Like many people, my husband and I like to get massages when we go on vacation. Usually they’re somewhere between OK and really good. One particular massage, however, stands out as the absolute worst massage I’ve ever received:
Several years ago, my husband and I were vacationing out of state and had signed up for an herbal bath and massage combo. We’d get a 30 minute herbal bath followed by a 60 minute massage. We’d done something similar on our honeymoon in Ireland with a seaweed bath/massage combo and loved it. As a bonus, the herbal bath was sure to be less slimy than the seaweed bath.
I thought things might be off to a bad start when my therapist arrived AT my appointment time looking as though I was keeping her from something she’d rather be doing. After arriving, she had to take time to make sure the room was set up and then review my intake forms. This means we got started late. Things happen and people have bad days. I know this. I told myself she had 30 minutes while I was in the bath to ground and center herself for the massage. Even so, I planned on making sure got my full time since the late start was her fault.
Since the tub was in cozy recessed nook in the massage room, I spent some time looking around the room when I first got in the bath. There were all the normal things you’d expect to find in a massage treatment room, including relaxing art. One picture stood out, however; a wolf picture. Now don’t get me wrong, I love wolves. In fact, we have 3 pieces of wolf art in our front room, 2 in the dining room, and a few other pieces scattered about the rest of the house. But there was something about this picture that made me uncomfortable. The wolf was staring straight out of the picture and it was positioned perfectly so that the wolf was staring right at the bather. It unnerved me. But then, I told myself, it unnerves me when businesses put advertising flyers or posters of someone’s face in the restroom, too. The placement is always meant to be most visible to their “captive audience” who is also perfectly positioned to feel as if the poster is watching them do their business. Thanks, but I really don’t need an audience for that. As I think back to that wolf picture now, the word I immediately think of to describe its gaze is predatory.
When the bath timer went off, I got out of the bath, dried off, and got on the massage table face down as she’d directed me to when she first brought me back to the room. I adjusted the face cradle to a more comfortable position while I waited for her. It’s one of those things we massage therapists just do out of habit. She knocked and walked in, never saying a word. That’s when things got weird.
I like a bolster under my ankles and am usually quick to request one if the therapist doesn’t put one there right away. For some reason, this time I couldn’t say the words; my voice was stuck in my throat. I couldn’t even open my mouth to try to say anything. I couldn’t move at all. It felt like I was playing dead. But if you’re playing dead, you’re supposed be able to stop anytime you want, right? This I had no control over.
The entire massage was like that. Me willing myself to say something or to move, and being unable to do either. I did have a few reflexive recoils when she went too deep, and to her credit she backed off on the pressure. Once, about ¾ of the way through the massage, I managed a quiet “Mmmm… that feels good.” She immediately moved on to a different area. What the… ??!? That was the only thing I was able to say or do voluntarily for the entire hour. The weirdest part is that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the massage – except maybe for her immediately moving away from the only place I said felt good.
Finally, the massage was finished. On the first wipe down of my body she grazed my nipples. It startled me. Then she grazed them again on the second wipe down, and left the room. I don’t know whether she intended to touch my breasts or not. It doesn’t really matter. The second she left the room I burst into the biggest sobs I’ve ever sobbed in my entire life. I felt completely violated.
I was still shaking when I left the treatment room to go find my husband and leave. My therapist was waiting for me and asked how I was doing. I told her that I’d never felt more violated in my entire life (and I’m a rape survivor, so that’s saying something). Most therapists would have had an “OMG, I’m soooooo sorry. Let’s go somewhere private and talk. Would you like to bring your husband with you?” Not her.
What happened next still stuns me: She started screaming at me. And when I say screaming, I mean at the top of her lungs like a crazy psycho b*tch screaming. (You should know that I usually hate that term, but it’s the only thing that fits in this case.) When I say crazy psycho b*tch, I mean that all of the staff immediately ran – literally ran – out of the lobby to take refuge somewhere in the back, and the waiting clients hightailed it the heck outta dodge when she started screaming and the staff started leaving. A few times, I thought she was going to jump over the counter and physically assault me. She did get right up in my 6 foot 4 inch, 230 pound husband’s face and scream at him when he came to my defense. She looked like she’d have happily gone a few rounds with him had he only said, “Bring it!”
With my clothes on, my husband by my side, and the door to the outside visible, I was no longer in freeze mode but I was still in a traumatic state. My husband had already paid and left a tip for both therapists before I’d come out. Any other time, that would have been fine. I mean, how could he have predicted something like this? I wanted to take her tip back but I also just wanted out of there and wasn’t sure she wouldn’t actually assault one of us if I asked for the tip back. So, we cut our losses and left. We went back to the B&B where I sobbed and shook and rocked in our room for several hours while my poor husband desperately tried to soothe me somehow, to no avail.
It wasn’t just the nipple grazes that caused me to feel violated; I had felt somewhat violated during the entire massage. The problem is, even to this day I can’t put my finger on anything specific that she did or said that would cause me to feel that way. Yet the fact remains that I was in freeze mode for the entire massage; from the moment she walked in the room to the moment she left.
Freeze mode is part of the stress response. We often refer to the fight or flight response, but technically it’s the fight, flight, or freeze response. When fighting or fleeing are not viable options, the body freezes and is unable to move. Once the danger passes, the pent up stress and energy is discharged by shaking and/or running. My uncontrollable shaking was a classic example of this discharge of energy. The good news is, when I finally stopped crying and shaking I felt better than I had in a very long time. I’m sure that many past traumas were released as a result of this response; even ones I thought had been fully dealt with already.
I can only conclude that something in me knew that she was dangerous and kept me still and quiet during the massage in an effort to keep me safe. Does the rational part of my brain still want to know why and how the intuitive part sent me into freeze mode? You bet! The rest of me, however, is grateful that it was looking out for me.
As promised, here are the 5 things you can learn from my bad experience:
Hopefully you’ll never need to use tips 3-5, but it’s a good idea to implement 1 & 2 whenever you get a massage with a new therapist.
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