Too Stressed To De-Stress

04 Aug Too Stressed To De-Stress

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 2.8.21


If you’re lying on a massage table worrying about not being a good massage recipient, you’re probably not doing it right. This is the thought that made me snort-laugh last week at a Rotorua spa, startling the masseur.

It’s not that I’m a massage novice. I’ve been having them regularly for years as a way to deal with mental stress and also treat muscular problems. There is a fabulous massage therapist I’ve been seeing for more than two decades and who remains my favourite but, when I’m out of town, I might see someone else. She’s okay with that – we’re not exclusive. I know she sees other people, too.

Before her, I used to go to a guy who mostly massaged athletes. At first, I liked how no-nonsense he was – the place smelled of liniment rather than frangipani oil and there was a noticeable lack of dolphin music – but in the end the general ambience of feet and old sneakers stopped me going back.

There was a massage in Aitutaki that was like a religious experience, and a “couple’s massage” at a spa in California that felt like a scene from movie, though neither of us could work out whether the genre was romantic comedy or porn. I’ve been massaged on beaches and in bures, using everything from hot rocks to brushes and bamboo, and wrapped in seaweed and mud.

I’ve developed an approach to massage etiquette. I shave my legs so they don’t feel they’re risking splinters. Knickers are generally optional, and the massage therapist will let you know their preference or provide you with a disposable pair but, just in case, I’ll turn up in something not too shabby but not so fancy I’ll be worried about getting oil on it, and flexible enough to move around so they can get at the maximum of my gluteus maximus. Honestly, I can’t overstate how much tension we are all holding in our bum-cheeks – let them have at it.

Related, I’ve learned that the fear of farting is far greater than the actual incidence. Unlikely to happen if you don’t eat a pie before your appointment and, honestly, what with the aromatherapy oils and zen music, we can all cheerfully pretend it didn’t.

But on the table last week with a brand new masseur, I was suddenly hit with a wave of anxiety. I was enjoying it, but how could I let him know that I was? Should I say something? Sigh, perhaps? Make happy noises? But would that be weird? What do other people do when they are on the table?

Suddenly I realised this was not a conversation I’d ever had with anyone. Do other people give the masseur regular feedback? Was I known in massage circles as the least appreciative client in spa history? Was I the equivalent of an audience that stares at the entertainer inscrutably, and then suddenly gives them a standing ovation once it’s over?

At which point I realised I had disengaged from my body’s experience of the massage to worry about him, and that a whole leg had been brushed and kneaded but I’d missed it. That I was so worried about doing this wrong, I was absolutely doing this wrong. Hence my snort-laugh and his momentary surprise. “Sorry,” I said, “this is lovely. Just drifted – present now.” And I was, for the rest of the hour.

I was so relaxed by the end of it, I probably would have been really good at having a massage.