Twenty years ago, a thought came to me during a massage therapy session. It floated into my massage studio and would not leave.
I wrote it down.
Once published, the thought kept moving. It turned up here and there: in a couple of books, in an occasional massage school graduation speech, on a massage therapist’s website.
Recently, on its 20th anniversary, I decided to write it down again. This time, I wrote it longhand.
My writing-it-in-cursive experiment had mixed results. Twenty years of keyboards and block printing have booted my cursive to the curb. My little “m’s” have too many arcs, or too few. The page is full of cross-outs.
I miss writing in cursive.
They don’t teach it much anymore. Cursive-writing is a lost art, going the way of Latin.
Some dismiss the loss. Others lament it: They say that without cursive, the next generation of historians will not be able to decipher primary sources, nor hundreds of years of correspondence.
That generation gap is already here. With minimal instruction in cursive, my child struggles to read her uncle’s letter to her. She is intrigued by it, though, and tries to copy cursive. She draws straight-up print letters first, then links them together with skinny little arms of ink. She practices her signature.
I nod appreciatively. She’ll get by. I imagine her adult self, signing a car loan or writing a letter. She might even issue a government decree one day, in cursive. Maybe we’ll loop back to parchment by then.
To me, massage is cursive.
That act of wrapping a pen in one’s fingers, then moving it across paper in curves and lines—it is similar to classical Swedish massage. Just remove the pen and ink. Use oil instead.
In place of the antique desk and blotter, use a massage table.
Change out the paper and bring in a human.
A human, with a story, who has asked to be touched.
There’s the difference.
On this massage table, my hands move in loops and spirals. But unlike handwriting, my hands are reading someone’s story, not writing it. My hands regard the story. They interact with it, following it around the curves and corners of the body. This is not pure cursive. It is a different kind of agency, a different kind of story.
In the two decades since winter 1999, the massage therapy profession has lived through its own story. Sometimes we’ve written it. Other times, others have written it for us. There’s that age-old conflict, again: Who gets to tell the story?
It’s a story of mixed results.
Twenty years produced a genuine marketplace for massage therapy, where people can now offer skilled touch and others can ask for it. The internet helped us all find each other. It gave us an inexpensive platform for our message to the masses.
Twenty years gave us some sensible regulation and a few new credentials. We published some good research, some of it open-source. We shrugged off a few outdated laws.
In that time, the public began to view our work as less like prostitution and more like wellness care, or even health care. In increasing numbers, people started seeking out massage during cancer care, after heart surgery, and in rehab. They sought us out for stress relief.
Consumers began to demand massage therapy throughout the life cycle: Pregnant women wanted it. Parents learned massage for their babies. Children asked for it for their dying parents.
We became popular.
Our story arced upward.
We appeared in Terminal B, and on inpatient Unit C. We showed up at the music festival, at the fundraiser, at the Olympics, and in the state legislature. We were everywhere.
We had arrived.
It was a matter of time before people noticed. When they did, they saw opportunity.
In a board room somewhere, someone thought to package our work as one of the seven deadly sins. For some reason, that appealed to people, and storefronts multiplied. The model took off and demand grew.
In response, massage education boomed. Schools opened, some formed long chains of campuses. They enrolled thousands of students. Educators argued for degree programs, or for graduating in 6 months, or for tiered education. Major publishers scurried to fill the textbook market. Tables, lotion, and other suppliers came out of the woodwork. In droves, MTs bought liability insurance and cheap CE courses. The industry begat more industry. We became as common as bread, and as commodified as car insurance.
A fellow educator remarked to me, ruefully, “Well, I guess we’re mainstream now. We got what we wanted, right?”
Then, something happened.
In the US, enrollment in massage programs leveled off, then dropped. At least a third of schools closed. Some were closed by force, for questionable financial and admissions practices. Others shut their doors because there were too few students.
The supply side of massage therapy began to shrink. People left the profession. Fewer people joined it. Employers strained to find therapists to keep up. The promising trajectory faded from view.
Now, even as demand for massage continues to grow, even as we are cast as part of the solution to the opioid problem, even as we become fixtures in places we used to only dream of visiting, suddenly there aren’t enough of us.
This gap is painful. It is ill-timed.
