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.

 

 

 

 

Wounded But Serving

I think it’s a good thing to talk about self-care and how we can optimize ourselves for being the best practitioners we can be, but we need to get real: individually and as a profession. There’s self care because you need to be a little physically stronger, a little less sleepy in the afternoon: then there’s the self care of the truly wracked, anxious, woebegone and frightened.

Trying to get a toehold on sanity, and working that line, hour by hour, minute by minute, and also seeing clients.

I am writing this blog post now because I couldn’t write in August.  A situation with mental illness and addiction in my family reached new crisis levels. This person was rushed to the ER and admitted to a psychiatric and addiction center, for the second time this year.

 

There is, as of this writing, 30 days of sobriety, good prescriptions, and a will to live. But it has been rough. I became ill, too. The name they give it is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which feels pretty weird for someone who spends 8-10 hours a day helping people reduce theirs.

I was doing all the good stuff (more salads. Less caffeine. More sleep. Less sugar.) but a lot of it wasn’t working, when I desperately wanted it to. It just didn’t. There for a while I had a small bag I carried, along with my purse, holding all the tinctures, supplements, flower essences and powders I’d collected so I could dose myself all day.

I’m doing better (due to many kinds of support, which I won’t get into here), but there were plenty of moments when I walked into a session, hoping to help others, but feeling utterly broken and full of despair inside. This was a deeply painful place to find myself.

I felt guilty for barely holding it together and still seeing others in a therapeutic setting. Is there room in our profession for those, like me, hoofing it on the edge of darkness?

 

Consider your stereotype of massage therapists. We see a practitioner who is happy, relaxed, completely absorbed in the needs of the client, serene, centered, thoughtful…quite possibly the embodiment of health and sanity. (I mean, when I go get a massage, that’s kind of what I hope to experience, even just a little bit.)

There are massage therapists like me who have a loved one up to their gullets in mental illness and addiction and who, themselves, are in real danger of becoming sick and/or addicted themselves.

There are massage therapists with mental health issues.

There are massage therapists who are addicts.

There are massage therapists whose children are in jail or who have gone missing: whose loved ones are battling cancer or HIV, ALS, PTSD: who are facing foreclosure or eviction.

There are massage therapists who feel maligned or weak or increasingly concerned by a physical ailment or a state of mind: whose might have family members threatened with violence, deportation or incarceration: who feel endangered or misunderstood where they live.

How do I know this? I don’t, for sure. But a lot of humans have lives like this. Lots of people, navigating terrifying swells in a boat that is taking on water. Massage therapists are human: ergo, there are probably more of us working our hearts out to give to others, and doing so from a fragile place, than most of us realize or want to acknowledge.

Standing and serving in the midst of profound confusion and pain is okay. If we think we have to have it all together to work, that’s something we need to examine. We have compassion for our clients in the midst of their trouble: it’s the least we can do for ourselves.

Also, some days the best part of being massage therapist was leaving my self outside the treatment room:  stowing my fears for a few hours while I worked to make a difference for someone, anyone. For all my technical skills, essential oils, good intentions, I could do nothing in my family. But at work: there was hope.

In your life, a bomb will go off. I promise you. Everything you thought about yourself and your world will melt like late winter snow. Who are you, then, as you stand in the wreckage, and also wish to work? Watch your illusions of control dissolve, one by one, until you’re seeing clearly, and wishing you didn’t. Until, one day, you don’t mind.

There is a moment, in the chrysalis, where the goo inside is not caterpillar, not butterfly. It’s an amorphous gel of who-knows-what. The entity that knew itself as Caterpillar no longer exists. The promise of Butterfly is too much to hope for.

There’s where you work from, as a practitioner, and in the midst of the life you’ve been given. This is what anyone, groping for a way, knows. Don’t be fooled by the nice smells, pretty colors and soothing music: massage therapists are right there too.

