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My New Mental Health Hack Is a ‘Stroke’ of Genius

Stress and anxiety were messing with my mood, marriage and sleep. I knew massage would help relax my body — but I am shocked and thrilled at how well it quiets my mind.

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I’m what you call low maintenance. I don’t wear perfume. I buy economy-size hair conditioner from Costco. I wash my face with whatever bar of soap is melting beside the tub. I see my hairdresser only once a month and have had exactly two facials in my entire life.

But two months ago, I developed a pricey self-care habit that I really can’t afford to continue. Then again, I really can’t afford not to.

Sometime back in July, I stopped sleeping through the night. I began waking up at 3 a.m. and failing to fall back asleep. Some nights my mind raced with nervous thoughts — will my 95-year-old dad be OK now that my sister living closest to him is moving? Am I spending enough time with my sons now that I have a long commute and work late? Will my boss like the article I wrote? I simply couldn’t find my brain’s off switch. Surprising myself, I’d function fine at work the next day. But back at home, those two weeks of poor sleep took a toll.

In the evenings, low-energy me was quieter than usual. A couple times, I was irritable during normally pleasant interactions. Once, my husband started to share the latest tragic headline from an online news site, and I cut him off, telling him “I can’t hear that right now.” I regret that still. I could tell by the look in his eyes that it shut down our connection in that moment.

Being heard means more to Kelvin than so many of the other ways I show love and affection. I made a point after that to be a better listener no matter how tired I was.

My bedtime became earlier than our kids’ lights-out, especially since it was summer break for them. I’d hug them goodnight while they played video games before turning in. One night, I heard the guys playing a game with their dad and being joyfully, boyfully boisterous. I didn’t have the heart to shush them, so I put the pillow over my head.

I had to get my stress in check. Booking occasional 60-minute massages was something my girlfriends and I did when we were single, childless and had fun money. When the children came and while they were young, my spa-going lapsed for eight years. Massages after that were still rare — like that time my sister-in-law came to visit and Kelvin treated us both to a visit to a day spa he’d found. I can’t thank him enough for doing his research and checking reviews. No matter the therapist, male or female, or the type of treatment, the few and far-between sessions I’d had there since were great.

So, I booked a 90-minute Swedish — shelling out for the extra half hour because desperate times call for desperate measures. I figured it would help me loosen up. I was shocked, returning to the reception room, at how much it slowed me down. As I sat and sipped the requisite lymphatic-clearing ice water, I needed several minutes to reclaim the focus required to operate a motor vehicle.

Once that dreamy veil lifted, I realized I’d traded agitation for awareness, busyness for intention. But the surprising thing was, I stayed that way all week. Well, I booked another massage. And then another.

So, every Sunday afternoon for almost two months now, a guy twice my size and half my age comes into the treatment room, pours me a cup of green tea, then leaves me in the dimmed space with soothing spa music to relax. When Rodney returns, he holds a copper basin filled with sudsy warm water, scattered with rose petals. While my feet soak, he asks me about my stress level and any physical concerns. Next comes the full-body massage, a skillful 90-minute kneading that includes not one but three scalp massages. The therapist presses firmly on my shoulders, stretches my limbs and, most importantly, calms my storm-tossed brain waves into gentle swells that soon are lapping the shores of tranquility. That gentle wave thing never happened back when I booked 60-minute sessions. Could the extra treatment time be the key? Who knows? But I tip Rodney generously.

My sleep is good now, but my waking is also better. Usually I open my eyes before the alarm, relieved to see dawn breaking behind the Roman shade and the dreaded wee hours behind me. I have a little wake-up prayer of gratitude that I recite silently. Those words come to me now before I’m conscious of retrieving them.

My marriage is better, too. After my massage appointment, my husband and I often have a gym date, or a Sunday drive. Being in that easy headspace creates a nice vibe. There is more of “me” open and present to share with him.

So, back to what I can and can’t afford. Weekly car wash? Nah. It’ll rain. Regular pedicures? There’s a reason I was in pumps instead of sandals most of the summer. New handbag? Just had the straps repaired on the old ones.

Luxuriously indulgent massage? Well, pampering may seem a discretionary expense, but wellness is a necessity. It’s a pricey purchase — but one I rest easy about making.

Take good care of yourself, Sis. We deserve to be happy.

XOXO — Claire