I’m Just Trying To Help

“Just relax your shoulders, now. I’ve got it.”
“I know, I’m always trying to help.”
“Yes, I understand, I really do. But you help more by not helping.”

This is a conversation we have, you and I, when you’re supine on my table and I go to skootch under your shoulders with my hands, so I can get to your upper back muscles, and I feel you tense and lift. Or when I go to work down your arm: When your arm is stiff and your elbow locks and you hold out each finger for me when I go to massage them.

This is the little bit of conversation we do have, since there’s not a lot of talking, and when I say “just relax now” I am using what I hope is the most encouraging, friendly tone. Because I do understand. I really do.

Helping is a lovely quality, whether we’re moving our limbs around for our massage therapist, or picking up our neighbor’s newspaper for him and tucking it in his mailbox, or hoping to inspire a family member to quit drinking. Our intention is undeniably excellent. A gold star, five gold stars, for The Helper. I give myself props for it whenever I can. “Good for you, Kristen” I say to myself. “You really want to make a difference. I like that about you.”

“Helping” is what a lot of us do to ensure another’s happiness. We don’t want to put anyone out. We are scared of looking like we don’t care, or seeming selfish. We want to be the one who makes a difference.

There’s basic courtesy, mutual respect, and then there’s helping. I’ve waited tables and had customers try to help me figure out which table is going to open up first, or try to help me seat people. Pretty easy to spot how how incredibly annoying that is, right?

But when we do it, what we say to the other person is, “Well damn. I was just trying to help,” and behind that is quite a healthy dollop of indignation. Don’t get annoyed, because I was trying to help, could be the subtext. And, even farther under that, could be: you idiot.

So we help even when it hasn’t been requested. Even if we’re paying someone. And oh my goodness are we good at it. Sometimes, the better of a job we’re doing, the more annoying it is. Heated conversations — with mean words and a lot of stomping about — usually involve the phrase “just trying to help” at some point.

I’m not saying everyone who tries to help me by lifting or moving their limbs around in session is a Helper, but when I watch my clients try to help me in session it makes me consider what helping is. The sunny side of helping is: we really do want to help someone. The dark side of helping is: we don’t trust them.

For a lot of us, this is based on cold hard experience: we’ve been hurt, we’ve watched people go down the tubes, we’ve become increasingly annoyed by a bad situation and so we just start helping, just to do something to fix what is unbearable. We start anticipating more and more when help is required, then, and it becomes A Thing we do without even realizing it.

Even when the best, maybe healthiest response, is to step back. Relax. Watch things unfold. Unclench our grip.

“Not-Helping” in a massage session is a great opportunity to practice kinesthetically what might be difficult for us to manifest behaviorally. Often what we learn in the body brings simpler, more relaxed understanding to parts of ourselves that cannot and will not be nudged, budged, or unlearned by any other means.

Massage therapy is so good for so many things, not the least of which is learning when to engage, and when to let go, and you and I are both doing this during your session.

Because you know what? Sometimes I really do need your help. One of those moments where I absolutely, 100% require it? Is when it’s time for you turn over. Yep, I cannot do that for you. (interestingly enough this is one of those moments where I get the least amount of cooperation: I’ll never forget the time that, after I finished my back work with one long-term client, I gently encouraged her to roll supine. A substantial amount of time passed, and I thought she might be completely asleep. Then, in a very petulant tone, from the muffled depths of the face cradle, she said emphatically: “NO.”)

More occasions for you to help: I’m not going to put the bolster in or take the bolster out without lifted knees, please. If you could move up into the face cradle a little more that would be good.

Also? Please let me know if something isn’t working for you. This past week another long-term client finally remembered to tell me she couldn’t breathe well when lying prone. Together, with “creative bolstering” as I’ve learned it from Tracy Walton, we got her comfy.

But the rest of the session: I’ve got it. I can help your body if you don’t try to help me with the helping. When I go for your arm, let it flop into my hands like an overcooked noodle. When I go for your shoulders, let them unfurl over my fingers. If I scoop up under your lowback or knees: it’s better for us both if you just let it happen.

