From chronic pain to compassion – a journey of self-acceptance

From chronic pain to compassion -  journey of self-acceptanceBack in what now seems like a lifetime ago – 2003 – I was lucky enough to be travelling through India. Although I had no way of knowing at the time, that trip would change my life forever. But not in the way you might expect.

After cleaning my teeth with water from a Mumbai tap – an act, ironically, so innocent and unremarkable in its dailiness – I became severely ill, overwhelmed with uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea.

My then boyfriend and I managed to make it to Goa where I spent two months in hospital. Unable to hold down solid food, I lost two and a half stone in eight weeks. It transpired that a water-born parasite – which I came to call Keith – entered my gut and, as a doctor explained, trashed the place. I was prescribed incredibly strong antibiotics designed to flush Keith out which I had to take constantly; for two months I consumed medication all the time, and it wreaked havoc with my insides.

By the time I got back to Bristol digestion had become hugely problematic. Everything I ate caused me pain and the anxiety that developed around that most basic human need was immense. I was signed off work for six months, bed-ridden and in agony most days.

I had tests upon tests upon tests and tried treatments of all kinds, none of which ever explained what was happening to me or alleviated my symptoms. It was devastating. I was in chronic pain but no one could tell me why, what to do to make it stop or, worst of all, if it ever would.

Eventually I was told by a doctor that I had post-infectious Irritable Bowel Syndrome and that this was something I just had to manage. Those words, “You just need to manage it,” delivered by someone in a position of authority, landed like a punch. The blow left me reeling.

So this was was my life now. It was like the person I’d been before India no longer existed. I left her in Mumbai and now I was Sophie Fagan, sufferer of chronic pain, carrier of Keith-related damage, continuously reliving a life-changing trauma. I didn’t know where my pain stopped and I began; we became one and the same. Worse still, I felt I had to wear a mask of bravery, to hide my fear and desperation from a world that still wanted me to be the Sophie it knew and had expectations of. I was afraid, overwhelmed with loneliness.

And then I started training as a holistic massage therapist and something began to shift. As I embarked on the journey that led me to where I am today, I came to understand the importance of self-care and compassion and the path I was taking through chronic pain began to change direction.

Receiving massage is an integral part of training and I found the experience of nurturing touch calmed both me and my pain right down, like someone had reduced the volume on my symptoms. I was able to reconnect with my body in a different, more positive way. I saw that my body could be a space for relaxation, not just the vehicle for trauma and chronic pain I felt it had become.

On a physiological level a cascade of changes happen in the body when calming, ‘feel good’ hormones are released into your system. Your breathing pattern changes, muscles that hold tension you may not even know they’re holding learn to relax and let go. This is a powerful feeling, especially when, as is the case for many sufferers of chronic pain, your body is always holding on, always in fight, flight or protection mode, waiting for the next wave of pain or even worse, resigned to its constancy.

Massage can be a way to give your body a break and take a holiday from your pain. Massage can say to your body, It’s OK, you don’t have to run now, you can relax and just be, your pain is not all that you are.

As a therapist I treat many clients who suffer from chronic pain and it’s an honour to help them reconnect with themselves in this way. With me they don’t have to cope, they can leave their masks at the door. I can meet them where they’re at and allow them some precious time and space in which to simply breathe and be.

Finding strength in vulnerablityIf you or anyone you know suffers from chronic pain and would like to find out more about holistic massage then please feel free to get in touch. Remember that you’re not alone and you don’t have to suffer in silence.

With love, Sophie. X

Bringing low cost wellbeing to Bristol this summer

Sophie Fagan and BCMB bring wellbeing to BristolAfter a wet and windy winter the summer has finally arrived. Hooray! For me and Bristol College of Massage and Bodywork (BCMB) – where my practice is based and I work as a member of the college teaching team – this means a fast approaching events and festival season.

