My sister's Godmother was a diminutive lady with small, dainty hands that matched her petite frame. Maybe that is why she took an interest in my hands .....although I really don't know why.
My earliest memories of my hands are when as a young girl we would visit this lady whose name was Mona Kelly. Mona's mother and my father were great friends, both being active and staunch members of the Australian Labor Party.
I remember sitting opposite Mona at the narrow oblong table which was invariably covered with a lace tablecloth and set with lovely china and silver serving utensils. This table was in the centre of their tiny sitting room of their West Hobart cottage.
She always held my hands in this beautifully gentle, loving and tender manner. Back then I didn't think that I took a great deal of notice, but now my memory tells me that this attention and admiration of my hands made me feel very special.
Years later, these same beautiful, but now grown up hands fell victim to the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis. I first developed this disease when I was 11 years old, not long after finding out the frightening and shocking news that my father was dying, however, it wasn't until I was nineteen that my hands bore the brunt of this dreadful disease.
When this happened my fingers became red, hot, swollen and at times useless and they with my wrists were excruciatingly painful. I recall describing the pain as exquisite; this was not meant to describe a pleasant experience but my way of describing the pain's acuteness or keenness. It felt as if there were millions of ants or termites inside gnawing away at my tissue and bone. There was no escape from this.
There were times when my hands were so swollen, painful and weak that I had difficulty dressing myself; holding a toothbrush; using cutlery; writing with a pen, although I managed to get around that by writing letters using a typewriter, typing with one or two fingers. My finger joints became thicker and knotted and my once beautiful, slender, long fingers took on a new unwelcome misshapen appearance.
I was on sick leave for thirteen and a half months from the hospital where I was in my third year of general nurse training. On return to work my hands continued to be afflicted with arthritis, causing further inflammation and swelling in my fingers, knuckles and wrists. At one stage I had my left hand and wrist immobilised in a plaster cast in an attempt to reduce the pain. On more than one occasion I felt like chopping off these `bloody hands of mine' in order to escape the torment I was experiencing. Custom-made splints were constructed for wearing overnight to reduce and prevent further deformity and I had `working splints' for wearing in the daytime.
As a consequence to all of this I developed an intensely negative relationship with my body and in particular with my hands. I felt angry and resentful for the pain and suffering and for the impact that this disease was having on my life.
Now when I think about it, I realise that our hands fulfil a crucial role in our lives. Not only do we use our hands in every aspect of daily living but it is with our hands that we greet the world. When babies we tentatively explore our world through touch and later as adults we use our hands to greet and to comfort one another. Womens' hands in particular are viewed as a sign of attractiveness and beauty and so it is not surprising that we develop a relationship with our hands that involves much vanity.
However to return to my story, I continued along this negative path of thinking for many years, becoming increasingly detached and alienated from my body and hands to the extent that eventually my future looked abysmal and the present was just as woeful.
My finger joints had become thick and knotted and my fingers moved off to the outer edges of my hands in what is known as `ulnar deviation'. This process of destruction to my once beautiful hands had occurred in an insidious manner. I guess I did not allow myself to notice the changes, but every now and again I would catch a glimpse of my hands in the mirror and I would get a shock. I would feel devastated and appalled by the sight of these crippled, gnarled, `old ladys' hands' of mine. Even as I write this I am overcome with sadness and grief at these awful changes. My heart weeps for me at these memories.
1985 was the first turning point for me. This was when I realised that `like it or lump it', my body and my hands were the only body and hands that I would ever have and I could either choose to continue to relate negatively to myself or I could choose to explore accepting and loving my body. I chose the latter when I determined that my body's auto-immune system was doing what it considered was the right thing for me, although was misguided in mistaking its own tissue for foreign proteins. This heralded a major shift in my thinking and I began to send loving, appreciative thoughts to my hands and body.
This certainly was an improvement in my attitude but nonetheless as the years passed my hands became increasingly deformed and misshapen until to my dismay and horror I found I could not clap them properly, as I could not put palm to palm together to make a sound. This was deeply embarrassing and mortifying to me and I experienced a profound sense of grief in not being able to clap my hands in appreciation for some event and for not being able to clap along to music. To clap one's hands is pivotal to living life expressively.
My hands had lost their expressiveness and their aliveness. For example, at the time I had a clock-radio with a sensor pad on the top which would turn the radio off when touched. This sensor pad had not worked for a long time and I'd presumed that it was defective. To counter the problem I would get out of bed and place my foot on the ground or I would reach back and grab one of the bars of my brass bed to create a current to activate this sensor pad.
I did not realise the implications of this until 1991 when I experienced the second turning point in the recovery of my hands. This occurred during Somatic Psychotherapy training which involved learning different forms of bodywork. One weekend in this training was to do with learning Bio-dynamic Massage, which is a form of bodywork that aims to free up the energy flow in a persons body. As participants we were required to work on one another. Special gentle attention is given to the joints as these are seen as `narrowings' where energy can be blocked. My hands received more attention and nurturing at this weekend than they'd received since my childhood.
That night, to my surprise and to my delight, I found that the sensor pad on my clock/radio (my new biofeedback machine!) responded to my touch immediately and turned the radio off. More importantly that night I had a vivid and profound dream. In this dream were my hands, they were my hands from my childhood; there they were looking beautiful with their long fine fingers and beautiful finger nails; and in this dream it came to me that the memory and intelligence of my hands as they used to be had been reawakened.
By the end of the weekend training my hands had significantly flattened out at the knuckles and I could clap them again. This was a powerful experience for me and it signified the emergence of hope and excitement at the possibilities for the recovery of my hands in ways that the medical profession had never been able to offer.
It is now 1994 and I am 44 years old. Since that weekend in 1991 my hands have improved dramatically. I have continued studying a range of bodywork modalities including Swedish Massage, Reiki and Ortho-Bionomy. I regularly work on my hands utilizing techniques specific to Ortho-Bionomy. The results are heartening.
These hands of mine have turned full circle. They have experienced such suffering and now they have a gentleness and sensitivity which has grown out of this very suffering. I now have a part-time Private Practice in which I combine counselling with bodywork. Different clients have commented on the gentleness and softness of my hands, likening them to the feel of a baby's hands. Others have commented on the warmth and the soothing energy that moves through them. Two days ago whilst working on a clients hands, she looked up and said `goodness, where did you learn to work on hands?' And of course the answer to her question is contained in this story.
My fingers still deviate to the sides of my hands, but the swelling and much of the thickening in the joints and knuckles has disappeared. My fingers seem longer and more slender looking and they have greater flexibility than previously.
April 1994 ©