Milestoned: 13 Years as a Massage Therapist

“Your hands must be soooo tired at the end of the day,” comments yet another anonymous massage client.

Three minutes later: “But would you mind going deeper?”

It’s been 13 years. The body count must be at 56,000. I’ve been patiently waiting for a gold pen to recognize my years of service, but may have to settle for gold shots instead. Goldschlager shots would be better yet.

Two of my current co-workers keep me semi-buoyed with enthusiasm. Suzanne has been a well-oiled massage machine for 19 years, casting hope and future into what seems like a quagmire of a career that sometimes rubs me the wrong way. Linda (whose name I should probably change, but won’t, just to make her squirm), is entering the massage industry at age 60. Imagine! So, why am I beefing and moaning at age 37?

Mostly I feel slightly doomed to wearing clip-on costume jewellery in my golden years. I’ll be partial to Mr.T –esque necklaces, mostly for their large clasp quality. I will definitely be the blue hair in the third row of the cinema wrestling with a Werther’s wrapper a good hour into the movie. At least I’ll be able to open twist-off beers with my teeth.

It’s been a love-hate relationship of sorts (with my career, not Suzanne and Linda). I’ve had career affairs and nearly committed career hara-kiri (Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword when disgraced or under sentence of death). I took off to Africa, twice, on sojourns/sabbaticals/aka: exasperated-retreats-from-boredom, that allowed me to pursue a wildly different life that stirred my stagnating creativity and restored my restless self.

Editor’s note: I’d recommend a solid dose of the Congo and time with chimpanzees to anyone feeling like they are playing the role of a sleepy extra in Groundhog Day.

What I’ve known for sure, then and now, is that I never wanted a job that interrupted the larger, balancing part of my life that falls into categories like love, recreational reading, extensive travel, excessive holiday time, general loafing around, writing post-midnight, writing post 3 a.m., heavy socializing, mass movie intake, realistic search time for Toronto’s best Americano (and burger, pork belly banh mi, butter chicken, etc.), supine-on-the-beach time, sleeping 10 hours and the like.

I shudder, a lot, when I digest glimpses of other lives. Lives spent commuting. Three hours in gridlock, bleary-eyed hours zoned out in front of a computer, Blackberry operating in tandem with heart beat and blood pressure. A nose-dive of a sex life due to work fatigue. A steady diet of sterile coffee and garbage snacks to help fuel meeting a deadline. Twelve hour shifts. One week of vacation time. Eight a.m. meetings.

I don’t work a 40 hour work week.  I can’t. I would drop dead of instrumental music overload before anything else.

I remember (not even wistfully) days of scheming, so young and naive in massage college, calculators pulled out, tabulating our awesome future salaries. At $80 an hour, six hours a day, our payload was going to be $480 bucks a day. Five days a week? We’d be raking in $2,400. That math meant that we’d be earning an easy $9,600 a month. I’m choking on my Beck’s beer as I type this now (which I bought in a can that I can still open).

I can’t even do calculations that high, but, if my long hand multiplication is right, we would have estimated a yearly salary of $115,200.

Which is way less than what I’m actually earning.

Cough-cough.

In my 13th year I am working more and making less than I ever have. Math was never my strength, but this I know to be true.

Body Blitz Spa, Toronto

Life as a massage therapist is not exactly lucrative. I suppose if you expanded into other hand-friendly modalities like acupuncture, or subjected yourself to

Practicing what I preach and subjecting my body to a Thai treatment at The Owl & Pussycat in Victoria, BC.

additional schooling in an osteopath program (the very words “Five year curriculum” make me want to collapse and/or barf), there might be more dollars. But, when you are physically unable to cushion an income with overtime, you hit a glass ceiling early on. The ladder of success in the massage industry is more like a treadmill. Get on, pretty much at warp speed, and operate at a speed that will reasonably carry you the number of years you plan to work. But do so with caution and for every 25 bodies you massage, make sure you get one in return.

I have repeated myself at least 6,000 times in assuring clients that every job has its sacrifice. Though we appear to have a romantic career (the smoke and mirrors of dim lights, lavender and *&$^% Solitudes soundtracks), we have our limits. Massage therapy sacrifices: standing all day long, above-mentioned instrumental music, fear of sharp knives, inability to pursue activities that promise broken wrists like snowboarding and, poor performance post-work in crokinole tournaments or arm-wrestling matches.

