Tag Archives: massage

On the moral obligation to be healthy

I started this post in May 2010, shortly after the event I termed Backpocalypse 2010 (in an ill-disguised attempt to use humor to distance myself from the pain and terror I felt), in which I injured my back to the point of needing to take a hiatus from my course of study at massage school. But while the personal resonance mentioned below has lessened some, the questions and issues involved are still here, and still concern me — and ought, I would argue, concern you.

Should we strive to be healthy? Most people would say yes.

Do we have an obligation — to ourselves, our families, our community (or country, or world for that matter) — to maximize our health; by which we are supposed to understand to mean our ability to function (to be “productive”, preferably in an explicitly capitalist way), and the longevity thereof? Maybe you wouldn’t say yes to this, but it’s the same question as above, just explicated a little.

I say no. Why?

As it stands, the moral obligation to be “healthy” according to the above definition is what:

  • gives fatphobes the “right” to comment on my appearance, my diet, my activity level, my life (because, of course, everyone knows that fat is unhealthy).
  • creates pressure on a pregnant person to use every test available to determine whether her pregnancy is “healthy enough” to continue, whether or not she herself wishes to.
  • supports telling some people that they are not good enough to have children in the first place — because how dare they risk passing their disability, their atypicality, their ill health, their moral failing on to another generation?
  • allows us to shame women for not breastfeeding, rather than focusing on the ways we can help her meet her own breastfeeding goals.
  • defends forced-medication rulings for those whose thoughts and emotions don’t fit society’s expectations.
  • allows us to tsk-tsk “those people” for not eating “right”, for making “bad food choices”, ignoring the multitude of reasons why people (especially those without class privilege) might eat “suboptimal” food.

None of that is OK.

The idea of moral obligation to heath has a particular resonance right now, when I feel the sting of inability, when I question my worth as I possibly fail, again, at a goal I have set myself.

Long ago I gave up on trying to fit into office work. Then I gave up (or set aside) the idea of being an academic student in a traditional college (which hurt far more than giving up temping, as you can imagine). Now I’m facing the potential loss of practicing massage therapy1, while simultaneously finding myself unable to eke out enough time to write, either. And I wonder: what is the point of me? Am I ever going to be able to make a living? If not, what good am I?

And the assumption behind those fears is, of course, highly problematic. It is the idea that we are only valuable for what we earn or produce — a capitalistic definition of “value”.

Which is not to say I “shouldn’t” want health or productivity for itself — nor that I should. Let’s just toss out all “shoulds”. The simple fact is that I DO want to do these things for themselves (I chose massage because I love it), and I DO want to be “productive” because I, like almost everyone else on the planet, want to be part of something (my community, my movement, my tribe, my family). The problem isn’t the idea of health2 or productivity; the problem is when we make those things moral obligations, rather than recognizing that they have inherent value, and that, lacking outside pressure, people will still want them for themselves.

When we make health an obligation, we create a hierarchy of people, based often on things outside of their own control. We say that some people are better than others, because of chance or choice or circumstance. We say that if you’re not “healthy” (by whatever criteria the judger has decided to focus on, often related barely or not at all to my or your or science’s definition of “health”), you aren’t working hard enough, you don’t know enough, you aren’t buying the right things. We allow people the grace of bad luck old chap if they can prove that it’s not their fault (and please, dear reader, take a moment to contemplate the impossibility of proving a negative, and the burden of having to do it over, and over, and over again), but still, under that, is the sometimes unspoken yet always detectable question are you really doing everything you possibly could to get better?

The burden this places on people — is placing on me — makes a difficult situation so very much worse (or, for some, turns what is simply and joyfully their life into a trial — not the state of their health but the social conversation around it is what drags them down). It’s not enough that we may not have the health we want, that our bodies may not do what we wish of them, that we may be limited in our choices: the moral obligation to health means we are failing those around us. It’s not enough that we may struggle, that I struggle: the moral obligation to health means we struggle with our society’s disapproval as well.