Caterpillar to chrysalis: for your encouragement (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-gsm_ZyJz_s)

I feel it’s important to have boundaries about a lot of things but I’m equally convinced it’s important to share what you know, when you can, especially if it will help someone else, maybe remove stigma. So: I’m a member of Al-Anon. It has changed my life and saved my sanity.

Caring – With a Rebel Yell

“You know, it’s more than just a massage, isn’t it?” My longest-term client had finished blowing his nose and was settling in from prone to supine. I was getting his bolster situated, and preparing the warm towel roll for his neck.

“It’s about being cared for. And, as I get older, I need more and more of that. You are about the most caring-est person in my life.” He relayed all of this to me through closed eyes.

I considered how many massages I’ve given him. Probably around 500, over the course of 12 years. He started seeing me when I was fresh into my practice, and kept with me all this time. I thought it was just ’cause he was gradually more and more impressed with my expertise, but he was very frank with me a few months ago as to why he’s seen me so long.

“Habit.”

When my face clearly registered my unhappiness at being mere routine, he added hastily:

“But it’s the quality of your touch. It’s always been there.”

How lucky I am, I thought to myself then, that he has made a habit of the good will he feels from my heart.

“Being Cared For” is hardwired into the massage therapy profession and while sometimes it’s challenging to reach those wells of empathy and affection (depending on what I’ve got going on personally) caring for another is my touchstone, my calling card. I know that makes me a softie. So be it.

Why is it so hard for us to bring tenderness into our lives? Do we think we’re above it? Often we feel we don’t deserve it or need it. Which is a lie: look how quickly disease or dis-ease – physical, emotional, mental or spiritual – blooms when we keep charging ahead without regard for nurture or nourishment. Addictions take the place of regular loving self-regard.

Heaven forbid that we wait, listen, go with the flow or slow down for anything. Whatever our bodily needs might be – sleep, exercise, food, rest, cleaning, or touch – they are at best secondary and often last, as we bow to our List or Agenda or Goals, or other intellectual but questionable pursuits, such as hours of diddling in social media (guilty) or watching TV (guilty…especially since I discovered HuluPlus has a full catalog of Brit Coms.)

How can we bring more caring into our lives?

In what ways have I brought “being cared for” into my own life?

It surprises me, the list I come up with:

1) Treating evening with respect. Not insisting my day continue up until I sleep. And going to bed when I’m tired. If that’s 7:30, that is fine.
2) Taking the proper amount of time it takes to plan, shop for and cook a homemade meal. I do this once a week and I can tell you it’s a 5-hour endeavor, from the minute I crack open the cookbook to when Nate and I sit down to eat. The time to do this does not magically appear. I’ve made it a priority.
3) Damn the agenda, go for a walk.
4) Damn the paperwork, get a massage.
5)  Snuggle. Get close to a person or animal and linger, linger, linger. Physical proximity is great, powerful medicine. (Sitting in sangha, taking communion or being in a crowded bar watching an exciting baseball game are in the same vein.)
6)  Stop striving. Stop improving.  See what’s difficult, uncomfortable, unbearable – and, perhaps even more difficult, see what’s boring, mundane and average – and accept it utterly. At a certain point fighting the reality of your life not only makes you miss the life you’re actually having, but creates unnecessary exhaustion and colors everything you do and how you treat others with a faint aroma of distaste. Care enough about yourself and who you are, and what’s happening for you, to welcome all the imperfection without judgement.
7)  Make a difference when you can. This is the wisdom inherent in Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” : “Grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change/Courage to change the things I can.”  Notice your inner weeping, kvetching, sulking or raging and decide to make a little change in yourself and see if that helps.

For me, this list breaks the mold of societal expectation, and has an almost rebellious, anti-establishment energy to it. I think of the locavore, slow food movements. I consider how many people I know are working hard to get farms going, home schooling their kids or keep local businesses not only afloat but thriving. Lots of us want the good life, and the good life is not what they tell us it is.

If we’re constantly distracted, we’re right where they want us. Being cared for – caring for ourselves – equals presence. From this presence comes strength and wisdom, and then we’re not pawns in the game, but we are the piece movers: we reclaim our lives and take steady, conscious steps ahead.

