I was 38 years old when I began massage school. I timidly told my father about my decision to pursue a new career as we ate dinner. He paused and placed his fork on his plate. I knew he would be disappointed in my choice as he believed wholeheartedly that being a lawyer, a doctor or even a teacher were the paths his daughters should choose. As he lowered his glasses down his nose, I braced for the impending condemnation that was sure to follow. “I didn’t know they had a school for prostitution,” he said matter-of-factly. My heart sank and honestly, I said nothing in response. My voice was swallowed up by his disdain for my plans and arguing with my father about anything was pointless, something I had learned long before that dinner conversation.
It was then that I knew I would encounter many people who misunderstood massage. Some, like my father, had never had massage and were born in a generation that only knew of illicit backrubs given in the backrooms of seedy bars. Even those in my age group would refer to me as a masseuse and would jokingly comment, “Do you give happy endings?” Again, I would say nothing believing my explanations would likely be received by ignorance. And there was that part of me, the part that has driven me to become the person I am today, the part that quietly believed one day those who were uninformed or misguided would know the worth of my work. One day, I would “show them”.
As a “young” massage therapist, I was eager to both please and prove my value and the importance of massage in health and wellness. It was challenging to encounter clients who demeaned my 2-year education and the sacrifice and study it entailed with irreverent touch and comments and innuendo. The voices of Ethics teachers resounding in my head, I deflected their attempts to undermine my career and built up a repertoire of snarky, smart responses that quickly dismissed their efforts and as a result empowered me as a therapist and a person.
The reality is, even now in 2017, we will still be confronted with those who seek to belittle and desecrate that which we have worked so hard to make valuable and sacred. There will always exist that bevy of society that refuses to see the professionalism of our field, those whose agenda differs quite starkly from what we know to be true. There is, I believe, a responsibility on our part. We must, as individuals and therapists, diligently work to educate our clients, our families, and our friends. We must maintain a heightened awareness of the words we use when speaking with clients and even in social settings with regards to the work we do. We must be crystal clear in our own minds about our personal and professional boundaries. Always, we must adhere to the highest of standards in our practices and in the treatment room. At a time when social media allows entry into every aspect of our lives, it is imperative that we understand that the world is watching. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to the field of massage to remain steadfast in our conviction that we are professionals.
In so many ways, the field of massage has become respected and viewed as an important complementary therapy by even those in the medical field. This is progress and however slow, it is still progress. We will always experience setbacks. Each time the news reveals a story of a therapist who has been charged with sexual misconduct, we all take a few steps backwards. And again, we must continue to set the bar higher. What we do as individual therapists impacts the field as a whole. Holding true to our beliefs and the quality of care we give our clients creates a ripple effect.
The field of massage is changing, growing, expanding to places I only hoped for when I began this path. And while there are still moments when a client refers to me as a masseuse, I am now prepared to correct the mistake on the spot by saying unapologetically, “I am a massage therapist.” I have never forgotten the look in my father’s eyes the day I told him about massage school. Thankfully, I did not let it change my direction. Almost a decade after he admonished my decision to become a massage therapist, I had the pleasure of hearing his oncologist say, “Arthur, you should let Susan give you massage. It has been proven beneficial for many of the symptoms you are experiencing.” That day, my Dad looked at me sweetly as he lowered his glasses and smiled. That day, I was proud of my choices and my Dad was, too.
You Are Beautiful
It has been about fifteen years since I met Mary. I was a massage therapy student in Boston and it was Thursday night clinic. In my last term of school, I usually looked forward to Thursday nights and the opportunity to work with the public but on this particular evening, I was tired. Working fulltime and going to school takes its toll and as I began my intake interview, I was calculating the approximate time I would fall into bed that night. My instructor called me aside during my interview to bring attention to the fact that my client, Mary, was well over 300 pounds and I would need to lower my table. More concerned with my instructor’s critique of my work, I chastised myself as I made the necessary adjustment to table and then went to retrieve Mary. I should have noticed. I am supposed to notice these things. My mind was reeling with insecurities and self-doubt. Still harboring self-criticism, I left her to get undressed and tried to stop the internal disparagement that plagued me during my final term at school. As I entered the booth to begin our session, I had no way of knowing that this one massage would impact every massage that followed.
