Sunday, June 28, 2009

Health Histories

I take health histories, which often turn out to be mostly mental health histories. The stories pour forth in neat connected narratives: this trauma which caused that bodily deficiency; a whole history of pains and debilities, in perfectly formed, self-contained fables; episodes in the epic of the realized soul. I know I'm listening with grave kindness, startled and grieved as I always am by the long story of pain, pain suffered, pain inflicted, pain held. I am astonished that anyone keeps it together and manages to present as normal, in this life. Heroes, all of you, struggling agains the rising of entropy, which eats all things anyone ever loved. It rises not least in ourselves, as various cancers of the body, as various dementias of the mind.

I listen with kindness and understanding and respect, I hope. I resist the impulse to lay a hand on your forearm and say, "but you don't believe any of these stories, do you?"

Because I know that you have no choice. Of course you believe all these stories. And who am I to doubt them? To think that the stories themselves are the worst of the debilities, and the greatest of the pains, you suffer? Physician, heal thyself.

Fortunately, I am not a doctor, or a counselor. I have no authority to inject myself into this stream of narrative and impose my own counternarratives, diagnoses from my own little black bag of anecdotes. Depend upon it, if I were so empowered, I would do it, and then I would believe my own stories; and where they diverged from yours, we would wound each other and feel betrayed. But fortunately I am a massage therapist, and my powerlessness is my freedom. I don't have to have a story. I catch bright little bits of hard information, here and there. What you fear and what you hope for. Enough to know that I can hardly be too gentle, that I must be scrupulous of boundaries even by my own standards.

As always, once the hands are on the back, once the slow rhythm begins, once we start talking the language of skin and heat, resistance and relaxation, the conversation changes utterly. Suddenly communications are charged with a full load of meaning. Feedback is rapid, accurate, uninterpreted. I'm in. Past the membrane of all those toxic stories. Finally we can start to really talk.

And of course, we talk about only two things: pain and love. What else is there to talk about?

It's all broken glass in there, you tell me. I go gentler, and gentler still. Just a whisper with the hands. And finally, when I'm moving away, you ask me to just lay my hands, unmoving, on your chest, and you weep. Just for a little bit. And then you're done, and we move on.

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