Blog

Uncategorized

Emily

My first job in senior care was on the memory care floor of a nursing home.  All the residents were in the later stages of some kind of cognitive decline.  Most of them spoke very little, some not at all.  One of these was Emily.

Emily smiled quietly from her chair whenever anyone said her name.  Her posture was perfect.  She folded her hands beautifully in her lap until something — anything — was placed on the table in front of her.  Then she would gently pick up the object and examine it with her hands, gently, with divine attention.

Emily had striking deep brown, almost black, eyes.  Her eyebrows were still a deep black, while the rest of her hair was gray.  Emily rarely noticed anything outside the reach of her hands.  When it was time for her to move from one room to another, she stood slowly and took the arm of whoever walked with her.  She took short, shuffling steps, like many of the other people on the floor.

Every day, just after lunch, Emily’s husband came to visit with her.  He greeted her in the dining room.  Every day, her serene countenance grew into a wide open smile as soon as she saw him.  Her eyes sparkled and her pale cheeks flushed pink.  They walked down the hall, arm-in-arm, and went to Emily’s room where they would sit next to each other and hold hands.  Sometimes, her husband would brush her hair, or show her pictures of the grandchildren.  After an hour or two, around the time Emily started to fall asleep in her chair, her husband kissed her on the forehead and said goodbye until the next day.

selective focus photography of left hand on top of right hand on white pants
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

I had the privilege of witnessing so many love stories like this one in that job.  Emily and her husband hold a special place in my heart because their tenderness was unshakeable.  On rare days, Emily would get anxious and almost angry.  She couldn’t sit still and would not hold her husband’s hand.  He still looked at her with the same unshiftable tenderness.  On these days he would try to stroke her hair or sing to her.  If nothing worked, he would simply sit and love her.

The absolute simplicity of his presence, every single day, reminds me how much we all have to offer each other.  If we will only just show up, and be present with another human with no judgement.

Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Death and Other Benefits

As I’ve written before, I knew from the start of my massage career that I wanted to work with people in extremis — whether through age, illness, life stresses, or other factors.  I am not a mechanical fix-’em-up therapist.  I am a keeper of respite.

In my last quarter of school, I got in touch with a Donna, a hospice massage therapist who had attended the same school.  Donna generously agreed to let me shadow her for part of one day and talk to me in detail about her work with dying people.  With her, I went to the hospice inpatient facility.  Donna checked in with the nurses and got a list of people who might be open to receiving massage.  The nurses directed her first to one woman in particular.

“She’s struggling,” the nurse said, “Maybe you could ease her a little.”

Donna and I walked into the woman’s room.  I stayed close to the door as Donna approached the bed and gently touched the woman’s hand.  The woman was taking short, gasping breaths.  Her neck twisted with each breath and she shifted constantly in the bed.  Donna spoke very quietly to her and got permission to give her a gentle massage.  I watched Donna with my still-learning eyes, trying to parse exactly which techniques she used and how she crafted a coherent session in this unusual location.

person massaging man while lying on bed
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

And then I forgot all of that and just watched.  Donna placed her hands on the woman’s ribcage, she stroked her hair and lovingly pressed her hands.  The woman gradually stopped shifting her position.  She still took short breaths, but they seemed more comfortable now.  After about fifteen minutes, Donna thanked the woman and we left the room without a sound.  The nurse walked into the room after we left.

Donna stood at the sink washing her hands, and I stood with her trying to form an intelligent question.  I could only manage “Thank you” and “What? . . . .” As I struggled with my words, the nurse came up, grinning.  She patted Donna on the back.

“Donna,” she said, “I think you just massaged that woman to death.”

They smiled at each other and hugged.  At the start of the day, the patient was in distress, struggling to breath, or to stop breathing.  After the massage, she appeared to be in much less distress and slipping into an easeful death.  I hope that is what happened.  To be honest, I have no idea.

What I do know, however, is that I am much more suited for the kind of work Donna does than almost anything else.  To facilitate ease in the face of distress.  To work with another human and help reduce the struggle of their transition — whether it is the transition to health after a long illness, the transition to a different lifestyle, or the transition from life into death.

Thoughts on the profession

The Imperfection of Sight

“It wigs people out when someone actually sees them.  And it wigs us out to fully see ourselves.”

