For Crying Out Loud

This week, I had a bad day. I had a neck tension headache, with some real anguish behind it. I saw a client who had suffered profound loss in her life, and as I considered her in session, I found myself overwhelmed with sobs as I worked. How did I handle this?

Very, very quietly.

Weeping and crying are as welcomed in my massage office as bad jokes, snores and burps. “I may cry,” some clients like to warn me before they get on the table, as if divulging a bad character flaw.

“If it happens, let it happen,” I always counter. “I’ve got a great big box of tissues here for a reason. Plenty of tears in this room, mine and everyone else’s.”

Nearly empty, as you can see

Nearly empty, as you can see

When I attended the Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, Mass. in the late 1990s, we learned many helpful things in the Skills and Dynamics of Therapeutic Relationships class. Although it bugged the hooey out of me at the time (I was perenially annoyed in school, it almost doesn’t bear mentioning, but I was. I had no idea what was happening to me and the not-knowing was disquieting), we did discuss what to do when clients come in and fall apart: be respectful of their grief, their personal space, hand them tissues, don’t explain away their sadness.

Basically, keep your heart open and your mouth shut.

They didn’t teach me what to do when *I* came in my office and fell apart. I had to learn that by myself, but inspiration came years after from an unlikely source.

I am – on top of being a massage therapist – a trained actress, with years’ worth of performance (acting and singing) under my belt. I spent the first 6 or 7 years of my life here in Midcoast Maine doing community theater and some semi-professional shows up at Penobscot Theater in Bangor.

I was in a production of “The Laramie Project,” directed by John Clancy. The ensemble was an actor’s dream come true: the material was heartbreaking, educational, terrifying and funny. The play dealt with the reaction to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

During rehearsal we needed to enter the heartbreaking parts. We had to get accustomed to the incredible discomfort it brought up for all of us. Clancy, however, modeled sorrow: we wouldn’t be sure at all how we were impacting him, because he was so still when he watched us, but then we could see, at the end of our scene work: tears just rolling, rolling, rolling down his face.

Not a sound, not a shudder, not calling attention to himself in any way: just: pure grief.

As an actor it took your breath away, not only to know you were impacting your director in such a manner, but also that he was letting himself fall apart so fully, yet with respect to what you were trying to accomplish. It was beautiful to see him being so fully human — guileless, all heart — and so fully considerate.

Now, when I am broken by sadness while massaging someone, I spend very little time trying to decipher who’s pain I’m feeling. It’s theirs, it’s mine, who knows? Especially if you are moved to tears by a client who keeps losing, yet fights valiantly on. It can unleash savage, wracking sobs, where soon you’re crying for all humanity.

It has everything to do with how I behave, however. Like Clancy, I know what I’m feeling, but I want to let my client have what they’re having. Just because I’m crying doesn’t mean they have to 1) see me crying 2) know why I’m crying 3) join in. Maybe this massage is the first time they haven’t cried in 2 weeks; they don’t need seeing me all bunged up with waterworks. If it happens, I let it happen: but mostly, I think holding even this boundary firmly in place is important in the therapeutic relationship.

I want them to rest, which means, for them, not wondering why I’m crying. I owe it to them to keep it together enough to give them the massage they’ve been anticipating: I owe it to myself to let myself cry. And, blow my nose, wipe away my tears, and then sanitize my hands, just like I would if I had allergies or a cold.

And remind myself to get ANOTHER big box of tissues next time I’m at the store.

In closing: one of the great massage stories, courtesy of

Bodyworker in audience: “Do you encourage emotional release?”
Trager: “No, if it happens, I take care of it”.
Bodyworker, (seriously, notebook and pen poised for the response): “How do you take care of it?”
Trager: “I console them.”

What you just read is not my fault. It’s because my friend, colleague, co-conspirator and pants kicker Rowan Blaisdell talked me into it, and also, because I cannot resist a write-off: 31 Posts in 31 Days August Blog Challenge, Business Blogging School. Caution snuffed, perfectionism cast off like a smelly cloak: this is blog #17.


