Growing up, there were a few absolutes in life. Strangers were to be kept at arm’s length and treated as my wife treats me in the evenings. No touching allowed. And we steered well clear of strangers with needles offering immediate relief. They were called drug dealers. Today, they are called physiotherapists. They are more expensive than drug dealers.
But in an alternative universe filled with alternative therapies, I was recently offered a ‘dry needle’, which sounded like a heavy metal band. Dry Needle should be full of sweaty, long-haired guys, thrashing guitars and banging on about Satan’s alley. A dry needle shouldn’t be coming anywhere near my alley. But my amiable sports physiotherapist was convinced that a little dry needling might alleviate the soreness in my tender knee and hamstrings. I was extremely reluctant.
It’s not that I’m averse to the concept of alternative therapies. It’s just that the last time I consented to such a treatment I discovered that Jack the Ripper wasn’t dead, but alive and well and masquerading as a sports physiotherapist in downtown Singapore. He left me with a punctured lung. After leaving my lower back looking like Pinhead in Hellraiser, he shoved in one more needle for luck and left me with a 3cm tear in my lung.
I’m no doctor. But when every breath felt like I was being molested by Edward Scissorhands, I realised something had gone awry in my lumbar region.
After a breathless journey to Changi Hospital, I was informed that my long and lanky frame had blessed me with a long and lanky lung. The physiotherapist had misjudged the length of my lung. So technically, it was my fault for being a gangly freak. Oh, how I laughed about that.
Naturally, I no longer patronise the downtown butchery, where I’m sure Sweeney Todd is still eviscerating patients for the crime of being too tall for his suspect knowledge of human anatomy. But the incident only heightened the paranoia concerning the weird idea of letting strangers touch parts of my body that my wife stopped touching after we both stopped drinking.
And it is weird when you think about it. So it’s best not to. Rational thought should generally be avoided when it comes to massage, physiotherapy and physical contact of any kind with strangers because it goes against our civilised sensibilities. An uncontrollable, internal alarm goes off when it quickly becomes apparent that unfamiliar hands are heading there, so much so that we go out of our way to sidestep the awkwardness in the daftest ways.
Sometimes, there is that soothing, otherworldly music. But despite the best intentions, I just can’t take anyone who plays whale music seriously.
Yes, it’s a cliché because clichés are forged in the fragments of truth. I have visited two different massage therapists who both piped in music that sounded like Moby Dick trapped in a phone box.
Both were in Australia, if that helps. It certainly didn’t at the time, especially when one establishment also included the omnipresent water feature. Those relaxing, tinkling sounds supposedly stimulate a peaceful climate, one that is conducive to the healing of mind and body. But the flowing water is less effective on a man lying, groin down, on a masseuse’s bed and dealing with a bad back, rather than shy bladder syndrome.
Communication is also a perilous business during these treatment sessions. Silences are awkward, but chats about our favourite hawker centres while he’s massaging my lower buttocks rarely make for a convivial atmosphere either. And that’s if he is, in fact, a he. Encounters with female physiotherapists can be delicate. Any man who claims otherwise is either a liar or the Dalai Lama.
There are obvious differences between a referral to a qualified physiotherapist and a drunken ah pek stumbling into a massage parlour for a ‘special service’. We all know this. But the crushing fear is that these rational differences may not register in the most irrational areas.
Any treatments involving groins and hamstrings typically involve 45-minute internal monologues, with a screaming voice urging stillness like a bad Shakespearean actor. To be and only to be is very much the question. (And yet, that’s still a less horrifying scenario than a local GP who once critiqued my latest book whilst he conducted a prostate examination. On that occasion, I had no problems coughing.)
As a safe and healthy distraction and topic of conversation, I tend to focus on the treatments being administered, mostly because therapies appear to evolve on a weekly basis.
Massage therapy once involved no more than a stranger’s hands, a sprinkling of essential oils and a couple of groaning whales. Now, the equipment seems to be on loan from NASA.
In recent sessions, ultrasound machines and electrical pulse contraptions have been deployed, leaving me unsure if I was still dealing with the after- effects of a repaired meniscus or I was pregnant. A particularly popular device involves machine- gunning the back of my knee and hamstrings with a series of short, sharp shocks. This is known as trigger point therapy and feels like my late grandmother constantly jabbing me with a wrinkled finger and asking if I want a cheese sandwich.
And then, finally, my new physiotherapist brought up the idea of dry needling. The last time a physiotherapist did that I almost brought up a lung. Reluctantly, I acquiesced. The physio went in with a handful of needles. Almost immediately, the back of my knee looked like a rally of white supremacists. There were little pricks everywhere.
But the muscle relaxed and the pain subsided. The dry needling worked. Nothing was punctured, torn or wounded. I’m learning to embrace the needle in a positive, non-Trainspotting kind of way. Mind and body are open to alternative therapies once more. But I still draw the line at water features and shagging whales.