The hands-on approach: How a stressed-out writer turned to massage for respite

Having a massage was something that the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan rather feared. But then he surrendered for the first time...

About a month ago, I had a new journalistic assignment: to get a series of massages and other body treatments here in the coastal town where I live, Wilmington, southeastern North Carolina, Port City of Progress and Pleasure. There was a semi-legitimate journalistic impulse behind it, but it was also billed as an act of mercy. I'd been travelling and writing a lot, spending a lot of time in middle seats on international flights, and my body had reached new levels of vileness. The yellowish gray-green circles under my eyes had a micro-pebbled texture, and my skin gave off a sebaceousy sheen of coffee-packet coffee. My calves had developed a vague thrombotic throb. It was the kind of premature ageing where you think, I'll come back from this but not all the way.

When you feel like that, you don't leap to be naked in rooms with an assortment of strangers while they rub their hands all over your bare flesh – there's probably a fetish group for becoming as physically disgusting as you can and then procuring massages, but that's not my damage. Also, there's something about massage in general that makes me less, not more, relaxed. The boredom of it, the entrapment. Like you, probably, I know a couple of people who go around parties rubbing other people's backs, and I cringe at their approaching hands. One of these shoulder-pirates laughed at me for it once, after I flinched, telling me I needed to "learn to receive love", and I thought, That's probably true, I'd bet I do. Faux-wise passive-aggressive hippie maxims always seem true and wounding in the moment.

Still, everyone, including my mother, who was visiting, said: "Your job! To get paid to get massages!" So I tried to embrace that. It seemed churlish not to. Even my body deserved to be touched, to be kneaded and ministered to. I drove around town checking out different places – only a couple looked sketchy; I think Wilmy has a pretty light scene when it comes to massage of the highway-billboard variety. I made a few appointments and then cancelled them. Massage and I were just teasing each other.

Then one morning, inevitably, I woke up with a headache. Not a migraine, but a kind of necky, achy number. I rang up Miller-Motte College, a technical school on Market Street with a locally recognised department in Massage Therapy.

The next morning, a brown-haired young woman who looked to be in her very early 20s – and turned out to be 19 – introduced herself as Victoria and said that she would be my therapist. The room she led me to was spare, with a kind of maroon-gray-olive palette, hotel-conference-room colours. Victoria opened the blinds on the door window – it was one of the things the therapists had to do, so that their teachers could look in.

The erotic element of non-erotic massage is somehow comical. Even to mention it seems louche, but to glide past it is bizarre. My spouse, for instance, would say it's creepy that I noticed it, but if I were blind to it, that would mean I was a sexually dead person, and she wouldn't love me, and would be seen to be keeping me around purely in a Weekend at Bernie's kind of way. When you think about it, there's no other situation in life in which a man or woman touches you the way a massage artist touches you except in bed, or on the way there. It doesn't matter if your person is attractive to you or not, and it can be the opposite sex from the one you're attracted to if you're attracted to only one. It's just the simple act of someone rubbing her hands all over you, and not with the deliberate motions of a medical procedure, but with, you hope, a certain tenderness and warmth. Even the traditional phrases – "I'm going to step out; you undress to your comfort level" – imply a problem, that a wrong move could make things uncomfortable. Nothing wrong with all this, of course – it probably adds to the health benefits – I merely mark the static.

I can't say that the first massage penetrated very far. I had thousands of hours of Quasimodo-like keyboard-hunching stored in my torso, so it would have taken a genius to break through in an hour. Thankfully, Wilmington is full of massage places – there's one in every strip mall practically – and I'd soon booked some tables. My take had shifted. The first massage was nice, and now I remembered that I could get unlimited free massages anywhere, which suddenly seemed exciting and like something I'd been cryptically but deeply deserving for a long time. I shaved, I took a shower, I took a couple of walks, I didn't want to be quite as gross for the next one – motivation was creeping in. It's like what they say: If you leave the house, you'll want to go out more.

I got facials, something I never thought I'd do. It was like impersonating someone. For the people doing the facials, it must have been like having a grime-encrusted hillbilly come out of the forest and ask for a Brazilian. I did a couples thing with my wife at Paradise Body Works and Day Spa, where a woman named Rose worked on me. Rosita Messier is her full name. One lotion she put on me had a certain evocative smell I couldn't place ("Pumpkin," Rose said – they'd gotten in new scents for the holidays). Later, at the slightly more upscale Sambuca Modern Apothecary, I got a blissful two-hour biodynamic facial/massage from Tracy Meyer, learning about Dr Hauschka's skin-care products, said to be pure in ways that others aren't. That procedure left me almost unable to rise from the table. I wanted to lie there like a glowworm in the feeling of cellular wellness. Tracy had good stories about her years travelling the world doing massages on cruise ships and a European ferry. More than a few of the people in the body work world, I noticed, had done significant international travel before choosing the profession. Massage can be one of those jobs you fall into when other things don't work out. But that's true for so many of us – we fall into our lines of work like coins dropping into slots, bouncing down off various failures and false-starts. And just as many of the women seemed sincerely passionate about their art. I was moved by them, and by the strip-mall salons and parlours where they do their healing work.

