5 Questions with Susan Epperly: Clothes Encounters, A Touch of Humor 

An interview with Massage & Bodywork author Susan Epperly on her new feature article “Clothes Encounters” and her comic A Touch of Humor

Darren Buford: Most of our readers know you from your popular A Touch of Humor comic that’s been a part of Massage & Bodywork magazine for some years now. How did the creation of that comic begin?

Susan Epperly: I’m proud to have been a journalism geek in high school, having served as a feature writer, feature editor, cartoonist, and art editor for my high school newspaper. Many years later, after I became a massage therapist, it occurred to me that I had never seen a comic devoted entirely to massage-related humor. I had seen a few cute comics here and there that featured massage-themed jokes, but never a comic strip created specifically for massage therapists. I believed the industry would benefit from the camaraderie and morale boost that can come from laughing at ourselves and the (sometimes absurd) situations in which we find ourselves. So, in 2011, I drew up about 12 sample comics and submitted them to the two or three largest industry publications. I was thrilled to find that the folks at ABMP’s Massage & Bodywork magazine were just as enthusiastic about the idea as I was. And so A Touch of Humor found its home and has been providing MTs with giggles ever since!

DB: You have a unique situation in that both you and your husband are practicing MTs. Can you tell me about that dynamic and how you two make it work? 

SE: My husband, Shane, and I have been together since 1992, and married since 1994, and we have actually worked together for the vast majority of our time together. For several years, we ran a historic movie theater together; during our time living overseas in South Korea, we collaborated on feature stories and photo essays for The Korea Herald; we’ve worked together designing and distributing cards and other stationery products featuring our photos and artwork; and most recently (since 2006), we’ve worked together as massage therapists (both in resort spa settings and in our own practice).

These days we live and work in the same building (we have a condo on the third floor and an office space on the ground floor), and work together running our private practice. That makes for a lot of “together time,” which might prove to be too much for some couples, but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We have always made a great team, and of course, the reality is that despite working in the same office together all day, we are each with our own clients during most of that time. We each have our own clientele, and some of our clients see both of us, which allows us to collaborate to some degree on the approach we take to their treatment plans. It’s really nice to be able to refer clients to one another when we feel that the other person might be better suited to serve a particular client’s needs or preferences. We have very similar massage therapy training, but of course, we each have our own strengths and specialties. This gives our clients the opportunity to benefit from a much broader collection of therapies and approaches.

We also have a wide variety of non-massage skills that combine to create a great mosaic of abilities when it comes to the business end of running our practice. Shane is much more technologically literate and mechanically inclined than I am, and so he handles most of our practice’s online presence, website maintenance, search engine optimization, equipment repairs, and the like. He’s also great with graphic design, so he can handle designing our marketing materials and such. Since I’m more adept at writing and enjoy social media endeavors (which I also provide for some other companies), I tend to handle the written content for our marketing materials, email newsletters, client handouts, website, and social media accounts.

Not all couples are as well suited to work together, but for us, we’ve found that our ability to do so is one of our greatest advantages, both personally and professionally. Our friends joke that Shane and I are joined at the hip, which is pretty much true. After 20-plus years together, we really do finish each other’s sentences, and we enjoy a partnership that makes us a force to be reckoned with and brings out the best in each of us.

DB: From a distance, I’d say that you’re a really creative person who is unafraid to take chances. How has that benefited you when it comes to progressing your practice? What advice would you give other MTs?

SE: Shane and I have been employed by other companies (of all sizes), as well as self-employed over the years, but we’ve definitely spent more time being self-employed. There was a time when we used to think that being self-employed was inherently riskier than being an employee of a larger company. However, after watching several of our massage clients get laid off and receive “pink slips” after a 30-year tenure with little or no forewarning, it dawned on us that being self-employed actually provides us with a greater degree of security than traditional employment could. Being self-employed requires one to cultivate a tolerance for slower times and busier times, and necessitates the ability to be dynamic and responsive, but it’s a good feeling to be at the helm of one’s own ship. We’ve also chosen to purposely keep our practice small. We love the agility we’re able to enjoy as a small private practice. We can come up with an idea in the morning and have it fleshed out and implemented by that evening. Without the bureaucracy and red tape that is ever-present in a corporate environment, we can turn our ship on a dime when necessary in order to explore unique opportunities or avoid disastrous “icebergs” on the horizon.

