Fixing Blech: The Power of Human Touch

“So,” said the woman who would be my therapist that day, “why are you here?”

It was my first massage, and I had no idea how to answer this person. I’d gotten hung up on the same question a few minutes earlier while completing my patient-intake form: What is the reason for your visit today? Unable to pinpoint a reason, I’d written down, “To get a massage“, hoping that they wouldn’t actually take time to read through it.

“Besides, ‘to get a massage,’” the therapist added kindly, clearing up any doubt as to whether she actually took time to read the patient-intake forms.

I explained that I’d been feeling “blech” lately. “Blech all over?” she asked. “Or are there specific areas of blech you’d like to focus on?” I admitted there was a general feeling of blech, but that my shoulders and legs seemed to feel more blech than, say, my arms or torso, which only felt kinda blech. Her brow furrowed as she gave this some consideration. “I think we can address that,” she said.

I was instructed to disrobe to my level of comfort and to lie face-down on the table. At this point, my therapist left the room to give me some privacy and I took a moment to reflect on her words: Disrobe to your level of comfort. It seemed like tricky territory, as it depended on finding the proper intersection between physical and social comfort. Physically, I would have been most comfortable with no clothes on. But I was also a relatively uptight Midwesterner unused to the idea of lying undressed in a bed, in front of someone who wasn’t my wife, regardless of the decidedly clinical and professional atmosphere. As for emotional comfort, it didn’t help that I have the unimpressive physique and pasty, white skin of an uncooked chicken; mine is not the sort of body one would willingly expose to strangers. Mine is the sort of body for which clothes were invented.

Clearly, I’m not the only person who has experienced this moment of hesitation. Most massage therapy websites address this concern right up front with assurances that the patient will be modestly draped at all times beneath table linens, and legitimate massage therapists are always careful to convey a sense of respect for their clients’ boundaries as well as their needs. I figured it wouldn’t matter to any legit therapist how her clients preferred to receive treatments, but in the end I sacrificed a bit of physical comfort and erred on the side of undies.

As I slid onto the massage table, it occurred to me that I still wasn’t clear on what I had been hoping to achieve with this appointment. An extended moment of relaxation? A feeling of renewal and invigoration? Loosened muscles? It seemed like a lot of ground to cover, considering I’d only booked myself for thirty minutes. First the question of why I came here, next an agonizing underpants decision, and now for the third time my mind was racing off in a new direction: if I couldn’t figure out what I needed the therapist to work on, would this all be a huge waste of time and money? This is the problem with having an obsessive mind: If I was hoping to find some relaxation, I was not off to a good start, thanks to my immediate, light-speed rumination on dumb thoughts.

My mind was still racing and my shoulders and fists were clenched tight when my therapist returned a minute later. “Are you ready to begin?” she asked, and I said that I was. After bolstering my feet with a pillow, she turned the blanket down near my hips and began gently walking her hands down the center of my back, starting at my shoulder blades. And just like that, my mind went silent.

The effect was immediate and surprisingly deep. My hands and shoulders loosened. I noticed, suddenly, how soft and warm the bed felt. I noticed how tranquil the air in the room felt. And she hadn’t even gotten to the real work yet — this was just the warm-up. That is the power of human touch. I would later learn that the profoundly calming effects of touch are a real and proven phenomenon, but there, in that moment, without knowing why, I just felt calm.

Within a few minutes, the therapist’s long, deliberate strokes had assuaged any concerns I’d had before we started: no, this was so not a waste of money; no, underwear preference is not even remotely relevant; and no, I didn’t need to know why I was there — that’s the value in finding a great massage therapist.

As for feeling blech? My therapist cleared that right up, though I have no idea how she did it. I couldn’t pay attention because, for the first time in years, my mind had been tranquil and still. It wasn’t until we were done that I realized I hadn’t engaged in conscious thought since the moment she began.

After my therapist left the room, I rose from the massage table and felt, in a word, restored. My mind was calm and centered, but my body felt energized. I felt looser and lighter and was enjoying an unmistakable moment of euphoria. I could have hugged the floor lamp. In time, my mind would reset and I would begin wondering more about the positive effects of massage. I would begin to consider all the different strokes and techniques, and I would want to know more about the physiological and emotional responses to this type of therapy. Ultimately, when the common-sense area of my brain would wake up, I would vow to never again book a session less than sixty minutes in duration. (A thirty minute massage is like a stack of pancakes with no syrup: sure, dry pancakes are better than no pancakes, but given the option, what sane person would choose the less gratifying experience?)

But that would all come later. For the time being, it was enough to know that I no longer felt blech. And I honestly couldn’t think of a better reason to be there.

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