Needling My Butt

A few years ago, I went to Chiang Mai for three weeks. And, like most people do while in Thailand, I went to get a Thai massage.

I’d never gotten a Thai massage before, but from the way it is always presented – in curvy, exotic-looking letters often accompanied by lotus flowers or other symbols of meditative peace – I assumed it would be a relaxing experience. I was vaguely aware that some sort of stretching is involved, as promotional photographs always depicted a woman smiling serenely as her masseuse appeared to pull back her arms. That was the extent of my knowledge.

After some research, I’d found a reasonably priced place that was recommended by enough people on the Internet to lend it sufficient credibility. I walked in, was instructed to change, and learned what a Thai massage feels like.

It started with stretching and manipulation of my legs and ankles, which felt pretty good. From there, it eventually escalated to sitting up with my hands behind my head, my arms interlocked with my masseuse as she swung my upper half around first to the right, then to the left.

“Oh…my god,” I thought.

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Like most Japanese people, I have almost perfected the art of pretending any uncomfortable reality is not actually happening. In the middle of a humid Tokyo summer, I can sit in a train car that has suddenly turned into my private hell due a homeless person sitting directly upwind of me, as if nothing is wrong. When a drunk man rolled off the train seat onto the floor, unconsciously inebriated at my feet, I’ve simply moved back 30cm, keeping my gaze purposely fixed elsewhere.

So, I kept my cool, pretending like being contorted was an absolutely normal part of a relaxing massage. Then, the masseuse planted her foot in the middle of my back and braced her weight back while holding my arms behind me.

“Wai—,” I started.

It was too late. I imagined irreparable harm to my back as she almost bent me in half.

Like most uncomfortable situations, I’ve somehow been able to think back fondly on that massage, going so far as to tell people it felt good, that I’d go back. That’s not a lie, but unfamiliarity with the process lent a fair bit of discomfort that I wasn’t prepared for.

I was reminded of that massage a few weeks ago when a chronically tight and painful lower back forced me to seek out acupuncture treatment.

sakura
japanese stuff

Unlike in the U.S., acupuncture is readily and widely available in Tokyo. Suggestions to go to an acupuncturist were fairly common at my gym, but the idea of someone jabbing me with needles – however thin – remained a terrifying concept. It didn’t help that most of the people suggesting acupuncture were male and capable of enduring the pain of prolonged exercise. They’d assure me that “it doesn’t hurt at all,” but the phrase immediately seemed suspect given the source. It’s like when people say “oh, but it’s nothing compared to childbirth,” which only gives me a vague metric of “not painless but definitely better than the experience you haven’t had of a small human body squeezing through your cervix.”

 But when a good friend recommended her acupuncturist and told me that it wasn’t that bad, I was curious.

“They give you a massage, first, of the places they’re going to needle you,” she said.

Somehow, this gave me some reassurance. If they cared enough to go through the pretense of trying to relax you first, didn’t that mean they were good people? Didn’t that mean that, should I ever have the courage to ask them to stop, that they would?

By this point, my glute pain had spread to my lower back. Front squats hurt. Back squats also kind of hurt. Sitting was beginning to hurt. I was getting close to being forced to do something to actually address this problem.

I made an appointment online that week and walked into the recommended clinic for my first ever acupuncture experience.

feet on the train

As this was my first appointment, and my first time getting acupuncture, my acupuncturist, N-san, poked and prodded at my lower back and hip, and pressed and massaged the sides of my back and shoulders while asking me questions about pain and soreness. He told me that my issue was definitely due to my glutes and hamstrings, not my back, and that he probably couldn’t fix me in one appointment. He spent time explaining how acupuncture can feel different to different people: some people just don’t like the tingling feeling of acupuncture, others find it super relaxing. Some people find it more painful than relaxing. It just depends.

After the massage, N-san chose a fleshy part of my hip for my first acupuncture needle. He tapped the needle in, twice, and other than something much less than a pinprick, I felt nothing.

“This is what it feels like,” he said, “is that ok?”