I am fortunate to be able to teach in a number of different venues, and I love them all.  My favorite, though, is the almost overwhelming intensity of a short workshop. With a room of people who have chosen to spend their time and money in a very particular way.  I teach continuing education, and in the workshops we often take time to consider ourselves, and what version of ourselves we bring to our clients. 

A few days ago, we were talking about working with people who are seriously ill.  We were considering medical decisions, and what we might do if we are working with someone who makes a decision that is different from one we might make.  The question on the table was about a specific case; about our thoughts, resistances, and feelings.  It was about what we would do.

Everyone in the room took the time to think about the question.  They sat in their groups and talked animatedly with each other and when we came back together, they gave their thoughts in echoes. 

Of course we would work with this person. 

We are massage therapists.

It’s not our concern what decision someone makes.

And that was the end of it.  Or was it?

I agreed with and believed everything they said. We are compassionate professionals and we practice unconditional positive regard.  Everyone’s health care decisions are their own to make.

And yet.  After the work is done and the client feels better and we get home alone at night with our feelings and our truth, what is there? Is there only a practiced neutrality that never allows for any conflict or feeling of distress?  Are we that good?

We are not.  I know deep in my own being we are not.  Because we are human.  The thing we are good at is hiding the uncomfortable bits of ourselves.  Our fears.  Our prejudices.  Our anger and our hurt. 

There were only a few minutes of class left.  So, I took a deep breath and offered some homework.  Dig a little deeper, I said.  I told them the truth.  I had conflicted feeling about working with the person in our scenario.  I saw wasted resources in the decisions being made.  I have prejudices that are causing me tension around the whole situation. 

If we don’t take out our darkest feelings and consider them, how do we trust our light? 

Remember when you were a child and were scared of the monsters under the bed or in the closet? Remember that a swift antidote to those fears was to go and look.  Put on a light and see the places where your fears reside. 

ancient art artist artistic
Photo by icon0.com on Pexels.com

It wigs us out when we see ourselves.  Because when we do, we must acknowledge the parts of ourselves that are not kind, not loving, not full of unconditional positive regard.  In our oversimplified way, we might think this makes our kindness and love somehow invalid.  What is does, really, is give us the tools we need to make our kindness and love richer and more true.  It saves us from collapsing under the weight of our unacknowledged shadows.  It returns us to our wholeness. 

The students left with the homework.  I hope they went home and looked into their own hearts and saw everything, or a little closer to everything.  I know some of them did not.  But I believe some of them did, and that is enough.  It is imperfect and it is enough. 

massage education, Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Aural Forestry

What started as an adaptation to technological difficulties grew into a new research interest and intentional structure of the whole massage environment.

54818507822__FA4A2448-7CBE-45DA-B8FF-63EF7E1D7297
This is Nadine, one of the office plants.

I love my office.  It has a skylight for natural light, and it is large with plenty of room to move around. My office mate has an amazing eye for design, so she put together the space in a way that is beautiful and functional.  I am proud to bring new clients into the space and trust they will feel at ease there.

I don’t love the technology, or lack thereof.  There is no WiFi in the space, so my regular streaming music service is not available.  When I moved into the space, I pulled out my tablet and searched my apps for some kind of relaxing noise making program.  I found I had an app called Spa Music, and that this app had a mixing board page.  You could combine any number of nature sounds to create a custom, relaxing soundscape.  I quickly settled on “Lake” as the background and experimented with different bird songs, crickets, or even jungle frogs on top. The sounds would play until I turned off the tablet, with no wireless connection necessary.

I set up the nature sounds on the speakers and invited in my first clients with some trepidation. Would they miss the music? Is there someone out there who really is a huge Dean Everson or Enya fan, and was I alienating them?

I quickly learned a few true things:

  1.  Almost no one notices the music/sounds unless they stop unexpectedly.
  2.  Lots of people in Kentucky get significant joy out of observing and identifying birds.
  3.  Working around nature sounds for several hours has a significant positive effect on my outlook.
bright countryside dawn daylight
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Somewhere in the collection of random information in my brain, I remembered one of my friends talking about forest bathing.  Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, has been described in Japan since the 1980s, and is a part of preventative health care there.  Several studies on the benefits of forest bathing suggest that a slow, attentive, mindful walk in nature has a number of health benefits.  A few researchers started to break the experience into pieces to see if similar health benefits could be available to people in urban environments.  A study in Japan suggested that simply being around fresh flowers in an office had a positive, relaxing effect on office workers.

