Massage Helps People with HIV and Neuropathy

Another interesting article from the Australian, (see link below) describes one man's way of giving back to the community. Someone to massage your hurting body for you seems to me a fantastic way to make you feel better. No 'happy endings', or commercial rip-offs, just careful massage carried out by someone who knows what he or she is doing. It's an idea that should be promoted in as many places as possible, though finding the volunteers with the right intentions might be easier said than done. Hats off to Mr Page.

Touching bodies - and souls
by Greg Page - •This article was originally published in the Oct-Nov 2011 edition of Talkabout

Greg Page reflects on what leads him to donate an hour of his time each week to massaging HIV+ clients.

Once a week I do a volunteer massage for HIV+ patients. As a trained massage therapist with over five years of experience, I'm constantly asked the same question by my clients, who are almost invariably middle-aged men: "Are you one of us?" By which they actually mean, "Are you HIV positive too?"

There is always a real sense of relief in their voices when I reassure them that, yes, I understand the nuances of niggling neuropathy, constant painful twinges and strange, doctor-confounding ills that can befall a person who is a long-term sufferer. You see, I'm a massage therapist who has also been HIV+ now for eight years.

I actually began my training about six years ago at a course offered by an instructor who wisely believed it a good idea to give newly-HIV+ men an insight into their bodies, what makes them tick and what makes them tick better. Massage therapy is a skill for life, as well as a skill that can help and heal, for both the giver and the receiver. My massage training took about six months to complete. It included two hours per week of intensive anatomy lessons, with a book to practice with, not a body, in case you're wondering. I had to learn multisyllabic phrases and convoluted names for parts of the body that normally only specialist doctors would know off my heart. In my course, of the 10 HIV+ men who began the training, only six finished. One disappeared never to be seen again, one became a crystal addict, another decided it was all too hard and another took his first three months of training and turned it into a business, touting himself as the "massage therapist who gives happy endings".

96 percent

I finished my training with a 96 percent score, something I was very proud of, although I wasn't top of my class – a hunky Canadian-born guy scored 99 percent (though I did better than him in the practical assessment!)

Over the course of our training, our group constantly practised on each other, but the biggest challenge we faced wasn't concentrating on what we were doing or making sure we were doing it properly. It actually came when we had to massage a group of HIV+ women.

None of us was familiar with women's bodies and it was a truly eye-opening moment. As gay men we are generally so unfamiliar with the curves and nature of a woman that it took some major readjustment for us as massage therapists to accommodate them. It was a good lesson in what was to come as a masseur – everybody is different and some bodies are more different than others.

Although our course had been offered free, the deal we all agreed to was that on successfully completing the course and qualifying, we would have to allocate 60 hours of free massages to community services. Somehow for me that 60 hours has now become six years of offering my services to the HIV+ community.

Troubled bodies and minds

Most of the men I massage are relatively advanced in their HIV+ prognosis. Some have lived with it for over 20 years. One man told me he knows he has been positive since 1980, if not before. He witnessed his entire circle of friends, lovers and ex-lovers die before his very eyes in those early first years of AIDS. He is now somewhat bitter, quietly angry and rather fed up with life. The massage I give him every few weeks helps alleviate the pain not only in his riddled body, but his troubled mind.

The one question I always like to ask my clients is what their job is. Some are still working and on my bench, laid out in front of me, I've had professions as varied as shopkeeper, actor/model, ad agency boss, librarian, historian, labourer, insurance man, personal trainer, healthcare worker, recovering addict and full-time nudist. Some of the men have been on sickness benefits for so long they can't even contemplate the idea that they could once again be valuable members of the workforce. They never thought they would live this long, let alone be healthy enough to return to the jobs they assumed they were leaving to go and die. The meds changed things and kept them alive. Some of my clients are happy about this, yet others feel somehow guilty they survived. Some like to talk about how they feel, with the massage helping to ease their suffering and their inhibitions, while others prefer to just simply enjoy the serenity of being able to have their body caressed and touched like they haven't been touched in a long time.

It's a powerful reminder to me as to how important the sense of touch is. Although we often think seeing is believing, through my work with clients on the massage bench I have come to see that the greatest gift I can give to those who are suffering, or who have suffered hard, is simply that of a compassionate, caring touch.

No words

Sometimes there are almost no words before, during or after our one-hour sessions. Some people choose to lose themselves for the 60 minutes, regaining a connection with their body tissue that years of toxic medication, intensive doctor prodding and a raft of severe illnesses have left tenuous and tense. If I can help ease that tension, then I feel my work has been a success.

Generally my clients leave after the massage feeling the best they've felt in a long time. "I feel like I'm floating" is a piece of feedback I receive constantly. That's when I know that not only have I done a good job, but I made the right choice in volunteering my services, rather than charging a fee and making it my full-time profession.

It's a shame there are not more people from the HIV+ community who get involved in complementary therapies. Not only does it help you give something back, but also gives you a link to the past of the AIDS epidemic. It's a way to help ease those survivors through the new era of manageable chronic illness.

More alive

One week recently I massaged a blind man who brought in his guide dog, which sat quietly as his owner groaned his way through our session. It was as if my client had not felt a human hand near his weakened body in a long time. He shook my hand firmly afterwards and I could tell he felt more alive.

I truly get a strong sense of satisfaction when I finish my volunteer session each week. Not only because I know I'm doing something good for others, but because I'm actually doing something good for myself. You should try it some time – you might find it as soul-enriching as I do.
Greg Page

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