By Sharon Livingstone

In the middle of this recent befuddlement, I celebrated 20 years since I graduated as a massage therapist. Except it wasn’t a celebration worthy of such a milestone. There wasn’t even a cake.

When I graduated, I was working behind a desk, in charge of a $multimillion budget, with a bunch of engineers and lots of lovely, fun people. However, I disliked my desk jockey job immensely and felt that job satisfaction was something my work buddy, Richie faked to impress the golf-playing management team he clamoured to be part of.

Around this time, I was completing the student clinic hours for my Diploma of Sports Therapies, and was working with a physio to achieve this. Believing the physio to be top notch, I sent the team admin officer to see them for a back complaint. After her treatment, the team admin officer informed me that the physio had commented that I wouldn’t last 5 years as a massage therapist before my hands went kaput.

It really ticked me off. I don’t think I’ve stuck with massage for 20 years simply to prove that physio wrong but part of me wants to track them down to say “HA!”.

I spent the first few months post-graduation working with Northern Suburbs Rugby Club on Saturdays. This, I knew, would help me achieve my goal of being the massage therapist to the Wallabies (or the Australian men’s cricket team – I wasn’t fussed, either would do). Working with Northies, I realised that Richie possibly wasn’t faking job satisfaction, and he might actually like playing golf too. I loved the work and found it rewarding, even if it was smelly, difficult and I didn’t get paid.

Around August 2000, one of my dearest friends was on a work trip to Australia and we had a few days where I could show my corner of the world to him. Funnily enough, we were Zoom chatting only a couple of weeks ago about that visit and how I booked for us to do BridgeClimb before I found out about his fear of heights.* Good times, good times. While we were lining up for BridgeClimb (yes, he actually completed it with only 2 panic attacks), the subject of my career was brought up. In frustration, he exclaimed, “Sharon, every time I see you, you hate your job. You have this massage qualification now, why don’t you use it?” It kinda made sense and when I admitted as much the following day, he quickly leapt into action, setting up a plan for me to leave one career and start another.

A few months later, I started my first massage job.

Don’t Your Hands Hurt? No, But My Mind Does

There was a lot they didn’t teach me at college:

  • I would NEVER be able to have long fingernails
  • I’d be a pseudocounsellor
  • Massage therapy is as much a mental job as it is a physical one.

I was reminded during a recent Zoom chat with a US colleague that massage therapy also involves a lot of storytelling.

Mental, physical and creative. They really should have sold that better at college – and maybe they do now.

Questions Are Good

A lot has changed in the massage world in 20 years. In the beginning, massage therapists couldn’t use HICAPS at all. I still remember the day that I processed my first HICAPS claim as a massage therapist.

Back in those early days, I was a member of ATMS, which meant I had no village, no reliable source of new research or even a clue where I could look to find out about changes to massage therapy. I didn’t even know any other working massage therapists – none of my college friends had made the leap. In many ways, I was lucky because I worked with a great bunch of physiotherapists who included me in their inservice sessions and let me sit in on treatments where I asked a lot of questions.

Questioning things is a lifelong habit, although not everyone appreciates that trait. But without questions, the status quo doesn’t change and knowledge gets limited to the privileged few. Without questioning, the powerful remain unaccountable.

My grandfather was not a concert pianist or surgeon but a farmer of non-arable land who was also a timber cutter and union rep. He wrote many a fine letter and fought hard for the rights of his fellow workers. He was a master of one-liners. I aspire to these latter qualities.

Fad Following

As a massage therapist, I’ve followed every fad that came and inevitably went – pelvic alignment, posture, trigger point therapy, you name it, I preached it. It’s a bit embarrassing to remember the utter faith I put in those fads. They sounded soooo plausible at the time. Maybe I should have asked more questions.

Thankfully, finding out information on research, how thinking has changed on techniques and treatment philosophies is so much easier nowadays with the power of Google and online support and industry groups. Peer reviewed journals are more accessible and so is communicating with other massage therapists.

Learning From Mistakes

I’ve made many mistakes over my 20 years, some that still make me cranky because I didn’t advocate for myself. Some of these mistakes involved my treatment methods and clinical operations, and some were how I was treated by others. I don’t want other massage therapists to learn the hard way and I challenge all massage therapists to ask questions, to remain curious, and to speak up for themselves.

Why Do We Do This?

One thing that has never changed in 20 years is my joy at helping people. In the early days, I had a regular client pop in to explain why he hadn’t been to see me for 6 months. Apparently I’d noticed a funny lump while massaging him and suggested he ask his doctor about it. He did so, it was a malignant cancer, he had it removed, went through treatment and was pronounced cured at the end. “I wanted to say thank you for saving my life,” he said.

Not all stories are quite that dramatic. It might be an acknowledgement that something I said helped them to change their approach, helped to make sense of things for them. Or a quick, “I slept so well after that last massage” or “My legs felt great right up to the 38km mark”.

Job satisfaction again.

I never did take my sports massage career very far. I spent 5 seasons with Norths Rugby and currently work with an old Northies boy. I also work with an Australian cricketer. Some plans do work out but not necessarily how you imagine.

This pandemic has caused some soul searching around what I’ll do if I can’t massage again and I’ve drawn a blank. I know this is because I’m doing the job I want to do. After 20 years, my love of massage therapy hasn’t faded.

A few years ago, I moved away from ATMS to AMT, where I’ve been privileged to meet many lovely (and strange, let’s face it) massage therapists. I found my village at last! For a long time, I kept a card beside my computer, given to me by Rebecca Barnett after I participated in the most famous of all debates at the 2016 AMT Annual Conference. All the card said was “Welcome home”.

While my old work buddy, Richie did climb that ladder and currently occupies a rung near the top, I know it’s because his work excites him and he loves the challenges. He still has job satisfaction. And I like to think that while I’m still passionate about my career, the view from my own ladder is pretty damn fine.

*The bloke literally saved my life once so it could be interpreted as a little ungrateful that I put his at peril but he’s mostly pleased he took that risk.

Cover image © Sharon Livingstone 2018

About the Author

Sharon Livingstone is a massage therapist in Sydney, NSW. A love of sport drew her to the industry but discovering job satisfaction came from helping people live with less pain keeps her in it. Sharon is a writer, keen bushwalker and frustrated traveller who is also a coffee snob.

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  1. Gerhard Hassler
    30/04/2020 - 9:05 pm

    Just beautifully written Sharon 😊
    Thank you 🙏🏽

  2. Thank you Sharon, was lovely to hear your story.

    I don’t know what I’d do either because I feel the same way. I love helping people through massage therapy.

    I feel that we wont be put out of work by machines either, as you’ve said there is a lot more to massage therapy than the massage and I feel we will be needed even more as we all move forward in this rapidly changing world.

    I am so enjoying the rest though, taking it as a long service leave that I have really needed.

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