I love the stories about personal health problems and facing pain, finally resolved by Structural Integration. They give relatable answers to the “why did you become a Rolfer?” question.
But my own story is different. There was no powerful calling, just a clear idea of what I didn’t want. I did not become a Rolfer after having my own pain treated, just by avoiding discomfort.
We have to begin at the end of the “Gymnasium” in Germany, the higher-education branch that includes what would be Junior College here. After almost 13 years of mostly enjoying school, I was now expected to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I had no powerful inspiration and I surely didn’t want to do something “safe”. I felt aimless and was baffled by how easily my classmates knew they wanted to study art or archeology, medicine or music. And those were the ones I could relate to.
Others were going to do banking or business administration, and showed interest only in a steady paycheck. I had no understanding for that as a value. It seemed such a waste of a young life! The only thing that was clear to me was that I could not sit in an office five days a week, eight hours a day. And I had to do something meaningful with people. I loved teaching, and my favorite jobs had involved tutoring, but going through the extensive training and difficult life of a schoolteacher didn't appeal to me, either.
I despised most authority at the time. If a rank or position didn't seem earned through expertise and personal growth, I couldn't obey orders. Going for an MD involved working in hospitals under a strict hierarchy—that was out. Studying psychology seemed like a possibility, but it involved a lot of math and that turned me off as well. As did the requirements of excellent grades to get in quickly. In Germany most university classes are free, but there are long waiting periods if you don't have the necessary grades for popular subjects.
Innocently, naively, I believed that I should do something fun. Enjoy every day. Nothing that I’d just push myself through so I could retire comfortably. I didn’t really believe in going to work just to pay for a house and a car—I’d rather live without and look for meaning. I would have been ok continuing tutoring gigs, training dogs and horses, for the rest of my life, but my parents wanted me to have a career, and I hated disappointing them.
Growing up, my sister suffered from eczema and the cortisone cremes provided temporary relief at best. One day our mother took her to see a naturopath who used an odd treatment with colorful pieces of foil that got rid of the whole problem. I did some research and found an alternative career path that involved a private college comparable to acupuncture or chiropractic schools in the US.
Out of a disregard for the common choices, a desire to be different, and a fear of working in strictly hierarchical environments, I went to naturopathy school with a bunch of other misfits. Most of them were much older than me – and they had powerful stories about what brought them there. Pain and suffering, healed by traditional or obscure practitioners of herbal medicine and mysterious energies.
I loved learning. I was curious and fascinated, and in the beginning, I believed every anecdote, every mystical explanation for miracle healings my new classmates discussed.
Our school, on the other hand, placed the emphasis on western medical basics: anatomy and physiology, huge amounts of pathologies to memorize and diagnose, and only small introductions into the biggest treatment strategies like classical homeopathy, Chinese medicine, manual therapy (particularly from an osteopathic perspective), and chiropractic adjustments.
I liked that there were so many options. I didn’t have to get committed to one path—I could just stick to learning more, and eventually find a specialization, and then a second one if I got bored. I was terrified of boredom.
After graduating from college, I was not able to fully practice immediately. I had to wait for my license until my 25th birthday. But I could take the tests and oral examination with the state-appointed physician, who knew how to make it very, very hard.
While preparing for the exams I was also working at a chiropractor's office, mostly with manual therapy techniques and organizing his chaotic office. And I was going to school on weekends for my specialization in traditional Chinese medicine.
I found my own stories of suffering soon enough. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her liver. Because of my studies I knew what that meant, and I felt very alone in my knowledge – everybody else seemed to think she’s so strong, she’ll beat it. Sometimes I couldn’t stand that optimism. I’ve always liked statistics, and didn’t believe in miracles any longer.
But I did what had to, passed the state exams on the second try, got licensed, and happily added acupuncture treatments at the chiropractor's office where I had my own patients and more and more responsibilities. It was very rewarding to not only ease people's back and neck pain but also to improve intake procedures and reduce wait times. I found that making the framework comfortable and easy for patients and showing them how much I cared was very pleasing, as was my boss's increasing reliance on me.
Whenever my mother had rounds of difficult treatments, I would move back in with the family to help with my little stepbrother, and so of course I did the same when it was clear she was going to die, much later than anticipated, in 2002. She wanted to stay at home. That’s where my grandmother had been at her end, and we had long known it was what our mother wanted, too.