So no, I do not believe there is a moral obligation to health in some imaginary “objective” sense, nor that we as a society should impose one. Rather, I would say, society has the moral obligation to assist each person to be as healthy as ze wants to be (including, as my culture so spectacularly fails at right now, removing barriers to health and health care), and to respect the intrinsic motivation and decision making of its members.

Health — in the fullest sense of an individual’s optimal wellness, whatever that means to them — is not something we need to bribe or shame or obligate each other into pursuing. And to try is not only futile but counterproductive and often, as I feel so acutely now, cruel.

In the nearly-year since I started writing this, I have spent hundreds of hours in many practitioners’ offices working to regain my ability to move and to perform massage safely and without pain; have graduated massage school; and just this week passed the written portion of my licensing exam. The imposition of a “should”, an obligation, toward health added a layer of anxiety to my initial period of injury that this post reflects — but it was out of my own desire, not out of obligation, that I worked so hard toward recovery and that I continue to work on my physical wellness. It was only after coming to some sort of peace with the idea that I might not be able to perform massage — might not be productive in the way I’d so long planned, might once again fail, or defy, the expectations and pressures society places on me — that I was able to be centered enough to move forward, and do it in a way that was healthy for all of me, body and mind.

  1. Not a certain thing, but my back is not yet healed enough to perform regular, full-length massage, and in my darker moments I despair that it ever will.
  2. Though perhaps part of the problem is how we define health.

Mostly fluffy post of go-me-ness

I have sitting next to me a certificate of completion and congratulation from massage school (the proper my-name-on-it diploma-thing will come after transcripts are finalized) and a copy of Bitch Magazine Spring 2011, in which I am quoted1. I’ve been petting each alternately, not entirely sure which thrills me more –

One of my physical therapists2 asked me yesterday whether, if my massage practice took off tomorrow and I was as booked as I wanted to be, I would still write. Though I understood his point — for some people desk work is what they do until their body work practice can sustain them — to me it was like asking “If you had all the water you could drink, would you still want to breathe?”

but we’ll focus on the first here.

This is the first course of study (really, the first anything) I’ve completed since graduating high school — which was only just, thanks to migraines and undiagnosed mood instability. This accomplishment was not barely, but solidly, definitely, unquestionably. Though there were many times I wondered whether I’d make it — particularly in the months after Backpocalypse 2010 — and I took a couple breaks as needed, I never really faltered as I have so many times before. I never failed a course for lack of completion of coursework. I never let an absence prevent my return. I never let my at-times-overwhelming fear of failure, or my equally hindering fear of success, stop me from simply taking the next step.

And that? Feels really damn good.

  1. More on this in another post, as I have Words to Say, but for now let’s revel in the simple joy of it.
  2. Yes, I have more than one.

Talking class in class — on money and massage

I’ve been doing a lot of talking and thinking and work this quarter around money — not only did I start accepting advertising on RMB in January, I took the Business class in massage school1, and then again in the weekend reiki class we talked about pricing. Mostly I’ve come around to a place where I’m comfortable placing value — and thus a dollar value — on what I do, but there’s a line that keeps coming up — in massage, yes, but it’s entirely too familiar to me coming from the world of doulas and midwives and childbirth ed and homebirth — that chafes me every time I hear it:

“If it [massage, reiki, homebirth, whatever services one offers] is really important to someone, they’ll figure out how to pay for it.”

Well, sure — if we’re talking someone middle-ish class trying to decide between a triple digit monthly clothing budget and getting body work. But also what the fuck are you talking about? if we’re talking people to whom the $70 for a single massage represents their monthly food budget.

I can afford the body work I need because I have a partner with a well-paying job, good enough credit to let it take a few years longer to pay off our debt, and a student discount from my LMT (more than offset by the student loan repayments, unfortunately). Three years ago, I couldn’t afford it. Six years ago, I got the body work I needed only because I had parents who could finance my health care — if my parents were financially where I was three years ago, it never would have happened.

