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|Written by Dahlia Liwsze|
|Wednesday, 06 January 2010 00:00|
Pam Fitch never planned to specialize in massage therapy for sexual abuse and incest survivors. They came to her. Fitch worked with her first incest victim three weeks after opening her Ottawa practice in 1988. The woman in her 40s wanted only her baby finger to be massaged. Fitch went at her client's pace and comfort level. It took 18 months before she could receive a full body massage. She was the teacher, and Fitch was the student.
"She hadn't been touched or allowed herself to be touched by anyone in a couple of decades, and she learned to accept touch in a healthy way," said Fitch, who has been a registered massage therapist for nearly 22 years. "Massage therapy is largely about receiving touch from someone that the client doesn't necessarily know, so a person needs to feel safe emotionally to fully appreciate the process."
Child sexual abuse statistics compiled by the National Advisory Council of Women state that "one in three females and one in six males in Canada experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18." Incestuous relationships are further complicated by the fact that they last, on average, seven years. Therefore, touch can be extremely intimidating for sexual abuse survivors.
Nevertheless, massage therapy is powerful and can bring healing to sexual abuse victims. The Mayo Clinic says that massage can be relaxing, relieve stress, and reduce anxiety and fatigue. It can also stimulate the release of endorphins, the body's natural pain killers, and confuse the body's pain signals. Through rubbing, it may close "the gate" that pain impulses have to pass through, so the brain does not experience these impulses that translate into pain. Furthermore, massage can reduce muscle soreness, and may have a positive effect on a person's self esteem. The direct touch of massage can help a person feel cared for, and the special attention can improve self image in clients with physical disabilities or terminal illnesses.
"I discovered early on that the hands-on aspect was very healing to my own history of trauma. Massage offered a sense of healthy touch and a healthy sense of self. There was something very core about the touch and what it meant to me as someone with a history of sexual abuse," said Chris Smith, a sexual abuse survivor and massage therapist in Colorado.
Fitch added that "it is essential for those recovering from sexual abuse to be able to recognize how and why they are being touched, so the more predictable and traditional approaches to massage therapy appear to work better. The simpler the approach the better."
Touch, however, can still trigger memories associated with the abuse. Good massage therapists are both logical and visceral. They are aware of when clients tense up and ask them what they are feeling. They also advise clients that the treatment can be discontinued at any time. Kathie Bailey, a licensed independent clinical social worker and facilitator of expressive therapy groups in Minnesota, is adamant about this.
Bailey said that whenever she touched a particular client's feet, she got a very disconnected feeling and noticed that the client's breathing became shallow. When she asked him about it, he said he was "scared" and had an impression of his father touching his foot. After several sessions, he remembered that "his left foot was nearest the door in his bedroom, and his father would come in and grasp his foot, signalling the beginning of an abusive episode."
"Sometimes survivors do not know themselves that they are disconnecting since it is such a common process for them. They will greatly appreciate being asked how they are feeling and if there is anything going on that they need to distance from," said Bailey.
"This will help give the survivor the skills to distinguish feeling disconnected from being 'in their body' and to find out what they are reacting to. These skills are essential for the healing process."
Attentive massage therapists also help sexual abuse survivors like Lucy* feel more alive. "With massage therapy, I am experiencing enhanced mental clarity and emotional peace. I can work on my computer, do yard work, and hike. After years of physical and mental limitations, I can use my body and mind freely again."
Nonetheless, sexual abuse survivors can only benefit from massage if they trust their therapist enough to continue with the treatment.
"If someone has been traumatized . . . they may feel like their right to choose what happens to them has been taken away. . . In a very kinaesthetic way, massage therapy offers clients an opportunity to choose how they want to be touched, for how long, how deeply or lightly and by whom," said Fitch. "By giving clients those choices, they learn they do have control of that hour."
Choices then lead to empowerment and teach sexual abuse survivors that they can take back their lives. The healing process may be slow, but at least survivors can discover an alternative way to live.
"At first I was [so] unfamiliar with safe, self-chosen touch that my body's response was to separate me from the experience," said sexual abuse survivor Carrie*. "Massage has helped me reclaim my life. With consistent sessions, I can now feel nurtured from being touched."
Carrie was enabled to feel nurtured because she participated in her therapy and was encouraged to make decisions. In the past, however, medicine did not provide patients with decision-making power. The doctor was considered all-knowing and his expertise was not to be questioned.
"The healthcare paradigm has shifted away from the physician being the only person to make decisions about patients. There is considerable research to suggest that people fare better when they are given a complete picture of whatever is needed to ensure health, and they are able to choose the path that feels right for them. This is called 'informed consent,' and it is at the core of massage therapy. This approach teaches clients about their bodies' responses as well as what is possible with this approach to care," Fitch said.
"Taking responsibility for one's health is a powerful way for clients to discover their innate power to heal."
Fitch's approach is therefore person-centred and a testament to the power of alternative therapy. Consequently, Carrie and other sexual abuse survivors are grateful to know that massage therapy is an option. "I now have a healthy relationship, a more satisfying work life, and more confidence to connect in meaningful ways with others," she said.
What Fitch, who has taught massage therapy at Algonquin College for six years, hopes to instil in her students is two-fold: "I hope my students have the patience and vision to appreciate the power of massage therapy . . . [and] bring compassion to each and every encounter and appreciate how difficult the most basic massage therapy interaction might be for some people.
"Our job as massage therapists is to pay attention to client needs and design a treatment to address those needs, whatever they might be. The joy for me comes from walking with someone out of a terrible place into the most ordinary of realities. It takes patience to be comfortable with such an approach to treatment."
*Names have been changed for the protection and privacy of the subjects.
This is a great story - thanks for sharing! It's so powerful to hear how people have made it through tough times by using something as simple as massage therapy - something I'd never considered. If you're in Austin, there's a great massage therapy place I'd recommend trying out - http://www.belezamedicalspa.com. Their staff is great and will put you at ease so you're sure to be completely comfortable.