I left the comfortable job at the chiro's, left my housemates, and focused solely on my family. By now I was 27 and had become a protector, caregiver and emotional support to my stepbrother and my mother. But I had no idea how to protect myself from the pain and difficulty of the role I’d taken on. I didn’t know I needed protection. I had time, right? That was all I thought I needed.
We had some good times in the beginning of the end. We’d watch sappy TV shows until the evening news came on and my mother said, “that’s enough, shut it off, I don’t want these strangers in my living room”, and then I’d read to her from our favorite epic novels.
I slept with a baby monitor next to me, and my nights got interrupted more and more often. Every little sound startled me awake, I might be needed, so I jumped. I remember my mother’s weakening voice, calling for me by my first name, “Tania”. Sometimes I just imagined it, the calls permeated my dreams. I still got up, checked, lay back down, woke up again, checked, lay back down.
Making the difficult family situation bearable for my stepbrother became one of my greatest priorities. I didn’t care that I didn’t get any real rest. I had to be honest with him and provide as much stability as possible. He was only ten when I had to tell him that soon, his second mother would also die, just like the biological one he knew about, who had died when he was just a few weeks old.
I had some support from my sister but she had the full-time office job I never wanted. So I became the sole person in the house who helped everybody else deal with my mother’s dying. When her dearest friends came to say their goodbyes, I was the person they’d find afterwards. In my foggy memories there are all these middle-aged men and women, constantly collapsing in my arms, crying helplessly.
Much worse was seeing the strong, tall, gregarious woman we all loved reduced to a senselessly moaning shell. I don’t know whether she was still conscious. I hope not. My heart, and my mind, broke in those last two days. My sister stayed with her; I couldn’t. I sat in the yard and scratched my arms bloody.
I felt better when it was finally over. I had something to do now.
We had a beautiful memorial service and I gave a speech to invite everybody to our back yard for a celebration of life, as my mother had wanted. Everything, just how she said it should be. All our friends, neighbors, and relatives were there; we honored our mother’s life by having one of her typical summer parties. Children played in the yard with the dogs, all the grownups got drunk on Brazilian cocktails my ex-housemates prepared, “it’s as if she’s here” was said over and over.
And after that was also done, I crashed. I hardly did anything but smoke weed and tie my hair into dreadlocks for weeks. Scratch and stare. Have terrible fights with my boyfriend, then panic attacks.
Months later, because people kept asking for treatments, I rented a room from another naturopath who had been an old friend of my mother’s – and she became a mentor to me. But it turned out that she, too, was battling cancer, and soon I had to make the difficult phone call to her daughter, telling her she must come from NYC to Germany soon if she wanted to see her mother one last time. I couldn’t believe I had to have all these conversations again, just a year later. And that’s not even mentioning the other deaths around us, my uncle dying of a heart attack, my sister’s boyfriend hanging himself.
I was still trying to help provide a somewhat “normal” childhood for my brother. The fact that now he looks back at his early life with largely fond memories is something I’ll forever be proud of.
And somehow, I had a beginning practice as a physician, mostly working with people’s aches and pains and getting good results for grateful patients who were happy to refer me to others. Sometimes I felt confident, but mostly I couldn’t believe that I did anything worthwhile. I took care of people very cheaply, because they asked, not because I believed I had valuable skills. It was important for me to teach, to help my patients get in charge themselves.
To give better homework, I got certified in a big program for corrective exercises and taught several classes around town. But even though my patients were happy, my work increasingly frustrated me. I didn't know who would get better and why. I suspected it was mostly a placebo effect. Maybe it was the weather that had changed. My doubt in myself, my abilities, and what I had learned in various classes and continuing education grew over the years. And then my office mate died. Another friendship gone, another loved one I hadn’t helped at all.
The emotional toll of so much personal loss combined with the aggravation of not understanding the causes of people’s pain or healing had me very dissatisfied. My boyfriend, tired of the fights and my emotional unavailability, suggested maybe I should just do something different, somewhere else. So I threw myself into studying again – this time on various treatment modalities. I wanted to learn a comprehensive system, something that provided answers to the questions I encountered over and over again. I didn’t believe anything anymore.
My office mate had eaten live beetles at the end because that was supposed to heal terminal cancer! I was so tired of the charlatans.
