Friday, February 14, 2014

The other side of therapy

I want to tell the story of a particular client I had during my years as a massage therapist (1983-93+). Before that I need to give you some background. I have tried to document my life in massage in the past. What it meant to me and how I think it works and should be regarded. I would get started writing and realize that it wasn't as simple as just an occupation helping people. The professional model where you remain a neutral objective advocate, as a doctor does, in most ways was how I did my work. However the work I was called to do (as in “a calling”) involved reaching out with my own feelings, all my senses and intuition. Pragmatically this sensitivity collected information and drove my actions to resolve healthfully many of the "thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to". Proceeding with as altruistic intent as I could resulted in, among other benefits, a oneness type of connection with many many people. This was a big part of the joy in doing the work. Those who choose to be aware of such things appreciated it. The majority of people live their lives with just what is merely apparent and enjoyed the other benefits of my dedication. 

Unlike many of my colleagues I was never drawn to using massage to treat specific conditions. This is only legal under the direction of a licensed doctor or similar healthcare professional. Nonetheless countless times people came to me with hurts that existed in the gray area. Migraine sufferers, for example, would seek me out for relief. I had a collection of tools (techniques) that came from many disciplines I had studied. Success was consistent enough that I had many 'regulars'. Often the migraine sufferers got more relief than other things they tried but nothing that lasted long.

On the other end of the spectrum is what I came to call "The spa treatment". This is often a very superficial treatment that is more of a ritual of self indulgence. I worked places where they wished I would do this kind of thing. I understand the reasons a person might seek this out as an ego bath or as an unattached kind of nurturing.  I am, in the end, a utilitarian when it comes to such things had trouble employing the golden rule. Girlfriends and the like were a different story. I could never get enough of nurturing them, for obvious reasons. (guess that could have gone unsaid).

The work I felt the best about philosophically and functionally was someplace in the middle. Much like "The Middle Way" itself. Fragrances and textures to please and awaken the senses of all your various parts. A working of not just your skin and muscles but of the glue that binds your body to your mind and spirit. Rather than massage in my mind it was always “The Work”. With others I used all but I liked the word “workout” over “treatment” or “session” because it's best use was as a regular part of a good life. Much like you would want to workout at the gym or do yoga regularly.  As you'll read below I called the work “visits” in some cases. Overall the idea was that once your nerves, muscles and fibers are given a break to settle back into their neural position your mind and spirit can follow, if they like, and healing can go on if it needs to. The key with this approach, as with other workouts, is ongoing repetition. The intervals have to be far enough apart that the thousand shocks and accompanying stress can leave a detectable trail for me to follow.

Even though many claims of miraculous cures and dramatic results are heard from areas of the many disciplines associated with massage, in my reckoning, such events are rare. Rather when health and healing, pleasure and nurturing, and even mystical ethereal experiences occur as a result of having massage, theses are side effects. The point of the work, is the work.

That all said; a few of the many thousands of hours I spent giving my ministrations standing next to a table are when remarkable things did happen. Here is what I remember of one such client:

My last couple of years of doing massage I spent more and more time working with geriatric people. Besides openness and caring being central to my approach I am just a very sensitive person. Not necessarily the bleeding heart kind of empathy (that too) but all of my senses not just the emotional ones pick up on things beyond the normal range and present them to me without explanation. Working with active adults was creating allot of noise in my psyche. Older people in general have let go of the multi layers of concern that populate modern lives. They become kind of like, I mean no disrespect, like the way dogs are. Without guile. Straightforward in thought and deed. They are also, again generally, more appreciative of simply being paid attention to and nurtured. A less cluttered consciousness lets them appreciate the subtler techniques too.

This is why, when I could, I used my version of a discipline known as Ortho-Bionomy™. I had taken many weekend workshop classes for these techniques and loved it. My instructor called it the "Jazz of Bodywork". (bodywork was also a general term at the time for the various types massage or similar treatments available) I thought of it more in terms of Tai Chi. However some of the other practitioners thought of, Ortho-Bionomy™ as gentle and powerful as the wind. I found it just as hard to market as wind to a public used to paying for the overt sensation of swedish massage. O-B is the essence of gentleness. One of it's main tenets is to move away from pain towards comfort, to allow mind and body permission to let go. This makes it especially perfect for the very old, who can't tolerate very much in the way of deep tissue work. 

I've only seen one residential location in the area specifically for old folks that was like a hotel. The one where my new client lived was a half step or so down from that. More of a practical place where most residents had a room or shared two rooms and a bath. Food was served in one of two big dining halls. Around the main 3 story building, on the grounds, were sprinkled apartments for the more independent people who still might want access to services and interact with the other residents.

Stella's family had money so she lived by herself in a 2 bedroom apartment that also had a living room and it's own galley kitchen. 2 bedrooms because she had 24/7 attendants who needed a place to sleep. As I recall the women who took care of Stella were black ladies that appeared to be 50-ish. I don't remember their names. In fact Stella was not my client's name. I don't remember her's either, this was 20 something years ago, even if I did remember it's not ethical to divulge. Added to that, her family with all the money, was a known name in the community at the time. Not so much now, but why risk offence. 

Stella was basically in good health. The reason she needed constant care was that she had a nervous system disorder where she was essentially locked up inside her body with no way to communicate with the outside world. The doctors had concluded that her mind was intact and working but simply unable to express it's self to her muscles. Nothing, not even her eyes, moved by her direction. 

