When people experience my approach to treating a whole being and how it differs from the manner in which most health professionals look at things, I often get asked the question “How did you get here?” Up until recently my pat answer has been something like, “Oh, well I took a lot of courses and was luckily mentored by some great therapists, and then I just kind of mushed it all together.” Yes, I have actually used the word “mushed”. I am, after all, highly scientific you know.
I had never taken the time to sit down and reflect on how, in fact, I did get here. Then recently, providence would have it that I went down an internet rabbit hole and landed on a blog post that challenged me to write my story. This exercise actually revealed some things that surprised even me.
Journey of discovery
My journey of discovery began in my second year of studying physiotherapy in university. The first year was mainly background science like anatomy and physiology. It was in second year that we began seeing people in a clinical setting. We started with orthopaedics, as I believe the thinking was that treating someone with a sore knee was less complicated than someone who had had a stroke.
The approach was simple. If someone had a sore knee you treated the knee. If someone’s elbow was stuck you tried to get it moving. One day I was in the clinic and was doing what I had been told to do – work on an elderly woman’s frozen shoulder to get it moving again – when I realized that this approach simply wasn’t working. It was causing her great pain and stressing me out seeing her suffer. As the weeks went by and I repeatedly did the same thing, it distressed me that we really weren’t getting anywhere.
When I asked my supervisor about it, he told me that it was obvious that I didn’t like orthopaedics and that perhaps I should focus on another area of physiotherapy. I was completely ineffectual and had failed in the “easiest” area of practice. Yet some part of me began to question this traditional approach. I started to think there had to be a better way, not in small part because otherwise I had just wasted two years of my life and a whole lot of money.
In third year we moved on to neurology. In general, people with neurological issues such as a stroke or cerebral palsy have limitations throughout the body. This can be very intimidating, and intimidated I was. I didn’t know where to start or how to evaluate progress, but what this practicum did give me was the freedom to look at things holistically. You can’t just treat a single joint in someone who has lost control of most of their body.
While this prospect freed me of the mobilize-one-joint philosophy, it also meant opening up a big black box of complicated interconnections, which of course scared the daylights out of me. Now I was really convinced that I didn’t know what I was doing. I faffed about under the guise of a student exploring, and somehow produced results. Looking back now I realize that the only reason this occurred was because my supervisor threw out the book on neurology and dealt with what was in front of her. She taught me to feel what was happening in a person’s body and respond accordingly. While this free-range approach now seems exciting, believe me, back then it was terrifying. It did, however, plant the first buck-the-establishment seed in my mind.
By fourth year the only thing that I was absolutely certain of was that I was confused. We were being taught to put people in silos and think linearly, but my brain rebelled against this approach. There’s got to be more to this, I thought. I am missing something really important here, but oh, too late – I’m graduating.
Out in the world
Freed from the confines of academia, I let my brain loose. I began to question absolutely everything. I took nothing for gospel even if it was a long-established mainstay of physiotherapy practice. I refused to be intimidated by so-called experts, no matter who they were or how much experience they had.
I wish I could say that this attitude was driven by a strong fortitude, but it was, in fact, driven by panic. You see, I was not at all very good at traditional physiotherapy. I had just spent four years studying something only to come out feeling like I sucked at it. If there wasn’t more to it, I was doomed.
The big picture
At first I felt completely lost. As I stepped away from what everyone else presented as fact and started questioning everything I saw, I began to feel like the floor had dropped out from under me. I had no foundation for a long while and I felt tremendously incompetent. I had a lot of who-do-you-think-you-are self-talk going on, which would drive cycles of retreating into the “known” before I would reluctantly push myself back out again.
Despite my feelings of incompetence, I found that when I followed my instincts and looked at the big picture no matter how “small” the problem was in front of me, I was indeed able to help people, particularly those with longstanding problems that had not responded to traditional therapy. It still seemed like a lot of dumb luck to me, but over time my reputation spread. Soon people were lining up to see me and I was convinced at some point someone was going to pull back the curtain on the not-so-amazing Oz. I was flying by the seat of my pants hoping that the crash landing wouldn’t be too painful.
I continued to search for links between seemingly unrelated issues and I stopped compartmentalizing people into orthopaedic, neurological, or cardiorespiratory categories. I opened my mind to multi-system approaches and developed a constant awareness of the inter-connectedness of the body. I refused to accept “We don’t know” as an answer and added the word “yet” to that phrase. I made a significant change in the direction of my career throwing myself, yet again, into an area where I felt quite inadequate.
My insatiable curiosity eventually drew mentors to me. Because of my openness to a holistic approach, I attracted people of like mind. The one therapist who most influenced my development miraculously approached me (not I her), and offered to host me for a week at her clinic in the UK. It wasn’t until after the fact that I realized that she did this on an extremely limited basis, vetting requests from all over the world.
