When Self-Care Friday Goes South
Since turning 40, I like to think I’ve been on top of my shit, health-wise. Name a check-up, I’ve had it. Last August alone I went to the dermatologist, my primary, the podiatrist, an acupuncturist and the dentist all in the same month. What can I say? I’m not prepared to let the wheels fall off this thing (aka: my body).
For the most part, I seem to be in tip-top shape. In fact, when I told my new primary (who was wearing a crop-top, btw), I was over 40 and insistent on taking care of everything, she looked at me, shook her head and said, “41? You’re a baby.”
“I am?” I asked demurely. Two years ago my 91-year-old granddad told me I was “still holding up pretty well”, which I interpreted as meaning I was definitely no longer a spring chicken. But if a medical professional deemed me youthful, who was I to argue?
Truthfully, the only part of me that really makes me feel old are my feet. My mind, body and spirit may still inspire GPs to call me a baby, but my feet could enroll in AARP right now. Over the last ten years my feet have suffered a bone spur, toenail fungus, big bunions, painful corns that bloom each autumn like chrysanthemums and a general lumpy shape that makes them unappealing in open-toed shoes. To top things off, after a long walk on a hot day in very flat sandals last summer, I also developed a gnarly case of plantar fascitis. I returned to my favorite foot guy, Dr. Kim on Ditmars, after a five-year hiatus to let him know I’d started hobbling out of bed each morning and wanted to cry after a long walk home. I told him I thought I had plantar fascitis.
“If you think you have plantar fascitis, you probably have plantar fascitis.” he said.
He took an x-ray, and lo and behold, I had plantar fascitis, made worse since I’d developed a nicely formed heel spur too. He recommended the following:
1) new shoes, preferably sneakers
2) custom –made orthotics (to the tune of $600)—I opted for the $55 slip-ins sold by his receptionist
3) a cortisone shot (hold me, rock me, love me)
4) a funky physical therapy tool called a slant board, which basically looks like an inverted taco and helps you stretch your calf muscles. ( I bought this one on amazon, and stand on it every night. I like to pretend it’s a surfboard which makes me feel more cool).
I asked him if he thought acupuncture would be effective, and of course he said no. Rebel that I am, later that day I started searching yelp for my new best friend in Eastern medicine. My grad school bestie/health guru JW referred me to an amazing acupuncturist in the city who charged $250 but healed my aching neck in only one visit. I loved her, but needed a local option who charged Queens prices.
My first acupuncture session was the Friday before Labor Day. I was still working at the clinic then, and decided to take a mental health day for myself, since history had proven working that day was completely fruitless, as most of my clients were more interested in grilling weenies in the park than attending their therapy appointment. The acupuncturist’s name was Galina. She spoke with a beautiful Russian accent, had feathery blonde hair and wore the kind of drapey linen separates favored by spiritual healers and Chico’s employees.
I’m typically not a fan of any activity that requires stripping down to underpants in front of a stranger, but Galina had a way of putting me at ease. She congratulated me for sleeping eight hours each night and told me I seemed like a happy, cheerful person, which is mostly true. She also told me I had very nicely padded palms, which I’d always suspected but never had confirmed.
She began poking the slender needles into my scalp and hands and calf muscles, then I paced the room in my underwear to monitor any potential improvement on my foot. Next, she had me lay back down on the table, draped a blanket over my belly and left me in the room for 30 minutes to relax, heal and dream of non-orthopedic footwear. When the session was over, I felt calm and serene and buoyantly hopeful. It was my first of six sessions, and I was very excited about my journey toward better foot health.
*Spoiler alert… my podiatrist was right. Acupuncture didn’t do squat for my plantar fascitis.
It felt so good to indulge in taking care of myself, that I decided to keep the party going. I walked over to 30th Avenue and treated myself to a fresh poke’ bowl, then meandered a few blocks up to the small Indian salon where I’ve gotten my eyebrows threaded three times for a very budget-friendly $6.75.
I decided to really go all out that day and spring for the $50 “herbal facial”. I’d never gotten a facial treatment there, but they’d plucked out my errant hairs in a way I found appealing and respectful, so I thought I’d take a swing at their skincare.
I’ve only had a few facials in my life, and the best one was last May, when I traveled to Houston to whisk my mother to a Tuscan retreat just off Westheimer. It felt sorta funny parking the car in front of an American business designed to resemble an Italian villa. But the place was wonderful, complete with a winding staircase and an elegant locker room and dark lounging areas where very calm ladies floated around in bathrobes and slippers drinking cucumber water and caffeine-free tea. Outside there were fountains and a small pool surrounded by gigantic terracotta pots and pointy landscaped plants. The person giving the facials was a licensed aesthetician and she squeezed so much gunk out of my pores my skin literally squeaked to the touch. It was an amazing experience that I didn’t want to end.