She had been this way for years. Her family loved her dearly and maybe because of bodywork they had gotten someplace were inspired. Between their trips abroad I was engaged to come see her for an hour a week at the full rate. Lacking any muscle tone to speak of (her condition did involve a certain amount of involuntary muscle contractions) she was definitely a candidate for O-B. 

Unlike other clients there was no feedback except for changes in her muscles when the techniques worked. O-B normally includes a lot of verbal feedback especially in the early sessions. Once you develop a rapport and get to know the person's unique physiology and holding patterns most of the feedback becomes non-verbal. In this new situation I only had texture, skin temp, breathing to some degree, and pulse.  I also had my intuitive type senses and years of experience. At times she would give a long exhale indicating a new level of letting go. Even this had none of the emotional wake surrounding it that normally occurred.  

This was very perplexing. The ladies who attended Stella treated her as if she were fully functional. Spoke to her as you would any other geriatric charge. They were very kind.
[years later, after my supposed retirement from the biz I took on a client that was in a facility at the bottom end of the ladder. This was not my first time working in such places but that had been many years before when at 19 I drove a wheelchair van. Her family had enough money to pay me for half a dozen visits or so with their aunt. She had just been moved there and I was, I suppose, a band-aid for their guilt. The aids here were kind people also but the 10 or 15 of them had hundreds of people to care for. Not just one. At first she wanted to get better but soon realized that she would not leave this place alive and was swallowed by despair. Her niece stopped visiting and she was all but unresponsive at my last visit. The niece let me go. I do not know how they do it, I could not do the grunt work of caregiving in a place like that. They are quite simply the best of the human race.] 
Anyway Stella’s caregivers were convinced that she was awake in there someplace. They insisted that she looked forward to my visits and felt very much better for days after. Frankly I wasn't so sure. I mean the cognitive part of her brain might have been in working order but the ordeal of her situation and the despair.  At best her thoughts must have been in a protective neutral gear like tonic immobility or whatever the technical term is. 

When I talk about intuition I recognize 2 types. The first is where your subconscious conspires with your five senses and memory to analyze input and feedback solutions unfettered by the restrictions of critical conscious thought. Experience and skill at something will often give you a kind of automatic expertise like this*. After I got my “chops” at doing massage I always got better results, or nicer compliments at least, if I “let go & let god**” so to speak. The other kind is more what you might think of as intuition where besides what happens in the first type there are psychic or 6th senses added in. This would be when god actually shows up.
I am always skeptical when someone claims cosmic or psychic abilities or flashes, that kind of thing. Mostly because I have them too, all the time. Most of the time I can trace them back to the first kind of intuition. Other times that is not possible and some kind of metaphysical something is going on. I remain doubtful of other people’s claims. Except on rare occasions they either willfully, or because they don't have the capacity, fail to employ critical analysis. This doesn't mean they are wrong. I also try to keep my skepticism in check. Adding to the doubtful nature of such things is that most of the psychic spasms have no meaning. A glitch in the time-space continuum perhaps. A psychic telepathy version of Jung’s synchronicity happens to me a lot and most of the time I am left waiting for a shoe that never drops. Then other times, especially when in direct contact with the life force. Like when doing massage and you let go of words and symbols. The metaphysical perceptions fit and can be used or gone with.

One of the Ortho-Bionomy™ classes I took went into a technique where, through visualizing the person’s nervous system, you allow healing energy to flow like rain off of a tin roof down their spinal column. Even though I used swedish/deep tissue massage as my main MO. I took a number of healing energy classes. My own skepticism was routinely shot down when, without telling the client, they would work. Shiatsu was really good for this. 

Well, Stella was a puzzle that had no pattern to follow. What if I used the visualization technique to take a look inside. What might I sense? 
I sat at the end of the table where her head was. Hands under her shoulders as she lay on her back I supported the top few vertebrae. Very slowly I made gentle, barely perceptible, circles left to right as I imagined a flow of energy flowing down her spine in a serpentine pattern. Once the flow is started it’s a matter of seeing where it goes. Normally with this process you get to the lumbar vertebrae and come back up. With Stella it went so far and stopped. Stopped hard. Like a black wall that was impenetrable. I had no way to know if this was all imagination or not. Except that it did not feel like imagination and the blackness was a complete void. Not spooky or evil or sad like conventional concepts of death or pain or whatever. Just nothing. A nothing I have never sensed before or since. 

One thing I want to make note of because of the sheer irony and spectre of cosmic payback. Stella’s family was wealthy because she and her husband over 50 years or so built the area’s largest exterminators company. He died and when she fell ill the family sold it for millions to one of the big chains. Many insecticides are neurotoxins. Her condition was frighteningly similar to the way billions, if not trillions, of insects died at their hands.   

Reaching her with the the visualization technique was not going to be helpful. I did sense a kind of awareness of her.  O-B works as a means of awareness on different levels so I continued trying to sense her consciousness. I did finally feel that I touched base with her. I don't remember if I said something out loud or just thought it. It wasn't my place to say but don't know that anyone else thought to or had the courage to. Something along the lines of “It’s OK, Everything is OK. If you are done here you can let go.” The next time I came for a visit everything was gone. The helper ladies, the furniture. What I presume was one of the daughters I had not met in person was there. “Oh, no one called you?” “Mama passed away a few days ago”. I was dismissed like a servant in an edwardian drama. 

*On the television show “Psych” the character Shawn supposedly does something like this with his extreme skills of observation and deduction pretending to be Psychic. 
**Topic for a different post but after 40 years of deliberation the concept of god as separate and anthropomorphic becomes more and more absurd to me. I use the term god as a common ground shorthand.