Lux Perpetua

I became a hospice volunteer because death was on its way. A rare life, mine: no one close to me had died, and then one of my clients perished. I was wracked for how it happened (ALS finally turned off the juice to his lungs), the loneliness of his end, his end in general, and the fact that I didn’t like him that much and wished I had liked him more.

For all these reasons, I cried for days and got tired of it. Someone steered me to our local hospice organization, since obviously I needed help. Connie took my phone call and listened to me blub; Flic listened to me blub too and then gave me a book or two to read. Two months later I gratefully attended the six-week training program run by Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County here in Belfast, Maine.

Touching people professionally has led me to wanting to touch them, no matter what: to be close to them, not as a last resort but first option: to see them all the way, when everything that sparks and animates them slowly leaks out and disappears. Words fail. Touch doesn’t.

Massage therapists can make great deathbed pals. We love humans, as a rule, and so we can be there for them even as they literally fall apart, with good will and gentle humor. We see what might be hidden, and hear what isn’t said. All of these things make us natural friends for the dying.

Most MTs are okay with vast tracts of silence: this is how we get our work done: it is also how a soul unweaves itself from its body, and by bearing witness we can make it easier for someone who’s trying to let go but who is afraid. Our very presence equates wholehearted endorsement of whatever happens.

It was my hospice training and subsequent volunteering that got me linked up with Gwen. She wasn’t a hospice case when I met her: just a house-bound elderly woman who needed someone to take out her trash and bring her a gallon of milk on Mondays. Connie and Flic heard about this and in their great wisdom decided she and I might be a fine match.

When I found out she had been a Pentecostal minister I wasn’t surprised: she had the confidence and repartee of a career woman, spoke easily and well from years of presenting the gospel. I was also not surprised because it seemed just my dumb luck: I am the daughter of a minister, myself, but left it all behind me years ago. Now I was assigned to attend a saint’s needs, weekly. I implored the heavens to be spared her inevitable proselytizing and prying questions.

Her generation still knew the social grace of the classic “visit,” and when you’re doing this, you sit and talk. Despite my attempts to hide my personal life from her, bits of it came out over time. She finally found out I didn’t go to church, and that Nate and I were living together, not married. In my experience with classic evangelicals (and Gwen certainly was one of these), if you don’t behave like what a Christian is supposed to behave like, you don’t get dibs on faith. They don’t take you seriously: you look too much like a sinner. Your little attempts at following Christ are pitied. I mean, c’mon. Can’t even get to church on Easter? For shame.

I certainly didn’t think my prayers would have meant a brass farthing to her, coming as they did from the likes of me, a veritable Mary Magdalene. Maybe, just maybe, she had that relationship with Jesus that I’d heard some people had, where the Almighty was forever breathing his holy light into her heart and speaking to her constantly in a language that only someone who prayed and sought the Lord as fervently as she did could possibly understand.

Maybe Jesus told her I really was a good kid and not to give me too hard of a time. The day she said “I pray for you every day. And I am so glad you pray for me. I need it,” I thought I was going to fall out of my chair. I fished around inside my purse, instead, and snatched out a hanky, because I realized I had started to cry.

Last summer, she spent a week in the hospital and after she got home, confessed to me, “I thought I was a goner there for a while.” I thought she might have been too. But she rallied, and in October we spent her 85th birthday together. I got her Chinese food, per her request, even though I knew it was wretched for her high blood pressure, diabetes, edema.

This past April she developed shortness of breath that wasn’t solved through medication adjustment. “It’s just a nuisance, more than anything else,” she consoled me, after I’d given her a look of unmistakable concern. Six days later Joyce, her housekeeper, called 911: she had found Gwen practically incoherent, not knowing where she was. Fourteen days later Gwen was dead. Renal failure.

While she was in the hospital I went to see her, but days went by between my last visit and her passing, and so I never did get to see her just once more. The word “rue” fully expresses the feeling I’ve had about that and continue to feel. I may never get over it, in fact.

