Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It's Touching


    The quiet, rather bland young student at a  New York chiropractic school's free evening clinic did some half-hearted manipulation of my back, and then had me turn over. Much to my surprise, he proceeded to rub both sides of my lower abdomen in a circular motion. 
   "What the hell are you doing?" I asked, more curious than alarmed.
   "I'm giving you an ovary massage to see if we can get those menses back in gear," he said.
   I had him stop. On the intake form, under "gynecological symptoms," I had noted that I hadn't had a menstrual period in several months, but I wasn't pregnant. Still, I thought the concept of an ovary massage was creepy, and even if it were medically valid, I had no desire for my periods to return. 
   For the next three days, I had cramps and a pleasant sensation of warmth "down below." I think he may have known what he was doing.

    Over a number of years, and through many disparate experiences, I have come to believe in the power of touch. I am not a New Agey, flower-child person (although I do like and respect them), but I have sensed that we -- or some of us, anyway -- really do possess healing energies that we can transmit to others merely through the "laying on of hands." As far as I know, I have never been able to give this relief to anyone -- although I have tried -- but I have received it many times. It feels like an infusion of heavenly chemicals straight into the bloodstream.   
    A a friend of mine -- who owned a health food store that had been written up in Time magazine as "the nation's first organic supermarket" -- was appalled that I had entrusted my body to some kid with no chiropractic credentials. He made an appointment for me to see his fancy east-side chiropractor, and he insisted on paying for it.
    The CBS newsman Mike Wallace was in the waiting room when I got there. I hoped he would say something like, "You are a surely a handsome young creature.....who might you be?" But he just slunk down in his chair and averted his eyes.
    When it was my turn, I felt quite ravished by the grand persona of Dr. George Poll. He was tall and muscular and had big mustache and shaved head. He drenched me in probing questions. He had me lie on my stomach while he explored my misaligned spine and tight muscles, and then he boomed: "You NEED me, honey!"
    He turned up the opera on his quadrophonic speaker system and got to work. The treatment table was directly under a magnificent chandelier, which was a strange but beautiful addition to the chiropractic ambiance, as was the ponderous Wagner that filled the room.
   I enjoyed the crunching of my vertebrae as he addressed my "subluxations." But then he said, "Now I am going to make your day," and I thought, "Uh oh."
   What he gave to me for the next ten minutes or so was what I have come to regard as an operatic massage. He ebbed and flowed, lunged and fluttered, soared and crashed, forcing the music right into my body. He played me as if I were his instrument. My back was a beach, and he was a tidal wave. My back was in pain, and he was a fiery-eyed exorcist, his nostrils flared with exertion.
   When it was all over, I could hardly stand up. What I had just experienced was more of a performance than a therapeutic event, and though I will always remember it vividly and with amusement, my pain was still there.
   As I proceeded to leave, he put a hand on each of my shoulders and said, "Sylvia, you have a beautiful spirit, but it is suffering. That is the source of your pain."   
   It was in that moment, with his big warm hands resting motionlessly upon me, that I felt my pain subside.
   When I stepped back into the waiting room, there was Harry Reasoner. Two "60 Minutes" in less than an hour. Only in New York!
   What I had just experienced was my first in a number of lessons about the power of touch. Not long after that, I was crashing at a friend's apartment. I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, drunk and in tears. Dear, beautiful Loretta got out of her bed and lay down behind me. She put her arm around my waist. It was a simple, wordless expression of sympathy. I felt a warmth and comfort all over, as if I had taken a Quaalude. It was very profound for me to sense that compassionate touch was as powerful as a drug.
Sol Rogers cuddled up with his wife, Rita, during a recent afternoon at Briarwood Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Needham.
   Years later, I was standing in line at a grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. I don't like waiting in line. I get pretty pissed and tense. A person behind me leaned impertinently against me. That really pissed me off. I turned around in order to glare, and saw an attractive, hefty and obviously exhausted black woman, all dressed up for church. Reverse racist that I am, my irritation changed immediately to affection. She was turned sideways, rather than toward the front of the line, so I turned sideways as well and leaned into her a bit, so that we'd both be more upright.
   I felt a naturalness and camaraderie in our touch. Her heaviness gave me a mellow sensation. I no longer felt impatient or jittery. I was just enjoying our moment of intimacy as we surveyed the busy store together, talking about the weather, the crazy no-good kids these days, and the ridiculous price of yams. 
