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.
I’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“