On the Other Side of Fear


 Last weekend I caught the movie Divergent with a friend. In the movie, the characters go through mental training in which their worst fears are virtually actualized: dive-bombing birds, watery graves, walking across beams hundreds of feet above solid ground. Since the movie wasn’t captivating either of us, I turned to my friend and asked him what his worst fears are. He said breezily that he’s lived a good life; he’s pretty much ready to die at any time.

He asked what I’m afraid of. I laughed a hollow little laugh and described a scene with cockroaches underfoot, approaching tornadoes and uncontrollable vomiting while someone tortures me by pulling out my fingernails. And that was just off the top of my head. My friend said that I spend too much time thinking about that kind of thing, and we settled back into watching the movie.

He’s right: I think about fear so much, I’ve even personified it. Some people picture fear as a sort of hulking beast, larger than life. To me, he (yes, fear is a he to me) is human, thin and aloof with sleepy bug eyes. Come to think of it, he reminds me of a tall Steve Buscemi. He leans against the wall of a building in the corner of my mind, picking his teeth with a spent toothpick. He’s no pusher, fear, but he’s always, always there. “You really wanna go my way?” he asks, a little surprised that I’d choose such a difficult route. Again. “OK, suit yourself.” He flicks the toothpick toward the sewer grate and misses, shrugs at it and cocks his head to one side. “You coming, or what?” he asks over his shoulder as he starts to leave.

I hustle after him. Again.

Yes, I understand that fear is a choice. How many FDR-like quotes can I possibly post on Pinterest? And why are these quotes doing diddly squat for me lately? Today I’m thinking about what happens when I try a different response than following fear.

“He’s a minor, 12 years old,” my manager told me before I picked up my client. Slouched on the waiting room couch, he appeared to be a puffy jacket with a pair of legs. Only a shock of black hair peeking over his jacket gave him away. During that first session, his mom (who was present in the room the whole time) informed me that he was on the junior high swim team and trained six days a week. His back and shoulders were constant problems, so she decided that he should try massage.

This was the first minor I’d ever worked on, and to say I was scared is an understatement. Nate* was my first “scary” client for too many reasons. Maybe he and his mom didn’t know this at the time, but I can be even more socially awkward than he appeared. On top of that, I happen to experience performance anxiety and a touch of impostor syndrome. Since massage school, I haven’t really had to deal with that; once I started massaging professionally I realized that I’m the only one watching and judging me, since the client is in no position to see me during the session. But this time…I had an actual witness, and what was worse, it was my young client’s mother.

On top of that, working on a minor brought up a host of other concerns. Some massage therapists in the spa where I work refuse to work on minors to protect themselves from any number of things that can go wrong. I could hurt him, or he could lie and say that I hurt him. I wondered if I should have followed their cue and done the same thing. Was this a big mistake?

I had no reason to worry. Nate felt pain relief on that first day and has become a regular client of mine since then. His mom trusts me enough to stay in the waiting room or get her own massage during our appointments. Having Nate as a young massage client has taught me so much. Working on growing tissue is fascinating. Over these past few months he’s grown a bit, so it seems like I’m working on an entirely different person than the kid I met several months ago. He seems to regard me as a big sister, in a way, and it’s such an honor gaining Nate’s trust and watching him grow, even if it’s over a short duration of time in the grand scheme of his life.

I think back to that first session and how afraid I was. I would have missed out on an incredible experience if I’d followed my thin man, fear.

Right now is a scary time for me. I injured my low back over two weeks ago, and the pain simply isn’t going away. I’ve been afraid to face facts by going to a doctor about it. It could be as straightforward as muscle strain, or it could be something much more serious. It’s easy to let my thoughts run wild. What if this is a career-ending problem? What if I’m facing a lifetime of chronic pain? Should I change my career to protect myself? Or is that just fear talking? Maybe he’s more persuasive than I give him credit for.

The questions I should be asking myself are, why am I so comfortably uncomfortable in a situation I’m too afraid to step out of? What is the appeal here, really? I guess the issue is that finding answers can lead to more questions. And maybe that’s why fear can paralyze us: taking one step inevitably leads to more steps, more scary options to consider. But I’ve got to try. Maybe all of this is one giant obstacle devised to keep me from reaching my dreams. Maybe fear of success or fear of failure is at the root of all of this. Or is that just psychobabble? What’s on the other side of this fear, which is holding me back? It’s time to find out.

*The client’s name has been changed.


When Things Go Wrong


When things go wrong, don’t go with them. -Elvis Presley

Most massage therapists, like other serious professionals, are in constant pursuit of perfection. We want the room temperature just right, the music soft and soothing. We listen intently to our clients’ needs, both spoken and unspoken. We aim to deliver our massage techniques with precision, compassion and nurturing touch and work hard to ensure that nothing distracts the client from their desired experience.

