Muscle Memory Massage

Dysfunction as an American Condition (and how to defeat it)

For months, I’ve been thinking about the comprehensive state of human beings in America.

Client after client I see at my massage therapy practice deals with some unfortunate malady, from chronic depression to acute muscle spasms, and everything in between.

Some have even confessed to living with neck muscles so tight that they’re often crossing their fingers when changing lanes because they physically can’t look over their shoulder to check for fellow motorists.

That declaration alone feels like it warrants an exclamation point, but where I think it’s even more deserved is after acknowledging that we accept these issues as unremarkable!

In my own right, I’m far from an exception to this plague of dysfunction.

Like with many things, however, that fact had been relatively easy to ignore and not put energy into alleviating—until I began seeing it day after day in people I care about.

This paradox is often the case for my clients, too, as I see mothers prioritizing their kids, fathers prioritizing their jobs, and adult children prioritizing their unwell parents. Of course, none of these are in fact bad practices, but all become a problem when they end up being that person’s only priority – especially if their strong suits aren’t being catered to in the process.

In our culture as Americans, we move fast, push hard, and make martyrs of ourselves in the name of misunderstood duty and self-inflicted pressure to perform.

Today, I’d like us to consider and analyze the myriad impacts of these values, which I will dub the American Condition, for clarity’s sake.

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Most of my clients can recognize a physical problem once I’m literally pushing on it, while they’re in a low-stimulation environment, with no option to be multitasking.

Still, few if any extrapolate their physical experience of, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that hurt!” to their mental, emotional, spiritual, or social lives (the latter, I would argue, being the most important).

We’ve all become so used to what we “have to do” that we no longer evaluate the cause or the effects of the specific tasks in between. We just wake up and do it all over again: make the bed with a backache, weep in frustration during the commute to a deadening job, turn down an invite in favor of staying home and repeating a comfortable routine.

One day, if we’re “lucky,” we won’t notice our physical pain anymore. We’ll think about it not at all, or in a specific moment when our little inner voice will say, “Thank God that’s gone… I really didn’t want to spend the [time; money; insert resource here] going to the doctor.”

But the truth is that that pain very likely did not simply vanish. Our bodies, abuse them as we do, have built in mechanisms for survival. They are capable of essentially muting things we ignore.

The body gets the signal that its calls for help—for physical or intangible needs—are not currently capable of being addressed, so to help us through until they can be, it suppresses them.

In a more extreme scenario, you can liken this to a human running with a shattered leg because their survival still depends on them moving forward.

As I’m sure you can imagine, this can’t last forever. However, whereas running on a broken limb will eventually fail in a way that cannot continue to be ignored (e.g., we collapse), our abovementioned intangible needs don’t necessarily have repercussions as outwardly obvious and wholly disabling. This affords us the opportunity to “carry on” while we deteriorate further.

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To help illustrate, I’d like to briefly relay a true story I heard via a TED Talk:

A Cambodian rice farmer lost his leg in a paddy when he inadvertently triggered an old war explosive.

His new prosthetic, in addition to his recollections of the horrific accident, meant he could no longer work comfortably as a rice farmer. He became deeply depressed, displaying all the common symptoms we associate with depression.

However, his community came together to listen to him and try to solve the problem. His troubles made sense to his fellow Cambodians, who then brainstormed that if they purchased the man a cow, he could become a dairy farmer.

Within weeks, the man’s depression had faded, and he adapted to and began thriving in his life as a dairy farmer. His mind and body received the care required to recover.

As a fun footnote, when a Western doctor came to the village to educate them about anti-depressants, they said they already had them.

They were talking about the cow.

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To a population more attuned to our shared, innate nature as humans, the idea of utilizing something like a manmade pill—a quick fix, more importantly—to combat life stressors isn’t even on the radar.

The difficulties that we label “anxiety” and “depression,” but also “back pain” and “plantar fasciitis” are often solely the result of our lifestyle, or other choices we’ve made.

Since this is the internet, I feel compelled to say that of course, there are exceptions. The Cambodian farmer could not brainstorm his way into growing a new leg or expunging his PTSD (even with a whole village helping), and I’m not aiming to suggest that thoughts, oils, or ancient hoodoo will repair congenital impairments or severe injuries.

Likewise, as someone who has struggled with my mental circuitry, I believe in the value of medication when used properly and for good reason. It has saved my life more than once.