What about just the sounds of nature?  Could listening to lake noises or birdsong have a positive effect on someone’s overall massage experience?  So far, I haven’t found any studies on this particular question, so I only have stories.

I have the story of the woman (and avid birder) who is coping with a painful autoimmune condition, whose posture relaxed as soon as she heard the birdsong in my office.

I have the story of the man who called my office “instant calm” when he walked in.

And I have the story of every day I spend in that office, feeling more attentive and present without the burden of tuning out some hideous “spa music” coming from the streaming service.

For now, I am letting the nature sounds play on, and spending as much time as possible in actual nature as part of my regular self-care.  I’ve got other, really fun projects keeping me occupied outside the office right now, but who knows?  Maybe this nature thing will grow.

Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

How Did I Get Here: Part 2

I first thought about massage therapy as a career twelve years before I had my epiphany at the senior care community.  I had never even had a massage before, but still my childhood friend’s story was enough to show me how powerful simple touch can be.

Nancy (not her real name) and I met in second grade.  We were both quiet, clumsy, slightly awkward girls.  We laughed at the same things and we liked to create whole worlds out of whatever was in front of us.  We spent our entire grade school years going back and forth to each other’s houses and sharing all the ordinary moments of our childhood.  By the time we graduated high school, we had moved in slightly different directions, but were still close.  I went away to school for my liberal arts degree, and she went to a school near our home for her STEM degree.

One weekend, Nancy and another friend from high school came to visit me at school.  We went to dinner, walked around, and laughed way too much.  That night, I sat on my bed while Nancy and our other friend sat on the floor and we talked.  Nancy revealed to us that she had been abused by her brother when she was a child.  She told us about finding the memory and starting therapy.  She told us she was alright.

And of course she wasn’t, not entirely.  After two years of college, Nancy dropped out and went to massage school.  It surprised me, and at the time I wondered how she could possibly throw her life away like that.

About six months into her massage career, Nancy and I had the chance to sit down together again and really talk.  I asked her about massage school, what it was like and if she enjoyed it.  Nancy told me about her most valuable school experience.

silhouette of left human hand
Photo by 祝 鹤槐 on Pexels.com

For her externship, Nancy went to work at a shelter for victims of domestic violence.  “It was great,” she said, “I was just there with my massage chair, you know, trying to let these women experience safe touch.”

Safe touch.

This simple thing that Nancy didn’t have in her own home — yet somehow she could bring it to other women who had been abused.  I was speechless.  Of course she hadn’t thrown her life away.  She grabbed hold of her life and made it her own again.

The more I reflected on Nancy’s story, the more my sense of the immense power of simple, safe touch grew.  The fact that this could be your job — to serve people in this way — it seemed like heaven.

At the time, I was on a different path, so I filed my impressions away for later.  12 years later, I ended up with people I wanted to serve, and the means to go back to school.  And now, here I am today.

Nancy and I lost touch several years ago.  The last time I heard from her, I was in the middle of massage school, and she had quit massage therapy altogether.  To me, it sounded like she reached that physical and emotional burn-out state that ends so many massage careers. It saddened me, and it built my resolve to take excellent care of myself. For so many reasons, I have Nancy to thank for being here, in this job I love, ten years and counting.

Inner World, massage education, Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

How Did I Get Here: Part 1

Next year will be my ten-year anniversary as a massage therapist.  Massage therapy is about my fifth career so far.  I’m happy to walk you through the other four (or so), but not right now.  Today I’m thinking about how I got here, to this career, the one that has lasted the longest.

About a decade ago, I worked as a marketing assistant at a big, fancy retirement community.  My job involved supporting the sales team, helping with events, and sometimes helping new residents move in.  For some new residents, I went to their homes and helped them measure out their new apartment and what could fit into the space.  I bent down to count outlets and find the exact placement of cable jacks in their new space.  This all happened in between doing all the office and administrative support work that was part of my job.

My favorite parts of my job were these moments working directly with the new residents.  I remember one day, I stayed in a new resident’s apartment to direct the movers while she took care of things at her old home.  She had a beloved Turkish rug cleaned and delivered to the apartment first thing in the morning.  I pulled the rug into the apartment and unrolled it in her bedroom, delighted to find that it fit the room exactly.  While I straightened the rug and checked it, I called her to let her know it fit.  I heard her smile through the phone.

