A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
By Ann Carlson email@example.com
My friend: I asked for your thoughts on those who feel awkward receiving massage, and I asked you for your opinion on self-massage. Is there something essential about being touched by another person that accounts for the healing power?
Innocent questions to a new acquaintance-thoughts on an article we read-yet they refused to be content with addressing themselves to you. My questions turned on me and burrowed into my memories, tugging at long-closed doors and teasing at things long hidden and comfortably denied. But now, stirred, they have taken over my imagination and are demanding to be recognized, processed, and, perhaps, even reconciled.
The fall I turned 13 I had surgery for scoliosis-a total spinal fusion with insertion of a Herrington rod. I was, immediately after surgery, plastered into a full-torso cast (chin to hips) that I wore night and day for a full year. After three bedridden months in the hospital, I was finally allowed to stand for brief periods-5 minutes at a time, twice a day! This was enough to allow me to go home, transported in a hearse for the two hour drive from the Montréal hospital to our farm in northern New York. My new domain was the downstairs office where my parents had installed a hospital bed. Later, a stretcher allowed me to be wheeled around the downstairs and join, as much as possible, the family activities from my perpetually prone position. After 6 months, I was allowed to sit-first for 5 minutes and eventually working up to 15 minutes a day! [You can only imagine (I hope) what it means to finally be able to use the toilet properly after 9 months of bedpans or very awkward attempts at negotiating the toilet from a standing position (with female anatomy).] But the biggest change in this year-long progression of events came near the end. In preparation for my transition from cast to back brace the doctors had my cast sawn through and hinged, so that it could be removed for brief periods of exercise and then replaced. They wanted me to begin to develop my back and stomach muscles, which had lost much of their strength through being unexercised for so long. The first time I was released from my plaster prison and left alone to attempt a few sit-ups and leg-lifts, I was simply overcome with the feel of my hands on flesh that had not known human touch for nearly a year. Each day, when my mom would leave me free from my cage and alone for 15 minutes, I would hurry through the requisite exercises and spend the remaining time with my arms wrapped as tightly around my body as I could manage. My best attempt at explaining the feeling is that I seemed to have been missing something that is fundamentally human; I felt that I had been headed down a path of essential separation from family, friends, and, in truth, all human society. The pressure of my hands-on ribs, chest, shoulders, back, buttocks, stomach-seemed completely spiritual, circumventing not just thought but also emotion, and working directly on my sense of connection to the universe; almost as if a spiritual dislocation were being brought back into alignment.
My parents were not unaffectionate, but neither could I explain to them my intense need to be touched and held. I intuitively knew not to talk about this feeling. We belonged to a conservative Southern Baptist church at the time-the kind of church that sees all physical affection as sexual and sexuality as inherently sinful, controllable only in marriage. And, I was right in the middle of puberty! I somehow knew that any sudden interest in being touched, massaged, or simply held would be interpreted as the emergence of newfound sexuality, and, as such, confronted as something to be drummed out of my personality in order to save my soul. As much as I wanted someone to hold me, I knew I must settle for holding myself or risk loosing this new connection to spirit; to humanity. Still, I fantasized over the sheer indulgence of another's touch, of being wrapped in someone else's arms.
There remains a significant part of me that is that child seeking a healing touch. But, there is a shadow side. Some part of me got lost along the way-perhaps never to be recovered.
Scoliosis is a disfiguring disability. The surgery made it possible to live, but it didn't make my hips level or my back straight. I have a shoulder blade that juts out of my back in the lop-sided hunch that earned Quasimodo the nickname I shared with him in my youth. There are no mirrors in my house at angles that would make it possible to see my back in a reflection, and I never shop for clothes at department stores or dress shops because they insist on arranging mirrors to allow a full 360( view. Sometimes I fail to avoid the sight, even though employing my best defenses. I am always shocked.
To be honest, my deformity is something I notice far more than anyone else around me. Many don't notice anything at all. The sensitivity is mostly in my mind. Nevertheless, I notice.
I don't mean to imply that my adult life has been without physical affection, or even much removed from the norm. I was the usual college student of the 70s-belonging to a group of friends who shared back-rubs all-around and were casually physically affectionate. I have had throughout my life close male and female friends with whom I have been comfortably intimate. I have been married for more than 20 years in a physically affectionate and sexually active relationship. And yet...
And yet. At times the back-rubs in college would leave me physically ill. I would react afterwards much like the stereotypically hung-over coed who had sex last night and wishes she hadn't. I would make myself think that this time it wouldn't matter, it would be different. But, it did matter. I couldn't shake my extreme self-consciousness, or move beyond being reminded, through allowing myself the very thing I desired, of my deformity. Eventually, I became always the giver, and began to claim that I didn't actually enjoy receiving.
In my younger and thinner years, my spouse would casually walk with his arm on my back and his fingers would curl around my protruding shoulder blade as though I had a handle sticking straight out of my back for his convenience. It's not that surprising. I do, essentially, have a handle sticking straight out of my back, and it does happen to be in the place where his hand would naturally rest. Nevertheless, the feeling of his hand grasping where it should not have been able to grasp triggered all the feelings that lie so close to the surface: Freak! Crooked! Ugly! Unlovable! UnTOUCHable! I wanted to run and keep running until oblivion overtook me and I never, ever, would have to face those feelings again.
I have put on a generous padding of fat to soften the angles and disguise the crookedness, to cushion me from prying eyes and grasping hands. I don't want to be fat, but I can't bear to be thin. I can't stand to see it myself. And I don't want anyone touching me, feeling my crookedness.
I am haunted by the desire for a healing touch. I have close friends who practice massage-male and female-with whom I am as comfortable as with anyone except my spouse. And yet, I cannot bring myself to go to them for this precious gift they offer. My mother-in-law has frequently offered to treat me to a massage from her therapist, a wonderful person who helps her tremendously. I even know that massage would prevent the back pain that occurs because, as a result of the surgery, my back doesn't bend and I can't otherwise exercise the muscles.
I cannot bring myself to go.
I am left viewing people who practice massage-healing touch-as priests of a religion that I greatly admire and, almost, would like to join. But their temple is far away, the path guarded, and initiation is secret and unfathomable. The way remains closed to me.
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