Massage my Heartache Away

Your heart’s C1, C4 and C6 are misaligned. We’re going to have to wrench them back into place. Now relax.

Illustration by Fernando Vicente.

We’re 24 hours away from starting a fresh 365 Cats calendar, and while most of you are busy taking stock of the past year, I’ve been racing to meet my deductibles to score a few bonus medical appointments before the clock resets the fees back to astronomical back-breaking co-pays. Lucky for me, my spine endings have decided to settle into a languishing tuck in some previously uninhabitable cavity in my neck.

A couple of weeks ago I was getting worked up about something* (scroll to bottom for an exhaustive list of possible triggers). I could feel my blood beginning to boil, and I distinctly remember thinking, like a Carrie Bradshaw voiceover narration track: This is not going to end well (the way you can almost conjure into being those nasty calf cramps that have the power to bring Hulk Hogan to his knees). Barely a moment later, a military grade neck crick had sprung out of my frustration. Should I tap for stress relief? Go get it excised by my manual therapist, or talk it out with an psychoanalyst?

Neck and back ablaze, I walked into S.M.I.L.E — a physiotherapy and acronyms-for-wellness kind of place — whose approach includes “working closely with mind body psychologists”, among other types of healers. I am no stranger there, periodically checking in with various recurring ailments like a junkie who has a bed reserved with their name on it at a rehab center. It’s not exactly the romantic “third place” you aspire to establish as your home away from home, but not everything happens by serendipitous design.

I kicked off my boots, kicking myself for wearing hideous white socks as I waited for Brenda to come through the sliding doors.

“Darling, what’s the problem today?”

Brenda has done some work on Serena Williams and other high profile players at the U.S. Open. If she’s worthy of laying a finger on Serena’s bronze thighs, I thought, she had the green light to handle my puddle of limbs and muscle however she pleased.

I stood still while she silently scanned my faulty lines by squeezing various points as if with a clothespin, muttering things like “oooh, um-hm, exaggerated arc” referring to the apparently abnormally pronounced curvature of my ass. “Exaggerated”, of course makes it sound as though the position isn’t just unnatural but somehow contrived, a clever ploy to ratchet up my sex appeal and instantly double the wolf whistles I command as I strut down the street.

Brenda proceeds to give a limp pillow a hearty tap or two and invites me to lay down on my back.

There’s something about being horizontal that melts your inhibitions away. Halfway through the session, her hands propping up my head, she asks softly: “close your eyes and picture your breath traveling through your body: what’s the color of your pain?” Not understanding how this pertained to the matter of the electrical current running through my nerve endings, or how I could possibly tap into such knowledge, I told her I would have to have a good think about it and get back to her the following appointment.

You wouldn’t necessarily guess it by looking at our world today, but it’s believed that some form of psychotherapy might have originated in the Middle East during the 9th century by a Persian polymath who worked at the Baghdad psychiatric hospital. (Meanwhile, the preferred methods of the west at the time were to demonize mental disorders — cast those crazies aside!)

Of course by the time I was born, the trend had flipped: Middle Eastern enlightenment had largely given way to a spectrum of more brutish insistence to outdated dogma, and Barnes and Nobles shelves were littered with self-help books, routinely visited by people desperate for easy prescriptions for internal peace and a happy life.

Growing up, conversations between my dad and I could basically be reduced to the same underlying dialogue — me: making the case that life was about more than managing to not get ourselves kidnapped, but striving to be happy; him: warning us of the evils of the “life is short” ideology and that One Mistake could cost us the rest of our lives. He would routinely punctuate the argument with: “You know, the Phoenicians created the alphabet.” This apparent non sequitur was meant to imply that he was a direct descendant of a logically sound people who waged debates not with saccharine sentimental nonsense but with the sharp blade of reason. No number of senseless regional conflicts could convince him that there were other ways of being, or thinking.

Life is indeed long as fuck if you’re held against your will in a bunker.

No one ever asked me to doodle the shape of my doubts or what my anger smelled like. The tacit solution was always to get over and on with it. What I took away was that life didn’t favor the emotionally indulgent, only the resilient.

Many years later, my therapist would explain my parent’s generation as oftentimes “living not to die” rather than “living to thrive”, especially if they had faced the kind of hardship mine had. My parents were resolutely stuck at the bottom of the Maslow pyramid... [Sidebar: who is this Maslow fellow, anyway? If you want to arouse suspicion and contempt in a Middle Easterner, argue a point with a “social” science.]

“In an age of moral and practical confusions, the self-help book is crying out to be redesigned and rehabilitated.” — Alain de Botton.

Back in physical therapy, Brenda over exclaims things and a cloud of exhalation hits my forehead with such velocity that I’m forced to close my eyes. I learn that she’s divorced, that she’s the popular mom that her daughter’s girlfriends “Facebook friend” (forcing her daughter to eventually cave and add her, too). She tells me that her daughter recently called her from college, blubbering because she had gotten a C on an exam. Brenda’s motherly advice was simple: “You’re making too big of a deal out of this. You need some perspective! Go get drunk and make out with a stranger.” Some time later, her daughter would share this anecdote on her blog while traveling through Europe instead of finding a job straight out of college, again, on her mom’s recommendation. Life would be there when she got back.

I contrasted this with my own experience. In my late teens, my friends decided they were going to backpack across Europe for the summer. Oh, what a laughable impossibility that was! I was barely allowed to have sleepovers. In fact, the more time I spent on my living room couch, the more my dad was unequivocally assured of my safety. No rogue cousin could kidnap and forcibly marry me if I was sitting right there. By the time I was old enough to lie with aplomb, my friends had had a missionary awakening and therefore dedicated the next years of their traveling lives building schools in Africa — too ridden with guilt to confront the hypocrisy of resorts’ local economies.

Needless to say, when I was less than perfect at school, I hunkered down and redoubled my efforts.

It’s dawned on me that a modern day therapist shouldn’t be the kind of doctor that only treats your neurotic tendencies but likely a Jedi hybrid between a meditating, soft-speaking, reformed hippie, now physical-therapist-cum-sage that pays equal attention to your tendons, muscles and fascia as they do to that gooey irrational mass of tempest even deeper inside. After all, the neuroscience of dreams has started to debunk the precious premise that psychoanalysis can somehow recollect and make meaning from the jumbled images and ideas that are seemingly the key to our subconscious. Or, that there’s meaning to make in the first place. Essentially, talk is cheap.

This whole time, I was conditioned to avoid stress through careful planning and averting booby traps when it’s been about stress management, not stress elimination. It turns out that the answer lay in making out with strangers. I guess I was wiser back when I was 14.


* I can’t believe you scrolled, asshole. What do you think I am, an ambulant DSM-5?

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