My professional life and my academic interests have long been clumsy dance partners: they orbit each other on different beats, fumbling for one another’s attention, sometimes stepping on each other’s toes, sometimes achieving moments of grace. At first glance, massage therapy and literary criticism don’t seem to pair well, but after a decade of study in both fields, I am still learning just how much they have much to teach each other. Three years ago, I left a PhD program in English at UT Austin to open Rising Spiral Massage and Wellness, a pain management clinic and wellness center that specializes in various types of bodywork, yoga therapy, licensed psychology, acupuncture, and mindfulness practices. In my corner of the office, I work with people who suffer from chronic pain. My version of therapy addresses the body, but as any bodyworker will confirm, our bodies and our stories cannot be separated, and no bodyworker worth her salt would try. A traditional session begins by taking an account: we listen as a patient tells the story of his or her pain, how it started, how it has changed over time, and what he or she is feeling now. Then, on the therapy table, we create a new narrative together. Sometimes these stories are told verbally, but more often than not, they unfold by feel—a silent unwinding as the body lets go of old patterns and older stories, a subtle shift of fascia and sinew with a new story to tell. In a way, massage therapy is a tactile mode of close reading, and through a dialogue of touch, most massage therapists are already practicing a version of narrative medicine. It is my intention to bring this embodied practice out of the silent margins and to the center of my skillset. By studying with the pioneers of narrative medicine at Columbia University this Fall, I hope to integrate close reading roundtables, expressive writing therapy, and collaborative listening workshops into my pain management practice.
In graduate school, I fell in love with psychoanalysis and deconstruction. Postmodern philosophy and psychoanalytic theory validated my habit of questioning everything, teaching me how to mine a text for all those secret desires and agendas that lurk beyond reach of the literal. Like any other graduate student bursting at the scholarly seams to claim a discovery, I loved the thrill of chasing those secrets from the root cellar and bringing them to light. But in the end, the writers who most influenced me were those who questioned this “hermeneutics of suspicion,” teaching me to think with rather than against a storyteller. Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself, and John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change introduced me to an ethic of reading humbly, generously, self-reflectively, and for-the-Other. This style of close reading through active listening has informed my approach to medicine in countless ways. By attending the narrative medicine program at Columbia, I intend to grow this philosophy from a subtle influence into a material practice. Learning how to lead group workshops on creative writing and close reading will give me an exciting new therapeutic tool, expanding my practice from one-on-one physical therapy to group narrative therapy. After I complete this program, I hope to create a more connected, collaborative wellness center that serves our community as well as our clients, empowering us all to close read our own narratives, to share those stories with others, to think with rather than against other storytellers, and to create new narratives of self-expression and healing.