Hostile Takeover

Sometimes it’s stealthy, insidious, a thief in the dead of night. But not always. Sometimes it’s a seemingly polite, yet – let’s face it – gritty and downright disgusting battle. It’s turning your head away, grimacing, holding your breath and attempting to protect something, anything that is generally and rightfully understood as yours. It’s nuanced kindnesses that are forced into the space of ugly, strong statements. It’s giving, as you’ve been trained to do, and simultaneously restraining, struggling, inwardly gasping and gulping for your own air, pushing her out and helplessly feeling her pour back in like a flood. 

It’s the long drive home with the windows down, music promisingly loud yet mocking, meaningless, the cool air lashing at your arms and cheeks like a punishment. It’s washing, scrubbing, scouring away the traces of her but still reeking of her sweet perfume. It’s even wishing you could retch to cleanse yourself from the inside. (Kind of.) 

It’s gratitude for one thing, and one thing only: that at least you can write about it. It’s wishing you could skip past the discomfort to your default defense mechanism, humor, as you discover and appreciate the thousand points of irony. 

She’s everywhere, and she saw to that the instant she laid her dark eyes upon you. And you knew all about her, and you prepared yourself to the best of your current ability, and you remained professional and professionally assertive at all times, but she still overpowered you. 

You didn’t have a chance, did you. You still haven’t completely transformed that part of you that people like her relish in toying with. Some small victories were noted, but overall you conceded defeat. This time. 

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Light as a Feather

During intake I expected to hear about the tension in her neck but instead received directives to go light there…no, make that everywhere. “Be gentle,” she said, and paused for emphasis. “Gen-tle.” There was a flash in her eyes that told me that she’d been wronged before on a massage table…or maybe elsewhere in her life. 

On one hand, light-pressure Swedish massages are easy. I barely break a sweat, which for me is incredibly rare. On the other hand, they pose a different set of challenges. At the franchise where I worked at the time, I was conditioned by most of the clients to use firm pressure and basically to go digging for those mysterious “knots” I heard so much about. So when a client deviated from those requests, I needed to be hyper aware. 

Of course, we were taught in school that each client has different needs, pain tolerances, life experiences and emotional associations that affect what kind of massage they prefer. It’s just that light-pressure requests were incredibly rare there….

I washed my hands, glanced into the mirror, mimicked that same stern look that had flickered across my client’s face. Light. Light. Gen-tle. 

My hands on the client, I quickly noticed that my breathing was shallow, guarded. I wasn’t trusting my own self, so why should she trust me? I took a slow, deep breath. Slow. Light. Gentle. 

I’m going to mix metaphors here, but massage therapists spend the bulk of their time warming up and remodeling living clay during a typical massage for tangible results. 

Light-pressure Swedish strokes, in contrast, fade…impermanent, sumi-e strokes of water on pavement. Loose fists become wingtips. No, feathers. The finishing part of each stroke is paramount. The client’s body pays close attention, bracing against potential discomfort, perhaps awaiting disappointment. 

Light. Light. Easy, now. Lighter pressure awakened me to the “noise” I often needed to gloss over to warm the tissues quickly during a 50-minute session. In her tissues was a buoyant quality that I would normally have had to sink right past. Just under the surface of her skin was the faintest crackle of dehydrated fascia around her traps. Fascinating. But I forced myself to move on before I focused too long, sank in too deeply. 

The client sighed, a good sign of release. Oh, wow, her legs needed work. I resisted, focused harder, lightened up, breathed deeply again. IT bands are often sensitive on even the hardiest of clients. There was no way I was going to resolve anything here in the time allotted. Resolution didn’t seem to be my client’s objective, anyway. 

The session eventually ended. The focus and willpower I needed not to go too deep made the time go surprisingly quickly. The client emerged out of the room a bit starry-eyed. She thanked me three times, said it was excellent. 

And it was only then that I allowed myself to relax. 

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?

Control

Last week an ice storm and wet snow swept through where I live. Snow plows shoved the ice into piles, where it re-froze. The plows did a ratty job because the snow was so wet and heavy. Making my way from apartment to car has been a dangerous negotiation through frozen boulders and icy patches. 

We’re only a couple weeks into winter, but here we are, frozen solid. Forecasters predicted that we’d have a warmer, drier winter, which makes me all the more ornery about this bout of weather. But you promised, a voice inside me whines. 

During the winter of my fifth grade year, a friend and I spent our recesses chipping away at the ice peninsulas on the school playground’s blacktop by smashing our heels onto the icy borders. On warmer days we were able to break off large chunks as the blacktop was heated by the sun. 

