Exiting an abusive marriage in 2010, I found myself suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. I was only 22 when I got divorced, too young to have the tools needed to properly deal with something so distressing. Emotional scars aside, my body clearly displayed my suffering: I looked like a skeleton, it was impossible for me to sleep without being medicated, and panic attacks were ruling over my life. I lost trust in people and felt disconnected from everyone around me.
While simultaneously going through therapy to combat my PTSD, my mother suggested massage therapy to help me relax. At the time, the thought of being touched by anyone, let alone a stranger instantly brought me back to a dark place. I worried about having my boundaries respected. I felt isolated from the world and did not want to feel vulnerable and allow someone else to effect any change within my body or me.
Victims of sexual abuse all have a difficult relationship with intimate touch. In cases of abuse, we store emotions and memories in our bodies. When touch enters the picture, it poses as a threat to ourselves and the walls we build to protect from the things we can’t control. Massage made me vulnerable to touch, but it gave me a positive association with this important sense. This touch was healing, it was taking the exact thing that made me squirm and turning it into something positive. It made me feel courageous, to let someone touch me where there was draping, boundaries, and trust. As I lied down on the table for the first time, I was clearly very nervous. I looked up at the therapist and said, “I’m getting divorced.” I wanted to explain the bags under my eyes, my frail frame, my rapid heartbeat. I assumed that the word “divorcee” was written on my forehead and that this stranger somehow knew that it was one of the first times my hair was uncovered.
Of course she knew none of this. She apologized and didn’t ask any further questions. I suddenly felt safe, it was one of the first times I didn’t feel judged or questioned. The therapist’s fingertips ran over my shoulder blades, and for the first time in months I realized I was hunching over in fear, holding on to the trauma from the year before. She hovered softly over my eyelids and I was incredibly aware of how tired I was-- and had been for quite some time. Her hands worked further down towards my feet and it occurred to me that they suddenly ached. I hadn't left my house in days but it felt like I was running cross country, frantic for an escape. By the end of my first session, my body felt less fragmented and more complete. In spite of my fears, I embraced touch. PTSD was physically manifested in my body. When I think about it, I remember tightness in my chest and jaw. I had trouble breathing. When my physical symptoms decreased, so did my emotional and vice versa. We carry stress in our bodies and we store it in our muscles for many years. Releasing one muscle in the neck can make all the difference to someone. It helped me heal from past trauma. Not uncommon, I began to have emotional reactions after receiving massage therapy, because so much of what I have been keeping inside in my body was finally released.
At the time, I didn’t realize the major affect the massage therapy had on my recovery. But it helped me grow, heal, accomplish, and look forward. Most importantly, it helped me re-establish a sense of safety in the world and reclaim control over my body. Once I felt emotionally and physically healthy, I was ready to hit the ground. I realized I had to start from square one, but I was also given the unique opportunity of starting my life over. I had just graduated college, and was moving to a new city. The whole world was open before me.
As I began my career search, I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession, specifically to women. Female empowerment was a new passion of mine-- word of my recovery from the divorce had gotten out, and I had become the point-person to talk to for young, religious girls in the community getting divorced.
I thought about the different jobs I could do that could help these women, and as I brainstormed about what was integral to my recovery, it hit me. I wanted to become a Massage Therapist and empower women by taking control of their bodies and minds. Massage gave me the tools I needed to push through a really tough time, and as I train to be a massage therapist now, I’m continuing my recovery and learning new things about myself. Even at my small 5”1 frame, I am known to be one of the physically strongest students in my class. My friends are shocked by how much power and strength comes from my tiny hands. I’ve become more in tune with my inner self and recognize the influence I can have over others. Massage therapy has not only healed me, but it taught me how to be a support for others in their healing process, and I am ready to face that challenge.
Zahava Markovic is in her final semester of a 2-year Massage Therapy program at the Swedish Institute of Health Sciences. Following the completion of her program she aspires to start her own medical massage practice working with women. To read more about Zahava, you can follow her blog.
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