Speaking of knees: today I saw a client who did not want me to work with them. Not only not work with her knees: not touch her knees. She described why, and my first response was, “But massaging your knees…could…help that?”

Here is where *I* work with my five-gold-star-ness. I wanted to help her, you see. I felt that I knew better than she did about what she wanted.

I saw it, claimed it, tagged and bagged that thing, and immediately followed the question with, “…but of course I won’t even touch them. What *would* feel good for your legs?” And we came up with a plan of action for her leg massage, that did not involve me touching her knees, and in session I honored that request completely, even though everything in me wanted to Help Her Knees by massaging them.

And that’s the good news, is that when we stop helping we start listening. What would really be helpful here? What does this person need from me, truly? If I love them, if I like  them, even if I have the most basic regard for this person (like my neighbor with his sluggish paper retrieval), it might feel better — for both of us — if I’m more curious than assumptive.

 

 

 

 

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Natural, Free Neck Tension Relief

I don’t know about you, but neck tension is just the pits. I get it bad. Sometimes it gives me pains all down the lateral side of my neck. Other times my occiput gets this stabby thing. Ugh.

Just about every place in your body, you can get to and stretch. You can roll it out with a roller, or do a yoga pose, or rub it out yourself. Neck tension is hard to get rid of, without someone else to do it for you.

I have a very dear friend who lives far away from me. She has neck tension. If I could get to her neck I would, I would just rub the hooey out of it, but I can’t because there are just too many miles between us and that would be — without a shadow of a doubt — the longest distance I’ve ever traveled for a house call.

She was hoping I could give her some “natural, free” ideas of how to reduce some of her neck tension. I started compiling a list in my head and then I thought, why not share it? So here are some ideas, and if you have one that I’ve missed please add it to the comments below!

(And by the way I’m not going to say anything stupid like “reduce your stress level.” I find it more stress producing to say things like that! The chance of our stress level magically going down is pretty slim, and besides, some of the things that stress us out, when considered, give us pleasure and happiness too. Would we take those things out of our lives? Probably not. You know the only thing I think doesn’t have stress? A bagged potato. So. Here are some ideas of natural, free, and manageable ways to reduce neck tension. And by manageable I mean easy.)

Water. Give it a try. I was gonna get all up in my panties about the necessity of drinking water but then I realized it’s just another thing that can stress us out (“am I drinking enough water? Am I doing it now? NOW??”) and besides there is no clear, unequivocable evidence that drinking a lot of water is going to fix anything. Instead, please read this amazing article by Paul Ingraham from painscience.com: “Chronic Dehydration Fear Mongering.”

One of the best quotes, for me, from this article was this:

Drink your 8 glasses per day (or 10, or 14), and ignore anyone who tries to get you to worried about it … or who tells you it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It just doesn’t matter much! – Paul Ingraham

YOU know how much water you should be drinking. When you have neck tension, and you can feel it ratcheting up, just check in: “have I had a glass or two of water recently?” Go have a little. Or a lot. Follow your thirst. It can help reduce your tension, certainly stave off a headache.

If you have no idea if liquid has passed your lips today, what you drank or even what your day was like, then we go on to…

Soak.  Getting water into your system is a challenge. Soaking in a bubble bath? Are you kidding me? Who has time for that? Plan a treat. Soak your feet.

Pick up a dishpan, big metal bowl, even an 8-quart kettle if you have nothing else. Put in some epsom salts or sudsies or smelly-goody thingies, throw a bunch of hot water in there, grab a towel, and have a soak.

You can soak your feet and: catch up on reading, watch TV, listen to someone sing. Or examine seed catalogs. Whatever. If you are sitting down, even for 10 minutes, you can soak your feet. You can even draw water into your tub, sit on the edge of the tub, and soak your feet there.

Believe it or not this can make a difference for neck tension. Relaxed, warmed feet can relax you, overall, and if you are relaxed overall your neck might also let go.

