I Can Literally Feel Others' Pain, So I Became a Massage Therapist

Author: CC Hart


The summer after 4th grade, I spent hours in the front yard playing out episodes of Wonder Woman with my younger sister. We were enchanted by the new TV series, and we each wanted to be that marvelous creature, an icon of feminine brawn and beauty, who could communicate with animals and glide freely on currents of air. While we couldn't recreate her super-powers, my sister and I did fashion gauntlets from aluminum foil, and a peaked tiara complete with a red paper star. We ransacked our father's tool shed and stole a piece of rope to make a lariat. Then, we fought bitterly over which of us would be the villain and who would play the heroine we so adored.

One evening, when I'd captured the starring role, I chased the evil criminal across the grass, striving to ensnare her in my "lasso of truth." She tripped on a sprinkler, twisted her ankle, and fell face first on the lawn. As I watched a deep blue bruise form on my sister's foot, shocks of something akin to electricity shot from my hips to my heels. These sensations were painful, tangible, and for me, completely normal; they had been with me since my earliest memories. And while her sprain would recover in a matter of days, I still feel rays of pain down the back of my legs when I think of my sister's injury so many years ago.

I have a rare condition known as mirror-touch synesthesia. My vision and my tactile senses are entwined. At its most flagrant, visual images manifest in my body as synesthesia-for-pain, electric pangs that zip from my spine to my toes. This happens whenever I see a wound, a bruise, or blood. My synesthetic sensations can also be triggered by splints, syringes, and other medical implements. During my early childhood, my mother worked as a nurse on the surgical ward at our local hospital and kept bandage scissors in the pocket of her work smock. Those strange, angled shears gave me a familiar, scintillating ache each time I saw them. So did scalpels, hemostats, and oddly enough, blood-pressure cuffs.

As one might imagine, my synesthesia served as a serious impediment to a career in healthcare. My mother hoped I would follow her into nursing or a similar field, but I just couldn't negotiate the sensory overload. For me, hospitals and clinics are tortuous; they incapacitate me with pain sparked by my conflated senses of sight and touch. Despite my curiosity and keen interest in science, the obstacles to entering a medical vocation are neurologically insurmountable.

Fortunately, my mirror-touch pain is paired with the most lovely correlate, something so otherworldly, it sometimes feels like a virtue more befitting a superhero than a mere mortal. When I see my hand on another person, I feel my own skin glow, as if I'm drizzled in warm syrup. When I look at someone else, I sense the shape of their body within my own, the muscles and tendons, the ligaments, and bone. This mirrored proprioception often makes me move and feel in synchrony with other people's movements, which can be a bit twitchy and weird, unless I'm on the dance-floor.

Or giving a massage. I work as a certified massage therapist.

I never thought there was room for me in the healthcare professions with their numerous triggers for my synesthetic pain. But manual therapy nurtures every pleasurable aspect of my mirror-touch synesthesia. I literally get paid to touch people all day long, while my inner science-loving geek-girl runs wild.

A client came to see me recently, the day after the San Francisco Marathon. He was elated to have finished his first race of this distance, but limping. When he told me that he felt something "pop" near his foot as he ran the hills in The Presidio, I envisioned his Achilles tendon partially ruptured from its anchor, the calcaneus. That image stimulated a brief flash of synesthesia, and waves of stinging electricity shot down to my feet. For a moment as he spoke, it seemed as if his body was superimposed over my own, and I was acutely aware of my left leg, the soreness in hamstrings and gastrocs after a long run. But, when my client was on the massage table, and my hands glided over his ankle, I began to feel that luscious mirror-touch glow.

Over the course of our session, I used a variety of techniques to calm his ropey Achilles. Cross-friction strokes physically heated his skin and the underlying tendon while the sight of my fingers working made my own skin warm. I didn't get fatigued, even though I worked for 90 minutes on the densest tendon in the human body. When my client took his first steps after the treatment, his limp had diminished and his pain was greatly decreased. "You saved me," he said as he walked out my door.

The practice of manual therapy has been an excellent match for my unusual aptitudes. In my two decades in the field, I've reaped many benefits from a career that unites my interests and temperament. But, the true occupational asset is my aberrant brain, with its merging of visual and tactile sensibilities. Mirror-touch synesthesia weaves my proclivities so precisely with my vocation, it feels like I have massage therapist superpowers.