is feeling taken care of. Here, modern MTs might balk at the idea, with their arsenal of training, experience and perhaps the need to justify themselves (the phrase “bow and scrape” comes to mind) before the almighty healthcare industry.

“I have charts! Books! Formulas! Techniques! Proof! Certificates of Mastery!”

Keep up on that stuff, but remember: clients don’t care. They want to feel like you care about them, not your agenda for them. (Reminder: you do care about them. That’s why you’re a massage therapist.)

Okay, so: right now, an easy way to convey your kind regard for their every need is to make sure they are WARM. (And please don’t assume this post is only for those of us in the 44.4 latitude: if you work in air conditioning, warmth is still an important part of your practice.)

Ways you can help:

Ask. During the intake. “How does the temperature in the room feel?”
“When you’re relaxing on the table, do you find you’re on the warm side or the chilly side?” Most people who suffer from being chilly will let you know.

At the beginning of the session: “Are you warm enough?”
I hear, often, “Yes, I am cozy, but my feet are still cold.” On goes the hot towel!

Feel. I like to do compressions down legs and feet, even if I’m starting the massage with neck and back, not only for the client to feel a full sense of themselves from the get-go, but also to notice what’s cold and remedy it right away. Most people can’t relax if they’re cold, and your work is in vain if they’re not relaxing.

Also, if you’re massaging and you suddenly feel or see goosebumps, the client may be getting chilled. Find out.

Plan. What do you have in your office to help a client warm up? Here’s what I got: a landlord who (thankfully) lets me set the thermostat at 70, a table warmer, flannel linens and fleecy blanket, essential oils that are warming in nature, and a crockpot stuffed with towels that I heat up and place strategically: on cold feet, cold hands, on the back after I’ve massaged it, rolled up under the neck after I’ve worked there. What you got?

(Also in deep winter I do heated socks.)

(And quite honestly I do not like those hot towel cabinets. Moist heat becomes moist cold and nobody likes cold wet on their skin. Stick to DRY heat, I say. Unless you use hot stones! I bet you do! Those are GREAT. I wish I had a sink in my office bathroom that I could clean them in, otherwise I would have some.)

I’ve also heard heating pads, stand-alone ceramic room heaters, and Thermaphore products work well.

Consider. Of course I have been talking physical warmth here, but there is a deeper warmth that clients really respond to. For some practitioners this takes time to develop, and for others it just needs kindling.

The energy of compassion and the intention for healing is warming. When I practice Reiki, or consider the affection I feel for my client, or drop into that blessed meditative quiet of a session, my hands get hot, almost directly in the palms. “Did you heat up your hands in the crockpot? They’re so warm!” some clients have said to me.

When a client comes in and I listen carefully, my heart energy expands and what I say, how I behave, is infused with genuine care (or at the very least that is my goal)…which the client experiences as…warmth.

Enveloping a client in warmth is always a good idea, whether physical, emotional or spiritual.

(Unless they’re having a hot flash! In which case, life in wintry Maine is ideal: I just open a window.)

Don’t Touch Me: Part 2

(…cont. from “Don’t Touch Me: Part 1“)

“Yes,” I continued, with growing confidence. “It’s true. I mean I don’t like random touch. You know? ‘Hiiii, how arrre you,'” I said, and I pawed at the air, mimicking someone coming at me with gropey hands.

She laughed. I felt a little better. Maybe I was getting at something here.

“Like if you’re at Rollies and there’s always this person who finds you who’s just had one too many, and there they are: in your face, falling on your shoulder, grabbing your elbow…helllOOOOOO…”

I used Rollies – Belfast, Maine’s famous watering hole – on purpose, because everyone goes there: from laborers to city council members. We all watch the Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins here; families gather at the big tables for meals; there’s a pool table and a modern jukebox and free peanuts. It’s a microcosm of Waldo County community life. We all drink there, and all of us have either had too many at one point, or been with people who have. As I hoped, she laughed at this too.

“So, just to let you know, I think I understand – in my own way – what you mean about not wanting to be touched. I get it. This is not unwanted hugs or weird pats, this is professional body work. I do this for a living and I take it seriously. Which means I take your needs and sensitivities seriously too.