Joyce, however, had been with Gwen the night before. “Even then, she was still telling me about the foot rub you gave her.”

She mentioned this casually while we stood next to one another at the funeral, and it wasn’t just the bright sun and heat of the day: my mind reeled. I couldn’t remember it at all: had I rubbed her feet? When? Why wasn’t it coming back to me? Then, suddenly it did: people were in her room making small talk. I had my full attention on Gwen’s dear face, slack and losing light, as she barely maintained consciousness enough to add a few words, and then fall back into a struggle-filled sleep.

Because words didn’t fill my mouth, my hands took over, as they are wont: her feet were closest to me: I held one foot at a time, gently working every toe, muscle and bone, down to the heel and back. At one point I looked up at her, and she was staring at me almost without blinking. Then she was out.

With relief I also recalled that some of my last words to her were, “Sleep well,” and “I love you.” And I know she had said to me, “I love you too.”

Through her loss comes the startling realization that I am glad to be sad. And I am willing to let my heart break over and over again as those close, closer, and even closer to me fall away and end. Wherever they are, there is now a bottomless silence filled with light that never fades.

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail! – from the Heart Sutra

She points out her birthday cards.

She points out her birthday cards.

Going Deep

Two clients come to mind, scheduled within a seven-day span.

I liked Tony – had known him in a variety of capacities over the years – and welcomed him into my office for the last appointment of my week: 6:30 was the earliest he could get there.

“I’ve got these mid-back spasms,” he said, as we reviewed his information. “As usual the neck and shoulders.” In the nearly ten years I’d known him, he worked a bazillion hours a week, and liked to make sure everyone knew it. His back locked up on a regular basis. Did he do any self-care?

“What? Oh yeah. I need to do yoga or something.” He had been next door to see my colleague, Dr. Jane, for chiropractic adjustments. He’d been to a massage therapist in Brooks “but it wasn’t enough.”

“I like deep work,” he said, smiling through a bronzed face.

“Yes, I suspected as much,” I said to him. “And I bet you have a lot more tension in your upper chest and anterior/lateral neck than you realize. I’ll work the back of your head though your traps and down into your low back…why don’t we start with you supine, so I can get all that opened up first, and by the time I get to your back it will have relaxed a little.”

“You might not want to massage my neck,” he said. “Up on Hatchet Mountain all afternoon. Sun cooked it.” Oh, of course! The very muscles I was most keen on addressing were off limits: I could see the deep red all around the neckline of his t-shirt. Also, by this point his cologne had saturated the room and was making the back of my throat burn, almost like I had inhaled smoke.

He was in pain, though. I reminded myself: he needs you in this next hour. Do your best. Pray for strength and it will be given to you.

The session was exercise. I was not in peak form to be giving my all, not on a Friday past 5. Within the first few minutes I gave up using my hands: my fingers, which have been praised by a few clients as being full of strength, seemed as useful as pipe cleaners against the unyielding density of his musculature. It was like trying to knead out rebar.

His intractable tension, combined with entrenched kyphosis and lordosis, could not be addressed without full-body-weight slow work – mostly forearms, some elbow –  and finally, fists, as I gave the tapotement of a lifetime to his glutes, hamstrings and calves. I worked absolutely to and past my limit: damp from perspiration, shaky, peaked, but proud of myself, and hoping I’d made a difference.

“That was nice,” he said as I changed out the table linens and he put on his shoes. Nice? Hmm. That wasn’t quite what I had wanted to hear.

“I feel better. You can put me in as your 6:30 for the next few Fridays if you want!”  My heart sunk a little, as I had no intention of staying late regularly, especially for someone who was so much work…and made the air so hard to breathe. A small voice in me said, “referral?” but I ignored it. I could handle this guy, no problem. I wasn’t giving up yet.

When I called him a few days later to confirm his appointment, there was a lot of noise going on in the background.

“There’s a chance I can’t make it but I’ll let you know. I’ve just got so much going on that day. Yeah, and THIS time,” he said, “you can work on me as hard as you can!”