In lieu of a soak, I also heartily recommend a very hot shower with the water pounding on the top of your head for a spell. Speaking of your head…

Orientation. Where is your head? In time and space? (here I must insert a link to the classic Pixies song Where Is My Mind)

Locate it. For every bit of forward head movement there’s more, more and more weight on your neck. If you don’t believe me, please check out this article from The Washington Post, ” ‘Text neck’ is becoming an epidemic and could wreck your spine.”

“Ahh ha ha,” I hear you retort, a little smugly. “I do not text, you foolish woman. So there!”

To which I counter, well. I believe you could replace the word “text” with any of the following: computer, book, cheffing, Kindle…knitting neck even…any activity where your head is dangling off the front of your body as you focus on what’s in front of you.

Your neck is not designed for this. Bring your head back into alignment with your shoulders. If you can’t see your shoulders in your peripheral vision, then your head is probably too far forward. And, you look a lot more like a turtle than you could possibly imagine.

For the health of your head and neck – and, because, like me, you are just a tiny bit vain (just a tiny bit) – get your head back on top of your body.

SWING. Whatever physical activity you do, is awesome. I encourage it. Even if it’s an energetic blitz from the parking lot into the store, or trying to catch a train. What I am encouraging here is getting your arms going. I mean to the point of dorkitude.

WALK with PURPOSE. Dance like you’re at a concert – arms up and waving about. Swim, and really dig into the crawl or backstroke. Just stand in the kitchen and flop your arms around for crying out loud. I’ve noticed, when I mobilize my shoulder girdle, I start to feel blood flow up into my neck and my head clears. Try it for yourself.

Speaking of crying…

Cry. Okay, if you’re like me this is not something you want to aim for. But pushing to get through (and, if you consider it, the physical act of pushing through something requires you to tense up, hunch over and lead with your head…hmmm) stuff, we get winched up: physically and emotionally (there’s no barrier between the two, remember).

We fight back our words, instincts, and tears. Pretty soon we are bottling everything and we might not even be aware how restricted we’ve become: in thoughts, words and deeds.

Crying is, actually, not only good for your emotional/mental health but seems to help the physical health of your neck too. Again, I’m speaking experientially here, but if I allow myself some time to feel what I feel – or, if I can’t go there, feel what someone else might be feeling (ergo compassion) – the tears come.

And my head lets go. And my neck muscles let loose.

And here I must post a link to the classic “Free To Be, You and Me” children’s album from the 1970s: dear Rosey Grier singing “It’s Alright To Cry.”

It might make you feel better!

 

You are a Body. Not a Head.

Winter in Maine is a wonderful time to get familiar with your body: how much you use it, and when it is telling you to stop. I know most people feel themselves most fully in the summer. Well, who wouldn’t?

When we are warm and unencumbered, we struggle not against howling gales nor winch up with the mincing steps of navigating ice. When it is beneficent and redolent all around, we toil and weary but the air supports us, and besides, we are mostly barefoot.

We know our stuffs most certainly when we prevail our squishy flesh upon a few snowdrifts, for example, in below-freezing temperatures. Many things not in our favor. Except our body. Which is quite excellent, when you can feel its health.

I was thinking about it a lot today while putting in a few shifts of excavation. The Blizzard of ’15 gave us everything it promised. Today, it was a game of “Find The ___.” Find the cars – find the gas tanks – the compost pile – the woodpile. Carve paths to each. Throw snow around. Gasp and sweat.

With each heave-ho, I was aware – believe me I was aware – of all the muscle groups working together on my behalf. It is truly amazing, it really is. Do you ever catch yourself in a task and marvel at how it all works?  “Do this,” our will drives our body, and the body says, “Yes,” and it happens. (With varying degrees of success of course.)

I played with centering myself in different parts of my frame. The temptation is to just work with one side of your body – hack away at a pile relentlessly until it vanishes – but this is not an elegant approach. (Plus it just really makes everything hurt after a short period of time.) I switched arms, even for just a few shovelfuls, even though the switch felt non-instinctual and clumsy. It gave the other half of me something new to do and surprised muscles that weren’t very busy until that moment.

