Some years ago, I was bit by a tick and contracted a fairly stubborn case of Lyme Disease. Over the next three years, I saw countless health practitioners, both conventional and complimentary. As one practitioner after another grappled with my intractable and mysterious set of pains and symptoms, I was struck by how often my own subjective experience seemed irrelevant to their diagnoses and treatment plans. Practitioners openly disputed my descriptions of symptoms; admonished me against continuing other treatments that, at least to me, were obviously helping; two different specialists cancelled appointments that I had waited months for without offering alternatives or referrals; etc., etc.
This apparent disregard for my experience as a person happened with both mainstream medical doctors and with alternative healthcare providers. Surprisingly, the conventional doctors I saw were, on the whole, more open-minded and sympathetic than the alternative practitioners. In fact, the only health professional who asked me about the personal impact of my illness was perhaps the most conventional-an infectious disease specialist at a large regional medical center, who asked me how I was “holding up emotionally.” (When I mentioned being discouraged at the lack of progress, he offered antidepressants and pain pills-pharmacological ways to get away from my experience!)
My feeling of being disregarded was, of course, not unique-there are many whose stories are far, far worse.’ The dehumanizing tendency of the conventional health care system is a large part of why complimentary care is so popular. But the fact that my alternative healthcare practitioners were even more insensitive than the conventional ones was a real eye-opener-as alternative practitioners, maybe it is easy to let the hubris of our high-minded complimentary status make us even more likely to forget about the actual living, breathing, feeling person we are working with.
In the old days (the point at which they ended is a matter of debate), we Rolfers had a well-earned reputation for not always attending to our client’s experience. Most of this came from a subtle undervaluing of the client’s experience that was imbedded into the way we interacted with and worked on clients. Although there were more egregious examples, here are two subtle ones: 1. Something as simple as starting a session by doing a visual analysis, if not done with sensitivity, can set a tone of objectification right off the bat-by standing our clients up and looking at them, we might be implying that what the Rolfer sees from the outside is primary, not necessarily what the client feels from the inside. 2. Another example: we Rolfers have been notorious for listening to our client’s complaints, and then working somewhere else without explanation.
By now, we have of course learned a tremendous amount from our collective excesses, and our training and graduates reflect this. From the early classes until the present day, many practitioners (among them, Judith Aston, Don Johnson, Peter Levine, and many current faculty) have helped us all be much more sensitive than we were when I began training twenty-three years ago.
Thankfully, my Lyme Disease got better. But I try, as often as I can, to remember my time as a patient whose experience didn’t seem to count for much, and let this inform the way I interact and work with my own clients today.
1. One of my recent favorite books on this subject is Anne Fadimari s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1997.
Five Questions About Your Clients’ Experience
1. How do you begin your time with clients? Visual analysis, small talk, verbal questioning? How might this set the tone or define the realms of interaction in your sessions?
2. Do you know what your own work feels like?
3. As you’re working, what are you aware of? Along with release, or connection, or rhythms, etc., how much of your attention is on the client’s experience?
4. From your clients’ point of view, do you think you and your hands are more often talking, telling, and pushing, or more often listening, asking, and waiting?
5. How often do you find ways for clients to participate in the work?