   She was headed home to make a big dinner, but there wouldn't be any yams tonight. Not at that price. She smelled good, like geraniums. She said she was from North Carolina. So was I. I felt myself slipping slightly into my old Southern way of speaking, which in itself is quite relaxing.
   I left the store in a different chemical state than when I went in, all because a weary stranger had had the audacity to lean on me.
   I once saw physical therapist Wendy Ziegler in Salt Lake City who awed me with her golden energy and graceful physicality. She told  me that there are people who contribute a radiant energy to the world and others who merely suck it up. I didn't say anything, but I realize that I am probably not one of the "radiators," at least not most of the time. She showed me a few exercises to strengthen my lumbar spine, and then she had me stand with my arms extended. She placed a hand on my rotator cuff area and and another on my tricep. Once again, I felt that flood of warmth -- perhaps it is endorphins -- but the brief, competent touch of that adorable young woman made me glow inside, and it eased my pain, even though what she was doing was not intended to do so.
   I have been comforted, moved and suffused with gratitude on many other occasions by human touch when I was frightened, in pain or merely disoriented. Even the ones, like nurses or dental assistants, whose job description probably included soothing patients who were anxious, gave me relief and made me feel very indebted to them. Most dramatic was the black lady in a white dress with a crucifix necklace held forth on her ample bosom, who held my hand while I had an abortion (a hideous experience that made me believe that abortion is immoral, at least for me. It didn't change my mind on the need for it to be legal). To me, the woman who held my hand was exhibiting true grace, giving succor to someone she believed was committing a sin. I would like to have kissed her, but I wasn't sure her tolerance went that far.
    I had a particularly powerful experience with a chiropractor who had confided in me about the brutal physical and sexual abuse his father had inflicted on him. I knew that he was in constant agony from his own psychic pain, so when he bent my knee to my chest and then essentially laid on top of me -- closing his eyes and breathing deeply -- to achieve the proper stretch and pressure, I felt that he was making an actual sacrifice, taking in even more pain, in an effort to alleviate mine. I know this must sound melodramatic, but it was a highly charged interaction. I believe he regarded his work as a religious calling. I felt at the time that it was probably killing him, and I learned a few months later that he had left the field, even though he was only in his mid-forties.
    Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of touch, although the data are mainly anecdotal. In a 2003 study, for example, healing touch lowered pain, blood pressure, fatigue, and emotional problems in cancer patients getting chemotherapy. Its advocates claim it strengthens immune function and decreases stress hormones. Reiki, a Japanese therapy in which hands are placed lightly on the body or just above it, is increasingly being used in hospitals, clinics and hospice facilities. 
   In a session of Reiki, each spot is treated for several minutes. Some scientists think the benefits may be as simple as the warmth of human touch and the feeling that someone is caring for you. 
   "We do have a reciprocal effect between the mind and the body. If you relax one, you relax the other," Dr. Barrie Cassileth, of  the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York told the Wall Street Journal. 
   There may be many practitioners of  "touch therapy" who are frauds, but I have no doubt that touch -- in the right context and with the right person -- has healing properties.
   About 15 years ago, I became so swept up in the power of touch -- and so moved by the thought that there are people who yearn in vain to be touched -- that I decided to be trained as a massage therapist. My work had always been cerebral and sedentary, and I thought it would be physically and emotionally rewarding to do massage -- not for money but to help people who were lonely, isolated or ill.
   I enjoyed learning about anatomy, but I was disappointed to find that I didn’t enjoy massage (except for a few times when I had particularly responsive clients), and I don’t think I was very good at it. I ended my studies after months of reading about and practicing massage. It was too hard on my back and hands. I didn’t like the formality of appointments and the structured setting of the whole thing. I felt as if I were playing a role and following a script. I needed something more spontaneous and expressive, with people's faces involved, instead of having them buried in the massage table's round receptacle.

   I felt that it was more rewarding – and did more good – to integrate touch into my everyday life in the hope that I could provide some of  the warmth, kindness and reassurance that others had given to me.
   My most enduring "touch partner" is my mother, whose hands continue to give me palpable solace and even pain relief after all these years. And then, of course, there is Joe. My life itself is in his hands, and his touch conveys everything I need to know about where we stand.