There are some things that I don’t normally talk about much here. Blogs are incredibly public, and while there are some topics I love to talk over with my massage therapy peeps, I don’t necessarily need them plastered all over the internet for the world and my grandma to see. (Not that my grandmother uses the internet, but I’m sure if she did she’d read whatever she could find on me.)

But I was giving some advice to a student on my favorite massage therapy forum, and someone suggested that I really ought to write about it here.

I feel a little squishy about doing this. But because I want the people who NEED this sort of advice to HAVE it, I will.

Let me start by telling a story:

We were approaching psoas from the side-lying position. I was on the table. My amazing friend Matt was working on me. He called over Gary, our instructor, to ask if he were actually doing it properly. Gary put his hands over Matt’s, and moved deeper. Much deeper.

“What does that feel like?” Gary asked me.

“It feels like … crying.” I started to weep.

Poor Matt. He brought me a box of tissues and hovered awkwardly. I kept crying for a while. It felt like forever.

The thing is, I cry every single time I have moderate to deep work done in the side-lying position. Every time, without fail. It’s something I know about myself now, and it’s something my massage therapist needs to know, too.

If you have a history of trauma or abuse–physical, emotional, sexual, disaster-related, war-related, whatever, your massage therapist needs to know before you get on the table. I don’t care whether it’s listed on the medical history form. Circle “anxiety” and write the details in the margins, and make sure you discuss it ahead of time.

Why?

I don’t know about you. Maybe you’re different from me. I’m told we’re all special little snowflakes or something to that effect, so you probably are. But supposing for a moment that you are like┬áme, and you’re on a table, stark naked, and somebody starts hurting you (just a little, unintentionally) then your first reaction isn’t to say calmly, “Hey, that’s a little rough for me, my hamstrings are pretty tight and don’t take a stretch that well.”

If you’re me, your first instinct is to freeze. Hold your breath. Wait for it to stop. Hope the therapist doesn’t notice. Try not to be rude.

And meanwhile, this poor therapist, thinking you’re happy, keeps doing the one thing I can just about guarantee she doesn’t want to do: make you feel worse.

Writing it down on a history form is less scary than bringing it up in conversation out of the blue. And talking about it when you’re one fully-clothed, seated, professional individual having a conversation with another is much easier than talking about it in a dim room while you’re horizontal, next-to-nude, and feeling somebody’s hands doing something that doesn’t feel right.

If you’re a student, you’re going to have to out yourself as a trauma survivor. Whether you do this to the class as a whole (more scary, but sometimes really empowering when you get so much understanding and support in return) or person by person (start with your instructor, then inform each of your partners as you work with them) is up to you. But school is even more likely to include draping mishaps, clumsy technique, miscommunication, and ignorance of trauma-related reactions than a professional setting. You’re much better off playing it safe by speaking up than keeping to yourself.

If anybody, anybody at ALL does not respect this information, tell your instructor, right away. If the person in question is your instructor, tell the director of your program. If those in positions of authority do not crack down on the disrespect, consider switching classes. Consider switching schools. This is no time to put up with people who do not respect your needs, your boundaries, your choices, or your body. Do whatever it takes to put yourself in a caring, supportive environment while you are in massage school.

If you’ve got boundary issues be aware of it. Teach yourself to think, “This feeling is an example of transference. That’s okay. What I’m receiving is a professional massage.” Does that sound clunky to you? It does to me, but the formality of the script helps keep my reactions in line.

If you’ve got negative feelings about your body, be aware of them. If you feel like people must be lying when they say they are happy to work with you, be aware of this. If you’re overeager to please, be aware of this. If you know the smell of sage triggers flashbacks, you REALLY NEED to be aware of this, but you knew that already.

Some people find having a safe word helps. Think that’s just for kinky sex? It’s not. Establishing ahead of time that “stop” or “hold it” or whatever means “I don’t mean to be rude but I need you to stop what you’re doing right now and take your hands off my body because I’m having a reaction at this moment due to prior trauma and we need to communicate before we can continue with this massage,” is SO much easier than trying to formulate a sentence when you’re feeling vulnerable.

If you’re in therapy (the talking kind, not massage), you probably want to discuss massage school with your psychologist. Massage therapy school dredges up challenges, emotions, and issues in the most healthy of us. Your psychologist will probably have all kinds of helpful things to share with you. This person knows her stuff, far more than I do. Listen to what he has to say.

If you’re a massage therapist or a student dealing with trauma: I’m sorry. It sucks. It sucks so much, and it isn’t fair, and you don’t deserve it.

But you also have a gift to offer others. The chance to learn from you. The chance to become better, more responsible, more compassionate, more sensitive, more trustworthy massage therapists.

And you may, as many of us do, find that learning massage is in itself a kind of therapy. Learning to touch other people in ways that heal, without pain, is an extraordinary blessing. Learning to be touched and to allow yourself to heal, without pain, is too.

I know that’s cheesy, but it’s true.

So, we’ve gotten a little up close and personal on LMT or Bust today. That’s how we do things, in the massage therapy world, letting people see all kinds of bits and pieces of ourselves that we normally keep under wraps. I’m not a psychologist. Actually, the only psychology class I ever took, I failed. But this is what I know from experience. And if you know anybody, anybody who might benefit from reading this, please pass it on. Because I wish I’d read something like it when I started school.

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