BCMB’s Events Team first came together for Bristol Harbour Festival 2013 as part of Happy City, a national project that aims to improve the nation’s happiness. Headed up by me – now also BCMB’s Events Team and Community Outreach Co-ordinator – a group of passionate and highly trained volunteers went down to the waterfront fiesta to help spread happiness through nurturing touch at low cost prices.

On that first outing we weren’t sure how it would go. Most people go to Harbour Festival to admire tall ships, boats and a full, vibrant harbour. Would they be as interested in massage? Well as it turned out, yes. Not only were we fully booked by noon on both days but throughout the course of the weekend we were asked over and over again, “Where can I get this on a regular basis?”

It seemed we had tapped into a genuine need for something. As people experienced their first massage in either a long time or (more often that not) for the first time, they were incredibly moved by it. They became alive to its potential for healing, for allowing them to connect with themselves in a new or forgotten way. They realised they needed some TLC, a rare and precious space where their busy worlds receded and for a short while they could put themselves in someone else’s hands, relinquish responsibility and just ‘be’. It was a real light bulb moment for BCMB. We realised that Bristol was crying out for high quality, low cost massage and we were in the best place to provide it.

BCMB has long been established as an authority on massage training (people come from all over the country to take part in our professional training courses) but at that point the college didn’t have a permanent premises to work from and would hire spaces as and when needed. Harbour Festival 2013 highlighted the potential for a new way of working. Soon afterwards the college took the leap and set up a permanent shop on Pembroke Road in Clifton. For the first time BCMB had a home of its own, a space in which – amongst other things – it could set up weekly, low cost treatment clinics.

Our treatment clinics are mutually beneficial and offer something for everyone. You can help a new student improve their technique by booking a practice session for just £10 an hour or you can pay £20 for a graduate looking to gain more experience. We also offer low cost remedial and sports massage clinics and practitioner clinics. All treatments take place in a communal teaching room separated by screens to ensure your privacy and comfort.

It’s a sad fact that a lot of the time we only start to look after ourselves once discomfort – be it poor sleep, muscular tension, stress, anxiety or whatever – becomes unmanageable. Low cost clinics offer people the opportunity to weave regular, preventative self-care into their lives more readily. Visit the BCMB website for more details on clinic treatments, prices and availability.

I love everything about our low cost clinics and community outreach work. My new Event Team and Community Outreach Co-ordinator role continually reminds of how special massage (in fact anything that promotes overall wellbeing) is, especially when introducing it to people for the first time.

I love working in vibrant settings where people are more willing to shed the norm and try something new. A busy mum might never find the time in her daily life to stop and receive a massage but at a free event or a festival she can walk past with her kids and think, “Perhaps I could give that a try…”

Bringing happiness to Harbour Festival through low cost massage

Spreading happiness at Harbour Festival 2013 was a light bulb moment for BCMB

And it’s not just busy mums, or even just massage. As a passionate advocate of accessible wellbeing it’s wonderful to be part of events, festivals and clinics that offer anyone from any walk of life the opportunity to access some kind of self-care. I’m on a mission to bring it to the world!

I used to run free early morning Tai Chi sessions in Queen Square because I wanted the beautiful people of Bristol to start their days in a positive frame of mind, to go about their business feeling calm, connected and confident about where they were at. However you choose to engage with it, your wellbeing is important.

If you’d like to find out more visit the BCMB website, like the BCMB Facebook page (you can also like my own page) or join our Massage Clinics group for the latest on special offers, availability and to book your place. You can also come and see us at Bristol Harbour Festival 2015 on 18 – 19 July, Redfest on 1 August or Picnic in the Park on 6 September.

And for anyone heading to Glastonbury this year, I’ll see you there! Look out for me at the West Holts Stage where I’ll be working backstage with Massage on the Spot, spreading the good massage word once again.

Back in the saddle after a break

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I’m back! After four months of rehabilitation, four months away from the massage table, I was given the ‘all clear’ by my Physiotherapist last week. I was, and still am, thrilled at the news. Massage really is a cornerstone of my life, so much more than just a job. I missed it immensely and without it I felt imbalanced, wonky, like a building on rocky foundations.