“There’s nothing happening here that is not under your control. I will tell you everything I am doing, before I do it, and you can say whether or not that works for you. I don’t have to know the reason, just say “huh-uh.”

“This is your session. Your time. And, from moment to moment we’ll see how it goes. I know you’ve signed up for an hour session but personally I will be thrilled if we can get in 25 minutes. That will be a major accomplishment!”

“Yeah, I know!” she replied. Her face was starting to relax and she was getting a little color in her cheeks. I could tell what I was saying was helping her trust me more. I was feeling better, myself.

Hand.fingerdeskpull“So, this is how it goes. I’m gonna leave the room. Let’s just start with you face up, today, okay? This way you can talk to me easily and we can end things more smoothly if we need to.” She agreed to lying supine, supported by pillows, even mostly disrobing so she could be more comfortable under the linens. “I’ll knock before I come in and then we’ll get started, okay?”

“Right!” she said, and she closed the door behind me while I went to wash up and she bravely attempted the impossible: lying down on my table, waiting to be massaged.

I went into the bathroom and felt a slight tremor inside. I did as I always did: pray, for myself and my client, that it would be for our mutual benefit and the greatest and highest good for all. I noticed, however, that my internal voice had an edge and squeak to it that bordered on hysteria.

“What if, Lord,” I prayed, “I get in there and all I do is touch the top of her head and she says, “Nope, I can’t do this,” and we have to end the session right there? I want to help her! I think I can! What if she really can’t let me? Agghkk, what-what-what?”

I felt access to peace, suddenly, as if a giant angel hand came to rest on top of my head and pressed gently but firmly: the equivalent to a verbal “Shoosh.”

Don’t go in there acting like she’s going to quit on you any minute. Do everything as if the next minute will certainly come. And for heaven’s sake, stay calm! If you’re at ease, she’ll be at ease.

So I knocked and went in, and began.

I have to say, there is an immediacy to your work if you know that it could end at any moment. And, while I began simply and calmly, and checked in with Tracy every 15 minutes that went by, like clockwork, like I promised her I would — and, while I also told her what I was going to do in a soft but distinct voice, before I did it, like I had promised (“I’m now going to drape your upper chest a little more and work both arms, starting with your right.”) —  I also was waiting, on some level, for her eyes to open and for her to say, “Stop.”

But that never happened. Instead, fifteen minutes went by, and then another, and then another. Her response to my inquiry, “How you doing,” went from “Fine” to “Mumph,” the happily unintelligible response of someone in deep relaxation. I used medium pressure and if i dipped into certain areas more deeply, I was hawklike in monitoring her response.

There were no adverse ones, so far as I could tell: her eyes were closed and stayed closed. Her face, while still retaining traces of tension (and her brow still knit), was placid. Her breathing deepened and softened. She even let me take her whole arm without even attempting to help me (something I haven’t accomplished even with certain long-term clients, see “Up in Arms“)

Finally I nudged her. “Guess what,” I said. “You did it. A whole hour.” And left.

“How are you feeling?” I asked, as I came back in the room and she was sipping water.

“Well,” she said. “A lot better. Maybe because it’s over.” We laughed at this one. Boy, if nothing else, I realized Tracy had a great sense of humor, just like her cousin.

I reviewed the session: headache was still there, but she felt a lot looser, right where she needed it the most: all around C5-T2. Would she feel like coming back for more? Certainly she did. I got her rescheduled and tried not to show how much I felt like dancing in my chair with joy. Perhaps this was a turning point for her body: a chance to start feeling better more often. This is the kind of thing that makes massage therapists want to cry with happiness. I also refrained from doing that.

“I did do a tiny bit of leg compressions, like we had discussed, but it was the one time in the session I noticed your visibly tense. You didn’t like that, did you? I will totally not even touch your legs next time. I apologize.”

“Yeah, thanks,” she replied. “I just don’t want my legs to be touched. And I really don’t like people touching my FEET.” That tense dubious look surfaced one more time, then went away.

I made a note in her file, and in my mind: Do Not Touch Legs or Feet. With the sincere hope that someday, even that could happen, if she says she is ready. But, as with everything else with Tracy, I will take it moment to moment.

