Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, May/June 2008. Copyright 2008. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
The reality hit me. I had landed a good job in a nice day spa and was about to put my hands on my very first client, a complete stranger. Suddenly I was sick. But the last thing I wanted her to know was that this was my first professional massage. So I stood there, hands aloft as though frozen in the act of offering her my blessing, momentarily paralyzed, imagining the instant I would make contact with her bare skin.
In my mind's eye I saw her head rapidly swiveling around, her face pinched with disgust, "What! Is this your first massage?" My jaw would drop and I would be unable to speak, because she would be absolutely right. And I would be tossed out on my ear. After all those hours of training, including documented massages on scrutinizing MTs, this was no longer the secure, predictable, nurturing world of education. This was not a friend, friend-of-a-friend, relative, or neighbor whom I had convinced to offer up his or her naked body for my professional benefit, each volunteer sympathetic to my inexperience. This was a paying customer who expected me to know exactly what I was doing.
"So, when was your last massage?" I inquired, cleverly remembering this recommended question from one of my classes. In reality I was stalling for time, unnecessarily adjusting the bolster and tidying the sheets until it looked as though I'd learned my draping technique in boot camp.
"This is my first massage."
I nearly collapsed to the floor with relief.
Anxiously, I checked the time. Fifty-five minutes was all I had left. Another customer was booked right after this one and I'd already burned the first five of my 60. Resolutely ditching my insecurity, I launched into that massage, giving it my all, constantly tracking the ominous advance of the hands on the clock. Close to schedule, I completed her back, shoulders, and neck and made a first pass at her arms and hands, just as I'd been taught. Moving on to the right leg, I was doing fine. Undrape the left leg, apply oil, and ... holy cow! To be completely accurate, my client's entire foot wasn't missing. It was more like halfway ground off with her big toe sticking out at an odd angle and a couple of other digits salvaged in startling locations.
Don't panic. Slow down. Act natural. Just keep going. Unfortunately, there was a small problem with the "act natural/keep going" plan. I had about two more minutes before I would deeply offend my client, or worse, hurt her feelings, because eventually I was going to have to touch it ... or not. The latter of these two difficult options, I instinctively knew, was the wrong one. Mentally, I scrolled back, trying to find some classroom reference that would satisfactorily address the situation. Right then, something came to me. Maybe I'd heard it in class. Maybe I was making it up on the spot. I'm still not sure. But it felt right. "May I work on your injured foot as well?" The voice that came out of me was amazingly calm, amazingly professional. "Does it still cause pain or is it especially sensitive?"
"No, it doesn't hurt at all any more. It happened when I was five."
I melted. My own daughter was only seven. The agony of watching her endure such a serious injury ripped through me. There was no longer any hesitation or uncertainty as I reached for my client's foot, cradling it in my hands, wondering furiously what kind of barbaric, inquisition-style medicine had resulted in such a grizzly structure. Surely they could have done better for a child. Wholeheartedly, I treated that foot to the best massage I knew how to give. It was actually difficult to move on. But I didn't want to run the flip-side risk of being perceived as patronizing ... or worse. So, reluctantly I said good-bye to the five-year-old girl who had suffered through the mutilation of her foot and finished the massage on the woman who was lying on my table.It Hurts Right Here
When I emerged from my room, first professional massage under my belt, I was feeling a lot better, confident even, until I saw my next customer--a woman in her mid-30s propped on the edge of the sofa, her back and neck so straight it looked as though she was duct-taped to a board. "Are you alright?" I asked.
"I hurt my back."
That much was obvious, but ask a stupid question ...
She could only look up at me with her eyes. "I don't know," she said. "I was gardening and my dog came up behind me. I just turned around to look at him. Right after this I'm going to my chiropractor." Flinching, she hoisted herself carefully, so that it appeared a rope was pulling her straight up off the seat.
"Here, let me help you," I said. Gently, I put my arm around her as she shuffled toward my room, wondering how she was going to get out of her clothes and onto my table. "Um, let me know if you need anything else," I said awkwardly, wondering what aid I could offer, quietly closing the door and leaning back against it. I was astounded. What was this woman thinking? As much faith as I placed in my trade, I still believed that someone with a real back injury should go to a medical doctor--at least prior to the day spa. Maybe the pain was impairing her judgment. Whatever the case, it was now up to me to do what I could to help her.
"I just want you to work on my back," she gasped into the face cradle hole through shuddering breaths.
