‘Alternative medicine’ practitioners followed varied paths to their treatment specialties
By Bill Newcott
Photograph by Carolyn Watson
From the Winter 2022 issue
“You feel that?” whispers Liz Guida. “It’s different, isn’t it?”
I am lying on a table in a softly lit room, immersed in gentle piano music. Guida has her hands on my lower left leg, and she isn’t letting go.
She isn’t rubbing it, either — which comes as some surprise because this table, this darkened room, that mystical music all whisper: “massage.”
Instead, Guida leaves both hands perfectly still, positioned on a calf muscle that’s been giving me trouble ever since I tried to stride up a steep hill in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago.
And there they stay. The seconds pass by. Then, it seems, minutes. And she’s right: It is different. I’m feeling the same amount of relief I’d expect from a rub-it-until-it-hurts deep-tissue massage, but without the wincing.
“That’s pretty remarkable,” I say.
Guida just smiles softy. Yes, she knows.
Of course, I could have gone to see my physician about that leg, and she would most likely have given me some solid advice on how to deal with it. I have come to see Guida at her office less out of medical necessity than curiosity. Maybe it’s because we’re at the beach — where people seem more likely to try anything once — but in recent years I’ve been noticing an increase in what most of us would call “alternative medicine” practices. For a considerable swath of the population, of course, “alternative” is just a nice term for “loopy.” I wanted to see for myself.
Then again, that whole “alternative medicine” moniker is sort of fluid, isn’t it? After all, from the perspective of practitioners who’d enlisted folk remedies for centuries, weird notions like penicillin and open-heart surgery could easily have been labeled “alternative” at the time.
That shifting perspective was underlined as Guida led me along a hallway to her treatment room at Delaware Hyperbarics, near Lewes. The sight of two gleaming white hyperbaric chambers — where patients breathe pure oxygen in a pressurized environment to, among other things, fight infections — reminds me how quickly therapies can shift from “Out There” to “Covered by Blue Cross.”
I hadn’t planned to climb onto Guida’s table. I just wanted to chat about her specialty, a practice known as myofascial release. The theory behind the treatment has to do with a practitioner applying pressure to the fascia, a thin connective tissue that wraps around the body’s muscles, to relieve pain and tension.
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” she says, and hesitates a moment. “It’s like your whole body is covered in a knitted sweater, and in some places that sweater is tight. We’re just trying to restore your body to balance.”
People with lower back pain and knee replacements benefit from the therapy, she says. Also athletes, including marathon runners. (Guida should know: She’s a triathlete herself.)
Finally, she sighs, “Let me show you.”
I don’t know how many thousand interviews I’ve done over the years, but this is the first on my back. First, Guida slips one hand behind my head and the other on my clavicle. As she lifts with the former and presses with the latter, my neck seems to stretch slightly. It’s not unpleasant.
In a voice just beyond a whisper, Guida tells me of her childhood in a house between two farms in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County. Her father was something of a gentleman farmer, with some sheep to eat the grass and a couple of horses — but mostly a big German shepherd and 15 cats.
Shifting to that sore calf, Guida recalls the day that changed her young life: When she was in eighth grade, she nearly drowned as a canoe she was paddling plunged over a waterfall.
“I knew the power of that vortex,” she says, and her grip on my leg tightens infinitesimally. “The canoe got jammed in it somehow. But I was a strong swimmer — I was on the swim team — and somehow I managed to push myself out.
“From that day on,” she says, “I was ready to die. I just started to look at life differently.”
She makes eye contact with me.
“You probably had something like that in your life, right?”
I smile weakly and avert my eyes. She doesn’t push it, and focuses her attention on those perfectly still hands.
I’m still not quite sure how myofascial release works — in fact, I sort of suspect even the most ardent practitioners don’t quite understand it. All I know is, during every other massage I’ve had in my life, I’ve struggled to stay awake. (I truly believe that during my first, on a cruise ship 40 years ago, the masseuse slipped out for a smoke.)
This time, there seems to be some sort of low-voltage current keeping me alert.
As a young woman, Guida followed a career in the arts, and it is no surprise that she found a way to use her talents in the service of others: She found great satisfaction at what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., working from dawn to dusk fashioning and leading creative programs for children with terminal cancer.
“I organized clay classes and taught them stained glass,” she says, and there’s not a hint of pity in her voice. “We even did custom framing.
“I can’t tell you how I was touched by those children.”
It was her mother’s bad case of migraine headaches that led to Guida’s first exploration of massage.
