Mmmmm. I got a massage today. Afterwards I felt like positively charged mush. A massage is a luxury I treat myself to maybe three times a year. And every single time I get one I decide that I will find a way to have them more often. Every month if possible. Every few weeks I could make it happen with some serious sacrifices. But like many forms of self care, it’s one of the first things to drop off my list when funds are tight or time is limited.
Nothing pulls you into your body like focused touch. And there is nothing quite like knowing that for an hour you and another human being will be consensually venturing into the world of your body together. The only thing I struggle with about this whole arrangement is not the exchange of money but the fact that it is time limited. It feels so damn good that I find myself dreading with increasing panic it’s inevitable end. Each body part moved to is a sign that another has been completed (oh shit … the back is done, she’s working on my left leg now… that means only three appendages left. And maybe my head. Will she do my head? Oh God, I hope she’s going to do my head).
Being a counselor, I know what 60 minutes feels like. I know it so well that I often find myself checking out when out to lunch with a friend after 60 minutes has passed. I have to fight the urge to stand up and make for the door and repeatedly remind myself why I am there. Getting a massage has helped me to understand the phenomenon of “bomb dropping,” when a client announces ridiculously important information in the last 5 minutes of a session, in my own practice. You just don’t want it to end. You are desperate for it not to end.
During today’s massage I found myself also wondering why on Earth someone would spend their money to come talk to me when they could get a massage. I know that it’s not that simple but there is a lot to be said for physical acts around healing. A few months ago I started a “Women’s Wellness Collective” to bring together female practitioners. My idea was to connect with other ladies doing work around healing to learn about their science and craft, share ideas, discuss challenges, minimize isolation, and be able to provide my clients with their contact information so that they could integrate other aspects of healing into their lives; acupuncture, nutrition, massage, etc.
Over the past few months the group has slowly picked up steam and learning about body work has piqued my curiosity around experiencing it. I considered today’s massage “research” (tax write off?). So was Saturday’s group acupuncture experience, where I learned not only that acupuncture is super relaxing but that people who snore (and I’m not referring to myself here) should fork up the extra money and get a private session.
Someone recently told me that research suggests that there are two separate forms of sensing touch; one that feels texture, pressure, vibration, etc. and feeds directly into the brain for interpretation and placement as they relate to the world around us and the other that senses emotionally relevant touch and feeds to the limbic system, the part of the brain that supports emotion, behavior, and memory. I find that pretty amazing. I don’t know more, haven’t yet looked up the research myself, but I would assume that the next part of that finding would speak to the impact of emotionally relevant touch.
I would venture to guess that positive emotionally relevant touch would effect breathing and heart rate which in turn influence one’s feeling of well being. This of course makes me think about how much touch I get, how much intentional positive touch anyone really gets, over the course of the day or the week. My son will hug and cuddle (usually upon request). My dog sometimes paws at me or leans against me to sleep. I give and get squeezes and a kiss from my friends and family. Those who are partnered may (and I temper this with a may because sadly it’s not always the case) get hand holding, caressing, love making. Those who are partnered and those who are not may engage in… ahem… self love, which tends to be pretty solution-focused. All in all, it’s not a lot. And imagine the folks that don’t have children or pets or partners or even friends (believe me, there are more than you would think…. I work with them). Just imagine how little touch they get. It’s pretty mind blowing.
But It’s not only the way we respond to touch (and what kind we are responding to) that fascinates me about the human body. My body has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Beyond basic college physiology and an general familiarity with my particulars, I’m pretty much in the dark. My father’s partner of 17 years, a wonderful man named Joey, was a dancer. So growing up I was exposed (dragged) to a fair number of dance performances which affected me in only the surface level way a teenager is capable of being affected by something they did not willingly choose to do. But I love dance now. Every time I go to a dance performance (I prefer modern), I am awed by the staggering knowledge the dancers seem to have of their own bodies. The profound relationship they seem to have with them, which in no way resembles the amicable acquaintance-like one I have with mine. Anecdotally, this also happens to be the time I go home, jump on my computer, and start researching dance classes. I won’t even tell you what happened after I went to Cirque Du Soleil.
My awe and respect for the human body was solidified when I bore witness to the death of my mother’s husband Richard a little over a year ago. It was the first time I had ever seen a human body so utterly vulnerable. So without options and yet so utterly determined. Richard went into surgery to attempt removal of a large brain tumor. For over fouteen hours his brain was exposed and adjusted and repaired and still not all of the tumor could be removed, the part closest to his brain stem.
The result was nearly three months of hopeful climbs and crashing defeats with all parts of his human body, the internal and the external, exposed, trying, fighting, working together to problem solve, regroup, and problem solve again until there was finally nothing left to try. And then I watched him die. Another long and slow process involving the tedious and gut-wrenching shutdown of system after system, the heart presumably beating for the last time, the grief flowing in, until it abruptly would beat again and breath around the room would collectively catch. Until at last it stopped. And all that was left was the shell.
We are so lucky. Each one of us. We are lucky to have bodies and we are lucky that our bodies do so much for us and protect and heal so much for us, without our even knowing. We are lucky that we can experience with all of our senses and we are lucky that other people too, can touch us and feel our touches. It’s like the door gift, the goody bag we get just for attending. So. I know that I am still in a euphoric post-massage haze of love. But I’m grateful that I was reminded today. And I hope to remind myself more often, as should we all.
I’m grateful to massage therapists and doctors and dancers and yoga instructors and anyone, anyone at all that touches and tries to heal the bodies of others. I am just a big ball of gratitude right now. And though I myself don’t physically heal, my appreciation for those who do hopefully will pass on into the world as love. And the world surely needs more of that.
Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on October 14, 2011: “The Body; A Work of Sensation”.