That all said, I have come to hold a firm belief that a vast majority of the American Condition can be wholly resolved with the aforementioned concept of the cow.

Afterall, if his community had not taken notice, interest, and care in/about his failing wellbeing, the Cambodian farmer could technically have continued trudging to the rice paddy day in and day out.

Perhaps he would have learned to cope with alcohol—or, perhaps he would have “toughed it out” until he felt he no longer could, even ultimately taking his own life.

How sad that he would not have known he was a mere cow away from a long, happy, fulfilled life – still enjoying and being enjoyed by those he loved.

Unfortunately, these distressing outcomes happen often in our society.

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When it comes to our aches and pains, as diehard, red-blooded Americans, we refuse to let such lowly matters affect us. We pride ourselves upon our historic legacies of defeating the odds, declaring victory, and defending our rights. We possess the grit of our ancestors. Survivors.

This is a pillar of the American Condition, transcending race, gender, and class. It is the frame that encases the portrait of our collective coterie, and while it can be an endless fount of strength, letting it proliferate unchecked has taken away the balance we need to truly thrive as a species.

Your aches and pains do matter.

Likewise, your daily choices and inner health do, very much, matter.

You can ignore your body, and it will develop a “new normal”; but know, this adaptation will in time give way to a new pain or issue, which is almost always related to the previous one.

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Two examples:

First, a tight neck is ignored but then a painful lower back arises.
Second, grief strikes deep, spearing your heart into your stomach – but you have to get back to work tomorrow and present your quarterly reports.

In case one, even if your pain receptors have numbed themselves, those tight neck muscles are still creating stress down the spinal muscles to the sacrum, and soon enough, voilà, low back pain. In the second scenario, you’ve managed to complete your work duties, but you’re left with a week-long headache, stomach troubles, and extreme fatigue.

A few of my clients have ignored their issues for so long that they’ve developed spells of truly debilitating muscle spasms or tremendous anxiety that have effectively ruined their lives by the time I see them. They feel hopeless and want nothing more than to be able to live a “normal” life again.

This is the American Condition as it relates to us physically and emotionally; it starts with something small that we can ignore and snowballs into something insurmountable that we seem almost surprised about, despite years of waving off our discomfort as “aging,” being “weak,” or some other perceived inevitability.

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Even more detrimental are our inner decisions. Deficits of the spiritual and social realms become life threatening in many scientific, calculable ways.

For example, while education surrounding unhealthy foods (read: fast food/pre-packaged foods) is now widely known for correlating with an increased risk of early death and disease, many folks remain unaware that having few social ties puts us at more than double the risk of death from many diseases, along with increased odds of mental illness such as depression, and even greater likelihoods of developing heart issues and cancer.

That’s right: statistically speaking, you’re better off smoking a pack of cigarettes a day than being a hermit—and we all know how dangerous tobacco is, so that’s saying something.

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All of my musings about this issue of “feeling like crap” have led me to the realization that as the years have passed, we have completely changed the criteria for living a “full life,” without recognizing that our body chemistry is not going to suddenly change to match.

The human body and mind as a whole are still programmed for a few basic things: connection with other humans, survival, and mating.

To that end, we do have a multitude of varying skills. Some of us are more predisposed to remembering what we see or hear; some are better with long-term and factual memory; some of us can craft with profound skill; and others possess a palate to feed the world.

If we lived the way we were built to, we wouldn’t care (let alone debate about) who leaves the home to “hunt and gather,” because others are natural nurturers.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” the proverb goes.

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My point?

It’s no wonder that we feel like crap! The American Condition is diametrically opposed to the human condition.

No one person is meant to do it all.

Taking care of your elderly parent or sick child is not a one-man job. Nor is solving the daily problems of food, shelter, or education. Nor is working.

Even in my role as a massage therapist, it takes two persons for the actual work to be done – on top of which, I source the knowledge and experience of hundreds of therapists before me to problem solve and successfully help my community.

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Many factors of the way we live today just do not jibe with what we need to flourish as humans.

We are lonely. We work jobs in which we have little to no control over what we do, leaving us often trying to do jobs we’re not predisposed to do with ease.

We don’t get out into nature nearly enough.

We struggle to have meaning and purpose, to be seen and valued, and to have a future in mind that makes sense to us.

The question as old as time is “why?” Why are we here? And even the most religiously devout among us are riding on faith and interpretation to answer that question.

