M was a new client, who was telling me about her pain. “I was hit by a drunk driver,” she said, and I could hear the anger and resentment in that statement. The accident was many years ago, and it irrevocably altered the course of her life. She spent much of her teens in hospitals learning to walk again, and countless hours of her life over the decades since in various therapies to enable her to function. Including massage.
She also had impressive athletic achievements, which many fully-abled people wouldn’t even dream of. She wanted to live life fully, and she did, in spite of the constant pain.
I treated her body, like probably dozens of other massage therapists have, and I haven’t seen her again. I keep thinking of her, though, because of what I didn’t do for her. It was partly because of what I learned from S.
Years ago, my friend S recounted to me her experience with some kind of alternative healer who worked with magnets or something. The magnet lady told S that her chronic gut issues and infertility were caused by low self-esteem resulting from having been adopted as an infant. As her friend, and as an adoptee who’s done plenty of weird healing and rebirthing and other stuff myself, I thought that made a lot of sense. But S didn’t like the sound of it one bit. She took exception to the suggestion that she herself was causing all the problems she’d tried so hard to get past. She never went back to that healer, or any other holistic practitioner (including myself), but she did get lots of medical treatment and spent who knows how many thousands of dollars on infertility treatments to get the beautiful children to whom she is now a loving and joyful mom.
The healer, (who probably hadn’t had any training in professional ethics, by the way) had started with what was likely a deep insight, but her delivery of the information had not only not helped the client, it backfired, and drove the client away from alternative healing altogether.
Please note that the essential distinction between “medicine” and “alternative healing,” in this case, is the principle that the mind and body are mutual expressions of one another, and that we are empowered to change our health by choices we make, including changes in the ways we think and integrate our emotions. This is in contrast to the medical paradigm, which teaches that most chronic illnesses are the result of bad luck in the genetic and medical lottery, and only expensive, technologized treatment at the hands of highly trained people in white coats can fix our flawed bodies.
It’s absolutely possible to connect mind and body without blaming people for their illnesses. It’s much harder to convey non-judgement to a person who doesn’t yet understand the difference.
I’ll be honest, I’ve seen MDs as well as holistic practitioners blame their clients for their complaints. “It’s all in your head,” is a version of this. Another is, “I don’t know what is causing your problem, but it’s probably weight-related, so my best recommendation is to lose some weight.” When a doctor tells a patient that, the doctor is saying that they are not responsible for offering any more help. I think sometimes doctors say this kind of thing because they are frustrated that they’ve done everything they know to do, but the patient is still complaining. Holistic practitioners may sometimes feel the same frustration.
But this is not the essence of holistic practice. While the obvious primary aspect of our work is to treat clients, it’s just as important to know when not to treat. Sometimes we refer to other practitioners. Sometimes we refer to doctors. Sometimes we admit that we don’t know how to help a client. Sometimes we don’t tell them what we know, because we don’t have a way to say it that will help them.
What I didn’t say to M was that she needs to forgive the person who hit her. (She probably also needs to forgive herself for being so powerless to protect herself, and that’s another layer of complexity we will save for another post.) Driving while intoxicated was a terrible mistake, and it’s not fair that M didn’t get the life she wanted to have. I have no idea if the driver ever acknowledged her suffering, or felt any remorse at all, but I know that pain is the physical manifestation of anger. Her anger has no effect on the driver of the vehicle, but it certainly affects herself. I don’t know that forgiving would make her pain go away, but I know that as long as she doesn’t forgive, she will be in pain. It’s not her fault that someone hurt her, or that she is in pain, or that she is angry, but she is the only one who can do anything about it. She doesn’t owe forgiveness to the driver, but she owes it to herself. Forgiveness is the only way to freedom.
If I ever see her again, if I figure out how to tell her this, I will.