Feel Like a New Person

“I feel like a new person.” Nice compliment, one I never take for granted, but it does make me feel a little weird. In what way, I always wonder? My massage work doesn’t always produce miracles. It is merely one vertical bag of water unsnagging one horizontal bag of water. I love making someone feel like a totally new bag of water. Not really a miracle, just a fact.

Yet, to make someone feel brand new: now that’s something. I’ve had the privilege of giving this kind of work, and also receiving it.

I had a massage from my friend and colleague Derek in early March. It came after a February filled with illness, disappointment, darkness and cold. I threw myself back into my recovery program after a near melt-down and I wasn’t instantly relieved. I tried sleeping a lot, like I wanted to, and deep rest evaded me, night after night after pitiful night.

I realized I had an anxiety problem. What a horrible state of affairs! How unlikely and unfair for a massage therapist, who is supposed to ooze relaxation and tranquility from every pristine pore. This is what it must be like for a priest or pastor to have a faith crisis, or a psychiatrist experiencing regular untreatable depressive episodes; this is what it must be like for a cop who feels herself siding, inwardly, more and more with the perps she arrests.

Who hasn’t made their way to their massage therapist, praying for a miracle? Throwing ourselves headlong on our practitioner’s table, exhausted, suffering, unable to even offer complete sentences as he or she carefully, valiantly tries to do some semblance of an intake before letting us collapse? Don’t think I haven’t been there. I have.

stream_with_waterfallI didn’t want to do the weeping, the sighing, and the head-shaking mute bewilderment that I did with Derek, but that’s what I did anyway. My body had been holding on to too much for too long and my words wouldn’t come.

We have this thing when we trade with each other, us massage therapists, that is part cop-out, part compliment. “Just do what you do,” we tell each other with great warmth. “You know all the spots.” End with small grin. This is what I said to Derek, hoping he’d get it.

He did. I had a 90-minute massage session (in my own office, mind you: always a good test drive for your own space! I found my table quite comfy and warm, but the face cradle still problematic…no wonder my clients fuss over it) and while I had consciousness I noticed that I felt akin to a stream having its tributaries unclogged of leaves and twigs. Things began to loosen and let go.

What rose up inside me, once the session was over, was an overwhelming feeling of unmistakeable resurrected power. It was as if my old self was sloughed away, and the entire fabric of my being had been flushed. All energy centers were realigned and churning their lovely colors. I no longer had a mountain across my upper back. I could feel my entire self, all the way through my toes.

It felt…well…darn it, it made me feel like a new person. My life force, my will to live, had returned.

I leapt from the table, dressed, and practically kissed my colleague’s hands when he re-entered the room. “Thank you, thank you, you are such a gift,” I burbled in tear-filled gratitude. I know he didn’t quite know what to make of that. I know how he felt: it kind of blows your mind, as a practitioner, that you can make that much of a difference to someone.

He just hugged me and gave me a nice there-there on the back. Aww. I get to trade with the best people.

Perhaps this is what is meant by becoming a new person: if our pain and tension is met, even briefly, by another – by Another – there is information there that is news, very good news, to our lonely little bodies. If the hands that touch us are experienced, professional, nurturing and loving, there is something to that. It speaks a language our body is dying to hear, in much the same way warm sun informs a lake, or a garden hoe informs soil: something interesting, nourishing and highly educational happens, and transformation occurs with unparalleled ease.

 

How to Admit You Need Help

Not all massage therapists need help. Lots have excellent boundaries, stable home lives, emotional equilibrium, or some healthy combination of the three, for most of their lives. Their families are normal, or at least, some of the darker aspects of human living don’t impede their quest for health and happiness.

There are, however, some of us who find things falling apart in our lives and realize we’re powerless to do anything about it. On top of it all: our mornings are black and our nights swollen with distress. Worst: our days are panic-stricken and filled with anxiety: we focus on our clients, not with curiosity and affection, but out of desperation, with tension shimmering beneath our touch, and when they’re gone we gasp and flop about, frightened and confused, like a guppy out of water.