When we ventured into private practice (after having worked in a variety of resort spas), we decided we needed to stand out from the crowd, so we chose a very specific niche and sought out the training and education that would allow us to excel in that modality. This was nearly a decade ago, and despite it not being a widely known technique yet, we decided to specialize in trigger point therapy. We geared our practice toward pain relief through clinical massage therapy, rather than the traditional model of relaxation through Swedish massage. This took a great degree of effort on our part, because this approach determined that we would have to spend a lot of time and energy educating clients and potential clients about how trigger point therapy works and how clinical massage could help them alleviate acute and chronic pain. This was, of course, risky, because if clients failed to grasp that message, we would have found ourselves with empty massage tables and an empty bank account. This self-applied pressure motivated us to be creative and even somewhat unconventional when it came to trying to ensure our success. We took inventory of our non-massage skill sets and embarked on a series of projects that would help us get the word out about the services we were providing. We produced a “Clinical Massage Vlogging Series,” in which we discussed various aspects of clinical massage and how clients could expect it to help them. We wrote, produced, and filmed a six-episode web series titled “Trigger Point Ninja,” which took a fun and entertaining approach to explaining trigger point therapy. And, we have also explored various ways to connect with unique and specific client populations, including professional musicians and entertainers (we do, after all, live in “The Live Music Capital of the World” in Austin, Texas), and high-performance (including some professional) athletes, all of whom rely on their physical fitness and well-being to achieve their own peak performance.

I’m always keen to tell new MTs to whole-heartedly embrace their own unique set of interests, talents, and skill sets, and to work to find ways to incorporate those into the cultivation of their private practice (rather than compartmentalizing one’s massage and non-massage interests). Clients appreciate connecting first and foremost with a competent, professional, and knowledgeable practitioner; however, everyone loves spending time with interesting people, and indulging your own non-massage interests and passions will make you a more interesting person.

Go ahead and geek out on musical theater, knitting, geocaching, roller derby, or whatever it is that you can’t wait to pursue once the workday ends. And even look for ways to combine your passions with your work. This may mean marketing your massage services to your recreational cohorts or introducing your massage clients to the joys of whatever it is that you love. The way Shane and I have managed to combine our love of art, cartooning, photography, filmmaking, music, and other creative endeavors with our massage therapy careers is a great example.

When clients get to know us as MTs, but then learn that we have all of these other varied interests, it’s like the layers of an onion start being peeled back and folks become all the more inspired to come and see us, and see what they may be able to learn from us next (whether it’s a new low-back stretch, or a new filmmaking app, or a new band that we’ve recently seen).

DB: In the newest March/April 2016 issue, you take on professional attire and the dos and don’ts practitioners should follow. Why was this topic important for you? Do you have an overall philosophy on dressing for success that MTs should follow? 

SE: I love fashion, and it’s one of the ways I love to express my creativity. However, of course, there are reasonable limits on the ways MTs can dress if we want to be able to comfortably do our job and maintain a professional image. But as is often the case in artistic endeavors, some of the best outcomes are the result of placing limits or restrictions on ourselves—doing so can provide clarity, focus, and cohesion. So, I do enjoy seeking out ways in which I can express my creativity while also satisfying the need for comfort and professionalism.

Throughout my massage career, I’ve seen way too many MTs underestimate the power of dressing for success. I guess they mistakenly believe their clients are only concerned with the way their bodywork feels. As I mentioned before, of course clients are primarily concerned with the quality of the bodywork they receive and the outcome of their sessions, but clients are also influenced by their social interactions with their therapist and the impression their therapist makes on them. The messages conveyed by dressing well are varied and can’t be underestimated, but they include the installation of confidence, the expression of self-assuredness, the proclivity for attention to detail, and even respect (both for one’s self and one’s clients). This idea also carries over into the physical design and decoration of one’s massage space. I was inspired to write on this topic as well (I offer an ebook on the topic on our website), because, like dressing well, designing and decorating one’s massage space well conveys respect, hospitality, and professional preparedness.

I’m not sure I can offer a one-size-fits-all (pun always intended!) philosophy for dressing for success, but I guess for myself, I feel pretty good when I can put together a functional and comfortable outfit that allows me to see clients all day and then head out for dinner with friends at the end of the day without feeling over- or underdressed for either endeavor. And, of course, it’s always a nice pick-me-up when clients come in for their appointments and we greet each other with, “Cute outfit!”  

DB: How important is humor to remaining grounded in this profession? 

SE: Humor, in my opinion, is absolutely imperative in retaining one’s sanity in any profession or situation. (There’s no way that I would be able to boast about being happily married for over two decades without us both having robust senses of humor!) And in massage therapy, it can be an especially important tool for coping with some of the heavy energy that clients sometimes bring to the table—especially in clinical massage, where we’re sometimes dealing with very severe and debilitating pain complaints. It becomes very important for us to not only cleanse our own mental palate but also nurture, encourage, and soothe clients through humor. Of course, I believe humor should always be employed as an altruistic mechanism for facilitating well-being and therapeutic progress, and never for purposes of condescension, mocking, or bullying. Humor is a tool like any other, so it can be used for purposes of kindness or cruelty. As long as we’re careful to choose its use wisely and nobly, it can be a powerful force for healing, camaraderie, humility, nurturing, and encouragement. Humor may not make the world go ‘round, but without it, who cares if the darned thing quits spinning?!    

Check out Susan’s feature “Clothes Encounters” in the March/April 2016 issue of Massage & Bodywork

And be sure to read Susan’s comics online at www.abmp.com/abmp-blog.

Darren Buford is the director of editorial, design, and digital strategy for ABMP.

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