It’s true that we almost always have choices, and that many people have the resources and resourcefulness not to let financial barriers get in their way. I don’t wish to cast the class marginalized as Those Poor People We Need to Pity, nor erase anyone’s agency. But just because a choice is theoretically possible doesn’t mean everyone will be able to choose it, nor will they necessarily think it worth it. Three years ago I could have given up eating any organic foods or eating out ever2, could have given away my pets3 and gotten a smaller apartment, could have sold my collection of birth books and musical instruments. I could, in theory, have managed a monthly or even semi-monthly massage — if I’d completely rearranged my life.

I value massage — it arguably saved my life, and I am making it a large part of my life’s work — but even I don’t know if I value massage that highly. And I’d probably look askance at anyone who did, not to mention question the integrity of any massage therapist who encouraged that.

And yet.

I’m not, at all, arguing that massage is too expensive, or should be considered a luxury, or that we overcharge. Indeed, no one gets rich doing massage — owning a spa or three, maybe, and if we’re lucky and savvy we can support our families. While $70 may sound like a lot for “just an hour!”, there is no one on this earth who can do 40 massages a week 50 weeks a year — and for 10, 20, 30 years? Try it. Just try it. A full time practice is closer to 25 50-minute massages a week (far, far more than I am or likely will ever be capable of doing), and that still has the LMT working 40+ hours total, and a good portion of income is either being taken by the therapist’s employer or self-employment taxes. From a therapist’s point of view, from the point of view of earning a living and paying off an education and supporting a family, $70 for an hour is damn near a bargain.4 New graduates often start out charging much lower prices, either to get clients, or out of a misplaced sense of “I’m new, I can’t be worth that much!” — but it’s not long usually before they figure out it’s really not sustainable.

The point: I’ve been experiencing such a strange sort of cognitive dissonance these past couple months, trying to learn to value myself while not forgetting that this system I’m learning to operate in is inherently fucked up and values some people less than others. I don’t think the solution is for me to continue to act as though money is dirty and I’m either too good or not good enough for it — as Ariel Gore argued so eloquently in How to Become a Famous Writer, earning money means I have more ability to feed my family, support causes I believe in, and pay other artists, social justice workers, and small businesses — but really, fuck if I know what the solution is. As a blogger I’ve resolved it to my satisfaction5, but as an LMT, as I hope to be in just a few short weeks? No clue. I could do a sliding scale, sure, but even the lowest I could go and still pay for my supplies and time prices out so much of the population I wish to serve — whether in absolute terms or psychological ones hardly matters when the end result is not having access to this form of health care.

In the end I don’t think there is a satisfactory solution as long as capitalism remains kyriarchy’s primary tool6. I’m not prepared to “leave” capitalism7, nor am I willing to continue to sacrifice my mental health and my self-esteem and my self on the altar of futilely protesting its very existence, which leaves me… in limbo, I suppose: socioeconomically privileged, gender and ability marginalized, and struggling to find my way without stepping on anyone else.

I wish I had a better ending, better answers, better ideas, but although this isn’t enough, it’s the best I have for now.

  1. Did I mention I have two. more. weeks until I graduate?? So this month might be a bit sketchy on posts — I feel like I’m in the very last minutes of a marathon, and it’s not that hard except it’s unbelievably hard and there’s not much left except everything. Mess up now and the last 2.5 years were nothing. So. Little stressed. But mostly in a good way. I’M ALMOST DONE!
  2. Then a monthly-ish occurrence, if that.
  3. Though to me, and I don’t want to start a children-are-like-pets debate, that’s different only in (small) degree from saying that I could give away the Boychick, and is about as likely to ever happen. If you’re an animal person, you get this, and if you’re not, nod and smile and simply believe me, even if you also roll your eyes.
  4. Prices in this paragraph are based on the average cost of a massage here in Portland, Oregon, USA, where the cost of living ain’t exactly cheap. Other places in the country may have lower — or higher — average prices, and of course little of this paragraph is relevant to non-USA audiences, or, if it is, it’s merely through coincidence.
  5. If you’ve a sole proprietorship you’d consider advertising here and want to know how I’ve resolved it, ask me for my price sheet.
  6. By which I do not mean that classism is the “worst” of the -isms, but rather that so much of marginalization functions through money and access to it, or the lack thereof. Just look at the (un)employment rates for transgender individuals, or consider how difficult getting and keeping a job as a person with a disability is, or examine the continuing gender pay disparities. There are many, many aspects of marginalization, many tools of kyriarchy if we are to anthropomorphize bigotry that way, but I think it would be hard to argue that unequal access to capital, or at least the means of its production, isn’t (one of) the largest.
  7. An act which, if one is to argue is possible at all, requires a horribly and darkly amusing level of class privilege.