Rolfing was the first thing I came across that really made sense. Manual therapy worked, I knew that, and in Germany it was the first thing prescribed for pain. Movement worked, of course I knew that. I fell in love with the simplicity of gravity as the ordering principle. And frankly, I liked the thought of having clients, not patients. Working together, approaching their situation as something that had a beginning and an end, appealed to me. We could change their patterns to what worked better, consistently. Results could last after treatments ended, even improve without further sessions. That meant no one had to depend on me.
So I became a Rolfer the same way I became a naturopath, by avoiding other possibilities that didn’t appeal enough.
Receiving Rolfing treatments for myself seemed unnecessary, it was just one more requirement like writing letters and essays to the Rolf Institute. I thought I had great body awareness already.
To my big surprise, everything in my body changed through the Ten Series. The way my foot hit the floor when getting out of bed was filled with sensation. Shifting my weight onto that foot, adding the other foot, flooded my mind with details of tension, tingling, strength, flexibility, in every little toe. I could use those toes, separately, and use the force of gravity to stand up!
Doing my standard exercises felt more thorough, more rewarding, than ever before, and it became a lot more effective. My body continued to gain grace, even after the sessions had ended.
This was what I wanted to share with clients: the potential for real, lasting change. I chose to do the training in the US, because the institute in Boulder was the one Dr. Rolf had founded and classes were in English at the European Institute as well. I was not confident of my English at the time and total immersion in the language seemed safer. Also, in my family it was normal to live elsewhere. My parents had met in Brazil.
Today I think I just wanted to be done with everything about my old life, including the continent, and the boyfriend.
It worked, too. I made new connections. I visited Florida, liked the winter, stayed and applied for a business-related visa.
Over time, I found and lost a wife in the US. I built a well-known business in Orlando. My involvement in the LGBT community led me to become the president of the "Pride Chamber", our chamber of commerce, and working tightly with other organizations and the city.
I learned to be a good, caring employer, and I had to rely heavily on my generous staff when I got seriously sick myself in 2016. I had been overworked for a while, but kept taking on more and more responsibilities, proving that I could do something valuable for others, when 49 innocent young people died in a shooting at a local club. The waves of trauma crashing through the whole city were hard to believe, especially since the public message was of so much love and unity. Yes, we were united in love and support. But we also kept falling apart. First the victims, then the survivors, then the first responders, then the people helping the helpers. We all developed PTSD symptoms.
There was the odd repeat of holding grieving people in my arms. I didn’t notice at first how familiar it felt. It brought flashbacks and panic attacks, nightmares.
I already had a chronic autoimmune disease, was in the middle of a divorce, and still finished my term as volunteer chamber president, was even doing well under a lot of public scrutiny. Again, the pain only showed up after the work was done, commitments completed, my term had officially ended, and I lost my mind a second time. My staff saved the business, our massage therapists do great work. Somehow I kept seeing clients a couple of days a week.
And during all this, my work as a Rolfer never stopped amazing me. It provided me a way to become a more whole, authentic person, to discover more joy in the simple fact of having a body, and best of all, to pass that along to others.
Rolfing Structural Integration is ingenious. Applying the Ten Series is simple enough that it can be done even while it seems impossible to function in life, and it is fascinating enough to never get boring. The idea of looking for the line of gravity through the body that had initially caught my attention still makes sense today.
Working with clients through their difficulties, watching them heal, stand up for themselves, find grounding and support, made it easier for me to take care of myself. I did, and I still do. I’m both more and less self-involved now. I find it easier to need others. I know I need love to survive, to thrive, and I’m not trying to do it all alone any longer. My aversion to do hard things when I was young seems comical to me now. And oh, did I really want a story of overcoming difficulties on my path to healing? I have more stories than I can ever use.
While going through the deepest shit it’s hard to appreciate the lessons within. It just sucks. I wouldn’t want anybody to feel how I sometimes felt, the naked despair and terrible, unending pain. Or the complete absence of all feeling, all desires. Looking back though, I know I have experiences that help me relate. Not only to clients—to every human I encounter.
All structures in the body, even the bones, definitely the brain, adapt to how they’re used. Using them in a more supportive way, finding ease in being, standing, walking, relating, helps us become more of who we already were.
And I’m still learning.