I told him it was, because it really wasn’t painful at all, and he tap-tapped more needles into my right hip and glute. After the sensation of the double-tap, I eventually started to feel the “vibration” that people often talk about. You know the needle is going into one place, but it feels like an entire area is released of tension. It’s a weird, half-numbing sensation that feels like trigger point therapy on steroids.

After inserting a bunch of needles, N-san then used a small box to pass a weak, electric current between the needles. It feels like a deep, trigger point therapy massage; you can’t call it relaxing, but it’s not unpleasant. After about 5 minutes of this, I went home feeling a bit sore but better, with advice to come back in about a week.

needle marks

The next week, I went back for more treatment. This time, there was a short massage of my hamstrings and calves, then the acupuncture started. From my ankles to my knees, N-san started inserting needles to fix some muscle imbalances. N-san would probe my lower legs, find a knot, and promptly insert a needle into it. This time, I felt the entire range of possible sensations when undergoing acupuncture: some pinprick pain, tingling, a weird numbing feeling that spread over my foot at one point, the releasing sensation, and some discomfort. I also felt like a human pin cushion.

“What is happening?” I thought.

By the time N-san finished with my right glute, all I could do was cling to the body pillow used to elevate my leg as I lay on my left side, my butt-cheek twitching from the electroacupuncture, seriously considering N-san’s advice to maybe just lay off the lifting for a while.

But like that Thai massage from a few years ago, once it was over, I felt renewed. Or maybe I’m discounting the effect of an electric charge to my butt-cheek. In any case, high on my own self-congratulations for doing something that was not completely awful to my body, I asked when I should come back on the way out.

Snatching Back

“Kaiko,” my coach said a few months ago, as he watched me try to snatch, “stop getting flung away.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And I don’t mean just by guys.”

I stood there, sweaty, with third-degree burns from that roast. The whiteboard declared that we’d be doing snatches, and I’d been attempting to heave the barbell and two oversized, red, plastic plates weighing 2.5kg each, over my head. To accomplish that, I was bouncing the bar off my hip flexors instead of scooping it up, then getting pulled forward before swinging the weight back towards my body to get it over my shoulders. My arms were tensed up and straightened throughout the lift. It seemed to me what a snatch should look like, except it was completely wrong.

calloused hands

Fortunately, the vice grip I had on the barbell and the tension in my arms naturally died after doing about 20 snatches for a WOD. By snatch 26, my coach was impressed with my form enough to be shouting out praise over the increasingly irritating pop music.

“Good snatch, Kaiko!” he said, “you’re not wasting any movements!”

I was sweating uncontrollably and turning increasingly pale. My lungs hurt but everything else was becoming numb and useless. I had stopped concentrating on form, on all the small things that need to come together for a half decent snatch. I was too busy trying not to die.

There’s very little that is more fun than learning the Olympic lifts. But the process can often feel a lot like trying to date in Tokyo in your 30s: first, you spend a lot of time and energy trying to control things you can’t, then, once the deadening exhaustion sets in, you lose all the fucks you thought you could give and, ironically, start getting better at it.

I’ve been learning this the hard way. There were the ghosters, the friends-with-benefiters, the guys who can’t take rejection, and the guys who just want to sext. So far, it’s been a string of failed attempts. Most times, I fix one way I approach things and something else goes completely wrong. Other times, I need to step back, take a break, and re-group.

barbells

In the process, I’ve learned that rushing things can get you hurt or at least make you feel like an idiot, but, taking a few risks isn’t a bad thing. That having more confidence and a little more faith in myself never hurt, and meaningful progress always involves being uncomfortable. And that for every failure, there are ten, twenty, fifty more chances to get it right.

They say you get back what you give. What they don’t tell you is that you can give your best but a lot of the time, you have to wait to get it back. It’s not your day or your timing is off or it’s not meant to be. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your best at every try, or half-ass your pulls and expect a great result. As exhausting, frustrating, and infuriating as it can be, you have to keep pulling with the hope that one day, everything will boomerang back to you. And since you miss all the shots you don’t take, eventually, I’ll set myself up at the bar again and try to get something off the ground without looking entirely stupid and/or disposing of my dignity.

back at the bar

A few weeks back, after a crush didn’t pan out, I arrived at the CrossFit box to another torturous WOD.