I also found things went a lot better if I firmed up my abs and gripped tight into my glutes. Things also went better with taking breaks and going inside for water. This was exercise!

What a gift: to be body aware, and play with what we find. My instincts have been honed by nearly fifteen years of practicing and receiving massage therapy. I have studied, contemplated, touched and been with Body. A day outside mooshing snow around is continuing education, as far as I’m concerned.

Doing massage therapy is a great way to spend your humanity: loving the warm, electrical, water-filled bags that are us. And by love I don’t mean anything more than full attention: but full attention is the most loving thing we can do. Whether we are lying on a massage table or asking the herculean of ourselves with winter labor, it is, therefore, love.

Besides being a massage therapist there is just the benefit of receiving massage, which not all professionals seem to do with the same consistency. There’s a lot of overlap between the restaurant industry and massage therapy, as I see it, and I say a massage therapist who doesn’t receive semi-regular massage is like a chef that does not go out and try other chef’s fare. It’s mostly unheard-of in the restaurant world. It should be in ours.

There are so many benefits to massage therapy, but one of the greatest, and possibly hardest to describe, is the gift it gives us of being in our own bodies and having someone else helping us affirm our existence as a body, not just a head.

I’ve written before about the seduction of our age: the supremacy of mind and inconvenience of our body, as if all we are is a pair of eyes inside a slab of jello-y meat.

Massage therapy is a subversive act. It says “hush now” to our mind, which like a spoiled child insists it’s king. Our attention, if we allow it, trickles out of the confines of mind and into the glorious vistas and uncharted waters of our frame.

We become aware of the strangest places: the underside of our upper arm. The webbing between our toes. The very top of our head. Behind our knee.

Body awareness in session gives rise to few words (thank God) but these are the top 3 phrases I’ve heard:

“I had no idea that was sore.”
“Oh my God that feels so good.”
“That’s the spot.”

To be in our bodies and notice what was quiet but aching; to be there when we’re consumed with an overwhelming sense of wellbeing; to have another person acknowledge – with their hands – what’s been bugging us for days. That. Spot. It’s been confirmed and now it’s already starting to feel better because someone who not only cares but has the knack for professional kneading is very keen on helping.

When we are aware of our bodies, we experiment with what works. We play with how we move, lift, respond. We’re more apt to listen when it’s tired, we’re more inclined to notice when we feel good.

Massage therapy gives us ground substance against which everything else is measured, and gives us refuge when we’re feeling stressed. We know how it feels to not be stressed: we’ve had massage! We can go there again, either by recreating it on our own through self care, or, hey, better yet, calling up our massage therapist and making an appointment.

We’ve tasted the good stuff. We know how to make it happen again, how useful it can be.

Even – maybe and especially – when thrusting about amid ponderous snowdrifts.

“Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there is a mighty lord, an unknown sage — it is called Self; it dwells in your body, it is your body.”
David Lauterstein, quoting Nietzsche in “Thus Spake Zarathustra” on his Deep Massage Book FaceBook page

 

What We Do Not See

We went for 3 weeks without a sunny day. A lot of us started to develop a skin over our eyeballs. We woke in the dark, fumbled through our day, yawned until twilight then curled into blankets and rolled into another deep sleep, crowded with dreams set in murky depths.

The winter solstice was also a New Moon, not that any of us would have noticed, having long forgotten what lit orbs in the sky looked like, and even if they were there, we would not have seen them for the seamless overhang of clouds. (Long forgotten. Yes, we have a terrible memory.)

When the sun finally did arrive it was Christmas afternoon. The ponderous grey rolled back and exposed a blue sky and blinding sun. Not only had I forgotten that the sun could be so strong, but so had my entire eye anatomy. Everything cramped.

My eyes were sore for a while.

