Do Not Touch. Dry Paint: Crossing Imaginary Lines in Chiang Mai

Ever notice how enticing the end of anything is? When we meet someone who piques our interest, for instance, we fantasize about sleeping with them or the serious relationship we’ll share with them.

And that becomes our entire focus with the person. We imagine that once we hit this point, life will suddenly blossom or that we can hold on to that anticipated feeling forever. But in the background, the endorphins are secretly, quickly dissipating…

As a former resident of the West, who still maintains plenty of its characteristics, I sometimes find it easier to see my old habits when I’m visiting a place where they’re not so prevalent. Like my addiction to immediate gratification.

Thus, I’ve been working on embracing process — trying to appreciate the fact that I’m still not at the end of everything I desire: to be a better person, a stronger one, a less reactive one, one who is always productive; to be my healthiest; to have written and published successful books.

All of these require ongoing work. There could never be a point where I say, “There we go. I’m done,” and brush my hands of it all. At least not until I’ve met my certain death.

So, part of the process of embracing process is to accept that there will always be work to do on myself and that it will be challenging and at times I will hate it, but I’ll have to keep pushing through it. That to get closer to my purest self, I will need to tear away layer upon layer, and each time the flesh will rip and the nerve endings will blare.

And through it, there will also likely be times of vulnerability, when I’m forced or simply inclined to admit my flaws and quirks to new friends and sometimes even strangers.

Times when I may say aloud or write in a blog post that I’ve always had a strange discomfort with affection. Aside from a few select people — the babies and small children in my family, my nana, and boyfriends or lovers — I have generally evaded being physically close with people. Even good friends.

I can remember all the tactics I’d use to avoid hugging and kissing relatives as a child: filling my arms with a large load needing to be carried at the precise moment a relative is saying good-bye; doing some chore outside of the house; running to the bathroom just as a relative arrives and staying there until they’ve become occupied with something.

Even as an adult, when people would arrive at my nana’s house where I kept my office, I’d try to escape potentially physical greetings: getting on an “important” call or putting on headphones and suddenly working diligently.

In my early twenties, I dated a guy originally from Europe. Whenever we would visit his family, they would say “hello” and “good-bye” by kissing both cheeks. It was unbearable. My face was always bright red during these moments. I never knew which side to go for first and is there a hug in there or is it just the double kiss? Lips on cheek or cheek-to-cheek?

Such a non-thinking gesture actually caused me tremendous mental anguish and so, again, I’d find ways to dodge the embrace.

I remember once being invited to a party filled with people I didn’t know. I was told they were all very warm and welcoming and I would likely get hugged a lot. So, I came up with good reasons to cancel at the last minute. And this was just within the last year.

I can probably trace it back to a lack of affection in my household growing up, maybe some residual insecurities. Regardless of where it came from, it’s been with me since I was very young and I was finally ready to work out the final kinks of it.

This is why I decided to enroll in a Thai Massage course in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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I explained this intention to a few close friends, but even as I said it, I didn’t really fear it. I had been in this setting plenty of times: a group of people gathered to learn a common skill, like when I became certified as a yoga instructor. The truth is I’d most likely thrive.

In other words, it felt like a shortcut to dismantling some of my shit. I would lifehack my issues.

I arrived the first day without much worry. The format of the class turned out to be simple enough and after some yoga or tai chi each morning, before beginning our lessons, the whole school would enjoy a coffee/tea/hot chocolate/social break together.

I met a woman from Indonesia and we became fast friends. And another from California, one from the UK, one from Japan, and another from France. In pairs, we practiced some massage patterns on each other’s feet until lunchtime. Massage school was cake.

And then the afternoon arrived like a cheap shot.

Sure, I wasn’t entirely confident in whether I was hitting the correct acupressure points on the feet earlier in the day, but now we were dealing with energy lines that ran up the legs and into the groin region. Further, my latest massage partner was male and I wasn’t particularly comfortable with him.