Tracy is now a regular client and, while she’s experiencing new soreness and discovering other parts of her that are tense (“I think I clench my teeth!”), she is hanging in there. Her name has been changed for this story.

With a tip of the hat to my friend, colleague, blogger and all-around awesome person Rowan Blaisdell, and his post “You Are in Charge.”

Don’t Touch Me: Part 1

It has long been my prayer, for the people who need me the most? To be sent to me. Sometimes this gets answered in amusing ways, with challenges I feel are beyond me at the time. “I don’t like to be touched” was how I met Tracy.

“Everyone keeps telling me to get a massage, I finally even heard it from my doctor,” she continued as we went through her first interview. “Dr. Jane (my chiropractor friend and colleague next door), my cousin, and now even him. ‘Please go get a massage.’ ”

It seemed her sour, disgruntled look was due to a number of things: the pressure she’d been feeling to have a treatment she didn’t want, the actual pain she was in, and how conflicted she felt about sitting there. While we discussed her symptoms, what seemed to me to be tears briefly came into her eyes, then left.

Hand Out duskI’d seen this happen before with clients, so I knew not to flinch or feel it my duty to inquire – sometimes the stress and pain of a person’s life is so great that another person showing empathy makes tears spontaneously pop out – but at one point they became profuse enough to spill onto her cheeks. I slid her a tissue across the desk.

“Thanks,” she said, dabbing ruefully at her eyes. “I don’t know why this is happening.”

If I’d been her, I would have had a lot to cry about. Two bulging discs in her cervicals had winched her whole neck – posterior, lateral and anterior muscles – into a nearly permanent state of spasm. The pain, and thereby, stiffness went up into her head, and down between shoulder blades, even cutting off the nerve and blood supply to her arms. I could see it when she walked into the room: her arms were held tightly into her body and she barely moved her head.

She had been like this since May, and tried a lot of things, including seeing Jane for chiropractic. The missing piece of the puzzle was relaxing, something that is difficult to do (let alone without professional help) when a person has bulging discs that are pressing night and day on chunky vibrating nerve roots. Even slight impingement on these cords of electricity and light create waves of unrelenting pain and discomfort that sometimes no remedy abates.

And, since she had been in pain for months, her body, out of self-preservation perhaps, splinted and splinted and splinted the painful areas until she was barely moving at all. Relaxation? Forget it.

I wasn’t even thinking this far, though. The whys and wherefores of her tension/pain/tension patterns were nowhere near my mind during the intake. I was just thinking of how I was going to get her to let me touch her. I was the missing piece. And she wanted me at beyond arm’s length.

I had been thinking of it for a while, actually: her cousin is a regular of mine. “Tracy doesn’t like to be touched,” said my client. “I told her you would take it moment to moment.”

I leaned into this suggestion as Tracy and I discussed her symptoms. Finally I cleared my throat and framed the question as delicately as I could, knowing that depending on her answer I would be wandering blind, without skill.

“Can I just ask…to your knowledge, is there anything in your past that led you to feeling this way? Not wanting to be touched? Negative experiences from people touching you in a way you didn’t like, or…”

“Nope, no, I just, I dunno.” She shrugged (slightly) and looked at me.

I considered this response. I’ve been living in Maine for nearly 15 years and have many natives as friends. They are, to a person, not the most tactile bunch. Perhaps her distaste for physical contact was just classic Mainer?

Maybe she had been abused or hurt in some way, and either chose to ignore it or forgot about it over time. Her body language, her tone of voice, and what she said (and did not say) did not, to me, belie a deeper problem with touch. And, even if it was there? What could I do about it that wasn’t outside my scope of practice?

She looked at me some more with the tense, dubious expression of someone clearly suffering; wholly desperate, and not liking it one bit. Almost like a cornered animal who knows the jig is up, and they have to go inside the pet carrier. My heart opened to her like the sun.

“Actually,” I said — and as my mouth opened I a) realized I didn’t know what I was going to say and b) breathed a quick inner prayer: “HELP!” — “I don’t like to be touched either.”

Really? My mind snorted. Do elaborate, please. I’m all ears.

continued here: “Don’t Touch Me: Part 2