This four month break has taught me so much, about myself, about my job and the unique space it holds in my life, about the people I surround myself with. In this post I’d like to share some of that with you, starting with my relationship with massage.

Before I got the all clear I decided to test the water by offering some of my friends a shorter, more informal treatment. This would help me to see what my injured arm could and couldn’t withstand in an environment where I knew I could be honest and stop if I needed to.
Stepping back into the therapeutic space and my role as Massage Therapist was a revelation; I felt I’d been hit by lightning. When I first laid my hands on a friend, before I had even removed the drape, I said to myself, “Wow, this is so special!”

I was overwhelmed by how right it felt, how much I had missed sharing that space with people, how much I need it in my life. I felt a physical rush of energy and my eyes filled with tears. I was back where I belonged, just like coming home after a long trip away. Breaking my wrist has been many blessings in disguise but allowing me to fall in love with my vocation again is perhaps the biggest, most well disguised blessing of all. I am so excited about the road ahead, about returning to my practice with a renewed love and passion for what I do. Who knew a bike accident could be such a gift?

All that said my body is still recovering and I need to respect that so I’m doing a phased return – it will be a little while yet until I’m working the hours I worked before. As a part of this gradual reintroduction my Physiotherapist suggested treating only certain people, those that I knew would be less strenuous for me and my arm. This brought to light another lesson learned, well, reminded of anyway; partnership and collaboration are crucial to the way I work.

When someone comes to me for a treatment we decide together what that treatment will entail. I can’t predict what a client will bring with them through the door and even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to say for certain how their treatment would go because we reach that decision mutually. A poignant and timely reminder then that the best massage comes from working in the moment and reacting to the ‘now’ mindfully and with compassion.

And of course that doesn’t just apply to massage. Another important lesson I’ve learned is the value of self-care. My hands and arms are my ‘tools’. I need them to do a job that I love, that is my passion. I will now be more mindful of this and ensure that, whether through meditation, exercise or whatever feels right for me at the time, I look after myself and my tools. I ask you to consider doing the same, whatever your tools may be.

A tool doesn’t have to be something as obvious as a massage therapist’s hands, it can be anything you rely on to do what you need to do each day. What steps do you take to ensure your own self-care? Are you getting enough sleep? Eating well? Do you allow yourself to ‘switch off’ and take stock of how you’re really feeling? As much as we all forget it at times, we need to look after ourselves, take care as we go about our business. Although a blessing in so many ways I was reminded of this the hard way. I wish you a more straightforward path to that realisation.

Last but far from least is the most humbling lesson of all. I am blessed to be surrounded by the unconditional love, support and loyalty of so many wonderful people. My life is enriched by a large and compassionate network of human beings, all of whom helped me throughout my rehabilitation and gave me strength when I needed it most. My family, my friends, my colleagues and my clients all kept me afloat in one way or another. I am forever grateful and owe a huge part of my recovery to them.

Finding strength in vulnerability

“We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.” – Ernest Hemmingway

I had an accident recently. On a windy January afternoon I came off my bike and broke my fall with my left arm, which also broke as I landed. As I was rushed off to the Bristol Royal Infirmary in the back of an ambulance, afraid and in pain, I couldn’t (and didn’t) want to believe what had just happened. I’m a Massage Therapist. I earn a living with my hands and arms. I thought, “What am I going to do?”

A contributing factor to my panic was the fact that this had happened before. In 2012, while visiting Sri Lanka, I broke a bone in my right arm and (just like this time round) had to have surgery to realign it before it could begin to heal.

Although that break was a clean one, and far more straightforward to mend than the one I am currently faced with, I became entirely disconnected with that part of my body. It was like falling out with an old friend, replacing kinship with a wall of silence. I couldn’t look at it. I wouldn’t let anyone touch it for months. I felt ashamed, resentful, let down, as if I were fundamentally broken somehow, not just a bone in my right arm.