The arts of wordless mindfulness and mindful words

Between pregnancy canceling one set of plans and a miscalculation of the number of elective credits remaining needed to graduate, I signed up at the last minute to take an especially woo class1 this past weekend, one I had never intended to take at all.

Part of what we do in massage (both giving and receiving), and one of the reasons it is so beneficial, is to have a time when the mind is not the focus of the self. It is the body that is the focus — my hands and arms and how I stand and move and dance to touch the body before me when I give, my skin and muscles and fat and blood and flesh and fascia and the wholeness of me, my pain and pleasure and the simple feeling-ness of being touched with love when I am receiving. My mind still babbles — of course it does — but I breathe, and let it go, and return to my body and the work I am doing2.

Reiki is that aspect of massage distilled. Rather than the body being the focus as in massage (or the mind as it is in most of our lives), now it is, whatever this means to you, spirit3. Most of the 18 hours of class was spent in the stillness of motionlessness as well as the silence of voicelessness — I cannot speak to anyone else’s experience, but mine was hardly silent otherwise. The brain, so skilled at formulating thoughts, continues its work regardless of our intent or desire, and so sitting in “silence” is anything but. Grocery lists, to-do items, old memories, projected worries — these I can let go of. These I am happy to send on their merry way, to let slip down the stream as unneeded creations of a mind only doing it job, not knowing when its production is unnecessary. But what comes to me in that stillness and silence that I wish to cling to, wish to grab hold of and jump up and run for pen and paper and the scritching sound of my hand moving one against the other, is the words. Post ideas fully formed, phrases finally perfectly turned, eloquence and persuasiveness and emotions given voice. How do I let go of these, when I know in a few hours — at most, a few days — I will be sitting here yet again begging for them to come?

There’s a writerly saying that the first 500, 750, 1000 words of the day are crap, but you have to write them, write through them and past them, in order to get to the good stuff. Some nights I feel like these are my 1000 words, and if I could just stay up longer, could sleep in tomorrow, could avoid insanity and instability on an irregular sleep schedule; if I could do this during work hours, could get out the first 1000 words when my part of the planet is facing the sun, could sit and write revolution instead of agitate in spurts of 140 characters or fewer in the few minutes’ attention that is all my child will allow to deviate from him: then I could get to those gems that pester at my brain, that beg to be heard and recorded after the 1000 are tossed up on the blog with mutters of “good enough”, which are not becalmed by the couple times a week I am able to sit here, laptop earning its name, but are instead bestirred by them — only to fade or flee when I, exhausted, say no, stop now, I have to sleep, I have no time for you: come back next week, next month, next life.

They never do.

So when they come in the silence and the stillness, in the midst of supposedly-good-for-me meditation — I am supposed to let them go? (The pain of doing so was one of the many reasons I found myself in tears more than once this weekend.) Perhaps a Buddha or a Hallmark card would say they are butterflies and are crushed with the clinging, or that if they love me then they will return, but I, with a few stolen hours a day a few fought-for times a week and but a few months until even that, perhaps, is impossible, cannot convince myself I have the time for such patience, for such woo and trust and surrender.

