I graduated with a BS in Biology and Biochemistry, and an MS in Biophysics. Honestly, my first years out of college were some of the most exciting and productive times of my life. For the next two decades, I worked on the development of several HIV drugs that revolutionized treatment regimens and drastically improved quality of life for HIV sufferers. I was also able to assist in developing several antiviral treatments for influenza and hepatitis. It was a crucial time in the fight against HIV and I felt truly fortunate to not only help accelerate the development of various therapies but to work directly with activist groups like ACT UP while developing clinical trial designs accepted by the community. From that work, I’m proud to say we now have a “cure” for Hep C which has killed millions.
Unfortunately, I was also waging another battle – with my own body. The combination of being on my feet for long hours combined with the emotional intensity of the work and the timeline stressors left me in sometimes debilitating back pain. Most days the best I could do was manage it with ice-packs and anti-inflammatories. Then every few years I’d go to my surgeon and plead that he operate – I was at the point where I would’ve gladly sacrificed mobility to be pain-free. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, but he basically told me I was surviving and to just go back to PT.
I had been active all throughout college and even after graduating before the pain became limiting, I loved running. I ran everything from 5 to 26.2 K's, and for several years averaged 100 miles a week – I even reached some pretty good times for an amateur. But over time, the pain and loss of mobility wore me out. Finally, I had to quit running – I switched to triathlons, then just cycling and swimming, and finally just swimming since it was the least impactful. I honestly thought I’d never return to running or cycling.
After a number of years, I left my position as a Senior Research Scientist to start my own Consulting Co. This allowed me to slow down the hectic pace of my previous schedule – I was also able to spend more time with my young son and give some thought to how I wanted my career and life to look going forward. But I still battled chronic pain that some days left me bedridden. Traditional approaches weren’t just failing me, they were hurting me. I simply wasn’t getting better. Pretty much out of desperation I saw an osteopath, more than anything simply hoping he might be able to prescribe a different pain management regiment. Being pain-free never crossed my mind as a viable alternative.
During our session he asked how long I'd been hurting, I replied: "I've had chronic back pain for 18 years". To this day I'll never forget his response - he looked at me genuinely surprised and said, “Well, that’s strange”. And for the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt hope. No one had ever said anything like that. I asked what he meant, he said: "Well, everything heals, usually in 4 to 12 weeks max, so if this has been going on for 18 years, something’s not being answered - why are you in pain?”
His comment sent me on a journey that changed my life. Starting with my back. Shortly thereafter my surgeon said the best thing I could do was to exercise as much as possible to encourage functionality in my spine. So much for trying to hold myself together all day long, like a board – an exhausting exercise that resulted in limited spinal/rib mobility. Essentially prolonged inactivity had left my back and spine in a “stuck” position.
I started to modify my workouts, ramping them up in intensity and degree of mobility. And slowly but surely, my health started changing. That’s when I also turned to Rolfing and found a long-term relief I never thought I’d have. Simultaneously, my son was growing up and I became very involved in youth athletics. I was traveling with various teams, coaching and working on youth non-profits over the next 10 years. As my son moved to playing at the college level, I spent a lot of time sitting in various basketball arenas watching the young men and women play and wondering what was next for me professionally.
And that’s when it came to me – Rolfing. I jumped at the thought. I completed a 10-series and was off to school within 6 months, then started my practice at the ripe young age of 51. I had the usual fears of starting my own business and labored through the foreign landscape of website design, legislative requirements and setting up a home office/studio. But within a year things were starting to move pretty briskly. My main recruiting ground initially (and still is today) comes from working and training with others in the gym, on bikes or in the water. At that time I was in the San Francisco Bay Area and found I could actually do something I love and surprisingly make a decent living for a very expensive area.
I began to discover the combination of receiving Rolfing SI and gaining a better understanding of how our body works allowed me to return to doing everything I loved: running, biking, and swimming. The tonic function concept (Hubert Godard and others) is still a critical part of my practice. I find it sets clients on an entirely new pathway from the traditional strategy of just working on strengthening and stretching. Movement is also key to my practice. I feel that I can have some impact through hands-on work, but if I don’t bring new ideas on “How to move” and “How to perceive movement”, my efforts won’t result in sustained changes.
I love my practice - which just seems to flow so easily. And I see my story repeating itself in clients that (like me not that long ago) often arrive feeling hopeless, so the chance to offer my own experience, coupled with potentially helpful treatment is truly gratifying. My common refrain is “I truly believe that most of us don’t need to live in chronic pain - we just need to find the pathway(s) out of pain”. Most of my science colleagues, by the way, thought it was a crazy move from Senior Research Scientist to a Rolfer. I was constantly asked if I could make enough income to survive doing this “Hands-on” work. Sure, I don’t have some of the perks of a “regular job” but by year three of my business, I was generating the same income I did while in research. What you can’t put a price on is being with people one on one and helping them. This was another major incentive for leaving my research position where I rarely met the people I was trying to help. I love running my own business and I appreciate its inherent freedoms. That perspective has always reinforced for me what a great investment it was to attend the DIRI and become a Rolfer and then a Certified Advanced Rolfer. Going forward I envision developing a “practice building workshop”, especially for new graduates to ensure they successfully launch their own careers. If I could and did, do it – I know anyone can.
Now that I’ve “recovered” I’m fully back to my favorite activities like running, cycling, Pilates and swimming. I’ve even added “cold water swimming”, it’s like the Polar Bear Club – but once we jump in, we keep going! I’ve completed numerous races from Alcatraz to San Francisco – and have since moved to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound where I’m part of a cold-water swimmers club of friends. We swim between islands, under the moon on night swims and yes, side by side with whales.
I’m happy to have my own business and be involved in something that allows me to help others. There’s a lot of people who’ve helped along the way and it hasn’t been an easy journey – and there’s no doubt I certainly have the DIRI, DIRI faculty and our SI community for making it possible to be where I am today – able to wake up without pain each day and live the life I want and, love.
To learn more about Rich Ennis, please click here to visit his website.