Elite, expensive massage training Chapter 4 of my odd success story

This is the 4th chapter of my book-in-progress about the unusual fate of my massage therapy career, and the nutty transition to making decent money as a writer. Start with the introduction.

After failing spectacularly at writing, business, Amway, farming, love, and more, I hit bottom at nearly terminal velocity — but then lucked out with a decent job, pulled out of my tailspin surprisingly quickly, and moved to Vernon, BC, in Canada’s Okanagan Valley, to start my training as, of all things, a massage therapist. A good day job was the first clear step in my big comeback as a writer, although it would be many years yet before I knew it.

The Okanagan is a beautiful place in the spring: the hills are green and tempting for a few weeks. But then it turns insufferably hot in the summer, and moves on to bleak and tedious in the fall and winter. Thanks to the phenomenon of winter “valley fog,” this area well-known for sunshine actually has fewer sunny days per year than Vancouver (which is one of the rainiest big cities in the world).

The massage school I chose was in Vernon, a small town. Vernon was (and probably still is) an economically depressed place, and home to more churches per capita than anywhere else in the country — Canada’s Bible belt.

I spent three years there — too much, and certainly a year more massage school than was worthwhile.

Kalamalka Lake park in Vernon, Canada. This was my favourite spot in the area. For three years, I spent as much time hiking around this area as I did in studying massage therapy, if not more.

Seriously elite massage training

Massage training in the Canadian province of British Columbia has been been peculiar in recent history, and probably too big for its britches.

When I started, the requirement for certification was an enormous, sprawling, 3000 hours of training, the three-year program — elite massage therapists, the special forces of touch therapy. This was the result of some dedicated, admirable compaigning to make massage therapy a more serious player in health care in this province, more competitive and collaborative with other health care professionals. I started my training just one year after the introduction of this requirement (and then it was dropped back down to two years about a decade later). So, for several years, BC’s two massage therapy colleges pumped out the best-trained massage therapists in the world, and I was in that batch.

For what it’s worth. It did make for some nice bragging rights, for a while. Now it’s just this extremely expensive thing I did once. What it was worth in cold hard cash was roughly $30,000 USD…

It’s the economy, stupid

Thirty grand was just the tuition, and about triple what a typical university costs today — it’s about on par with an Ivy League undergrad degree. And it only gets you a trade diploma. And it’s disproportionately high compared to the earning potential. Massage therapists can generally charge a seemingly impressive hourly rate … but most can also only work so many hours for so many years, and many struggle to get started. Therapists are often exhausted or injured and stop working full-time (or altogether) before they’ve really recouped such an extravagant educational expense. It’s much too easy to burnout, and many therapists simply cannot sustain an adequate income level for even one decade, let alone two or three. And there’s no pension.

I didn’t understand much of this when I started, or I wouldn’t have started.

Supposedly I was choosing massage therapy because I was a failed writer finally getting practical, wising up, pulling myself up by my boot straps. But that seems a bit ludicrous in retrospect, given the exotic three-year requirement and massive tuition: 50% more expensive, and for what, exactly? (I’ll be returning to that vexing problem later.) And I had been flat broke only a few months before. The only way I could even dream of affording such a lavishly expensive education was with the maximum possible student loans which couldn’t come close to covering the tuition, let alone the living expenses. Mom and Dad covered the rest, which was quite a lot, and they probably shouldn’t have.

So I arrived in Vernon determined to become a massage therapist. Before I get to the bizarre experience of massage school itself, a little local colour and fun: the syrup story, and the ultimate story.

Next: Chapter 5: The Syrup story.