The rest of that afternoon, I sat at my desk running marketing reports and updating our database.  It was mind-numbing.  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I left the Sales Office to go take a walk around the community.  I pretended to check on all the common spaces since we had an event later in the week.  Near the large community room, I ran into Mrs. G, who I helped move in about a month before.

“I met some lovely women at lunch today,” she said.  “They were also your chickens.”  Mrs. G called herself, and everyone whose move I assisted, my “chickens.”  Slightly agitated, somewhat befuddled but carefully tended, and definitely well-loved.  The metaphor made me smile.

agriculture animal baby beak
Photo by Achim Bongard on Pexels.com

The job, I realized, as I walked down the hall, did not.  The best parts of my day were the moments were I got to work directly with the residents in some way, to be of service.  I wanted something that involved direct care.  I circled past the nurses’ office and considered becoming a nurse, then realized that the nurse had strict, short time constraints on most visits.

I wanted something where I could spend more time.  As I walked back towards the Sales Office I remembered an idea from a long time ago — massage therapy.  Direct care.  Lots of time.  Being of service.  It felt perfect.

So, that is how I first started looking into massage schools — 12 years after I first had the idea of becoming a massage therapist.  But that’s a story for another time.

Uncategorized

Trigger Finger

Sometimes I am careless.  And sometimes people get hurt.

In my classes, sometimes we role play different scenarios.  It’s a way to practice language and reactions in a safe space.  At least, I want it to be safe.  We were practicing dismissing a client.  Someone who we knew we were not qualified to serve.  We spent an hour brainstorming different scenarios and deciding what to choose.  Each one of the students self-selected the situation they felt most unsure about so we could practice it in a safe space.

Safe.  Or so I thought.

My student, call her Darla, told us a few days ago that she had suffered from postpartum depression.  She talked about not know what it was at the time and seemed content to share her experience with us all so we could learn.  Her children were both in middle school, and she talked about it as if it was something long resolved.  Here is one spot where I should have payed closer attention.

Our list of challenges included referring out a client with high anxiety issues.  Darla identified this as the scenario she felt most uncomfortable with.   Again, more attention needed, and I didn’t give it.

Darla went last in our practice role plays.  The set up was this: Darla and I acted out the client dismissal while the rest of the class observed, silently.  At the end we would go over what she did well, what needs more practice, and what was missing.  Darla paid close attention to everyone else in the class as they practiced and gave thoughtful feedback, as she always did.

Darla and I sat down face to face.  As someone who has occasional anxiety, and has lots of close friends who suffer from anxiety, it was not hard to inhabit the character of a person with high anxiety.  As we continued our conversation, Darla started bouncing in her chair and glancing all around her like she was looking for the exits.

We continued talking, and her neck started to flush red.  She stammered, started losing her words.  Finally she clenched her hands together, said, “I . .I . .I . .I. .” and just stopped, looking all around her.  I said, “Do you need to stop?” And she nodded, then burst into tears.  She shook and sobbed in her chair, unable to respond to any questions.  I suggested the whole class take a break.

Darla got up from the chair and took a walk, still shaking and sobbing.  Her hands shook and she could barely speak.  She came back after about five minutes and sat down, quietly said that she was fine, she was ready to continue with class.  She was not ready to continue with class.  I apologized to her, she waved her and at me and said, “No, it’s not your fault.”

But it was my fault.  Something in the exercise triggered a clear and very present trauma for her.  There were places where I could have paid more attention and I did not.  My classroom, the place I try to keep safe for students, was the least safe place for her that day.

As we talked about it later, I learned that some of the mannerisms I used in our scenario, drawn directly from my life experience, were also mirrors of her own postpartum experience.  “I guess I haven’t really dealt with it,” she said.

We came back to a place of trust and mutual learning in that class, but the echoes of her distress still haunt me sometimes.  Any day I am feeling not quite present, or inclined to be a bit lazy with my attention to the people in my class, I am reminded of Darla.  The distress that didn’t need to be.  And I remember how important it is to recognize, understand and clear my resistance so I can have my attention were it needs to be.  On the people I serve.  With loving and compassionate focus.