Bunny.Moon.nationalgeographicThe sun is there when we don’t see it. So is the moon. So are a LOT of things: magma, the stratosphere, bacteria, plumbing. There’s enough evidence it exists. So we say it does, even though our eyeballs forget and strain at the re-membering.

Believing in what we do not see goes beyond the physical. There’s the deeper physics of relationship. What is thread that binds platoons, believers or indoor soccer players? Well, it’s that psychological fabric, the warp and woof of commonality. It’s invisible, but take it “away” and what you have is just a random assortment of people. With it, you have community.

Even more ephemeral – yet perhaps most strong – are conditions of the heart and mind. Faith. Peace. Love. We feel these things, and we offer them to others, who feel them in return. They are more real for some of us than anything visible. They are true.

As a massage therapist I touch bodies for my work. I do it with care, curiosity, with the intention to accomplish something. Interestingly I do not ever see with my eyes what I aim for with my touch. If you are a bodyworker you know this is true.

My intention is like an X-ray, and combined with hands that know and a brain that recalls, I think I “see” the soft tissue I address and the bones cozied within, but I never see them. What I see is skin. What lies millimeters beneath that skin, and what I envision, shall never actually be in my hands.

Regardless of how we feel about our palpation skills, our anatomy knowledge, the tremendous (or paltry) therapeutic experience we have locked into our hands after years (or just a few months) of massage: there is more we do NOT see, as massage therapists, than what we do.

Which leads me to my next thought, which is: we may be one of the most guessing-est professions there are.  It’s essential we’re trained well, and we consistently update our knowledge, but that aside? I feel there is an element of wizardry under the learnable skill set of therapeutic massage, and it makes the difference between a massage therapist whose work we like OK, and the massage therapist we can’t wait to have another session with.

There’s your professional magician. And then there’s the lady who’s been to Hogwarts.

This kind of talk will get me in trouble with schools and professional organizations. I’m not dissing education or professionalism, at all; I expect the highest from all concerned. But the people who’ve touched me best, touched me most deeply and made the biggest difference for me have been educated, trained, and then gone sidling up to realms unseen, within me and around me, and partnered it for a while. Quietly, respectfully, but wholly.

This is true of great artists of all kinds…spiritual leaders…politicians, even… detectives…

Did I say wizardry? I meant to say sleuthing. As massage therapists there’s a lot of clues we have to track down, pieces to put together, answers that only become clear over time, to solve mysteries. We need be like Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot and use our imagination, as well as our brains, to arrive at the truth.

One of the most interesting columnists, to me, in the ABMP‘s (Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals) magazine, “Massage and Bodywork”  is Douglas Nelson and his column “Table Lessons.” He reminds me of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, and his columns are written like small mysteries to be solved.

In his article from the July/August ’14 edition of Massage and Bodywork, he commented:

Words and images have powerful effects, both positive (placebo) and negative (nocebo). X-rays don’t always tell the whole story – there isn’t always a direct relationship between what is seen and the pain a person is experiencing.

What is not seen is more powerful than what is visible, perhaps? Well I could get behind that.

And then there’s David Lauterstein, whose writing and Deep Massage technique and, frankly, personage, I love and adore and will champion until the cows come home. He has been my teacher and my friend for a few years now.

In his FaceBook page The Deep Massage Book David wrote this past week:

Many of the meanings of energy are not objectively verifiable. They are primarily subjective experience. But the content of massage is as much the subjective experience of wellness, of restored energy, as it is verifiable anatomical or physiological results.

Bottom line,  the massage therapist we love most? The one we reschedule with and who gets our precious positive word of mouth? Is the one who travels all the worlds of us.

It is really a very easy thing to offer someone else. It looks a lot like love.

Curve with a Name

“But I never would have guessed you have scoliosis.”

I do have it, I hide it well, although lately I have to say it has not hid itself from me. My lower left lumbars are aching in a deep way, confused, sending little unhappy bleats down my left leg all the way to my toes. You might not really understand the immediacy and power of your nervous system until you injure or pinch a nerve, even slightly. The messages are varied, yet continuous.

