My Body Said Stop

Would I Finally Listen?

By Amanda Long

You know that moment in a massage—about 10 minutes in—when the whole room seems to exhale? The client has settled in, the face cradle is adjusted, the temperature is just right (for now), the music is past the chirpy birds or gongs, and you’re doing that thing they told you about in massage school: meeting the client exactly where they are. The client has, for lack of a better term, landed in the room.

I miss that.

Or what about the moment when you figure out where the pain is, but also why the pain is there? The client’s eyes open, they look at you with a look of wonderment and relief, and you get further into your zone?

I miss that.

And then all those releases—of laughter, of tears, of a deeply buried pain that comes to the surface and you’re there to hold it, to share it, to let that person know they’re safe with you to be completely who they are?

I really, really miss that.

And here’s the thing, I could go back tomorrow. I could email the manager at the practice where I’m a contractor and say—for the second time since March— I’m ready to come back and start seeing clients. I’m feeling like myself again. I could send that email in my draft folder to clients joyfully announcing my return.

But I’d still be missing out—and so would my clients.

See, I’ve already tried to return to massage in the COVID era. After suspending my practice in March, I returned in July, a month after the state of Virginia allowed massage to commence and about 10 days after my practice in Arlington opened under the strictest of procedures. We screened clients multiple times, took temperatures, required masks of everyone, and practitioners changed gowns between each client. We had weekly Zoom meetings, in which we walked through our comprehensive new procedures for cleaning and screening.

That first few weeks back, the endorphins were high. I was so happy to feel of use, to have somewhere to be after months of reaching my clients primarily through emails and texts. And boy howdy, was it good to see my clients! I’ve been practicing for nine years, and most of my clients had been with me since the beginning. Who didn’t want to go back to normal? Normal wasn’t there yet, but my clients were, and for a while that kept my anxiety at bay. Everyone was so touch-starved and, really, who didn’t feel like they needed a massage after the months of physical and logistical twisting and turning we’d been doing as we pivoted endlessly?

As the newness wore off and the news of infection spikes trended across the country, I felt myself drifting out of that room—I was worried about being a vector. I was worried I was sending a message that “all is well” to clients for whom the risks were still too high. I had several tough conversations with clients whose health made massage more of a risk than a reward. I was grateful for the education of Ruth Werner, Cal Cates, Kerry Jordan, Julie Tudor, and everyone who participated in the Massage Mastery Summit, which serendipitously occurred the week before I returned to massage. Their guidance scrolled across my brain like a TV news chyron, about the risk factors, about being open and honest with clients about your concerns, about listening to your body and paying attention to your own comfort level in that room.

When I returned in July, I promised myself I would do just that: listen to my body. My track record in this skill is shoddy. For almost three decades, I ignored my body’s warning signals and listened mostly to my eating disorder. Hamstring too sore to keep running? Cover it with K-tape, adjust your stride, schedule a massage appointment, and keep going and getting that mileage at whatever cost. Hungry? Tired? Don’t stop to eat. Just one more client, and you will have made it all day on Skittles, Diet Cokes, and the Ricola cough drops supposedly for clients.

My relationship with risk was not a good one, and now just three years into my recovery, I was assessing risk like an actuary. At first, I felt like I could handle the risk that is inherent to touching another human in a small room with the windows open during a pandemic. But that ease wore off with every passing week, with every new client, and with every packed bar I passed on my bike ride home.

I checked the transmission rates daily, sussing out clients’ allusions to going to the gym, and anxiously watching my phone, terrified a client would call and say they were sick. This was no way to practice. I say that with full confidence in my colleagues and my clients. Everyone was doing what they had to do to stay safe. The diligence to cleaning and communication I heard from my fellow therapists underscored my faith in this team. But what exactly was I contributing? Stress. Doubt. Unease.

I had to listen to my body, and my gut told me I needed to step back. I surely am not the first health-care practitioner to put the caring of others before that of myself, but I couldn’t afford the risk. I hadn’t checked myself into an eating disorder treatment center and done the hard work of letting go of my control button and facing my feelings to ignore them at such a critical time.

I was lucky enough to have a fallback plan as a writer, the career I’d had until I became a therapist at 39. I’d kept my side hustle going and luckily was able to resume writing in March when massage first shut down. In fact, that first week home, in a house full of food and no distractions from my feelings, I wrote a diary of recovery for the Washington Post Magazine. In it, I quoted a line from Glennon Doyle’s UnTamed, which arrived that week. I opened to the page she’d signed in advance as part of a book tour she had to cancel because of the coronavirus pandemic. A quote fills the page: “What would you do if you trusted yourself?”

I promised myself I would try.

Leaving my practice for the second time on August 9, 2020, was an act of trust. I trusted my body. I trusted my practice to be there when I returned. I trusted my clients to care for themselves while I took care of myself.

As of this writing, it’s been two months and four days since I last massaged anyone other than my husband or dog. I miss it beyond words. I miss the person I was in that room. I miss every person who shared their story and trusted me with it in that room. I miss not having deadlines hanging over my head. I miss not having work to do right in front of me in the moment. I miss that moment when we exhaled together and felt safe.

But I don’t believe that’s what I would return to if I went back now. What I miss hasn’t returned, for me, yet.

I do not miss being afraid and ignoring the voice in my head that told me to let go—for now.


Amanda Long is a writer and massage therapist in Falls Church, Virginia. She likes to dance and laugh, loudly.