I begin this first-ever blog with a deep breath…
…and the reason I am a massage therapist, from a piece I wrote long ago. We’re all a little older now, but my reason hasn’t changed. My clients’ stories continue to get me up in the morning, and I’m grateful.
My two-page health history form takes clients a few minutes to complete. It lists a handful of medical conditions. The client indicates yes or no and fills in comments for each “yes” answer. Some clients object: “Do you have to know all this? “Can we get to the massage please?” Some simply draw a fierce long line through the “no” column.
The human condition, it seems, involves paperwork at every turn. By the time my client gets to me, “form fatigue” may already have set in. But this short health inventory is required, so they fill it out. Some scribble hurriedly and mechanically, others work slowly and thoughtfully. But everyone fills it out.
Once complete, we go over the client’s “yes” answers out loud. I probe a bit if there are only “no’s.” The conversation informs our massage goals and any precautions. We plan out the session and move to the table.
A Collection of Stories
My questions may feel tiresome or repetitive to the client, but they’ve unearthed many stories. Some stories are life-changing, some not so much. I’m honored to hear them and marvel at the variety: Through this process, clients have told me stories about poison ivy, the 6-week cold, and countless minor aches and pains.
Sometimes a story of deep consequence leaps out from the litany of checked-off answers. Eczema, hidden away under long sleeves. A complicated pregnancy. The two new hips. The old Back Injury of 1974.
Clients have told me about asthma episodes and insulin injections. Whirlwind hospital stays and endless fertility treatments. About the dreaded family history, always threatening to leap into the present day.
From thousands of conversations, I have learned about survival, healing, and unfathomable loss. The steady drip of chemotherapy. The multiple surgical scars. The long wait for the transplant donor. The cherished child who died.
I try to breathe when I listen, it helps me to hear.
Why all the questions?
Some stories hold critical information for safe, effective massage practice. They point to certain massage guidelines, such as taking care with pressure or joint movement at a certain area. Other stories signal a need for more research, or some input from the client’s physician.
Most of the time, these rich and colorful stories hold as much weight in the relationship as in the treatment design. Our willingness to listen may be a welcome chance for a client to tell the whole story, without interruption. The hour we have set aside for a client is a luxury. It is an invitation.
It is essential.
Why is this essential? Because history-taking invites history-telling. Because the human body is one of the loneliest places to be, and sometimes that loneliness is unbearable. Because in its understated way, my short client health form asks, How is it to be you? And your answer to that question sends your story into shared space.
When we tell the stories of our bodies to each other, whether we tell them in writing, out-loud, or through the wordless way we receive someone’s touch, we may be healed in some small way from the isolation of living them alone. Shared space can mean a warm room, a quiet listener, or a pair of skilled hands.
By touching a body, we touch everything that has ever happened to it. For a few brief moments, we hold all of the 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.
(Adapted from “The Health History of a Human Being,” Massage Therapy Journal, Winter 1999;37(4):70-92.)