This morning I hurt my hand from punching a wall. My upstairs neighbours have been noisy – stomping and crashing – and I feel like I’m coming a bit unstuck. I could have punched a pillow, but no – it was a wall or nothing! My neighbours must think I’m insane. So I am finally starting to look for somewhere else to live.
I wish I could make something better out of the fact that I hurt my hand punching a wall. I wish I could call it art. But no. It was very ordinary and idiotic.
To try to calm myself down, I decided to go and get a massage. But I didn’t enjoy it because the whole time I was seething about my flat situation and my fool hand.
I started thinking about all the times I’ve laid on massage tables. I wondered why it was that I’d started going to see massage therapists in the first place. There is something inherently silly about massage. (I wish there was a different word for it, too. ‘Massage’ is now too loaded with Weinsteinian tones. ‘Rub-down’ is worse, and ‘manipulation’ or ‘palpation’ sound too medical.) The silliness seems to come from the way that someone is touching your near-naked body with warmth and tenderness but in an essentially therapeutic, totally non-erotic way, often in silence or while asking about your weekend plans. It takes a while to get past the silliness. At the same time massage is deadly serious, because of the intense focus on the body and the ways in which it’s disintegrating, and the knowledge that this practice has been going on for millennia. Your animal body, one in an infinitely long line of animal bodies. Alongside the physical specificity of it, there’s something abstract about the process – maybe the hope that you’ll just ‘feel better’, that being touched will relieve you of whatever dread or worry you have, for a few moments. It’s a hope of being comforted, which must be the oldest hope we have when receiving physical touch.
The first massage I ever had was after the Christmas rush one year when I was working in retail. I was strung out and over-peopled and my legs hurt. I decided to book in, for a treat, to a cheap place. The massage seemed okay, but then every so often the therapist, a soft-voiced spiritual man in shorts, would raise his hands and start sweeping them back and forth through the air above me. ‘Just clearing the energy here,’ he’d say apologetically. It didn’t feel like anything, though it seemed like the air was getting a nice massage. Over the next few years I’d go back every so often and have my air massaged. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that it was bogus – or something that helped only if you truly believed in it – and there was something soothing and lovely about the experience anyway, lying in a darkish cocoon with a bit of oil on, like some veg under a grill. So even though I didn’t believe in the energy-clearing stuff, and it was even a bit tedious, I really liked the feeling of being outside of time. It was a feeling that – a bit like after a daytime movie – when I emerged back into daylight, something would have changed. Not just something, but everything. I could’ve taken a nap instead of paying the thirty-five dollars. But there was also something about offering all your issues up and then leaving someone else to it. Like those people who pay storage experts to come into their homes and throw everything into bin bags. Then the people come back in and start accumulating crap again. Massage is a bit like that.
I loved having my arms and head stroked when I was little, by my mum as she watched Coronation Street; I would become stupid with pleasure. Maybe a massage rekindled that same feeling of safety, and of gleaning little bits of comfort from someone, like a tree that ends up covered in bits of wool after an itchy sheep has visited.
‘We see our skins as hides hung around our inner life, when, in so many ways, they are the inner life, pushed outside,’ Adam Gopnik wrote in a piece about the science of touch, and I’ve always felt that to be true – being stroked in a loving way made me feel much calmer and happier. Gopnik says the skin is basically like living inside a really tall eye or a big ear. But touch is the first sense you develop as a human. And maybe it is more immediately central to our emotional lives. The neuroscientist David Linden writes in his book Touch that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ touch sensation: ‘by the time we have perceived a touch, it has been blended with other sensory input’ that tells us what it means: whether the touch is soothing, distressing, playful, reassuring. I hadn’t thought about that before but of course it’s true.
I started trying to get massages whenever I could. These early massages showed me where all my bad spots were – you could tell they were bad if the therapist kept going back to them – and the more conscious I became of my bad spots, the more massages I wanted to get. Rather than just going around ignoring my body, like in airplane mode, the whole thing was starting to reveal itself as a more complex operation. I got my glutes elbowed in brightly lit studios with Easy Listening up loud and the therapist telling me all about his triathlon training; reflexology massages where a young woman pointed to a wall chart and said the reason the arch of my foot was sore was because of my sluggish digestion; massages where my face was stroked intently with a piece of stone; massages where I had fingers shoved in my armpits; massages where I was asked to visualise my feet being bathed in a healing yellow light; a stomach massage in which I thought I could *feel the shape* of my intestines; massages that were so painful I saw stars and heard bells ring; massages where I hated the background music so much that I came out more bunched up than when I went in; massages that were so pleasurable that each of my cells seemed to wake up and I felt like a beautiful glowing exotic snail. Context is everything with massage (and all touch): if anyone but a massage therapist touched me in these specific, problem-solving ways, it would be weird(er).
