January 29, 2012


Some of the time it was just a laying on of hands, while the storm of pain quieted. A few very gentle moves, inviting the jaw to relax, opening the frontalis, checking in with the skin and muscles of the face, neck, and chest, but very little that most people would think of as “massage.” One of the things experience teaches you is that the amount of pressure – the “depth” of the work needed – varies wildly, not only from person to person but from session to session. It's encouraging when you find you can do much deeper work than you could in earlier sessions. It makes you feel you're making progress. But you also have to be ready to dial it way back, especially when you're dealing with those disquieting immunological syndromes that are so common nowadays: fibromyalgia, IBS, ME/CFS. You have to meet the nervous system where it is. If it's struggling with the sensations of ordinary life, so that the scrape of a cotton sleeve on the arm is an irritation and the fatigue of blinking the eyes is a burden, you're not going to help matters by flooding it with new and unfamiliar input.

But massage does seem to help. I really don't know why: theories come and go, none of them terribly convincing. I have no method, no protocol. I just work to give my full attention to the person I'm touching, to tune in to them physically and emotionally. Once I can feel their breathing in my fingers, I can just follow it. That's one way of conceiving it, anyway. I can enlist various senses. Some people “see energy,” hijacking the brain's visual processing to think about the emotions and sensations they're sharing. I sometimes have faint auditory hallucinations: I'll think I'm hearing sighs or groans or even muttered words. It's my way of registering what's probably mostly tactile information about tissue relaxing or softening. When I first started I sometimes mistook these for real, and said, “what?” – to the puzzlement of my client, who hadn't made a sound. Fortunately I've read enough about perception and neurology to know that this sort of synesthesia is quite common and does not need to be believed in – or dismissed. It's neither second sight nor delusion: it's just another way of processing information.

At the end of the session, my client said her headache was gone, the clenching of her eye muscles had released, and that she thought she might really sleep, tonight, for the first time in days. Did I really do anything? I have no idea. Placebo, non-specific effects, meaning-effects, psycho-social effects (a lot of different names, for more or less the same thing, used according to how legitimate you think it is) – that might account for it. Lying quietly in a dimly-lit room for an hour might account for it. Sitting beside her and holding her hand might have had the same effect. It's hard to know whether my own sense of what I'm doing – bringing a disciplined attention to bear – is really responsible for the therapeutic effects I see. But it remains my best guess about it.