Never before had I worked on someone's back for an entire hour. Then again, I reminded myself, never before had I worked on a partially severed limb. And that had gone fairly well. How difficult could this new challenge be? Pretty difficult, I discovered. The first 20 minutes went great. But the next 10 passed with unnatural sluggishness; and, by the end of that I realized I'd done every backstroke I knew, five times (a conservative guesstimate). And this was just the beginning. An entire 30 minutes were left to fill. Those 30 minutes crept by so slowly I was beginning to suspect my wall clock had multiple personalities. By the end of those 60 minutes--each one passing more slowly than the one before--I felt as though my brain had been wrung out. I took heart, however, when my client approached the reception counter able to breath evenly and lift her feet off the floor, albeit carefully. She even gave me a stiff smile. I supposed I'd done something right.Stone Massage With A Kick
At least massage number three seemed straightforward: hot stone. Familiar ground. An American Indian woman had trained me, and I was confident in both my knowledge and ability, even daring to steal a precious moment from my schizophrenic timepiece to put on a Carlos Nakai CD. I was disappointed when my client almost immediately nodded off to sleep. But sleeping client or no, this was not destined to be an uneventful massage. Thus, I acquired an invaluable tidbit of wisdom that I will share with you now.
Never, never transport a hot, oily, sacrum stone over the head of your client. I really can't overemphasize this. For a few hair-raising moments, my life passed before my eyes as I frantically juggled that slippery, sizzling boulder directly above her occipital lobe, the soothing sounds of Native American flute morphing into nerve-jangling, thrills-and-chills circus music. I don't even remember how I eventually caught the stone. But I did. I clutched it to my chest, sinking down into a nearby chair, pressing my eyes shut and allowing the ancient power of its radiant heat to slowly calm the wild beating of my heart.
"That was absolutely the best hot stone massage I've ever had," my client declared happily as she materialized from the cloud of humidity that engulfed my room, not realizing how close she'd come to a fractured skull.
Having fully recovered from my earlier scare, I thanked her with pleasure. Feeling quite professional, I took a moment to reassure her that I'd been extra careful, since she'd disclosed that she was a diabetic.
"Oh, honey," she waved away my concern. "You couldn't have hurt me. I took a couple Vicodin on the way over." Bending to dig in her purse, she missed my shocked expression. She neglected to mention that on her intake questionnaire. All of the sudden, her glowing review didn't have me feeling quite so full of myself. Exactly how much of it was lucid? On the other hand (I always try to look on the bright side), maybe she wouldn't have noticed if I'd clobbered her on the head with a giant rock, which doesn't mean I wouldn't have felt bad about it.
When she looked up, I was smiling brightly again. "Well, drive carefully." Silently I whispered a prayer for her safety and the safety of others on the road. "Massage," mixed with Vicodin, "can leave you feeling kind of groggy." Pressing a bottle of water into her hand, I advised her, "Remember to hydrate." I invited her to stay and enjoy her icy beverage in our quiet room, but she declined. Aside from shackling her to a chair, I didn't know what else I could do.He Knows What He Wants
With a shake of my head, I walked back to greet my next client. He immediately informed me that he had tennis elbow.
"Ah yes, tennis elbow," I murmured knowingly, stroking my chin. That's somewhere in your arm, isn't it? Instead, I pasted on a confident smile.
"Yes." He was very brisk. All business. "It's giving me a lot of trouble today and I have a match coming up this weekend. So, I just want you to work on my arm and legs."
My composure fossilized. What were the odds? Looking around the spa, I wondered if someone was targeting me, but my coworkers all seemed to be acting normally. Oh well, by that time I'd settled uncomfortably into the role of pretending to know exactly what I was doing. "Great. I'll start with your elbow and then move on to your legs."
With this client more than the others, I was flying by the seat of my pants. I had almost no plan. I had almost no knowledge of tennis elbow, other than it involved three key components: an arm joint, a racket, and a fuzzy yellow ball. I didn't even know whether to start my client supine or prone. Arbitrarily, I decided on face up for the elbow. Using simple division I calculated I had three body parts to address, so I decided to spend 20 minutes on each part which would result in a lot of surreptitious clock-watching. Making this nearly impossible however (and adding to my overall discomfort), he declined the eye-pillow, meaning I'd be under constant surveillance. It didn't take any psychic ability on my part to know that this was not the kind of client who nodded off to sleep.
It was awkward, to say the least. He didn't talk much, glancing up at me regularly as though critiquing while I improvised my tennis elbow routine. I don't know if he suspected my level of profound ignorance, but to throw him off track I carefully alternated reassuring smiles with gritty looks of focused concentration.