We had our hecklers, sure. “Stupid girls,” they’d taunt. “You think you can end winter?” We’d pause to make a face at them, then doggedly continue our mission. There was much work to be done. 

Were we simply enamored with the satisfaction that came when a large chunk of ice broke free under our youthful heels? Or was there something else, something deeper, keeping us occupied each recess? 

Back then I didn’t know or care why we were so driven, but today I have a hunch it was about control. Winter around here is unpredictable and seemingly endless. We were antsy not knowing if winter would drag on into March or even April, which it’s been known to do. I guess our rationale was that if we could clear the whole playground of ice, the powers that be would have no choice but to reward our hard work with an early spring. 

I wonder how many other futile rituals I’ve adopted to trick myself into thinking I have more control than I do….

The spa where I work, a newer franchise operation, is entering its third winter. After the holidays come and go and after the gift cards have been redeemed, business has historically come to a screeching halt. This year could be the exception. Our spa has been purchased by a man who knows business and marketing. He has tricks up his sleeve that are keeping us hopping even when we’ve crashed in the past. It looks like our busy December has given way to an equally busy January. This is wonderful news, of course. But one never can tell how it will actually play out. 

The massage industry itself is a rich web of unpredictability. When I think one of my regular clients is coming to see me, she cancels at the last minute. When I look forward to a scheduled break after my session, the schedule changes and I have to give another massage. Sorry, rumbly belly…you have to wait. When a walk-in arrives just as I’m preparing to walk out. When I think I missed the mark but the client loves what I did…or vice-versa. When tips are large, small or not at all. When a client arrives late and causes a chain reaction throughout the day. When the schedule predicts a busy day and then it isn’t…when it predicts a slow day and then it isn’t…in other words, I never know how my day is going to be until my shift is over.  

Of course, in life there are no sure things, so it’s only natural that this is also true of business. Nobody can make a guaranteed promise when profits are concerned. And we humble workers are at the mercy of the almighty dollar and the greed-driven decisions that often accompany it. 

Thriving amidst uncertainty is a valuable life-skill to have, so we LMT’s are fortunate to have this kind of training. Still, I notice some superstitious behavior among my coworkers and myself. We try to call the shots, an exercise ultimately leading to frustration and disappointment. But we just can’t help ourselves. 

Yesterday I took the day off to rest my body, run some errands and come back to normalcy after the holidays. I headed toward the icy parking lot. Something came over me as I walked past a narrowing of sidewalk pavement. Without thinking, my heel crashed down on the peninsula of ice. It shattered. I stooped down, tossed it into the white sea that was once a yard. 

Victory. 

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.  

The Strangest Job I’ve Ever Loved

 Business is picking up at the spa where I work. Don’t get me wrong; it all still feels fragile, as though one powerful sneeze will blow clients away again. But our regular clients are starting to resurface from the hubbub that is summer. 

Lately I’ve been feeling stale, overplayed. Maybe most of those clients really do need similar treatment (back/neck/shoulders, etc.). Or maybe I need to be the one to break the pattern somehow. 

The humdrum of tired mediocrity took a detour today. One client’s needs gave me the license to change my entire progression. It became a myofascial trigger-point session, which meant in this case that I was focused on one shoulder for most of the 50 minutes. (Trigger point work is fascinating to me. So, you think you have carpal tunnel syndrome? Maybe not! Maybe it’s a trigger point buried under your shoulder blade in the subscapularis muscle. Who would have thunk it?!) I felt something in me light up as I searched for the source of the client’s pain, which happened to be about four inches from where he felt the pain itself. Not every client is begging for clinical work. This one was. Lucky me! 

Another client today, a tough-looking professional mover, didn’t look so tough as I finished the session. I massaged his temples and marveled (silently, of course!) at how peaceful he looked, like a sleeping child. 

It struck me then. Somewhere along the way, I forgot. I forgot how beautiful each person is when I regard their faces from my perch at the top of their heads. They seem to regress in age right in front of me. Maybe it’s because their eyes are closed. Maybe it’s the vantage point from which I peer at them. Maybe something mystic or spiritual happens. It doesn’t matter. Back when I was fresh, new, inspired, a starry-eyed part of me would exclaim (to myself), “She could be a movie star!” But along the way, unbridled wonder and inspiration have been replaced with good intentions, genuine attempts and, ultimately, the dull acceptance of feeling little more than relief that the session is over.