CurveTypesMy left hip seizes up when I get out of a chair, and currently I’m enjoying a slumbering right psoas: one of the strongest muscles in the body. When it’s strained, lifting your leg becomes either impossible or fills you with stabbing pain, like someone jabbing an ice pick into your hip joint. It slumbers and then when roused – like, when I want to move in and out of my car – behaves like a hornet hive that’s been poked with a flaming torch.

I would never have guessed I had scoliosis until I injured my back two weeks ago, and now my scoliosis is all I think about. Ever since I was diagnosed with it when I was 11 years old, I’ve seen chiropractors (waaay back when they were quack status) and received massage, done yoga and powerwalking, and in the past four years added in Pilates and a little moderate weightlifting. Nothing regularly unfortunately, and nothing with vigor.

I blame my current constant pain and inability to move with ease, as is my custom, on my twisted spine, which seemed to be bearing up under sporadic attention just fine until now. Is it fair, to be peeved at a body part when it says, “Enough’s enough”? Aren’t our bodies allowed to speak out, set boundaries, communicate directly and try to resolve conflict with us, just like we feel we are entitled to do with other people?

What does it mean to be not curved from front to back, but side to side? Our spine is meant to roll fore and aft, thoracics to lumbars, not severely but gently, to cushion the blow of living and act as a spring, boinging finely at the center of our being. You can go deep into a body and the deepest place there’s bone, doing its glistening slick oseous job.

Deepest and most profound in its construct is our spine. We ask so much of it: sitting for hours hunched, sleeping splayed or curled, jerking it around lifting heavy things that sheer will deems doable. (“I can lift that.”) And our spine not so much. (“Well that was a bad idea.”)

It would be a lot better for us, wouldn’t it, if we wouldn’t just assume everything we feel like doing and want to do with our bodies is OK with our body. We would be accused of behaving selfishly, carelessly, if we constantly dealt with friends and associates with the sometimes breath-taking lack of sensitivity we show our own frame.

What we take for granted! Whole systems working tirelessly, painlessly, and then when injured, begin to let us know. “How annoying,” we say with disgust, and throw painkiller or hydrotherapy at it, hoping it goes away. The mendicant at our gate is body, and rather than feed it, we take the other way out of the city.

The first chiropractor I saw when I was 11 was a large, soft, dusky grey man in a poorly lit room who talked sweetly to me and my mother, and touched my back with big meaty hands that felt like giant warm paws. I remember looking up at him and my mother, like a bunny in the woods, waiting to see what the big animals would do.

He did some acupressure points in my ears (a sensation I’ve never forgotten, maybe why I love doing auricular massage to this day) with a metal stylus, told me everything that would happen, helped me onto his electronic table, and adjusted me. I was not afraid, not for a minute: I was just as curious as he was about what he could do to help me.

My mother did not do the surgery on me everyone said I should have, or the body cast: she chose hands-on healing. I wasn’t fixed by this man’s hands: but I had a strong sense that he understood me. He did not look at my malformations as something to be conquered, but something to be kindly spoken to.

Now the adult who must tend my inner child, I am both big bear and the small rabbit: and it’s my job to talk sweetly to the injury I have, and the torqued, tense mass of my lower left lumbars. Good luck has run out. Now it’s my turn to pay attention, and explain everything that’s going to happen, and not conquer my frame, but speak gently.

Should come easily, you know. I do it for a living. Ahhh, but who can do it for themselves? It is hard. To be that “wounded healer,” and give as generously to myself – in attention, exhortation, encouragement and affection – as I would a client? As my first chiropractor gave to me? That which I received, I give. That which I give: I must now receive.

 

Naked as the Day you were Born

Combine incredible stress and profound loss with a nurturing safe environment and being touched for the first time in months and you’d come unglued, too. My dear client lost her mother and feels alone, the most alone a person can feel, even if surrounded by tons of loving support, which she is not, which makes it so much worse.

