I would not be going to medical school next year if I had not gone to massage school first. It was my stepping stone, my chance to recognize that I was good at something outside of writing and analyzing works of literature and that my love for biology was more than just a fluke from high school.

There is a lot I love about massage therapy, and if it weren’t for the fact that I physically cannot tolerate a full-time work schedule (few people can; it is a wearing profession and overworking can mean injuring yourself) I might never have looked for more. Before massage I worked in the frantic work of food service, where everything was about multi-tasking and speed. By contrast massage is a blessing; you get to concentrate on one person at a time for long periods in low lighting to soothing music. It’s almost impossible to get stressed out at work.

There is a small part of me that thinks I might be crazy for giving that up. But the flip side to having a job that doesn’t stress you out, is that you are seldom truly challenged. Most questions raised in massage have two possible answers: work the area or don’t work the area. You can use different techniques, of course, and different depths, but in the end there isn’t a lot of variation.

The one advantage (or disadvantage depending on how you look at it) to my background in massage is that I’ve met a lot of people who have a rather negative perspective on Western medicine. When I told one of my coworkers I was going to med school, he looked genuinely sad and said, “Don’t go to med school. It’s like…the opposite of massage.”

I have a lot of clients who have been failed by Western medicine in one way or another. Carpal tunnel patients who are trying to avoid surgery, sciatica patients who want to manage their pain without drugs. Physicians often regard massage therapists with the same skepticism they have for energy workers and homeopathic remedies. Not without reason either; I have met plenty of massage therapists who earnestly explain half-understood scientific concepts to back up practices that are questionable at best.

All this has landed me squarely in the middle of the whole debate between alternative medicine and Western medicine. Taking the middle road seems to always put me on the wrong side of the debate. It seems to me that “alternative” medicine is no alternative at all. The term complementary medicine, which seems to be gaining traction in some circles, is a better description. Practices like massage, acupuncture and meditation should be used to improve quality of life and boost Western treatments rather than replacing them. And even the most rigidly scientific physician should know by now that treating the mind is much of the battle in treating the body.

Much of holistic medicine teaches that we should lead lives of balance, a philosophy that holds in Western medicine as well. Although I don’t expect to practice massage much after this year, I hope that I can hold onto my middle ground (as frustrating as it is most of the time) because I think finding balance between the nearly stress-free world of bodywork and fraught nature of modern medicine is the healthiest way I can live.

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