“We’re doing this ‘Heartbreak’ one,” coach said.

“But, no,” I whined, “I’ve had enough of that this year.”

He laughed, because he somehow believes I’m capable of more than I think, and we did it anyway.

Measuring Progress

“How’s therapy?” friends who know of my weekly appointments to keep myself reasonably together occasionally ask, “is it working?”

“I don’t know,” I always say. It’s an honest answer, but I leave out the part about how, since I had lacked the self-awareness to realize how not okay I was until I was severely not okay, assuming that I could now somehow judge my progress is either a testament to how much my friends believe in me and my capacity to make progress, or, perhaps more accurately, how little they know about my descent into sadness. Sometimes, when pressed, I’d offer that, “my therapist thinks I’m doing okay.” People seem to take this as a good sign, but given that she has also congratulated me on not being a manipulative sociopath, I probably set the bar kind of low with that relationship.

The problem is that it’s difficult to measure progress you can’t see. There are no progress pictures you can take of your mental health, no benchmark VO2Max, lifts, or WODs. There’s no road map or training program. Other than the uncomfortable realization that I was more unhappy than I’d like to be, there wasn’t much else I was sure of.

progress pic.jpeg

If the first step to addressing your own bullshit is recognizing the problem, they say the second step is acceptance. Somewhere in between, you’re assumed to have pulled yourself back to a functional state and mentally prepared yourself to address your numerous hang ups. It’s an uncomfortable experience made even more frustrating by the fact that no one actually tells you how to get from step one to generally happy. Even when you pay for professional therapy, you’re left to claw your way out yourself while answering vague questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “how do you think you can deal with this issue better next time?”

“What do you mean, ‘next time’?” I’m tempted to say, fully prepared to take the easy way out and avoid, for the indefinite future, whoever in my life had created whatever unpleasant situation I was complaining about.  “Does there have to be a ‘next time’?”

It’s the same question I voice at the CrossFit box, except, because no one there is paid to give a shit about my feelings, I’m bluntly told yes, I will eventually have to put myself through that extremely painful experience again. That the increasing weight on the bar or the heavier kettlebells are entirely for my benefit. This information usually annihilates the last thin thread of willpower I was clinging to to stay both upright and conscious. It also seems fundamentally unfair. I understand my therapist’s attempts to turn me into a better person – that’s what I pay her for – but no one told me building character was part of CrossFit or Olympic weightlifting.

useaka barbell.jpeg
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Yet, as if to make up for the fact that I can’t snap under the bar with anything that resembles speed, the harder I’m thrown, the faster I seem to come back. This could be proof that I’m still clinging to learned behavior, that I’m still seeking out situations which maximize my suffering. I like to believe, however, that this time around, I’m at least limiting my masochism to the CrossFit box.

I will concede that this is by default, not by choice. The beauty of any activity that corners you into playing self-defense so you don’t die is that it doesn’t leave you with much energy for remaining high-strung for the rest of the day. It just sort of beats you into acquiescence of whatever might have previously evoked some type of strong emotion. Completely drained of the majority of my will to live, I’ve been forced to stop fighting the things I can’t change. Exhaustion has led me not only to acceptance, but to exercise-induced Stockholm’s Syndrome, as, inexplicably, I’ve taught myself to love it. A few weeks ago, I stood in front of the whiteboard, staring at the WOD with a friend, as if I could change the numbers or exercises by glaring at them.

“Well, at least it’s box jumps, not burpee box jumps,” I said.

“So basically,” my friend said, “you’re saying that since coach isn’t going to kill you, you’re okay with him punching you repeatedly in the face.”

This probably isn’t the form of acceptance they talk about in therapy. You’re probably supposed to choose to accept things rather than be cornered, then beaten, into it. Sometimes, however, the amount of bullshit you’ve allowed yourself to get away with dictates that nothing else is really going to work.

It doesn’t seem like much, but I’m going to go ahead and call that progress.