The Ineffable Meaning of Us
By Sharon Livingstone
The client wanders out of the treatment room, blinking into the light, eyes glazed and a vague smile playing on their lips and I think, “Good job, me. Another happy client.” And in that moment, they are. They say things like “it feels so much better”, “that was fantastic” or “I can get heaps more movement”.
I go home and sleep the sleep of a satisfied therapist.
Oh, of course I don’t. I’ve been spreading the oil for far too long to fall for that. The post-massage glow sure is nice to see but that buzz lasts until I sit down to write up the treatment notes and have to think about what I’ve actually done.
Not wanting to sound like a crappy episode of Sex and the City, steam rising from a manhole cover to the open window where I’m sitting with my Apple Powerbook G3 pretending to type out some insightful contemplation, but … what am I really doing as a massage therapist? What does being a massage therapist mean to me and to the people who trust me with their most precious asset – their body?
Over the pandemic years, our industry has lost many fine practitioners: a retirement or career change brought forward; the realisation that massage therapy is not pandemic-proof; the lockdown-induced total loss of income; the conflict between personal beliefs and public health orders; or simply a decisive blow to a career that hadn’t been rewarding for a while. Aside from those brave individuals who knew when to call stumps, there were other massage therapists who went to very dark places to ponder their own future in the industry and asked themselves whether they should seek a career change.
What’s it all about?
Lockdown was the best place to contemplate what it meant to be a massage therapist. Was it still a sustainable career? Could the unpredictable nature of the industry, the unreliable income, the mounting requirements and, for some, the government mandates, be borne to stay in practice?
I sat in that dark place. I looked at all of this plus the requirements I had to comply with and fund – on top of what I’d already complied with and funded – and questioned my career.
However, the problem was that lockdown was NOT the best place to contemplate what it means to be a massage therapist. It was too easy to focus on the negatives and forget the positives: the buzz of being a massage therapist, the funny moments, the reward from successful puzzle solving with a client, the times you got through to a client, when they understood your wacky analogy, and all the ineffable moments.
My apologies to Aziraphale and Crowley. There are times when words don’t capture the feeling. I’m sure there’s some German word that perfectly encapsulates it but I don’t know it. Therefore, I rely on anecdotes.
Many years ago, when mobile phones still fitted into your hip pocket, a lovely gentleman I’d been treating for a couple of years but whom I hadn’t seen for over 6 months, stuck his head into the door of the clinic, where I was chowing down on a meat pie for my lunch. He wasn’t there for an appointment or even to make an appointment. He wasn’t even there to cast judgement on my lunch choice. He was there to tell me a story. It unfolded that during our last session I’d mentioned a lump I’d felt and suggested he have a chat with his doc about it. Well, turned out to be cancer. The oncologist had told him that the cancer, left untreated, would have been a bad one. He’d gone through a bit of treatment and had received the news the day before that the cancer had been successfully treated. He wanted to say thank you to me – for saving his life.
Of course, not all the work we do is with our expert hands.
During a corporate massage, I had to tell a client there was a massive split in her duds and her colourful undies were on display. She was mortified and left to go on an emergency shopping trip with my jumper tied around her waist.
And not all of our work is obvious.
A regular told me as I spread the oil on her back that she was having huge problems with one of her teenagers and asked if I minded if she didn’t chat. I listened to her sobbing, placed tissues near her hand and got on with my manual work. We didn’t speak about it afterwards. At her next visit, she said, “Thanks for the last session”. I didn’t need to know any other details and she didn’t divulge any. To understand that she got benefit from the treatment was enough.
However, the manual work does sometimes makes a big difference to someone’s day or week or year.
Remember how I told you the story of my tradie client who gets migraines? Read that here.
We’ve probably all had a client come back for a follow up session and remark to us how wonderful/great/helpful their previous treatment was. Although, that comes with an expectation that every session will be as wonderful/great/helpful. No pressure!
Ever had a client refer to your “magic hands” or something similar – call you a miracle worker or the person who saved them? It could be because massage helps minimise the impact of a chronic condition or maybe you are the person who gives them space to focus on themselves for an hour. It demonstrates the skillset that massage therapists have. We’re not really magicians or makers of miracles. We have undertaken study, learnt skills, adapted our learning to suit our work, and continue to focus on our clients and their needs. The result of our hard work is appreciation.
Turn on the light
While I was sitting in my dark place, I forgot about the times it felt good to be a massage therapist. That “why” of being a massage therapist.
I’ve been tuning in to those moments of appreciation. My focus has turned slightly away from the post-massage bliss response – although it is still lovely to see and hear – and leaned into the feedback at the follow up treatment. I often return to my treatment notes to figure out what I might have said or done that made a difference.
“What you told me the last time I was here was so helpful,” they’ll say. While it was probably me recommending they watch Sex Education, it might have been something they could do themselves to change their pain or discomfort or the way I explained things or something equally wise. Or the Sex Education thing.
And I get a massive amount of joy working with clients during their pregnancy and sometimes meeting that baby.
Of course, massage is not all sunshine and rainbows. I’ve been working with one client for nearly 20 years who is now in mental decline and it is utterly heartbreaking to witness. And clients get really sick or die. There are clients we can’t help or those we gave unhelpful treatment or advice to. Clients sometimes ignore everything we say – and we must hold our tongues and not be tempted to say “I told you so” if they eventually figure it out. There are the frustrations of the no-show or cancelled appointment or the client who makes us feel like something they’ve wiped off their shoe.
On days of shadows and introspection, frustration and doubt, the best medicine to prescribe is a dose of memory. Memory of the thank yous, the success stories, the made-a-difference stories, the babies born, the laughter and that satisfying deep sleep at the end of a long working day.
Or we can simply remember the post-massage bliss face. And be satisfied.
About the Author
Sharon Livingstone is a massage therapist based in Sydney, NSW. When not blathering on about how great Sex Education is, she’s usually in some patch of bushland trying not to scare wallabies and dreaming about walking in France.