My face looked markedly better when I got home. Blood was getting to more of the cells. I had extrication performed on a few bad pores. I had that gleaming countenance you see on people who've just come back from the spa. This is why they do it, I thought. No wonder there are more and more metrosexual men. Why wouldn't you want to look slightly less ghastly? I bless their rage against the dark, saluting them as they pass by into a future of prolonged sexual plausibility, while I remain hobbled by my father's mid-century notion of manhood, that any male who spent more than five seconds considering his physical appearance might as well be living in Liberace's guesthouse.

That night, I went with my mother to the Asian Relaxation Center, better known among locals as the Asian Foot Soak Sanctuary, in the same strip mall as Fuzzy Peach fro-yo shop. You walk through a vestibule into a dark room, with black leather chairs, like beauty-shop chairs but as comfortable as those coin-massagers in airports. My petite mother sat in the chair next to mine. We got our feet soaked and I hope desanitised in tubs of fragrant red fluid, she by a powerfully built man in his 40s, and I by a woman, equally strong-looking. They started on our heads, which I loved, but which my mother could have left off the ticket, because it messed up her hair. But when they moved to our feet… there's something about the feet and the ears, I noticed across the various sessions. This woman was practising Chinese reflexology on me. She got her fingers up into the bones of my feet and started playing Rubik's Cube. I yelped when she popped my toes. It's easy to hurt the feet – which seems strange, when you consider all the abuse and weight-bearing they're heir to. I've read a theory that possibly they evolved so many nerves because they're prone to infection as well, and the more you can feel them, the less liable you are to slash them open and die of some disease. My mother at one point announced into the silence, "This foot massage is incredible!" It was. But the remarkable thing happened later that night, in the shower, when I bent down to wash my feet and found that I could feel them in a way I hadn't done in 10 years. They felt almost strange, as if they belonged to another body, the way a limb feels when it has fallen asleep, only not numb in this case but newly sensitive, and softer. The woman was a magician. But quiet. I hadn't even been able to extract her name. She'd been in the country only three months. She spoke very little English and mainly just smiled and nodded to questions, so I gave it up as awkward.

One woman I visited was unlike the others, a multimodality healer from New Mexico named Susan Chavez. She had silver bangs and was seemingly in her early 50s, though she professed to be many billions of years old. When she answered the phone the first time, she told me that she was outside gathering kale, and I pictured her in a field or forest, but as it turned out, when I showed up to her charmingly cluttered one- storey house in a tucked-away neighbourhood, she was growing kale in pots out front. She put me on a table in her side treatment room and used different psychometric devices on me, tuning forks and Tibetan singing bowls, also a vibrating eye mask. She told me I had a giant glass ball around my head, which needed cracking, and after she cracked it, she performed a Lakota Sioux raindrop treatment on my back.

Susan's was the most complex of the treatments I received. She was full-on spiritual, whereas I, like Esqueleto in Nacho Libre, believe in science. So I was torn between my uncontrollable scepticism toward her techniques and the fact that some of them seemed to work – the singing bowls really did seem to be vibrating certain zones of my body in an obscurely powerful way. I don't know. I'm still working through stuff I got into with Susan. I felt newly open to massage after meeting with her, but also vulnerable to it. After all, even if there's something inherently funny about massage, down to the very word, massage, there's also something unavoidably intense about paying that much attention to your body, not as an abstract concept but as the physical dying fact of it, lying in all its animality like a study by Lucian Freud. At certain moments I missed my old mode, which was to proceed as if I had no body at all.

But the treatment that left the deepest impression on me was one that in the moment left almost no impression at all, the craniosacral with Mindy Totten, at the Oasis Center. You may know what craniosacral is already – I'd never heard of it. In fact I thought that "sacral" referred to sacred, and that it was more mystical than it is, but really it refers to sacrum, the triangular bone at the bottom of the spine. That said, it's still somewhat mystical. There's little hard science yet to show that people who practise this treatment are actually helping to regulate and balance the flow of craniosacral fluid through the body, or to indicate what such a balancing would achieve. But people subscribe to the method like you wouldn't believe.

Mindy said, "We generally work in silence." For an hour I lay in a room while she barely touched me. At times I actually didn't know if she was touching me. Her hand would hover above my leg, or lie under it, in perfect stillness.

Some profoundly emotional memories rose to the surface, the kind that can follow a troubling dream. I was thinking of people who had died with whom I was not sure I had had perfect transparency while they lived. It felt at the time as if the natural magnetism of Mindy's palms was conjuring these thoughts. Whether something was being effected through the laying on of hands, perhaps through some unknown mechanism of the physical world, I can't say. It seemed to matter less and less. Maybe that's what massage is to a lot of people, those who don't have chronic pain or migraines – it's enforced meditation for those of us too distracted to meditate. You're paying someone to meditate you. It's not anything they're doing, necessarily. It's that they open a little window. They give you an excuse to lie there in silence and pay a deeper attention to the fact that you exist. The true value of shamanism may be a concealed one, that it holds us in place and says this.

Also, in the end I did look better. My mother before she left to go home commented on my skin, which had gone from looking like a white blanket with two cigarette holes in it to something more alive-seeming. I can't say my immersion in the world of massage gave me calm – my anxiety proved impenetrable to all modalities, none of them touched the core, none of them breached the sarcophagus. But I am alive, and ready for fresh insults. I can feel my feet, albeit less and less each day.

This article first ran in 'The New York Times' Magazine. Copyright © 2012, John Jeremiah Sullivan. All rights reserved

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