I hadn’t had another facial since then, and I guess I was long overdue because my upper eyelids had been super dry and flaky for weeks. I’d bought a new eye cream for an embarrassing sum of money to mediate the problem, which I’d eventually discover I was allergic to, making the problem worse.
First thing you should know if it wasn’t already apparent— my neighborhood salon does not look like a villa. The walls are painted a stark, nearly blinding shade of crisp white, punctuated by the kind of overhead lighting favored by chain drugstores. Customers are lined up one-by-one in rows of black office chairs, and their workers are mostly silent, completing each treatment in a way that could only be described as perfunctory.
I told the lady at the front desk that I needed to add some moisture around my eyes and she recommended the herbal facial, which also came with a bonus neck massage. She lead me to a small, dark room, where the only light beamed from a flickering candle. This room seemed much more peaceful and luxurious than the main cabin where women were getting plucked, and I felt almost special to be in it. I was very excited to continue my indulgent day of self-care, so I hopped on the table, shut my eyes and waited for further instruction.
She told me to take my shirt off so she could do a proper neck massage. I was game for anything that day, and wasted no time whipping off my tee and flinging it across the room into the general vicinity of my handbag.
“Wow,” she said, “most people are kind of careful with their clothes.”
“Eh, it’s a cheap shirt, “I said. “Plus, I’ve already spent my morning without any pants on so this seems like no big deal.” I realized afterward that leaving out any context for not wearing pants was probably a mistake.
I should have known this experience was going to be terrible by the way she removed my eye makeup. Two big globs of cold cream plopped like yogurt onto my closed lids, followed by a solid three minutes of feathery strokes from her limp little fingers. If you are also a contact lens wearer, you can understand how having someone rub your eyelids in concentric circles with cold gloppy goo might suck. Finally she wiped it away with a Kleenex. Then it was time to rub the same sticky crap all over my face. No care was made to avoid my ears, mouth, hairline or nostrils, which filled with cream and made it hard to breathe normally. It was like my face was the lowly bottom layer of a tiered cake, and it didn’t matter how carefully she frosted me.
Again, she wiped the cream off with a tissue, then stabbed at my nose and cheeks with a pointy tool, I guess in some effort to extract some bullshit from my pores. She had a heat lamp posed over my face with it cranked up to high, and my bra-covered chest began to sweat so much, I pulled down the towel.
This was apparently her cue to begin the neck massage, which started at my shoulders but quickly migrated to just above my nipples. As I’m recalling this, the fact that I’m writing nipples in a paragraph about a facial just seems off to me. Then came the cream, cold and sticky, all over my neck and décolletage. There was no actual therapeutic pressure applied; she just kept smearing the cream around in circles, then instructed me to flip over so she could do my back too. It was then that I realized this person had not been trained in either massage therapy or cosmetic arts of any kind, and I began to feel like Joey in Friends when he finally questions the way his tailor measures pants.
Ten minutes into my rubdown I ask the lady if we’re ever going to get back to my face, because if I wanted a semi-erotic massage I could get that at home for free. She let me know she was done with my face, and told me I could wash the rest of the cream off in the sink if I wanted to. She flipped on the lights and left the room.
In the harsh light, I came to grips with what had just happened. A nauseating lime green was painted on the walls, and one sad sprig of bamboo did its best to look grand in a plastic cup filled with rocks. A small wall shelf showcased the product of choice for their facials—enormous tubs of Queen Helene face cream—which every woman will recognize as the very cheapest beauty product available at every American drugstore.
I took a glance at myself in the mirror under fluorescent lighting. It should be noted that I almost never emerge from my home bare-faced, as I have a fairly blotchy skin tone and the kinds of deep under-eye circles you usually only see on internment camp survivors with no access to concealer or mothers of newborn children. Following a good facial, your skin glows pink with health. This was clearly a bad facial, and I looked like I’d just taken a long walk through a drive-through car wash, lathered and foamed up only to be slapped around with an abrasive brush and rinsed off with a hose.
I gathered my pride and left the room to pay for my “service”. I walked up to the counter with my head down.
“Oh, you look so fresh,” said the woman at the counter. Clearly, she had been trained in the fine arts of diplomacy and roguish deception.
I did not look fresh. My skin was red and angry, scars from old zits blinking like stoplights. My eyelids were pink and wrinkled, even more chafed and irritated than before I came in. Without the protection of a headband or towel, my hairline was coated with the sticky residue of that ill-advised Queen Helene. I looked like I’d just emerged from the womb.
It occurred to me then that my general practitioner had been right.
I’m 41. And just a baby.