The Long, Slow Journey of Growth

Longest. Session. Ever. She’s the type of massage client I get once every blue moon who has absolutely no tension anywhere but books a 90-minute session for fun. I glance at the clock and mentally smack my forehead. 3:14. We’re only nine minutes in. Oh, boy. The mind starts to drift. Muscle memory is a massage therapist’s best friend during relaxation massages with no areas to focus on.

You were a wreck in massage school, a 10-month-long episode of performance anxiety. Remember when you panicked during a hands-on class while working on a fellow student? You sat down so hard on your stool that it startled the whole class.

Getting to school (two trains carrying an overnight bag stuffed full of sheets and textbooks) was uncomfortable and taxing. You were forever apologizing for knocking into people. (Maybe the added difficulty was part of your massage training, readying you for potential out-call sessions and all of the gear that comes with them.)

It wasn’t until school clinic that you caught the narrowest glimpse of the massage therapist you’d turn out to be. Paradoxically, you felt more relaxed when there was just one other person in the room, even if that person was a paying client who was a stranger to you. It beat performing in front of a classroom of people, no doubt. 

It’s 3:31. I smile wanly. Hey, remember when it was 3:14? The weak smile extends into a brief grin as I transition to the other side of her back.

School was a flurry of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, musculoskeletal conditions and so much hands-on training. You used to have to feel around for bony landmarks, searching, searching…now they almost seem to glow through the drape or their skin. Your hands just…know. You may take that for granted, but there was a time when that skill seemed like an impossibility for you.

Then there was that elderly clinic client, with a novella of heart failure and diabetes in his health history, who poured all of his sadness and resignation directly into your heart. You came home that night and wept for him. And then you learned a little something about the importance of grounding yourself before entering into a session.

Your first 90-minute session on the very first day of your first massage job was booked on the fly…remember? Working under the thoughtless directive of 45 minutes on her posterior side and 45 minutes on her anterior side, you realized that you didn’t have enough material to use up 45 minutes on her legs, arms and neck while she was face up. You learned to “vamp,” so to speak…improvise, repeat and hope for the best. (And you learned how to balance the progression for future sessions.)

I’ve moved on to my client’s legs. This woman has absolutely no areas to focus on…ugh! Vamp, improvise, repeat…it’s only 3:57, but remember when it was 3:14?

When you were a brand-new massage therapist, two people dear to you got the early version of what you thought a deep-tissue massage should be. You started by performing skin rolling on their backs. Effective for warming the tissues? Certainly! Pleasant, relaxing and client-friendly? Hardly. The other day, you apologized to each of them. “I’m not that girl anymore,” you wanted to say. And you’re not. You’re a lot more confident and skilled now than those early days.

You’ll never forget the first time you had four clients in one shift. You came home, crawled directly into a tub with Epsom salt and stayed there for a good chunk of the night. Strength and stamina just weren’t there. Mental stamina hadn’t been developed yet, either; instead, there was only incredulity that a person could sustain her career doing this many (or more) massages, five days a week. And just this year after a slow period of rebuilding from injury, you’ve started to notice the strength that massage veterans promised you’d develop.

Not too long ago, the clients who would boast that they’d had tons of massages done would strike fear in your heart. You were so darn intimidated by every little thing! Now, when you hear that they’re no strangers to massage and bodywork, you think, “And now you’ll experience what I can offer you.”

4:10. The client is face-up, relaxed. I look forward to working on her neck so I can sit for a few minutes. It’s been a long session. But remember when it was 3:14?

Now, 2 1/2 years into your career as a massage therapist, begins the slow process of honing, perfecting, building upon what you’ve established here. To think that you’re “done” in any aspect of your practice spells arrogance and laziness. In truth, you’re just beginning. You’ve definitely made progress, though, progress that seems so minute that you didn’t even realize improvements were being made.

Some compare human growth to the growth of a tree. Things don’t seem to change from day to day, but a cross-section of the tree would reveal growth rings. Some rings are narrow, while others indicate periods of robust growth. So, keep going; keep growing.

Remember when it was 3:14?


Growth Spurt

 Image courtesy of Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: The Trigger Point Manual; Vol. 1, Travell and Simons. 

Here I sit with my thumbs buried in a woman’s neck. A swarm of thoughts arises: Am I even on the trigger point? I’m not causing kickback pain, am I? Isn’t there a better way to position my thumbs so they don’t hurt so darn much?

I guess it can be a bit overwhelming when a wish actually comes true. Just the other week I stated that I was feeling burned out, uninspired. I longed for massage work beyond Swedish and the “basic” deep tissue. (In spa-land, that often turns out to be firm Swedish to the tension trifecta: back, neck and shoulders. And it can become boring.) 

Frustrated, I decided to stop dwelling on where I thought I should be in my young massage practice and turned my attention toward life things, namely starting The Gut Balance Revolution diet and revving up my social life. I needed to get happy. So I did. 

And a funny thing happened. Suddenly, there was an uptick of clients at work who, whether they knew it or not, needed trigger point therapy done to them. It seemed like I couldn’t go even a day without happening on a point or two – or even more. Clients reported, often with surprise, immediate relief. 

Since massage school, I’ve been fascinated by trigger point therapy; that is, from a respectful distance. This is all it is: a band within a muscle that continues to fire or stay contracted even if the rest of the muscle remains relaxed. It’s most often caused by overuse or trauma. And the cool and baffling part about a trigger point is that it often refers pain to another part of the body. That’s why I was so intimidated by it; I was afraid of working on the wrong spot. Here’s a great overview of trigger point therapy

At work trigger point therapy isn’t mentioned in my advertised list of modalities; I just didn’t feel comfortable with it when I graduated from massage school. Back in the day, we’d get paired up during class and instructed to seek out trigger points, but I was paradoxically too unskilled to find them. I needed the hands-on experience in order to really learn the material. 

Over time at work, I started collecting the pain patterns, one by one, as clients’ bodies would present them to me. But the comfort never really secured a toehold…until just a couple of weeks ago. 

Enter Anne*. Anne is a regular client who A) has chronic pain and B) also has an amazing sense of body awareness and a knowledge of anatomy. This is because 1) she’s extremely astute and 2) she’s had oodles of bodywork done. 

In short, Anne was my worst nightmare. 

I’d worked on her about a year ago, and she moved on to our collection of other MT’s. Indubitably she wasn’t thrilled with my work at the time. Indubitably she was seeking someone who could do trigger point work. 

By some scheduling fluke, I imagine, she was scheduled with me early this month. She rattled off the sites of her pain, and I took in as much as I could. But something was different this time: me. Armed with recent success stories, I felt at least somewhat confident that I could resolve at least some of her pain. 

And two levator scapulae trigger points and one suboccipital trigger point later, I did. She rebooked with me two weeks later. And then she saw me again today. 

Today I was in over my head, I’ll admit. During the session as I resolved one trigger point after another, Anne requested that I clear up every one that I could find. The problem was, she had a good 10 or so in the right side of her neck alone. I explained to her that working on too many points in one spot might cause kickback pain to flare, but she wanted me to keep going.  

So there I sat, tentatively hopeful, a little fearful and wholeheartedly grateful for such a willing teacher. I reflected on the past few weeks and decided that change is possible and that faith and patience are crucial for that change to take place. When my life was ready, I was presented with opportunities. And just like that, my career is thrilling once again. 

One little plug, and I’ll let you go. My rather sordid experience with the gut-balancing diet is spottily documented on Instagram. I share not-great photos of some of the dishes I’ve created along the way. Check me out @jlew57, if you’d like. (Way to sell it, Joanne!) 
*Of course, the client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.