People offer up many explanations for our current situation. No time for an exhaustive list; here are just two:
One, the income waiting for MT graduates does not typically cover the student loan debt required to become a massage therapist.
Two, we’ve stretched income inequality to its breaking point, at least in urban areas. Middle- and upper-class consumers can no longer demand massage therapy when and where they want it, if MTs cannot afford to live anywhere near the demand.
Yes, we wanted a seat at the table, but we also need to eat. If MTs cannot provide quality care while safely housing, feeding, and caring for themselves, then current systems of massage therapy delivery are not sustainable.
We will be better advocates of massage therapy when we provide for its providers. These provisions could take many forms: stronger education, student debt relief, better compensation, more favorable supports (and fewer penalties) for MT entrepreneurs and microbusinesses, and meaningful third-party reimbursement for massage as health care.
Rapid growth is thrilling, but challenging to navigate.
Rapid growth does not come with a map or an instruction manual. Many of us are still catching up to the last year, or the last five. With growing interest on the demand side and shrinking interest on the supply side, our landscape is in flux.
In the past 20 years, massage therapy has helped a lot of people. Yet massage therapy has not always helped the profession of massage therapy.
At times, we’ve had thoughtful leadership and strong collaboration to steady us. Our alphabet soup of professional organizations has given us great hearts, voices, and a long list of accomplishments.
At other times, we’ve seen infighting, turf wars, and missed opportunities for the profession.
Massage therapy training does not typically include professional advocacy, program development, or leadership skills. These are ingredients in self-determination. In their absence, we are left to rely heavily on external approval and other people’s skills. We are vulnerable to other people’s agendas.
Put simply, others get to write our story.
Against this landscape, someone brought my 20-year-old thought to my attention. When she nudged me with it, she caught me up short. Sure, I had seen it around. It’s on our website. But I hadn’t read it closely in a long time.
Upon doing so, I cringed a little. It was all I could do to keep from editing. Who uses that word anymore? How quaint! I must update this thought, I thought.
I resisted the impulse.
I left it untouched.
Instead, I copied it word-for-word into my journal.
Now, days later, I am reading it back to myself. As I read, I reflect: Do I still believe this?
My words are a test. They ask me to reevaluate our work in light of the 20 years of steps and missteps in the profession of massage therapy. They ask me to sit in this season of confusion and ask, Why can’t I tell whether we have moved forward?
Is the work fizzling, as it appears, from lack of oxygen? Or is this our moment—the one we anticipated for years—and it just doesn’t look like our moment?
In this moment, do my words from 1999 still ring true, or do they remain a quaint, lost artifact from an idealistic time?
Am I just longing for our Woodstock, for those days before we were discovered, then branded? Back when our work was pure, misunderstood, and dismissed?
Do I still believe these words?
The words dare me to say no. To say yes.
The passage blurs on the page.
Eventually, my answer comes. It is quiet, but clear.
My pen might be clumsy, but my massage hands are sure. They continue to move across my client’s tissues. They continue to ask: What is it like to be in this body? What stories does it tell?
They continue to trace a whole life in an hour, in a moment.
Many hours later, I have a whole collection of stories. I imagine my hands connecting each data point with the next, like skinny arms linking my child’s upright letters. I believe these connections are bridges.
I believe that healing crosses these bridges. Healing crosses in both directions.
Now, enough with the cursive. Now, it takes a few moves of the mouse to layer a thought over a picture. It is much easier to read than my blotchy script.
My mouse hesitates. It is more than a little odd to quote yourself. Our internet is already stuffed with well-meaning quotations. Some are more useful than others.
This one? It is just…true.
It has held up over time.
I believe it with my whole heart.
By touching a body, we touch every event it has experienced. For a few brief moments we hold all of a client’s stories in our hands. We witness someone’s experience of their own flesh, through some of the most powerful means possible: the contact of our hands, the acceptance of the body without judgment, and the occasional listening ear. With these gestures we reach across the isolation of the human experience and hold another person’s legend. In massage therapy, we show up and ask, in so many ways, what it is like to be another human being. In doing so, we build a bridge that may heal us both.
–Tracy Walton, “The Health History of a Human Being,” Massage Therapy Journal, Winter 1999.