Respectfully to all, I think we would do far better to ask, “How can I spend this time here wisely?”

The fact is, we’re here. Nothing we can ever think or calculate is going to definitively “solve” the question of why, but we can very clearly recognize how to live a long and happy life – be it service-focused, artistic, or otherwise.

Our current system leaves us with many unmet needs. The American Condition has built walls and erased our chance to experience enduring connection—a fundamental need for humans.

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I challenge you to help yourself and those around you recultivate the principles that make our lives fuller, happier, and more satisfying.

This is the sort of help that will alleviate stress, rather than create it.

First, take note of the things that come easy for you.

For me, that would be auditory memory, teaching, communicating, providing a listening ear, working to heal and/or comfort others, organizing, and cleaning. I’m naturally orderly and compassionate. These are my strengths.

Conversely, my spatial awareness isn’t great; I don’t enjoy cooking; I’m often motivated by emotions, logic be damned; I’m not a born-athlete; I’m shy in the face of the unknown; I’m fearful of heights; and I’m not very brave. These are areas I’m not intrinsically meant to shine in.

Next, recognize what that means historically.

What could that mean for me if I were born thousands of years ago?

I would likely hold a similar community job to what I have now, working to support people’s minds, hearts, and bodies. I would be a good mediator. I could help people of all ages through their difficulties by listening, dissecting language, and being honest. I would also be a happy supplemental worker insofar as camp cleanliness and order.

I would not be a long-distance messenger runner, a craftsman, a hunter/gatherer, a strategist, or a cook. My usefulness in rearing children would be narrowed to education; I am not the one to tend to the sick, be a doula, or coo at the little ones.

Then, translate this to the present.

Today, what sort of life suits me, based on what I’ve determined?

Well, I’ve got the career part settled. I was unhappy as a waitress, a tutor, a secretary, an assistant, a writer, and an editor, but I am beyond happy as a massage therapist. I only work as much as I can without overloading myself, and I do so in an environment that I find calming.

I’ve also found a mate. This venture was far from an easy road, but I learned what is most important to me: someone I can both enjoy the good times with and work through any bad times with. My husband has habits that I need to vent about sometimes, but he’s still the exact right person for me.

Companionship, spirituality, and nature come into play often with daily dog walks, regular hiking, reading outside, and riding my bicycle.

While I am working towards strengthening my social life, I have the advantage of interacting with other dog owners at the park and other community members via my job.

Nurturing my dogs and husband is enough to fill my cup. I’ve never particularly wanted children, and for me personally, I have had enough tangential experience to know that they would really upend my equilibrium. It’s OK to be the cool aunt; not everyone in the village needs to birth the children themselves to be a valuable part of the family.

What does this look like for you?

Simplify your life by trusting in others to assume their own best roles.

If you don’t enjoy cooking, let someone else do it. Support a local chef and purchase pre-made meals that you can heat up.

If you love raising kids, start your own homeschooling business or out-of-the-house daycare, or volunteer more often to be the carpool parent – even to those who aren’t asking.

If you’re still working on your own emotional vocabulary and intelligence, bring your kids to a trained talk therapist to learn how to become healthy adults; or, take your spouse to counseling or talk with a couple you admire when tough issues arise, rather than trying to sort it out yourselves.

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Part of our reality is that we now include money in our service transactions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still create and enrich the human side of these exchanges.

Whatever comes easy to you is, without a doubt, something that others either can’t do or don’t want to do.

It’s true that there are bad actors out there, and accidents and crimes happen. There is reason to be wary about who you trust to cut your hair, look after your kids, or have do your taxes, but there’s absolutely not enough reason to retreat from others.

In fact, awful things are going to happen regardless of how tightly we try to hang on to control, and when they do, nothing is more important than having a great support system.

By integrating yourself more with others and allowing your neighbors to shine, you free yourself of the burden of being in charge of “it all.” It’s not healthy! It is decidedly, wholly, undeniably UNhealthy.

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We feel like crap because we’ve overstretched what it means to be a successful person.

Aches and pains often result from the strenuous lifestyle we demand of ourselves (and, consequently, others).

Pay attention to your body’s signals. They mean something. It’s not just about aging or old injuries. Chances are, your dysfunction is long-propelled by the disagreeable, dysfunction-inducing American Condition – and you can take steps to change that.

It’s not idyllic thinking, it’s common sense that the masses have decided to ignore.

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