I began with my usual sequence. Contact first. Draping. Oil application. I had a well-rehearsed massage sequence that had consistently proven successful with my clients at the clinic. Within a few minutes however, I realized that I was unable to maintain hand contact due to Mary’s size and the contours of her large body. Panic set in. All of my training up to this point had taught me that full hand contact is the most fundamental element to a good massage. I stopped for a moment and let my hands rest on her back. As I looked at her, I was filled with compassion. I realized that it was possible that this woman was not often touched. And at that moment, one thought entered my mind. “You are beautiful”. It became my mantra. I continued with the massage, ignoring my inability to keep my hand fully connected to her skin as it travelled over hills and valleys of adipose. I repeated my mantra over and over again hoping that my lack of skill might be overshadowed by the purest of intentions. It went on this way for an hour. While each part of her body brought new challenges in my technique, my intention was steadfast.
As I waited for Mary in the interview area, I was anxious about her feedback. Knowing that I had fumbled through the session and my techniques were far from perfect, I was sure she would emerge dissatisfied. As she walked over towards me I noticed tears in her eyes. She smiled and said, ”I have never felt so beautiful”. My eyes welled. I don’t remember the words we exchanged after that. My memory of the experience ends at that exact moment. The moment I discovered that intention is the most powerful gift I can offer.
Massage therapy is no joke. It requires years of study. To be effective, a therapist must master anatomy and physiology, and perfect techniques and modalities that address tension patterns and injuries. And still, there is more that is needed. I believe that we have a responsibility to be authentic in our touch. We have a duty to make every contact hold meaning. It is pointless to spread oil across the back of a client without first asking permission. It makes no sense to undrape a body and move our hands across the skin without asking the spirit beneath what it needs. It’s irreverent to decide what this body needs and wants based on some muscle adhesions or hyper tonicity. Surely, we know that the body is composed of more than skin and muscle and bones; more than blood and organs. Hopefully, we are able to remember that the body is the house of the soul and that the soul has needs, as well. Most importantly, we need to remember that every body is beautiful.
Learning To Hold Space
I was in massage school the first time I heard someone use the words “holding space”. I was baffled and curious. The instructor was attempting to teach us an important lesson about listening. I thought, at the time, I am a great listener. This holding space concept is easy. Looking back, I realize the foolishness of my belief.
That same instructor told us that when someone is crying we should not give him/her a tissue. I was shocked. She said that by giving a tissue we are telling the person to stop crying. She advised instead that allowing the person ample space to cry was part of holding space. It felt counter-intuitive to me, almost cruel. After all, wasn’t offering a tissue an act of comfort?
Like so many people who are attracted to massage therapy, I was a fixer, a giver, and a helper. I was driven by my own need to feel good about myself through the act of caring for others. My intentions were good-hearted and kind, always. I know now that being a giver or a helper sometimes gives me more than the receiver. It feels wonderful to help others. It makes us feel like we have purpose. It affirms for us that we are indeed needed and good. This is how life works. In the circle of giving, the giver is rewarded, as well. There is beauty there. And for most of my adult life, that is where I have lived.
When I began working with hospice patients, I realized that “holding space” would be my greatest challenge. By the time a person decides to utilize hospice services, most patients have already had years of treatment including surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and more. Once with hospice, all treatment ceases. My role in this is quite different than the massage therapist I am in private practice. My purpose or intention shifts to meet my patients where they are. And for most, their bodies are frail and weakened. They are processing what it means to be dying and in turn, I am being asked to hold that space, to touch that space. I am being invited into that space. I am being asked to honor that space and all that comes to light.
For the first time in my career, I could not rely on compassionate words to show understanding or offer hope. Instead, an awakening of sorts took place. My work suddenly had nothing to do with fixing and everything to do with being. Being present with the patient; being with them and their pain, their fear, their loss of control; their vulnerability. All of the massage techniques in the world would not change the fact that they were approaching death, sometimes unwillingly. I have had to learn to listen in all the ways my instructors tried to teach me many years ago. To listen to their stories, their sadness, their regret, their frustrations, and their anger without adding any trite words of wisdom or encouragement. Many times, I am biting my tongue, quelling the inner optimist so as not to minimize their feelings. I listen fully without interruption. I sit with their fear and say nothing. Instead, I rely on my hands to offer support and love. I use my silent intention to tell them they are not alone, they are loved, they are beautiful. I count on the connection between our hearts to give them all they need and all I want to say.
Holding the space is not about words of encouragement or understanding or compassion. All of those reactions make us feel better as helpers or givers. Holding space is just that, giving space for someone to feel all of his or her feelings even when it feels uncomfortable for us. It is sitting in the muck, offering only your quiet presence. In that space, we are able to hold another without words, without holding a hand, without a hug. It means we are holding them with everything that makes us who we are. We are holding them within our awareness and beyond what we think we can control. We are holding every piece of their story, so that when we do offer our hands and our touch, we are offering them the opportunity to truly feel connected to their bodies, their experience, and their souls in the process of letting go. Therein lies our oneness, our harmony, our truth.