Now she is undertaking building a house, her first, and also recuperating from a trying semester teaching brat kids and jousting with rotten co-workers. The woman’s a wreck. She’s on my table.

Re-drape. Grab the tissues and let her use the entire box if she needs to. Murmer consolations, good ones, don’t just pat absently and say “There there” or “awwww.”

Because I’ve known this woman for years, and I truly love her, I find myself rubbing her back between the wings, kissing the top of her head and saying “It’s gonna be okay. You’ll be okay” a few times until her sobbing stops and she starts to breathe naturally again.

“We’re gonna start over, with you supine now, with lots of pillows so you feel like Cleopatra on her barge!” I announce cheerfully, and make it happen quickly. No more snuffling into the face cradle: dignity and calm restored.

Massage therapists work parts: address limbs: move sheets and towels around like we’re doing some kind of horizontal semaphore code. We have these boundaries in place so everyone can relax and not worry about being exposed. There’s plenty of times, however, that exposure happens, whether we want it to or not.

Sometimes it happens when the client can’t help themselves, and they fall apart in front of your eyes. They just don’t care what you see.

I have a few who clutch at the linens when they roll either direction, exceeding even my careful work to keep them modest. That’s fine.  I understand. What’s more challenging to me is the client who starts taking off their clothing while I’m still doing intake. I think that they assume, since I am a massage therapist, that I will be totally okay with seeing their entire naked body.

Look, as much as I adore humans, I’d rather take my client in with my hands, not my eyes. Massage therapists have rites and rituals, and a sense of decorum, not to mention professional standards. While I will massage hinders all day long, I don’t want to see them up off my table, bouncing around the room. This is an art form, not a love-in.

But try telling that to an 82-year-old woman who is both so tired & so eager.  Before you can even get through your full gamut, the shirt’s off, the pants are long gone, and she’s sitting there in just her granny panties and footies.

I start into another question and trail off. “I take it you’re ready to get on the table,” I say.

She lets a pin out of her hair, and incredibly gossamer waves of long silvery hair billow down over her shoulders. I don’t want to look lower, but I do because it’s right there: two amazing breasts. Really. I don’t see many breasts up close, but these are unavoidable, and to my astonished eyes they look like they’re in great shape.

“It’s been a rough year, only getting rougher. Getting old is the pits. I feel like I’m looking at my life through the backwards end of a telescope,” she reports, as she goes to the table and skootches her hand under the linens, ready any time I am.  In her droopy drawers and her giant fuzzy socks, she looks like an elegant, aged fairy, a sage disrobed. I understand the time for my questions is over, and the time for me to work has begun.

Getting old is the pits, and over the next 90 minutes she goes into great detail about how much she has lost, how small her life has become taking care of her 92-year-old husband, all the things that have passed away. Maybe I’m the only person she can be wholly herself with, anymore, as she casts aside veneer and trappings, and speaks from her naked, weary heart.

Sometimes it only happens when the client is ready.

“Today’s a good day for a belly massage, I think,” says my longest-term client.

This is such progress I can barely keep from doing a fist pump. To spend as much time on his back and legs, as per his request, for over a decade, has meant that I’ve had to skip his arms and chest, as per his insistence. Which really is negligence:  the man’s got asthma, with profound breathing problems that have pulled his sternum down and affixed his anterior chest muscles to his ribcage.

I have only been able to guess at the condition of his thorax. Today, I get to see it.

“You got time?” he inquires.

Yes, lord, I do have time, I’ve had time for 13 years. Behaving as if it’s no big deal I drape his chest and let my fingers work  gently but persistently through the soft pine of his sternum, the branches of his ribs and around the scrying pool of his abdomen. I go over 90 minutes and don’t say a word about it: I know I might not have this opportunity again.

All of us in the industry have had these moments where we see a lot more than we meant to or hoped for. Despite all of our admirable attempts to keep it neat and tidy, things come undone. There’s a lot of grace in those moments, more than we could imagine. Trusting in all we do not see, we strive to meet fully what we do.

 

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