Friday, August 31, 2007

Commas in the Sky

I haven't written about clinic, the practicum, for a couple reasons. For one, I can't write about the massages themselves, without violating both therapeutic ethics and my own sensibilities. I am uneasy sometimes even about writing about trades with fellow-students. For another, I don't feel I've cut a very dashing figure, in clinic, and I've preferred it to remain obscure.

The massages themselves have gone well. Once I lay hands on someone, I know what to do. Addicted to self-doubt though I am, I've never seriously doubted the skill of my hands. No, what's difficult for me is the intake and exit interviews. I have to talk to these strangers. And what's more -- what's always been supremely difficult for me -- I have to talk to them in a scripted way; I have to ask them particular questions and give them particular information. I have to tell them what kind of massage I'm going to give them, for instance. Tell them what sort of draping I'll use, and generally what to expect of the session.

Why is that so difficult for me? Well, for one thing, because I don't know what sort of massage I'm going to give until I've actually laid on hands. I have no idea. The sort of information you get in an intake interview isn't the sort of information that lets you say what you're going to do, or at least it isn't for me. My hands do all that sort of thinking.

But more than that: I don't myself want to know that information, when I'm getting a massage. It feels to me like giving a child a typewritten list of all his gifts, on Christmas morning, before letting him open anything. I have to try hard to think my way into the state of mind of someone who's never had a massage, or only had one or two -- that they might seriously have very little idea of what's going to happen, and want some ordinary information about it. Hard for me to get there, because it's precisely the unmooring, the giving up of my body into someone's hands, that I most love about massage. I don't want to have a known destination. I want to head out into the open sea.

And -- another thing -- they're often questions or statements that someone else, not I, thinks ought to be spoken. I'm asking them because I'll need sound bites to put on my SOAP charts, not because I think they're particularly what needs to be asked or said just now.

But most critically, there's the "engineer's stutter," as I think of it. Certain personality types -- including mine, with a vengeance -- find it nearly impossible to repeat over words they've said before. Intellectually I know that redundancy is crucial to communication, that "men require more often to be reminded than informed," and that any important message should be repeated at least once. And in any case, it's not really repetition if it's spoken to a new person, right?

Wrong. My mind balks, bucks, turns stubborn. I've already said that. Trying to say the same words again sets up a confusing distortion in my head, like feedback from an amplifier. It's not a policy, not some sort of precious, over-fastidious commitment to originality; it's a disability which feels physical. I simply can't say something that I've said before, without becoming confused, without precipitating a disorienting semantic reverberation in my mind. It's one of the reasons -- probably the chief reason -- I gave up on being a teacher.

But it means, anyway, that I was forgetting to say quite simple things. It also means that I was coming into the intake interviews very anxious, and sweating profusely (which established its own nice anxiety feedback loop.)

I've been gradually getting better at it. I was drenched with sweat, my first night. My shirt was sopping. A couple weeks in I decided, the hell with it, I'm only going to ask the questions and say the things that make sense to me, no matter what I'm supposed to ask and say. That helped. I tried making a little checklist of my own, but that just made things worse -- now I just had one more piece of paper and one more set of instructions to confuse me.

The turning point seems to have been week before last. I threw away my checklists. I went into the quiet study room, right beforehand, and sat shamatha for fifteen minutes, and then I went into the interviews holding the intention to think of nothing, and remember nothing -- just to be present with the person, and devil take the rules and the paperwork.

What I actually did and said was not really that different, I think, but it felt different. I did it again last week and it felt even better. Last week was the first week I left thinking, "those are clients who've had an experience they'd come back for." I've never been under the delusion that I could build a practice on terrific massage alone. First impressions are indelible, and last impressions -- what sort of connection you feel with the therapist as you're leaving -- probably have more to do with whether you come back than anything that happens on the table. I've been a massage client often enough; I know how this stuff works.

Of course, in my own practice I'll have SOAPs of my own design, and I'll be beholden to no one else for saying or asking anything. Half of the difficulty will simply go away. But I'm relieved to have worked out an approach -- both an approach that seems to work, and one that fits with how I want to be in the world anyway. Very relieved.

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