November 1, 2009

Massage and Alcohol Abuse

At first, I wasn’t sure that Melinda (not her real name) was drunk. I mean, my eyes, nose and my intuition were sure that she was, but it’s not like the front desk was going to be able to give her a breathalyzer test—though she certainly would have failed had she been forced to “walk the line.” And though I was adamant about the fact that we were not required to treat someone under the influence, for very good reasons, the massage client management was more silently adamant that we not turn anyone away unless that person was some physical threat to the therapist or any other people nearby. But I was a new therapist, working hard to get my feet under me, and so I knuckled under more easily than I might normally have.

On the other hand, maybe that wasn’t it at all. Or certainly not all of it. Because, you know, no matter how tight I held to the boundaries, she reminded me of my mother. Little, fine-boned, too skinny. Probably drinking more than she was eating most days. Bitter, yet an odd sort of innocent, trusting me. Physical and emotional pain just seeping out of her along with silent tears that seemed to flow sometimes in rhythm with the massage that was like balm for her. She was so much happier, so much clearer after a massage. And I realized in holding the boundary that my child self took a lot of comfort in being able to provide this relief for Melinda. I wasn’t a helpless kid anymore, trying to respond to needs I couldn’t possibly meet or breaking down and hiding in my room in an attempt to keep my own spirit from being drained away as well.

Not to say that I completely ignored my role, my responsibilities, or the drinking itself. On the one day she tripped and almost fell into the arms of me and one of the front desk staff, I took her to my room and asked her if she’d been drinking. She said she had had a few glasses of wine, because it was her birthday, but that’s all. I told her I hoped she wouldn’t take it wrong, but massage wasn’t good for someone who had been drinking, and all I could give her was a very light Swedish. She accepted that without argument as well as my suggestion that perhaps her husband could drive her home.

After a while though, knowing massage would not be able to help Melinda if she did not address her addiction, I went to a friend of mine who was a long-time recovered alcoholic, told her the story (sans names), and asked what she thought I should do. My friend had discovered in her first years of sobriety that lack of alcohol had allowed her body to heal and made her pain less. My friend suggested I share her own story (sans names) with Melinda so that Melinda would see the benefits of getting help in a non-threatening way. Ironically, though, on the eve of being ready to do that, I switched jobs and did not see Melinda again.

In a way, I was relieved. Melinda’s drinking brought up some very bad memories for me, not to mention putting me in an ethically sticky spot in regard to my job. In a way, I was grateful. I believe I was able to do massage for Melinda in a way that not everyone could because I understood her so completely in some ways. And in a way I was sad. Because relieving pain, giving people hope that pain does not have to be a constant in their lives, is why I went back to school at 36 to be a massage therapist. And I was also sad because I believe that pain will always exist where active alcoholism is a factor. I’m not sure I did exactly the right thing in the way I handled Melinda, or that I would handle the same type of situation the same way if it happened again; all I can say is that I certainly tried, and tried with the best intentions I could muster.

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