Friday, January 2, 2009

Over at Songbird's yesterday, she wrote about the effect rheumatoid arthritis had on her last year, which rang bells for me with my own diagnosis of osteoarthritis, which is a very different kind of beast--it's repetitive stress, rather than autoimmune--but which was my first encounter with a chronic condition in my body.

I learned I had it early in 1997, after spending the fall of 1996 with increasingly crippling pain in my right arm. I was 25. I walked a mile each way to campus, I was a gym rat, I went out dancing twice most weekends, and I was in the middle of a one year night-school course in massage that was revolutionizing my understand of both the body and my body. It changed my life so profoundly that I can't clearly recall what it was like to be me before I was in it.

In massage school, you learn by doing, but also by receiving. Twice a week, we took turns learning how to work on each part of the body, lavishing weeks of attention on the back, with all its overlapping layers of muscle running up the spine; on the thick, heat-generating quadriceps and the hamstrings that insert at the crease where the thigh meets the ass; on the muscles of the hand that actually begin at the elbow and lie along the forearm. Our fingertips learned how to feel through five layers of muscle to the processes of each cervical verterbra. We studied body mechanics and moved from our feet and our hips and our own shoulders as we stood at the head of the table and kneaded out tension from our partners' shoulders.

Before massage school, I felt like I lived in another country from anyone else's body, and as for my own, I trusted my legs to walk and my fingers to make things, and that was about the extent of it. Massage school got me hooked on anatomy and physiology, which made intuitive sense to me and was just so cool. (I realized that while I would have hated medical school, I would have made a pretty good nurse or physician's assistant.) And as I came to understand how it worked, I came to like my own body much better. I also, strangely and wonderfully to me, became the knower of my friends' bodies, not just the friends I made in massage school with oil on my hands, but the graduate school friends who knew me from seminar tables and let me work on them, and later even paid me a little, as I got good enough to feel like I could charge.

In the middle of this, though, my right arm started to hurt, and kept on hurting, and simply wouldn't stop. I finally went to the doctor, who sent me to a specialist, who felt around in my wrist and told me it was arthritis, with attendant tendinitis extending to my elbow. Massage is a repetitive, weight-bearing activity, and writing, typing, and knitting had already put so much stress on the joint that it simply couldn't keep up. I went on a painkiller that made me spacy, and found a brace for my wrist, and laid off everything for a few weeks, then gingerly added things back in as I could. I tried to knit slower. I got a support for my wrist at my keyboard, and a trackball instead of a mouse. I did less writing longhand. I gave up Minesweeper--and, eventually, regretfully massage. I finally accepted that giving one hour's massage was going to cost me two days to recover, and really, I never fully felt the pain go away until well after I'd stopped.

It wasn't hard, accepting that creating and thinking--knitting and writing--were more important in my life than doing bodywork, and that the point had never been to make a long-term career out of it. I finished the course, though, and even took one continuing ed class. I'm not sure how to wrap this up, but that course was worth far more to me than anything I learned for my master's degree.


Songbird said...

I love the way working on bodies made you relate differently to yours, though I'm sorry to hear about the arthritis.

(un)relaxeddad said...

That must have been such a tough decision though - being pushed to make such a literal physical choice of self-expression. Beautifully told, too. Good thing for me to read at this moment in time.