That trip changed everything. When people ask me what I learned there that was so important, I tell them two things. First of all, I labeled something that had evaded and confused me for a very long time. When I put my hands on someone’s body, so much information was coming into my head. Sometimes it was overwhelming, like an assault on my senses. I would often instantly know what I needed to do but I wouldn’t know how I knew. This mentor helped me realize that I could feel what was going on in multiple systems of the body simultaneously. I could actually feel circulation, the electrical activity of the nervous system, and what the muscles fibres were doing. I just didn’t know that that was what I was feeling. Labeling that skill allowed me to hone it, and my ability to help people increased exponentially.
The other thing she showed me was what was possible with skilled treatment, and that is EVERYTHING. By looking at a whole person, the changes you can make are limitless. Think about that for a moment. We can change ANYTHING if we just have enough skill.
Having witnessed this potential, I again felt somewhat insignificant, like one star in the cosmos. But this time I decided rather than let it defeat me I was going to let it motivate me. I came back with a renewed vigour to question everything, to keep striving to find answers, and, like a sommelier develops their sense of taste and smell, to develop my sense of touch on a multi-faceted level.
I gleaned what I could from those whose approach resonated with me, and from those with a narrower focus, I took their tools and put them in my toolbox for application within the bigger picture. This helped me realize that you can never have too many tools, but that they are only useful if you know when to wield them. Every bit of knowledge I acquired I applied to my matrix of inter-connectedness and things finally started to make sense. I began to feel like I could treat anyone with any issue, no matter how complex. All I had to do was to see how it was all connected.
Kicked by a horse
The next piece of the puzzle clicked into place as my sense of touch expanded its repertoire. I started to become aware of people’s emotional state when I had my hands on them, even so far as to detect the energy of long-ago traumatic events. I will never forget the day that I was treating someone for the very first time when I suddenly asked her, “Have you been kicked by a horse or something?”
My hands had been on her ribs and the words had come absolutely unbidden out of my mouth. Once I had said it, I immediately questioned my own sanity. Where did THAT come from? Her jaw dropped open and she stared at me before telling me that she had, in fact, been kicked by a horse about 20 years before in that exact spot. Admittedly I freaked my own self out that day.
After that experience I began to explore this strange new skill. Repeatedly I had similar revelations of feeling past trauma, both emotional and physical, in people’s tissues. This opened up an entire new world of mind-body-spirit connection that I threw myself into both professionally and personally. In the process I began to heal my own past trauma, which in turned open up my receptivity to that of others. I started to understand that emotional trauma lives in the body and to really help someone you have to deal with all aspects of their experiences. It was then that I truly started to become a healer.
The student becomes the (reluctant) teacher
While I had my head down in my little corner of the world spinning my web, a strange thing started to happen. Other therapists began gravitating towards me asking me to teach them. If you want a sure-fire trigger for imposter syndrome, nothing rivals others looking at you as an expert.
Some of the therapists who asked for my expertise stunned me. Surely they were better therapists than I was. Yet there they were, asking for advice or requesting consultation sessions with their patients. I still lived in fear that the Oz-hiding curtain would be pulled back at any minute, but I did it anyway, marveling at the things that came out of my mouth and the light bulb moments that the other therapists experienced.
For a long time I have been a somewhat reluctant teacher of other health care professionals, but I am now realizing that this is a role into which I need to purposefully step. After over 30 years of practice, I am just now beginning to accept that I have a gift to share with others. This multi-systems approach needs to get out to the masses. The time is rife for change.
Through this journey of several decades, I have learned some important lessons. First of all, advancements in knowledge and innovation only come when we question the status quo. Doing so does not mean you are a smart ass. It means you are brave – brave enough to pull the rug out from underneath yourself and swim in the unknown for a good long time.
Secondly, in this age of evidence-based practice, it is important to realize that if something has not been scientifically proven it may simply be due to the fact that we don’t have the means to measure it yet, or that we are measuring the wrong thing. I cannot prove that emotional trauma lives in the tissues but I know it to be true, as do the people I have treated who have experienced it being released.
A purveyor of joy
Lastly, and in my opinion most importantly, in the end micro-measurements are irrelevant. What matters is overall well-being and this can only be optimized when all systems are in balance. There are as many ways to gauge a person’s well-being as there are people on this planet, but what underlies them all is one thing – joy. The final step on my journey into experiencing the full potential of my own power is realizing and accepting this:
I have a gift of helping people to heal the body so that they can connect all aspects of mind-body-spirit for the sole purpose of finding joy in life. I am not a purveyor of joint movement or the pursuit of a pain-free existence. I am a purveyor of joy.