This time the fracture is more complicated – I have broken a number of bones in my wrist – but despite or perhaps because of this, my journey through it has been very different. A few weeks ago, when the nurse who was caring for me removed my post-surgery cast and left me to be alone for a while, my reflex reaction was to turn away. Just like before I didn’t want to look, I didn’t want to acknowledge. But after a while of sitting with it, just me and my arm, a voice inside said, “You need to care for yourself. You need to become your own healer.”

So I looked.

The wound was raw, tender and laced with visible stitches. But I didn’t feel any of the things I had felt when this happened three years ago. Instead, I felt compassion and love for my arm and what it had been through, what we had both been through.

I placed my right hand over the break and held it for a moment. With this simple action I was able to accept my vulnerability and feel both broken and supported at the same time. I cried, but my tears came from a different place. I said to myself out loud, “It’s OK. You’re going to be OK.”

This was the first step on a new path for me, one of acceptance and of letting go of the need be in control. Before my accident I carried a book of mindfulness around in my bag but I’d never once opened it. Always busy and rushing around, promising myself tomorrow, or the day after that. Maybe it was the months of being off work stretching ahead, or it was simply the right time, or both, but soon after that initial cast was removed I opened the book.

Practicing mindfulness has been a revelation and the source of so much positivity and peace. If you’d have told me three months ago that a broken wrist would bring me positivity and peace, I would never have believed you. But now I think that being afforded this time to stop, reflect, appreciate and heal has been a gift. I have learned so much about acceptance and self-care, a rare and genuine blessing.


I am signed off until April and will start physiotherapy soon, so I still have some healing to do. But when I’m working again I will draw on these recent experiences in my practice, because we all have broken bits from time to time and by accepting those bits and the vulnerabilities they carry, by turning to face them instead of looking away, we can become so much stronger.

Caring for carers

BCMB_SOPH-43Hello and a Happy New Year to you! I hope you enjoyed the festive season. Now that it’s 2015 I’ve found myself reflecting (as we all tend to do after the holidays) on the years gone by and the year ahead, and I’d like to share with you something I’ve been thinking about.

When I was a student with BCMB (Bristol College of Massage and Bodywork), training for my Holistic Massage Diploma, I had to set up a client study group. The purpose of the group was to research a particular demographic in order to develop advice and best practice for other therapists.

I chose to study professional carers, people who made their living by looking after other people. I worked with nurses, mental health practitioners and social workers. Although their average days looked different they all had something in common; because they were used to doing the caring, they were a little less familiar with a space in which they were being cared for.

This showed itself in lots of different ways, from the initial consultation where they would struggle to let their guard down and say what was really going on, how they were really feeling (“Me? Oh I’m fine, can’t complain”), to more physical symptoms like muscular strains and tension.

They often said they had difficulty sleeping or properly ‘switching off’ from work and I noticed during their early treatments that they found it hard to fully relax their bodies, as though they were still holding on to something, perhaps the responsibility of making sure that someone else was OK.

The more I worked with this group the more I realised that many of them had forgotten how to look after themselves, so accustomed were they to putting the needs of others first. But I also found that, over time, they became more and more receptive to letting me in and to letting their guards down.

It was such an inspiration to witness this change because it takes real courage to be vulnerable, especially when you’re so used to being strong and holding the vulnerabilities of others. I was (and still am) honoured to offer a space where carers could leave their brave faces at the door and just be, just let it all go.

These training experiences have really informed my professional practice, which is why I now offer a 20% discount to professional carers. It’s all too easy to forget the importance of self-care, especially when you look after people on a daily basis. But taking good care of you is just as important as taking care of them, perhaps even more so.

Does any of this sound familiar? Perhaps you work in the health or care industry and struggle to find time and space for yourself, time to let yourself be looked after? Or maybe you know someone who fits the bill, someone who works hard for others and could really benefit from a bit of ‘me time’?

If so then please feel free to contact me; it would be my pleasure to offer a discounted treatment to a carer who deserves a break.