“Okay!” I said, gamely. “Keep in touch.” I ended the call, and was immediately consumed by a crushing combination of anger, inadequacy, self-pity and dread.

“Referral,” my small voice said, with force.

“Hi Tony it’s Kristen.” I was leaving him a message.

“Look, let me give you a number of a friend of mine who does really deep work.” (Wrings the living crap out of her clients, and does an excellent job of it too: you’ll love it! I wanted to say) “If you want to give her a try, awesome. If you want to come see me again, knowing the kind of work I do” (pretty damn deep and most people think it’s enough even if you don’t) “then feel free to call me back to reschedule…”

A few clients like this can deflate even an experienced MT’s confidence, and I’d had my share during winter: between their first session and their second or third –  when I had time to research their condition, discuss them with colleagues (Dr. Jane and I have done this for years, with mutual clients), analyze what I’d noticed in session and made plans for their next appointment – they would decide, for whatever reason, to cancel and not rebook. I was pretty sure Tony was one of these.

So I was braced for disappointment when another new client booked the following Friday. One of my regulars had given her my card.

“She said ‘this is what you need.’ And that you could help.”

“Let’s start at the beginning. What are your areas of pain or tension?”

“Well…I think it’s my heart.” She spoke with a Maine accent, so heart sounded like “haht.” Her eyes welled and chin wobbled.

Then came the story. I put down my pen and sit back in my chair when it starts: I figure nobody wants to pour their heart out to a preoccupied audience, and if I don’t take notes, at least I’ll listen well.

Within a nine-month span her two young stepsons had died, and her fiancé had left her so he could be with another woman who would help him pursue his “passions.” He saw fit to tell her when she was sitting on her second step-son’s deathbed. Both she and I agreed that it’s a mystery how a person could do that to another person in such circumstances.

“I’m doing all the right things” – talk therapy, eating right, exercising, even going to a chakra balancing workshop – “but something’s missing!” I passed her the box of tissues. My mind was churning, and my soul ached. I was running a list of modalities or techniques to use – more of this, less of that? Someone so clearly laden should be with someone more adept, with more skills, than me.

“What about a bereavement support group?” That just wasn’t for her, even though she had given it a fair try.

Any support systems at all? No one who she could count on.

She crying in heaving waves, and told me how much she hated it because “I feel like it’s all I ever do anymore.” Grief and anger seemed to be eating away at her from the inside, gnawing at her shattered heart. “I can’t work in my yard or in my house; I just don’t have the energy.”

“I feel stuck!” she nearly wailed.

Sometimes you get so accustomed to running the list of what you could be doing for someone, you almost miss the most basic and easy thing of all. In a flash, it came to me. (Thanks, small voice.) After a few more moments of consideration, with near pride, I said, “I think I know exactly what to do for you.”

She looked at me, eyes red and glistening. “Really…?”

“Yes,” I said. “You need a massage. You need affirmation, on a cellular level, that you are more than okay: in fact you are great. And in fact, you are worthy of being taken care of. For a whole hour. And I can’t think of any better way to do that than give you a good old-fashioned rub.”

Her eyes re-teared. “I just don’t know if I’ll be able to relax on the table. I know I’m paying you for a service, see, but I still don’t feel like I deserve it. I feel like…no one should have to touch me, I’m not good enough for anything or anybody…”

As she sobbed I reached across my desk and touched the side of her face with my hand, moved my chair next to her and put my hands on hers. This is not my protocol when someone is falling apart, but in this instance I couldn’t stand the pretense of professional distance. When someone is drowning you don’t proffer a twig from your royal barge: you go out to meet them in the churning cold.

Without looking at her I said quietly, “I want to touch you. I want to take care of you. I am here for you.”

So massage she did have. I could feel her whole energy field drinking it in: as I massaged and gave Reiki, she calmed, breathed deeply, and drifted. For me, the work was easy and blissful: I knew what I was doing, and I knew I could do it well. Who she was, was enough. And what I had to offer was enough.

“Unbelievable,” she murmured, and rescheduled.

It was deep work, and it was a delight.