By “we” I mean “me” of course.

Bluntly: I’m in recovery. There’s been a crisis in my family and I’m back in the Anonymous program I was in five years ago. I’m attempting two meetings a week, I have a sponsor, I’m reading literature, I’m working the Steps. I’m better. But there for a long while I was not. And things could get worse. I know that now.

With this comes time for little else: I haven’t been exercising nearly enough (sadly this would be true anyway, what with the relentless winter weather) and certainly haven’t tackled many projects that desperately need a tackle: my taxes, my client files, this blog. Homeostasis and maintaining sanity is a full-time job, on top of the other full-time job: maintaining my practice.

Projects and plans become back-burner stuff when you’re trying to keep yourself from having a meltdown.

“In every life there are peaks and valleys” so goes a trite saying that some people like to share with you when you’re suffering. (I would love to suffer such speakers a firm pinch on the nose, even though I know they mean well.) Oh ho: you know what? Sometimes it is just not a cute valley, all green and quiet and with a discernible end. Sometimes it is a yawning, howling cavern where you and your loved ones must walk, straight into the heart of darkness.

from a card I found at Coyote Moon in Belfast, Maine

from a card I found at Coyote Moon in Belfast, Maine

So: how do you know you need help? How do you come to admit the fact?

Interestingly, a big problem with knowing whether or not you need help is hardwired into the profession itself. From my perspective: I see myself as a resource for health and wellness for many people. I am used to making people feel good, all day long, by the sheer benefit of my presence.

“Thanks, I feel so much better” is a phrase I hear regularly in my day. Through a little effort on my part, I may not create miracles every time I touch someone, but usually there is big pay-off for me having everything under control: my clients are happy, I’m happy, even my officemate Jean is happy. (Especially when we have successfully and succinctly negotiated whose turn it is to resupply the TP and take out the trash.)

A whole day of getting paid for making people feel better spoils a person, particularly when you get back into the mess of non-professional relationship, i.e. family. It is really easy for me to advocate self care and dispense advice on health and wellness in my office: I have a little authority, and even when I have a client who is in the bowels of despair and/or pain, in about an hour they’re no longer my problem.

When standing in the heart of addiction with my family, we are on equal terms and whatever we’re experiencing together I cannot fix in an hour: not with all my technique, experience, good intentions, essential oils, nice music and sheets.

You know you need help when you think you can fix people.

You know you need help when you realize you have no control over others: you know you need help when you keep trying.

You know you need help when you realize another person’s behavior is turning you into a crazy person: when you catch yourself doing something, saying something, thinking something that makes you go, “Hey wait a minute. Whoa there,” but then you catch yourself doing it again. And justifying it, to boot.

You are just as out of control as everyone else. That’s when you need help.

I reached out for the Anonymous program because it was a perfect match-up for what my family and I were going through. I’m into a full month of participating in this free 50-year-old program and things are better. I am not looking for “perfect”: not anymore: but I’ll take better, any day, especially after the February I had.

If one of the Anonymous programs are not for you, there are other ways to ramp up getting help, beyond the occasional yoga class or acupuncture session (although both of these things are very helpful too). Talk therapy, meditation, meeting with your doctor are all openings into deepening your commitment to bringing yourself back to yourself. Getting massage more! (That ALWAYS helps, and in my next blog I hope to write about how the massage I got during this time of crisis felt like it saved my life.)

You might find certain authors really helpful, as I have: Richard Rohr (“The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis“), Anne Lamott (“Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers“,) Pema Chodron (“When Things Fall Apart“), Melody Beattie.

You may feel it’s time to re-engage with a faith community once again: perhaps a church, a synagogue, sangha or mosque is calling you. Try going. Maybe that’s what you need most right now.

Whatever you choose, let the dark valley you walk into wake you up to your true potential, and give you hope for your future. This is where I have found myself today. And it’s because I admitted I needed help.