How the Intimacy of Massage Helped Me Recover From Childhood Trauma

After I was touched inappropriately as a kid, and then not touched at all for years, the right pair of well-trained hands helped me finally feel comfortable in my own skin.

How the Intimacy of Massage Helped Me Recover From Childhood Trauma

As I sat on the bench at the holistic health center waiting for my massage appointment, I felt nervous even though the waiting room was cheerful. The colorful chalk on the blackboard listed yoga classes, acupuncture and community events. The smell of herbs drying for teas and tinctures filled the room, and large windows overlooked a tree-lined street with charming Victorian houses. I tried to shake off my anxiety and fill out paperwork in which I marked the parts of a figure to show where I was in pain. I colored in the figure’s shoulders, neck and lower back.

But I didn’t know how to represent the other pain that I was feeling, which I knew was emotional but that I felt in my body. If I had to represent it on the figure, I would have used a blue colored pencil to shade over most of my body, but I would especially shade in my arms.

After my mother died when I was fourteen and my father had what I realized later was a nervous breakdown, I lived for many years without much physical contact at all. The animal ache to be touched always felt like a wound. It always felt feral. I often had dreams about small hurt animals lost in big houses. They reminded me of the monkeys in Harry Harlow’s experiment on the essential need for human contact; he found that monkeys deprived of physical contact experienced extreme distress. For most of my life, when I’ve been lonely, I’ve felt an intense cold ache, along my arms especially. I was seeking massage for many reasons – including abuse traumas, sexual and otherwise – that sometimes feel all knotted up in my skin, but most of all, at thirty-four, I was newly single and was feeling those cold burning feelings again. I needed to be touched.

As my massage therapist, Stephen, came over to me in the waiting room, I recognized him from his picture on the website. He was thin but muscular and had dark blonde hair that almost fell into his eyes. He wore a pair of pale orange yoga pants with a blue floral design along the hem, and he shook my hand gently. With a broad smile, he asked me if I’d like some tea. I shook my head no, but I liked him already. He was about the same age as me and seemed somehow both serious and light-hearted at the same time. He took me to a room downstairs. On the door was a laminated sign with a figure surrounded by light that said, “Quiet please. Healing in process.”

Stephen and I sat in metal chairs facing each other. I felt especially anxious about being touched because of my multiple traumas – being touched inappropriately, and also not being touched at all. All touch felt overwhelming. I told Stephen I had experienced some trauma, but I wasn’t specific. He reassured me that he would be careful. Before he left the room, he asked me to take everything off except my bottom underwear.

When he came back in, he dimmed the lights and turned on some new age violin music. I heard him open a bottle of oil and rub it on his hands. He opened his hands under my nose, and I smelled lavender.

“I’m going to listen to your breathing and make sure you’re all right,” he said.

I felt reassured, but I was still startled as soon as he touched my shoulder. He continued, slowly, working on my shoulders and upper back, asking about how much pressure to use. I could tell that, as he promised, he was listening. I started to relax. He moved his palms over my lower back in an overlapping, circular motion, which felt deeply soothing. At the end of the massage, as I lay on my back with the sheets tucked snugly around me, and Stephen cradled my head in his hands, a warm feeling washed over me.

After the massage, I felt different. The warm feeling lingered, and I felt lighter. The lightness felt so intense that as I got off the subway one morning, I turned around as the doors closed behind me, convinced I had literally left something behind.

I started to get massages every month. Because I realized we were neighbors, I began seeing Stephen at his house, a gloriously crumbling yellow mansion that is home to a kind of commune in Downtown Brooklyn. That summer, he built a tiny house in the yard behind the yellow mansion. It felt like a treehouse and smelled like pine, burnt sage. Even knowing I had a place to go that was just for touch, eased that animal ache in my psyche. What had felt the most unbearable about the pain was never knowing when I’d ever have any relief.

Another thing I needed relief from was the twitchiness from my sexual abuse. One time I jumped as Stephen touched my underwear to readjust the sheet around my lower back. I felt a kind of raw, hurt animal feeling. “I’m sorry,” Stephen said quietly. He pressed on my lower back with his palms, then moved his hands slowly over my back until my breathing also slowed.

During another massage, Stephen began working on my lower back, using the now familiar soothing motion. This time though, I felt especially aware of how caring and attentive his touch felt. I teared up. He paused.

“Too much pressure?” he asked.

“No, the pressure’s fine.”

“Is it ticklish?”

“I’m just emotional,” I said. I felt exposed.

“It’s ok, feel how you need to feel,” he said.

I felt relief from hearing the warmth in his voice. He returned to working on my lower back, but a bit more gently, slowly. I felt soothed, and although I was unable to recall any specific memory, I remembered the feeling in my body of being cared for when I was very young.

Other memories started to come to the surface. One time, during a massage in the tiny house, Stephen’s light touched my left arm and evoked an intense sadness unmoored from some particular memory. I felt upset, suddenly worried that he would leave. The panic felt intense, even though as I felt it, I knew it wasn’t rational. I calmed down.

I had forgotten about the panic, but a day later, I dreamt about my grandmother, and a shard of memory drifted to the surface. My maternal grandmother had often been the one who cared for me when I was a child, and when my mother was sick, she often rubbed my back. But when my mother died, my grandmother didn’t want to come over anymore, and when she did, she seemed angry at me. I had remembered my grandmother’s anger, but I had forgotten that she had also stopped giving me affection. What I finally remembered was the last time she had. It was the Easter after my mother died. She had run her fingers lightly up and down my arms as I lay my head in her lap.

The pain I had felt in my skin, along my arms, had been there so long, I connected it only to my mother’s death, but I had lost the thread to this specific memory. Remembering was painful, but I could finally connect to a part of myself, the part that had been able to be soothed when I was so young – a part that I thought had been lost. For the first time in twenty years, the pain in my arms went away, and didn’t return. I stopped dreaming about the animals.