“She was always in tears,” she recalls. “I went to her and said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t
it be fun to have massages all the time?’ So I went to massage school, graduated, and besides helping my mom I ended up starting my own practice in Washington, D.C.”
A decade or so later, when her parents moved to coastal Delaware, Guida followed. “I wanted my two daughters to grow up near them,” she says.
Teaming up with Steve Caldwell, another massage therapist, the two started Therapy at the Beach — combining different types of massage therapy with treatments in their hyperbaric chambers, drawing referrals from physicians and physical therapists.
“Hey, you’re a writer,” she suddenly announces. “You probably have typing arm!” She moves to an area below my right shoulder and, as she did with my leg, digs in.
“What this is,” she says, “is just sinking very gently into a restriction, just sinking down into the thickness of the muscle. It’s very gentle, but it can also be very unique, and very profound.”
I didn’t even know I had typing arm. But yes — yes, I did.
You’d think the journey from being an architectural designer to becoming a practicing shaman would be a long and winding one, but for Athena Allread, it was part of a natural progression that began, basically, at birth.
“I saw spirits even when I was a child,” says Allread, leaning across a black-cloth-covered table in her cozy second-floor office near Rehoboth Beach. “Of course, my family called them my ‘imaginary friends.’”
Every kid has vivid dreams, but Allread’s were so real she remembers them, in sharp detail, decades later. Even when she was fully awake, she says, she’d have daydreams that transported her to other realms.
It got to the point where young Allread began to doubt her own sanity. But then she saw some movies that changed her mind. “They helped me realize I wasn’t totally crazy,” she says.
While most of us consider films like “What Dreams May Come” (Robin Williams in Heaven) and “Beetlejuice” (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis haunting a house, with an assist from Michael Keaton) as escapist fantasy, young Allread saw them as glimpses into levels of existence beyond the one we occupy day to day.
Now, as a full-time shaman, Allread says, “I walk between the realms of the spirit and the realm of the earth — and I share messages from the spirit world.”
I’m sitting here looking at Allread, and I’m thinking: Gee, she looks normal. I’d trust her babysitting my grandkids. In fact, I think they’d absolutely love her. And as she patiently explains the mystical realm of spirits — an unseen universe of angels, guides, masters, and something she calls our own Higher Self — she does so with all the rational nonchalance of a GPS voice giving driving directions to Philadelphia.
Allread certainly started out conventionally enough: After attending The Ohio State University, she went to work at a Washington, D.C., firm as an architectural designer. But she never lost her childhood link to spirituality.
“I’d gotten into yoga at Ohio State,” she recalls, “and whenever the firm’s principals asked about my goal for the coming year I’d say, ‘I want to do yoga training.’”
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Allread was doing the yoga thing full time. Eight years ago she and her then-husband moved to Rehoboth Beach, at which point, she says, “I told myself, ‘You’re not in architecture anymore. Now you’re a yoga instructor.’”
But yoga, it turned out, was just a waystation to Allread’s ultimate destination. In one catastrophic year, her mother died, her marriage fell apart, and she was wracked with severe abdominal pain that no doctor could diagnose.
That’s when a neighbor suggested she visit a shaman.
“Well, I didn’t know what else to do, so I called this woman,” she says. “She had me lie on a table; she shook my legs; she turned me over. Then she asked me, ‘What are you sad about?’
“I said, ‘Well, my mother.’ And then she said, ‘Your mother is right here. And she has a young man with her.’”
The shaman, Allread insists, had no way of knowing she had also lost a brother.
Channeling Allread’s mother, the shaman advised that she needed to learn how to grieve, adding: “Otherwise, this will turn to cancer.”
That night, Allread sat down and wrote a letter to her mom. And the next morning, after seven months of agony, her abdominal pain was gone for good.
In the ensuing years, Allread has become a shaman herself, subjecting herself to years of training with senior shamans. She began leaving her business cards at a local yoga studio, and soon she was seeing clients — passing on to them wisdom and advice from beings in other realms.
“I especially love helping women who have relationship problems — helping prepare them to love again,” she says. “Same for people going through job transitions — doing healing work about their personal sense of worth.”
Giving folks pep talks from Beyond is one thing; more controversial, some may say, is Allread’s practice of medical intuition: “seeing” serious ailments in people. She tells me of one client with cancer who is confused about what treatments to undergo.
“With medical intuition, I can see into your body,” she says. “My role is to help to put that person in touch with what they are being guided to do.”
Allread hastens to add that she can’t diagnose, treat, or prescribe. “But I can say, ‘You know, you have free will.’ And if I felt that that person’s guides were saying, ‘You do need the chemo,’ then I would share that with him.