An instructor sat next to me as I took my turn as massage therapist, constantly correcting my movements — I was getting the lines all wrong — including placing my hands much higher on his thighs than I had intended to go or right on his pelvis to “open the wind gate.”

My discomfort was overthrowing the courageous parts of me. How could I stop all of time for the seven seconds it would take me to grab my bag and flee this room, this building — maybe even Thailand?

I really tried to think of it in terms of getting it over with. At least I was practicing upper thigh/groin/pelvis massage on a strange man during the first day, and since we always change partners, I’d only have one more man I didn’t know in the class to reluctantly massage.

There was some silver lining somewhere in this moment. I was sure I’d survive it and that Day 2 would be much better.

But on Day 2, I left my apartment a little later in the morning. It was pouring rain, as it had the previous day. And I like rain; it suits me. But today the rain soaked my clothes and I was dripping wet. Taxi drivers weren’t willing to drive me to my destination, and when one finally did, he dropped me off down a side street that was unfamiliar.

After walking in circles, completely drenched and defeated, I finally found the school and entered my classroom in the middle of our opening ritual, utterly embarrassed. This was not the start I needed to another day of working through lifelong issues at an unreasonably rapid rate.

Now we were moving into the yoga portion of the massage: The therapist stretches the clients’ hips and legs and feet while using her own body for leverage.

My latest massage partner was perfect for me. We felt very comfortable with one another, and we laughed and fumbled through things. You’d figure this would have made it all better, but my insecurities began flaring up again, and the messages that arose with them were the opposite of true: You’re going to hurt her, you’re invading her space, your nervous energy is contagious.

— OK, that last one was probably very true, and I’d like to take a moment right now to apologize to all of my fellow massage students for inducing anxiety versus relaxation as I uncomfortably massaged them. I appreciate you all!

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As each hour passed, I felt less capable of finishing out the week — the day even. All of my apprehensions with physical touch were bubbling to the surface and I felt like I was suffocating.

I had to talk myself out of sobbing all over my massage clients. I had to talk myself out of leaving early. I had to talk myself out of not returning tomorrow. On the second-to-last day, I had to talk myself out of skipping the test and not completing the certification process.

And I had to repeat the following statements to myself:

1. You are not going to hurt your clients by applying pressure to or stretching their muscles.
2. If your clients are uncomfortable with the amount of pressure or stretch, they will tell you.
3. These massage clients know the steps of the massage; they know what they are getting into. You are not invading their personal space, and they understand that you, like them, are in the learning process and could potentially get things wrong while practicing.

But even with the constant self-reminders, I struggled. I experienced a wide range of self-judgments: from unworthy to intrusive, incompetent to unwelcome.

Massage school was a vehicle that sped across some of my deepest insecurities. And I was tied to its bumper with thick rope, dragging raw through the whole murky thing.

Still, I stuck it out.

I practiced on a friend before the final day and I attended against my ego’s best excuses and harshest criticisms.

In the end, I scored 99% on the final exam and received very useful feedback from one of the instructors. The massage began feeling more natural over time, and I went on to register for a Swedish Massage course to continue this self-dismantling process.

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But it’s an ongoing practice. I still feel that anxiety rise from time to time, so I make a point of being the first to enter others’ personal space: going in for a hug even if I’m not certain they want more than just a handshake; rubbing people’s arms and backs as a means to emphasize my understanding, empathy, or appreciation; and massaging even new acquaintances (with permission, heh).

If every country represents something different, Thailand’s purpose was to acquaint me with the unfamiliar. It was the first country in which I’d traveled alone from the beginning (even though I spent much time in Indonesia alone, I began each visit alongside a friend); the one in which I caressed the most strangers (I would have hit the record if the number was one, but it was way more!); and the one in which I started slicing through the gaping space between me and new friends when greeting or leaving them.

In other words, next time I see any of you, prepare to have your wind gate opened. Mine certainly has been…

 

 

Group photo courtesy of Airi Oyama.

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