Likely the prudent path4 would be to take the time to meditate before writing — instead of poking around Twitter, say. And perhaps, one day, I will do that: after all, tonight I showered before sitting down5, so here I am at only 10pm with my nearly-1000 words. Perhaps one day I’ll be that disciplined and evolved and mature. Perhaps one day I won’t be so surrounded by kids and chaos and an overflow of needs unmet that I’ll have the time and the space and the ability to sit and be before I sit and attempt to do this work.

Or perhaps one day I’ll realize that I cannot afford to waste my time struggling to create through all that stuff when I could, instead, take a few minutes first to let it go, set it aside so the words and I don’t have to fight to find each other.

Perhaps one day.

——————————

  1. Reiki, which was simultaneously less and more woo than I’d expected. Keep your eye-rolling to yourself, please.
  2. For receiving massage is its own sort of work — not work as in labor, but as in the work of being alive and present, the beautiful work of the breath and of being.
  3. A perhaps ridiculously-simplified statement of my beliefs is that mind and spirit are not separate from but arise from — are functions of — the body. I am, still, a theist, but an independent “soul” is unnecessary to my experience of the spiritual or the divine.
  4. 10 year old philosophy of ethics paper on Aristotle for the win. Thanks, Professor Marya.
  5. While my kid screamed he didn’t want to go to bed and he did want to stay up and shower with me, and while my mind flooded with variations on “please come, words, please, for me, please come, please” so loudly and rapidly nothing else — except my child’s yells — could squeeze its way in. So it wasn’t quite the peaceful and productive experience I might have hoped for.

Pregnancy Massage I, take 2: in which I beg for woo and e-support

If things’ve seemed quiet around here, it’s for a good reason: things have been very not-quiet in my life. Nothing much more than usual: started the term with a two-massages-a-week class, lost preschool for the child1, met a stranger and asked her to put her hand in my cunt2, and, today, started the three-day intensive for Pregnancy Massage I. Again.

It’s been six months since my back went kablooey3, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours and hundreds of dollars working on getting better, getting well, getting strong, and I don’t know if it’s enough. I don’t know if I can do this course, and I don’t know if I can have the career I’ve spent the last two-plus years working toward if I can’t finish it.

There’s a lot I’m doing differently this time4, and I’m not in the same place I was then, but I am terrified. And I’m doing all the woo acceptance I can, acknowledging the fear and letting it go5, staying in just this moment, grounding myself and feeling and loving my body as it is — but the fear is still there.

So this is me accessing all the resources at my disposal, and asking my community for support.

Tell me it will be alright. Tell me I will get through the weekend. Tell me I’ll still be a massage therapist even if I don’t. Tell me I’ll still be worthwhile human being even if I don’t get my license. Don’t tell me things will happen as they ought, but that I have the ability to make things work out whatever happens. Whip out as much woo and as many cyber hugs as you got, and lay it all on me.

And soon6, I’ll get back to my usual, less needy, more pedantic, kyriarchy-kicking ways.

Whether or not my spine stays whole.

*******

  1. The whole school is on hiatus for the health of the owner, and yes that is about as fun for everyone involved as you might imagine, not least her.
  2. Which I will write about soon, under the title “Adventures in Holistic Pelvic Care, Or, Yes You May Put Your Hand Up My Splink”.
  3. That’s a technical term.
  4. I’m not spending any time on the table, I’m not trying to force myself to sit on the floor with everyone else, I’m taking an extended lunch break tomorrow for a please-stop-my-back-from-breaking chiropractic tune-up, and I’m accepting all the help I can get with setting up the tables and moving equipment around my own body mechanics. And I still don’t know if it will be enough.
  5. I keep inviting the fear to leave, but it’s hanging around like a house guest with poor boundaries and worse hygiene, eating my food, monopolizing the remote, and generally making a mess of the place. Somewhere inside me there’s a zen master drinking tea calmly, but the rest of us are running around with bleach and brooms — cleaning up after it, or trying to chase it out, depending, and we kind of hate the lazy tea-drinker.
  6. For a certain value of “soon” approximately equaling “find an acceptable replacement for the practically perfect playschool which is now closed”.