I’d like to think that we usually come close, but let’s be real here. More often than not, things go wrong. And more often than not, these things are beyond our control. For instance:

  • Wet weather makes the music go all buzzy and distorted.
  • The chilly front desk associate turns up the thermostat, and sweat threatens to drip off of me mid-session. 
  • My compassionate client tries to help me drape her leg but instead manages to whack me in the gut with it. Oof! 
  • A bit of skin on my fingertip decides to break free and form a hangnail that scratches the client. 
  • I spontaneously develop the sniffles (gah, she’s wearing too much perfume!) and complete the massage dripping with sweat and frowning at my new hangnail with sniffy, contorted bunny face.

With luck, these kinds of little mishaps are spread out rather than condensed into one miserable experience.

We’re not always so lucky.

Here’s a mild example. Last week, a coworker and I performed a couple’s massage. Our spa just had a wall knocked down the other week, and voila! A couple’s room. We’ve quickly learned that while couples’ sessions are a lovely bonding experience for the clients, they can be a bit hairier for the therapists to manage.

Timing, as you can guess, is the biggest challenge. Maybe one of the clients undresses quickly, but then the other one…not so much. Maybe one of the clients is accustomed to getting massages, while the other one…same deal.

So with this particular couple, after intakes and letting them get undressed, we knocked right on time. Only, my partner’s client wasn’t ready. She barreled out of the room to use the bathroom, even though we’d asked them beforehand if they’d needed to use it.

Take II. This time, they said they were ready…only this time, my client wasn’t. He was sitting on the table. (Thank goodness he had shorts on, at least, or this could have been an awkward moment for all.) I asked him to start face-down under the sheet and gave him a minute more.

Now over 10 minutes late, my partner and I were finally able to start. I did my usual compressions over the sheet and blanket. Hmm. He had an awfully lumpy back. Closer examination revealed not just lumpy but “crumpled.” Crumpled? Poop. He’d gotten under both sheets, which meant his bare skin was on the table. This particular table didn’t have a table warmer on it (again, it was a new couple’s room, so the spa wasn’t equipped yet), so at least he wasn’t lying directly on top of a table warmer (potential ouch). But it must not have felt very warm and cozy for him to be lying shirtless on cool vinyl on a cold winter’s evening.

I decided that we were already too late to interrupt the adjoining session, exit the room yet again and have him wrestle with the sheets. So, I took a deep breath and just went with it. After all, it wasn’t awful…it just wasn’t quite right. My partner glanced at me, a quizzical look on her face as I pulled back his blanket and both sheets to undrape his back. I gestured toward the bare table and shrugged. She shrugged back. It was bad enough that the session was running late and rather unconventional, but on top of that, I had a witness to my confusion. 

As I warmed up his back, I accidentally pumped too much oil onto my hand, which is a common occurrence. Massage schools teach that when this happens, no problem! You can simply blot the excess oil onto the sheet without disturbing the client. Standing at the head of the naked table I didn’t have that option, so I nonchalantly worked my way toward his hips, where both sheets were. (We’re all about smooth transitions in this biz.) In the process, of course, I deposited too much oil all down his back. So to work my way back up, I did another technique that absorbs oil, the forearm glide. Ok, I was getting the hang of this, right? Nope. See, sometimes I place my free hand on the table to steady myself during forearm work. However, with that small amount of oil between my hand and the vinyl table, I slipped and nearly bonked my head on the client’s back.

The bottom sheet serves several functions, and not having it in its usual spot forced me to rethink a few protocols throughout the session to avoid sliding around. Draping his legs was also a bit awkward; again, thank goodness he had shorts on.

Things did get better, except my partner must have (fairly) deducted a couple of minutes from her session due to the clients’ delays. Massaging their scalps to wrap things up, we mouthed a silent negotiation with each other. I finally caved and finished when she wanted to, a couple of minutes shy of the 50 I’d verbally promised my client when we began the session. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s broken promises. I exited the room feeling guilty.

This was hardly an ideal massage session. But to my relief, my client was thrilled with the massage. He must not have noticed any of the shenanigans. It reminded me that even when things aren’t perfect, I can still give them my best, regardless of the circumstances. Maybe they feel my intentions shine through the anxiety and quirks. It just takes a little mind-bending on my part to get there.

In quiet moments I compare massage to live theatre. You’re onstage, so to speak, with this other person (the client) and expected to perform but, unlike theatre, the client is somehow the audience, the script and another actor. (The role of director may change hands depending on the client.) Still, you only get one shot to deliver what’s promised, and I’m learning that like theatre, the best (or at least the most memorable) sessions are the ones that go awry. Those are the ones that get me thinking quickly and get the adrenaline pumping. They force me to be more creative and resourceful. All put together, I get pushed into a more authentic, compassionate place as I problem-solve on the client’s behalf.

Who knows? Maybe the universe’s function of trickier sessions is to make me a better massage therapist. Not that I’ll look forward to the next difficult situation, per se, but if self-improvement is the payoff, I’ll be up for the challenge.