On Saturday, Paul and I walked downtown to get $25 massages at the student massage school. My masseuse was a large, middle-aged man with lots of unruly dark hair, a dense beard, and round, Harry Potter glasses. His name was Norm, and he was dressed in a pair of jean shorts, white sneakers, and drooping tube socks.
When he asked what my goals were for the massage, I shrugged and said just relaxation. “Concentrate on my neck and shoulders,” I told him. “That’s where I like to be massaged. And if there are any kinks or knots or anything, you can work on those, I guess.”
“What would you put your pain level at?” he asked, his pencil hovering over his clipboard.
“Pain level?” I asked.
“On a scale of one to ten,” he prompted.
“Um…one?” I said. “I’m not really in pain.”
“One? Are you sure?”
“Well, OK, two,” I said, just to make him happy. “I guess.”
He left so I could get undressed and under the sheet, and when he came back, he started telling me about how he’d grown up in Alaska and been a fisherman for years. He was also a driver for Mitt Romney in DC, and before that he’d worked in Sudan for a Saudi prince. “That’s how I got interested in massage, actually,” he said, rubbing lotion into my back, “I used to massage the prince’s horses.”
“Interesting.” I mumbled from inside the face pillow. I was wishing he’d be quiet and just start massaging the heck out of my neck and shoulders. I was here to relax and zone out, not have a conversation with a fisherman-turned-masseuse.
“You have such nice skin,” Norm noted. “It’s so moist and supple. You must drink a lot of water.”
Finally he quieted down and he began to work on my neck. “Oh wow,” he said. “Oh, wow.” He laughed awkwardly. “That’s a really big knot.”
“Yeah, I carry my purse on my right shoulder. It’s probably a little tight,” I said.
“Oh my. These muscles are really tight. They’re really inflamed, actually.”
“I’ll do what I can,” Norm said, “but they’re pretty jacked up. They’re bad, actually.”
“I had no idea,” I told him. I really hadn’t. I’d only decided to get a massage because it would be fun – not because I actually thought I needed one.
Norm continued to work on the back of my neck. As he did, he explained to me the different muscles and how they all worked together. If one was inflamed or stretched or knotted, it affected all of the others.
“They’re all connected,” I mumbled.
“Exactly,” he said. He dug his callused fingers into the side of my neck. “Is this pressure OK?” Am I hurting you?”
“No, it feels good.”
“Wow,” he said for the millionth time. “You take pain really well. Most of my patients would be hitting the ceiling by now, screaming for mercy.”
I wondered why. I didn’t hurt at all. “No, it feels good,” I assured him. “You could even do a little deeper.”
“I’m amazed you only put your pain at a two,” Norm went on. “The way your muscles are inflamed like this, I’d have thought you’d be suffering. You must really take pain well.”
“You must be used to pain,” he said. “You must have had a lot of pain in your life.”
Did he mean physical pain, or emotional pain? I didn’t really think I’d had much of either, so I made a non-committal noise into the face pillow.
“You have really nice skin,” Norm said again. “It’s so soft and supple. It just flows over the muscles.”
“Thank you.” I would need to write about this on his feedback form: don’t tell female patients that their skin is supple more than once – it starts to get creepy.
“Did you go outside much as a child?” Norm asked.
“Really? Because most women your age have sun damage. But you don’t have any. You have such soft, supple skin. So lovely.”
By the time the hour was over, Norm had complimented my skin twice more. He’d also massaged the heck out of my neck and shoulders.
“Well, we made some progress,” he said. “But your neck is still pretty bad. For therapeutic massage, you really need more than an hour.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’d recommend icing the muscles twice a day, and looking into a chiropractor.”
I told Norm thanks, and when I was dressed I went back to the waiting room. The receptionist informed me that there had been two cancellations – Paul and I could each have an extra hour of massage, free of charge. “Would you want to do that?” she asked. Would I?!
Back into the room with Norm I went.
Norm continued to work on loosening my inflamed and knotted muscles. “It’s probably from sitting at a computer all day, tilting your head slightly forward,” he said, digging his fingers into my neck.
When we were done with our second round of massage, he asked me to rate my pain level. “Umm, one? I mean, I wasn’t in any pain to begin with. But I can tell my neck feels less tense now. The muscles don’t feel as tight.”
And it was true. I felt like he had really done some good, therapeutic stuff for my neck and shoulders. I felt less compacted.
But as I was filling out the feedback form, the muscles in my neck started to throb. By the time Paul and I were walking home, my neck and shoulders were hurting…bad. I dug my own fingers into the muscles, massaging them, trying to relieve the spasms.
“This sucks,” I said to Paul. “I hurt way worse after my massage than I did before. I didn’t hurt at all before.” Not two minutes ago we had been gloating about getting two hours of massage for $25, and now I wondered if it was worth it.
By that evening, I was crawling up the pain scale and was forced to self-medicate with red wine. I sat on the couch with an ice pack wrapped around my neck, massaging my own shoulders and hearing the muscle crunch and pop in a most disturbing way underneath my skin.
What had Norm done to me? “He totally jacked me up,” I said to Paul. Maybe this was a case of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I’d taken my body into Norm’s shop, he’d opened me up and fiddled around, and now nothing was working right.
My neck and back and shoulders have continued to throb these past few days; they ache with a deep, twisting burn. The pain has made me more aware of how I sit at the computer, and on the couch. I try to tilt my chin up and keep my neck straight. I try to pull my shoulders back and down instead of letting them slump forward and hunch up to my ears.
I went to yoga yesterday, and for the first time, the instructor told me I’d been doing one of the integral poses wrong. “Try it this way,” she said. “It’ll help you elongate your neck, pull your shoulders back, and bring your chest forward.” And she was right. Apparently, I’d been doing the move wrong for years, packing constant pressure and tension into my neck and shoulders.
“You hold yourself together pretty tight, don’t you?” someone once said to me. I guess it’s true. I keep to a tight schedule; I hold my emotions close to the chest. It wasn’t until Norm loosened me up that I even realized I was in pain. It wasn’t until he went digging deep that I realized something was wrong.
I don’t think it was Norm who messed up my neck. It had probably been getting tighter and more knotted as time went on, and the more compactly something is held together, the harder it is to tell what’s really going on.
I’m not thrilled with the way my neck has been hurting, but I think it’s ultimately a good thing. When you don’t notice your own pain, you keep doing the things that are hurting you. Pain makes you more aware. Pain helps you change your bad habits. It forces you to do things in a better way; it helps you to heal. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re broken until we loosen up and take a look at how everything is connected inside, underneath our soft, supple skin.