You could say I’m a little burned out, I guess. A tough spring, slow work, piling-up debt and some work drama may be taking a bit of a toll. 

As usual, talking myself through the situation calms me down. I’ve felt burned out before, and I’ve overcome it. I’ll overcome it this time, too, I’m sure. It may be as simple as learning new techniques and remembering and appreciating how delightfully strange my job can be. Where else could I say that I hold people’s snoring heads in my hands as part of my job? Snoring, for cry-eye! It’s surreal when I give it some thought. One can’t do that in an office setting without some bewildered looks, I’ll tell you what. My desk-bound former self would never believe current me if I told her that I massage people for a living. She’d tell me I’m too scared, too awkward for a field like that. But there was a string of unlikely events…

And here I am. I’m broke, sure, but far from poor. I’ve met and worked on hundreds of people who appreciate any help I can provide. When I push myself to take the lessons presented to me, I learn every day. And hey. When all else fails I can remind myself that I knock out complete strangers for a living (so to speak, of course). And they come to, say they feel amazing and come back for more. How weird and wonderful is that?

Massage therapists and bodyworkers, are there techniques you use to break out of a rut? I’d love to hear from you! 

Down Time

 It’s June, and business is slow in the massage industry. After all, getting a massage is nice and all, but it simply can’t compete with family graduation parties and warm-weather activities. Because family and YOLO, amirite? 

Blah, I’m right. And what’s worse, I just used YOLO in a blog post. Desperate times….

In the franchise where I work, the inertia has been compounded, and not for seasonal, jumping-off-a-pier-into-the-lake-instead-of-getting-massaged reasons. Corporate had us do a mass hiring of full-time massage therapists early this year. I guess they saw something in our numbers that encouraged them to grow our spa. But then they raised prices, losing some of our regular clients. And then warm weather hit….

And splat. 

Now that we have more therapists than work, the front desk staff have (basically) been making us take turns either getting called off or being sent home early. As a result, our spa is a little hungry, a little cutthroat, energetically speaking, an unwelcome pest in what’s supposed to be a nurturing environment. 

Hunger drives us toward some of our baser instincts. I’m unearthing some competitive parts of myself, as well. Last week I did six and a half hours of massage, about 40% of what I used to do. I’m boxed in by physical limitations, as temporary as they may be, as I continue to recover from a recent back injury. Two months after my month-long medical leave, I’m still doing fewer massages in a row before a break, and fewer massages per day, doctor’s orders. So between massages (during seemingly endless down time), I find myself glancing through our schedule to see if my former clients wandered to other therapists, quit their memberships or just put massage on pause. 

With so much time to think (and being my own worst enemy), it’s hard not to berate myself during slow times like these. She lost her touch during that long hiatus, the critics within me hiss. She’s just not as good anymore. Yet, when I take a deep breath and muffle the negativity, I remind myself that new clients have been rebooking with me. I just have to practice my faith and patience. Patience and faith. 

When my life-condition is high enough, I can see that it’s just a watershed period in my young career. It all looks like a mess right now, but something invisible continues to propel me forward and protect me. Maybe this time marks a new beginning, somehow. Those lost clients taught me everything they could; I’m ready for my next set of lessons. Something to that effect. 

I worked on a professional athlete the other day who had a shocking amount of scar tissue built up in his hamstrings near his glutes. He was as surprised as I was; despite all of the massage and physical therapy he’d had in his career, nobody’d ever pointed that out to him before. His hip is a constant complaint, so the two elements are likely connected. I’m hoping we can learn more together the next time he comes in, solve the mystery to free that hip. Maybe he and the other new clients will point me toward my next area of focus. Will I get more comfortable with myofascial work? Branch out and finally explore energy work like reiki? Where I am now is only the beginning. It’s something to appreciate. I can take this profession in myriad directions, tailor it to be what I want it to be.  

Yet, the other day a thought popped into my head: My job is getting in the way of my career. I love the spa where I work, overall…but if it stays this slow, I’ll never be able to afford taking continuing education classes. This week (with desperation overriding my rules) I’m picking up two shifts (potentially eight consecutive work days), and if that trend continues, I won’t have time to take classes, anyway. One of the reasons I took on massage therapy was because of the flexibility. But how truly flexible am I when I’m bound by bills and debt? 

This is just a phase, I tell myself. Things will get better…by Autumn, sure, but before then, somehow. Good fortune will come to me. I just have to refresh my determination, clean up my act anywhere I can, stay the course and believe.