Hospice Massage:Sacred Space
I started working for Hospice a year ago. Two hundred and sixty seven visits later, I am humbled by this work. There have been many times during my professional life as a massage therapist that have touched my heart and reaffirmed my choice of careers. But none compare to the moments I have experienced while working with those who are dying. Over and over again, I am granted entrance into the sacred space of families who are immersed in the journey towards death. I have found that in most cases, this space is carefully contained to include only those people who are closest to the patient. Each day that I walk into this bubble, I transform into the very best version of myself; knowing intuitively what to say, how to act and how to touch. What I have learned is immeasurable and perhaps indescribable. These are but a few of the lessons:
Walking The Walk
It’s true. Most of us are very good at extolling the benefits of regular massage. We have plenty of advice for clients, friends and family to lessen the aches and pains that life brings to their bodies. And yet, we are the worst at taking our own advice. Self-care, it would seem, is something we recommend to most everyone we know.
“You cant pour from an empty cup”
“You are the most important person in your life”
“When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”
The list of adages is endless and still, they pour out of our mouths with such ease one might think we are the self-care gurus of the world.
If we are honest, those attracted to this beautiful field of massage are the givers. The selfless, martyrs who find joy in taking care of others. It is our life’s purpose. As one of those people, I am proud to be a giver. It is noble, indeed.
While I may be singing to the choir, I ask that you take a deeper look. Ask yourself these questions:
I truly hope that you are able to answer each one of those questions with a response that is less than a month ago. I truly hope that every day you take time to be still and listen to your inner voice; the one that loves you and wants the best for you. I truly hope that the next time you are advocating the benefits of massage and self-care to one of your clients, you are able to speak authentically from your personal experience. I hope that you are walking the walk.
To the moon and back
I never thought I would become a massage therapist. It wasn't even an option in my mind. I more or less fell into it through a random or not so random chain of events. When I enrolled in massage school I was 38 years old. At the time I was working at a private psychiatric hospital. I was a single mom with three kids who had begun a journey of self-discovery. In the process, I found reiki. Before long, I was surrounded by smart, introspective, wine drinking artists who ultimately, set me on a life-changing path. The first time I walked into The Muscular Therapy Institute in Cambridge, I felt like I was "home". I didn't have any rational thoughts on why I felt this way, I just did. And for the next two years, I became immersed in a community of likeminded people who would become as important to me as my birth family. It is rare, I think, to find an educational setting and a career that carries with it a true sense of belonging. What I didn't know was that my life would forever change and I was about to embark on a journey that would stretch my sense of self to places I never imagined.
Years have passed, 16 to be exact. I am not the same person I was then. My life has changed, not once but countless times. That's the way life is. Children grow up and begin their own lives. They have children. I am now the Nana. Parents get older and often times require care before they pass on from this life. I am no longer a daughter. Relationships end. I am no longer a wife. And we learn to be alone. Relationships begin and we start over. I am now a partner. People come and go. We navigate through this life knowing that change is inevitable and it's somehow easier with less resistance. Throughout the 16 years of change, massage has been my constant. Without a crystal ball, I couldn't have known that massage therapy would shift and mold perfectly into my life at every corner. My sweet massage career was right there to weather every twist and turn. Part time, full time, self-employed, employee, sub-contractor; I have worked in every capacity. I have taught, mentored, managed a student clinic. I have practiced reiki, hot stone massage, prenatal massage, relaxation massage, sports massage, myofascial release, oncology massage and hospice massage. And still, there are literally thousands of other possibilities left to learn.
The field of massage is an endless reservoir for the insatiable learner. It allows us to explore new modalities, to continuously grow and learn, to define and redefine ourselves whenever we feel complacent or when our responsibilities require a new course of action. My journey has changed direction many times since it began. I am blessed. I have loved my job, in all of its forms, every day. Who knows what the future holds? In this amazing, boundless field...anything is possible and all of it is beautiful.
If you are just graduating from massage school, thank your lucky stars. For you are only beginning a journey that allows you freedom and creativity and endless ways to explore who you are and who you will become. And if you, like me, have been around for a minute, keep dreaming, keep growing....take this beautiful career to the moon and back.
I have always been a writer, of sorts. Not in the ways I envisioned as a teenager and yet, it has served my heart. I write to quell the yearning, to speak my truth and perhaps, to touch the spirit that connects us.