Most of the therapists I met had worked in different jobs – physio, yoga, nutrition, teaching, even law – before getting into massage therapy. One woman played in a death metal band. One guy had all of his marathon times printed out and stickered to the wall so as you climbed the stairwell into his studio you passed all of his progressively shorter times, and motivational slogans, then at the top was his goal – a sub-2.5-hour time. He was the only massage therapist I’ve met who had no sense of humour. My favourite therapist was a young sporty woman who also struggled with anxiety so we talked about things that helped. We both rode bikes and hated a strong northerly wind and were both always trying to give up coffee. She also gave incredibly painful massages. Have you ever had your adductors massaged? It’s like stingrays; do not approach and you’ll be okay.
At this time I asserted that a massage was only truly good if it was painful. ‘The good pain,’ I would say to friends, and announce proudly that I’d almost blacked out. These painful massages were always ‘sports massages’, where you were trying to loosen up whatever poor muscle you’d ravaged by lifting too-heavy weights or running too far or just sitting at your desk. It was always strictly unnecessary to have done this damage to yourself – but on a sports massage table, whatever you’d done to yourself was deemed necessary (it’s sports!) and the pain, therefore, was necessary. I went through several sports massage therapists who started out giving me the level of pain I needed; gradually they came to seem too soft, so I would move on to a tougher, sportier therapist until I outgrew them too. If you didn’t bruise – pointless! If afterwards you didn’t walk around feeling completely out of it, like you were made up of all of those little dots collected by a holepunch, and if you didn’t lurch around insisting ‘I needed that’, then you might as well have just poured a bag of autumn leaves over yourself.
Pain meant progress was being made. On the other side of pain would be relief. Maybe pain meant that the heaviness and immobility that I felt in myself were also being worked out and would eventually resolve. Pain provided a compelling temporary focus. I also liked the idea of being a person who could bear a lot of pain. At my high school anyone who’d subjected themselves to pain – usually just by wearing shorts all through winter – was ‘hard’. I thought of myself as ‘hard’, like a plant that can grow in a salty environment.
I think through all of this massaging I was in pursuit of ‘the release’. Everyone has heard about someone who had a massage and ended up sobbing on the table, maybe even vomiting, after the touch ‘released’ something in them. Something had ‘come up’, and now needed to be ‘let go’. I was hoping the release would happen to me, but it never did. There’s a bit in Tao Lin’s story ‘Cull the Steel Heart …’ from his collection Bed where a character named Colin is described as having a metal rod inside him:
The rod went from his stomach to the middle of his head. It was made of steel and sugar, and had been dissolving inside of Colin for ten or fifteen years, slow and sweet, above and behind his tongue; and he could taste it in that way, like an aftertaste, removed and seeping and outside of the mouth. Sometimes he’d glimpse it with the black, numb backs of his eyes. But what he really wanted was to wrench it out. Cut it up and chew it. Or melt it. Bathe in the hard, sweet lava of it.
Maybe everyone has some kind of inner object, not necessarily a rod-like one. Maybe there is a great variety of objects. I feel something quite heavy and functionless in me, like a kettlebell or a cast-iron frying pan with the bottom burnt out of it. And I wanted it to be released. At the end of that Tao Lin story there’s a weird and beautiful moment that almost seems like a release, for Colin: ‘And every once in a while he would catch himself smiling and laughing a little, and it was those moments right after – as, having lapsed into a fantasy, there was a correction, a moment of nothing and then a loose and sudden rush, back into the real world in a trick of escape, as if to some new place of possibilities – that he felt at once, and with clarity, most exhilarated, appreciative, disappointed, and accepting.’
The closest I came to ‘the release’ was a few months ago, but it wasn’t the vomiting on the table sort, and I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the massage. One night, after getting my head and shoulders and arms rubbed, I fell asleep early and woke up at about two in the morning with a feeling that was on a knife edge between clarity and utter panic. It was a certainty that I needed to change something in my life, and the fear of what that certainty meant. It was just like the last line of that famous Raymond Carver story: ‘My life is going to change. I feel it.’ (I can’t help but read that line as comical even though it’s supposed to be momentous.) I lay awake for ages with my arms over the covers and my eyes wide open and I had a sense of myself as being like a bat, hanging into space, heart pounding, listening and listening for a sign of what to do.
And in the last few months, my pain threshold has gone right down. I’m no longer ‘hard’ but am soft and squishy. I wouldn’t even be able to wear shorts all through winter. In my massage this morning I realised halfway through with embarrassment that the head hole – the bit in the table where you put your head – was damp with tears and snot bubbles. And it wasn’t even a painful massage! It was a very average, swooshy one, like skywriting that disperses straight away. It’s just that my hand hurt and I was sick of myself. But bodies change. My hand will heal. I’ll harden up again and punch the wall again. Or not. If I don’t I’ll still be changing, still seeking new things to punch and new ways to be comforted.