"Are you sure you don't want me to work on your back?" I asked hopefully after he was finally face down.
"Nope. My back is fine."A Crucial Demographic
Crumbs! What next? I wondered. Trigger finger? Lock jaw? Dishwater hands? Doesn't anyone want a regular massage!? Like the one I learned in school? The one I perfected for this very occasion! An affirmative to this mute and desperate plea materialized in the form of a grandmotherly woman who was dressed more for lunch at a fine restaurant than a massage at the day spa. She was sporting a Chanel suit, sensible heels, gobs of pearl jewelry, and a hat with a hat pin.
Her posture was perfect. "I would like a deep-tissue massage," she informed me serenely.
Deep tissue. That too was familiar ground. But with so little tissue, exactly how deep could I go? The headlines--and the premature demise of my career--flashed: "Inexperienced Massage Therapist Snaps Elderly Woman in Half."
Regally, she teetered off to disrobe and my skin lifted. With the exception of hugging elderly relatives through the safety of clothing, I'd never touched an elderly person's body, at least not one this old. Even now, it's difficult to openly admit that I was extremely reluctant to work on her.
What I immediately discovered was that she was not--brace yourself for excruciating honesty--disgusting. Which surprised me. I don't know if she could feel it through my hands, my fascination with her, and my admiration. I found myself thinking, gee, I hope I look this good when I'm her age. Only in retrospect did I come to realize that regular massages probably had a lot to do with the excellence of her skin and muscle tone. Very unexpectedly, that massage left me with a sensation of what I can only describe as joyful buoyancy. When we exchanged good-byes, I hoped I hadn't disappointed her. Really, I wanted to invite her to come back and see me again sometime, but I couldn't quite form the words; I was too shy. But she was the only client I hugged.
So that was it, more or less. The end of my first day. Not what I had expected, not even close.The Benefits Of Being Off-Balance
No massage clients were harmed in the writing of this article. In spite of my inexperience, I'm sure I did more good than harm. And I learned a lot. I learned that, even with an intake form, clients will often disclose only what they want you to know.
My hot stone client came once a month, fell asleep every time, and every time swore that I gave the best hot-stone treatment anywhere. Sure. I could have refused her service, but I didn't. That was my call and for it I make no excuses. I quickly learned massage therapists are forced to make similar decisions all the time. In school the contraindications are absolutes (as they should be), but in the real world they're not so straightforward. Thus, I'm inclined to simply say, use your best judgment and massage responsibly.
The guy with tennis elbow must have won his match because he, too, became a regular client. The next time I saw his name on my book, I was ready. I'd learned everything I possibly could about tennis elbow. I never worked on anything other than his right arm and his legs. He was all business. But I didn't feel awkward anymore, and I didn't offer him any reassuring smiles. I could tell he didn't need them. When I smiled it was because I felt like it.
My elderly client also booked with me from time to time and I always looked forward to her visits. From her I learned that most of what I thought I knew about elderly people was inaccurate. Now that I have my own practice, my senior clients are my favorite. Even without a full awareness of my motives, I got into this business to make a difference in people's lives, including I suppose, my own. My elderly clients have the greatest needs. For them, I feel I'm making the biggest difference. But that's just me. Your rewards may come from a different source.
The lady with the back injury? I never saw her again, which I learned not to take personally. Neither did I ever see the woman with the injured foot. But as for injuries and deformities, I learned that if you ask sincere questions, you'll always find out something that endears you to rather than alienates you from your client. It was a while later that I had a client come in with a calf that had been mangled and put back together (roughly speaking). I asked him if I could work on it. He said sure and explained that he had been bitten by a shark while scuba diving off the coast of Thailand.
"Yeah." I said. "We see a lot of that in here." He enjoyed a laugh. Humor, compassionately applied, is worth the risk.
Most importantly, I remembered it's fun to be new at something, even though you might feel inept at times. As adults, we avoid the hysterical delight of being off-balance (often to the point of making ourselves sick with the effort), probably because we're afraid of looking foolish. Fortunately, foolishness has always been one of my best looks. And fortunately, the massage business is one where there are always surprises, always opportunities to feel wonderfully light-headed--always opportunities to fill some of your limitless skull space with a humble measure of wisdom, to nurture the vastness of your heart with much love, to heal others and, in the process, heal yourself. Loren Blowers, MS, CMT, is a practicing massage therapist in California. Blowers is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a master's degree in biometry, the statistical analysis of biological observations and phenomena. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.