Massage Tales, MLD

The Right Thing. The Sick Feeling.

I had a new client today. This person saw my card on the crowded Community Board at a local coffee shop and actually called me. He had a serious and extended conversation with me about the type of massage I do and where I got my training.

Once I got over my initial shock that someone actually (a) saw my card and (b) called me, I sank in to the process of interviewing and being interviewed by a potential new client. He asked appropriate questions, offered information about his own experience with massage, and generally did all the things that dispel any creepy vibes. We scheduled an appointment for later in the week.

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I asked him, as I always do, to tell me more about the specific reasons he was seeking massage. He deferred, said the problem was “embarrassing” and that he would rather talk about it in person. I decided not to press him and to wait until his appointment to get more information. And then I made sure two or three friends knew exactly when this new client was coming to my office, and that other people would be in the building while I was there.

I will say now that everyone leaves this story safe, and with their essential trust in human nature intact.

He arrived on time, filled out the paperwork and sat down with me to talk about his health history. He described his current discomforts with candid detail. He answered my questions and listened to my answers to his questions.

He started talking about everything that his condition altered in his life. I felt the frustration in his voice, and my compassion reflexes kicked in. This person is in pain. Witness this. Listen. Honor this experience. Be in service to this human.

And so he asked me the question, “Will this help me? Will this fix the problem?”

And I had to answer him honestly. “I don’t know.”

We talked a bit more and settled on what we both felt would be true — that if nothing else, this could be a time for his body to relax. That felt like enough. I let him get settled on the table and I started the session.

I should mention here that the work we agreed on — manual lymphatic drainage — is gentle work. There is no smashing of muscles or kneading of tissue. It involves rhythmic stretching of the skin that is so gentle it can be done after surgery. It is the kind of massage that one of my clients calls “petting butterflies.”

We discussed this, or I thought we did. I even demonstrated for him (on my arm) how manual lymphatic drainage looks much different than massage. I reminded him that this was his session, and we could switch to massage during the session if he felt like it would be better for him.

About 20 minutes into the session I noticed he had a confused look on his face. “What’s on your mind?” I said.

“I’m just not sure, I mean, I’m not sure this is working.”

I stopped what I was doing. “Okay,” I said, “What would you like to do?”

“I guess, I don’t know, I mean, you’re the professional, right?”

This is where I paused to take a deep breath and save my rants for later. Just because I went to school for a thing and have practiced it for many years does not mean I get any kind of agency or ownership over anyone else’s body. I would like the idea of the expert who also takes a client/patient’s agency to be extracted from every health care interaction everywhere, all the time.

I am the professional, I agreed, and I reminded him that he is the expert on his own body.

Then I got a sense that what he might need was permission. So I said, “Would you like to end the session?”

He sighed and looked at me, relieved. “Yes, I think that would be best.”

He wanted me to be confident and bold in my predictions for what I could do to help. All I could be was honest. He wanted something that he could not articulate, and that thing was definitely was not the type of work I was doing.

It was the right thing to say I didn’t know, to give no assurances where I had none, and to stop working when his mind and body were clearly agitated. We parted on good terms (yes, he paid for the session) and I have no regrets.

Except. There is always the voice from old stuff of the past that snickers in my ear and points at me, laughing, whenever I am not the smartest and most brilliant of them all. She is a persistent little gremlin and I can hear her laughing even as my stronger adult self knows this was the right thing.

I am a human who has chosen work that involves intimate interaction with other humans. There is no way to keep this from reaching in and stirring up all of my stuff. I am reminded, again, today that part of my job is to learn how to balance being an emotional being within the space of my professional work.

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. 

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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.