Even worse? The party situation and admitting that you are a massage therapist. This tidbit suddenly becomes an invite for story time: motor vehicle accidents, broken leg stories, brushes with carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis here and there, bursitis here and there and, “feel this. No, really. What do you think it is? Can you fix that?”

My girlfriend gets off lucky in party conversations. She’s a steel quality specialist. Most people don’t have steel stories. My brother is even luckier. As a genome sequencer who looks for genetic disease markers, most people come to a dead halt in conversing. What the hell is a genome sequencer? “How about another beer?”

Truth be told? Most true friends know that my days of giving out free massages dwindled about a year after I finished school. Oh, those were the keen, shiny days of wearing a magic cape, so eager to save the world, one rub at a time.

Not that I’m disenchanted or jaded now. I still find elements of the career remarkably rewarding.

1. Everyone looks forward to seeing you

2. Workplace stress level is at a sub-zero level

3. At the risk of sounding schmaltzy, we provide a sanctuary for weary bodies and minds. Perfect strangers place their trust in our hands and are reliably relieved, rejuvenated and lightened of a life load in 60 minutes. No pressure!

My twin & I in front of a mural I painted in my biz, “The Upper Hand” in Dunnville, Ontario. I’m about 12 in this pic. Brand new massage therapist.

I’ve been spoiled with working in ambience-laden atmospheres. I’ve worked poolside at the Sheraton (that was a great tanning summer) and schmoozed at the Fairmont Royal York and King Edward hotel. I’ve worked with Olympians, cancer survivors and horses. (Yes, real live horses). I’ve had my own biz and was content to hand over the sheet-folding and hectic mess of scheduling for a percentage to work in some posh spas like the Wild Orange in BC and currently, Body Blitz in downtown Toronto.

What’s best? It’s always changing. Can I honestly answer and say my time in the Congo? Or four months in Uganda NOT massaging? That was the best. Drawing monkeys for a colouring book and feeding rescued chimps overshadows a lot.

But. Being a massage therapist has allowed me to do everything I’ve wanted. And, as you know, that means Egypt, Belize, Honduras,  Amsterdam, Venezuela, the Ice Hotel, the Galapagos, nights at the Gladstone and Queen’s Landing, Puma sneakers, fancy cheeses and fancier beers and a whole lot of life in between.

When my high school counsellor said I needed to research a vocation, I thought she said vacation. Largely and luckily, it’s been a lot of that, which is exactly the kind of symbiotic career I need.

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Categories: All Things Spa-like | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Milestoned: 13 Years as a Massage Therapist

  1. connie

    I think you have made many fantastic choices Jules and hope you continue to do so! Very fortunate are those whom you have helped to feel better with your magical hands! Cheers to your future as well.

  2. Michelle

    I couldn’t have written that better if I had tried. 13 years in and you summed it up well. I took my hands on vacation and never came back; settling for life and a massage career in the Caribbean. It doesn’t change the truths about our profession that you described so well. Thanks for adding a smile to my morning coffee….that now doubles as warming device to get my fingers moving enough to get to work!

  3. Rodney

    Well said Jules. So how much longer do you think you can keep going? I feel I have 10 more years in me, but then I’ve been saying that for the last 7, and if 10 years is my cut off point… what the hell am I going to get into at age 51! Yikes.
    side note – my counsellor tells me I tend to catastrophe a little. You think?

  4. Debbie Sherwin

    Well said! Thanks for the morning smile. I’m in my 17th year, am 57 yrs. old & am contemplating a 3rd career…life is a journey. One of the things I’ve learned to do to prolong my RMT career is to take a week off every 5 weeks. And, every couple of years, I take myself on an extended “walkabout” to get away from the familiar routines & demands and to give myself some solitude. Never underestimate the power of touch…
    Debbie

    • jules09

      Debbie, I like your “take a week off every 5 weeks” agenda. It is probably the best approach to career sustainability. I wonder what you might pursue next? And what was your first career? Massage therapists always seem to be interwined with hands-on work, in some regard, creative or physical. Thank you for your feedback.

  5. Mariam

    This was a wonderful read. I’m 28 and pursuing my first proper career… pretty late in life to be sure, but I’ve remained a professional student for nearly a decade because I could never find the right fit for me. I abhor the typical 9-5 routine that I see most people living; early morning meetings, limited vacation time, constant stress, etc. I want to live my life and not work it! Thank you for providing an honest and insightful perspective. I’ve been very hesitant about going in for the RMT program mainly because it’s such a giant change from what I’ve been doing… but this was very inspiring.

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