Getting back to work during COVID-19, Part 3: Taking care of ourselves

Earlier this month, I described my fingers as lonely. It’s been so strange to not touch people — in greeting or departing, just passing by casually, and of course, with our work. I know I’m not alone in this. We massage practitioners like touching people so much, believe in the power of touching people. We’ve dedicated our lives and livelihoods to it. So deeply strange, now, to withhold these gestures.

Yet, this hiatus has also given me, us, an opportunity to reassess and re-orient our work. Before the shut down, I would often gripe about the time I didn’t have. Now I have the chance to explore things on my to-do list. I also can reassess my current interest or resistance to doing them. We know from trauma recovery that this kind of slowing down is a key part of the healing process: a chance to respond rather than react.

• Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move. — Jalaludin al Rumi

Slowing down has allowed me to hear the stories I’ve told myself to reinforce my past choices. Some stories have positive drivers: “I want to help people”. Some have practical underpinnings: “I need an income”. While others have a mixture of impulses: “If people get used to staying away, will they come back?” “Is my work non-essential?” These drivers get set  early on, and if they are viable, they persist. The dilemma is going along for too long without reexamining them — like any habit we have. Having our habitual routines upset is very uncomfortable, but also gives us a deep opportunity to reorganized and realign. Another thing we learn in bodywork.

• I realized I had the attitude of compassion, but not the practice. — Brené Brown

Years ago, I read these words in Brené Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection. They really struck me. I realized that I had for years the attitude of self-care but not the practice. Significant illness over the last 10 years has taught me many kinds of self-care. For that I am very grateful, though it was not an easy road.

So much of this COVID enforced isolation has reminded me of the early phases of my illness(es). One significant difference now: so many of us, all around the world, have been submerged into this isolation. Together, alone. The process of simplifying, quieting, resting and witnessing ourselves is reverberating across continents. So much change could come of this time, if we are mindful about how we move forward.

Your hand opens and closes, and opens and closes./If it were only one or the other, you would be paralyzed. — Jalaludin al Rumi

Moving back into practice after this long break, I want to be mindful to take care of myself. Here are some ways I’m shaping my practice in the near future:

I expect my hands and body will have lost some of its strength and coordination. Even though I’m doing some exercises now to keep my hands from being too restless, I’m betting that I might be stiff or sore when I start up. I’m scheduling myself for a massage monthly (something that I was just getting to before the shut down). I’m also going to work on fewer people in the first weeks, ramping up gradually, rather than going from 0-60mph.

I miss the quiet and the grounding that bodywork practice brings me. From taking time off in the past, I know my awareness will need to regain its stamina. To give the kind of attention we give our clients, an hour or more at a time, is not a simple thing. Though I am taking walks and have lots of ‘down’ time, it’s not the same as the focused presence we bring to our work. (The cats are getting some of that, which seems, to them, to be long overdue!)

Another reason for working on fewer people at the beginning, is that I remember how stressful it was to see people right before the shut down. Though we’re not counselors, our clients talk with us and we’re with them for extended time. We take in a lot of their emotional tone–physically and psychologically–especially as our work helps them shift autonomic state.

How can I take care of myself as I interface with people during this time? How many ‘how’s your COVID-19 time going’ conversations can I have in a day? Do I need to make boundaries about the ways we talk during sessions?

How can I involve my clients in that boundary-making practice? In the past, I have used a ‘thumbs up, down, middle’ hand signal when I didn’t want to open up topics for conversations. Giving myself and them permission to say, “I don’t want to talk about that right now.” Remembering the power in shared silence and simple witnessing.

The gift of not knowing:
Years ago during a peak time of my illness, my body would simply give out with fatigue. So I wouldn’t know from morning to night what I could do. At the time I was struggling with how to navigate other’s expectations about my involvement in social activities. As someone who prided herself on keeping her word in conscientious way, this was very humbling for me. Good humbling, but hard emotionally. I struggled with who I was used to being and who I newly was.

At the time, I was receiving care from Dan Lewis, a local chiropractor. As I lay in his common treatment room, I heard another client ask him, with great enthusiasm, if he was going to the Oregon Country Fair that year. Dan simply paused and said, “I haven’t decided yet.”

That was a big gift for me. I try to remember that I have permission to take care of myself, to learn as I go and to try things and see if that works. Our clients know us and care about us. I believe that the clients who are willing to affirm our well being as we reemerge into practice are the clients worth keeping. The paths forward for all of us, on a small and large scale, will need to be sustainable. How can you make your next practice more sustainable than your last?

Letting it unfold:
Whatever my practices and boundaries are as I reenter working with clients, I trust that they will evolve over time, even in just a few short weeks/months. Perhaps by mid-summer, we will be in a relatively ‘new normal.’ But between now and then, we get to figure it out as we go.

That permission–to learn as we go–is really important for us as professionals. It can run counter to the societal (and/or personal) expectations that we’ve got it all handled. None of us have this handled; we’re all learning together.