“My clients put a lot of trust into me, which is a responsibility.”
Those “guides,” or “helpers,” are a central element of shamanism. And, Allread says, they are all around us. “So, are they right here?” I ask, gesturing around the room.
“Everyone has helpers, or guides, or angels,” she asserts. “I can see them. Mine is my mom. But we can reject them. In that case they kind of lean back — like a parent might with a rebellious kid.”
I’m still having trouble picturing this whole alternate realm thing.
“Do these realms you’re talking about overlap with ours?” I ask haltingly.
“What a great question!” Allread enthuses, perhaps unaware of the fact that I’ve got nothing but questions.
“The way I see it … the way I experience it,” she says, “is that this is something like a holographic reality. The other dimensions are not far off in the sky somewhere. They’re actually right here around us, overlapping us.
“A shaman like me, or a seer, we have the ability to see between the rooms. It’s kind of like one of those old ViewMaster viewers — I can click … click … click between different realms.”
My brain is pretty full now, of realms and helpers and X-ray medical vision. Allread sees me to the door and I walk out to my car.
Behind the wheel, I let out an exasperated sigh: I’ve forgotten to ask Allread if she could see any helpers hovering around me. I briefly consider heading back in to ask. But I hit the ignition instead.
I kind of don’t want to know.
I find Trey Bell sitting in his office, intently writingin a notebook. A busy Lewes-area psychotherapist with clients around the country, he has carved out a few minutes to chat with me about his practice.
Perhaps I should mention that Bell’s office is in a large, white Ford Transit van, at this moment parked outside the Panera Bread on Route 1. There is a raised bed in the back, and a small kitchenette opposite the sliding door. A miniature array of Tibetan prayer flags is draped in the side window.
“I had a little help framing out the galley,” he says. “Other than that, I pretty much did everything else in here.”
Bell has kicked off his sandals. With his close-cropped beard, pulled-back hair, polo shirt and shorts, he appears more prepared to paddle out to sea on a surfboard than counsel people in crisis. But his arresting blue eyes burn with a sense of intensity and, behind his broad smile, I suspect he is intuitively sizing me up. (Then again, I always feel that way around shrinks.)
Bell grew up in Georgetown and got his degrees in psychology and social work at Long Island University. He wandered the globe from Asia to South America, made an appearance on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” and in 2011 started working as an outpatient mental health family therapist with Delaware Guidance Services near Lewes.
“My mom and dad were both therapists, so I guess it’s in the blood,” he says. “I started out in the crisis field, working mostly with kids and adolescents that were suicidal or homicidal.”
Sitting in a captain’s chair in Bell’s van, I try to imagine the inherent stress of working with homicidal children. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before Bell changed his focus in just about the most radical way imaginable: He moved to Alaska, where he practiced something called wilderness therapy.
“I was up around Wrangell Island,” he says. “The concept was to take people out into the woods for, like, seven weeks — out of the environment that is causing them stress or trauma. We’d go hiking, canoeing, mountaineering — and we’d use those things as a metaphor for life. I’d say, ‘Oh, that was a really hard thing we did today,’ and I’d relate that to pushing through the hard things they were going through in their lives.”
Since 2011, Bell has been back in the Lower 48, practicing outpatient therapy. But he hasn’t lost his wanderlust, and that’s where the white Ford Transit comes in: Starting in 2018, each year he’s spent four months here, four months at his second home in Colorado, and four months driving around the country looking for waves to surf and rocks to climb.
And all that time, he’s continued to see his clients regularly, video-conferencing with them from his mobile office. At first, Bell wasn’t sure he’d ever get clients to cozy up to the idea of seeing their therapist on a computer screen.
“I was actually concerned that I wouldn’t be able to maintain my livelihood with this,” he says, glancing around the van’s interior. “Most people wanted to do in-person therapy. But then the pandemic hit, and suddenly everybody was doing this! Now I’m too busy!”
With his lifelong passion for rugged outdoor activity, it makes sense that 95 percent of Bell’s clients are men.
“It sounds funny to say it,” he chuckles, “but mental health for men is kind of a new thing. Before now, men were always told to internalize everything: Just push it down, push it down. But that wasn’t natural: Men and women feel the same things. Traditionally, men have always had to say, ‘I’m OK. I’m OK.’ But they need to understand if they’re not OK, that’s OK, too.”
Besides his mobile therapy practice, Bell also runs Live Wise — offering psychological coaching, fitness programs and dietary counseling.
“The goal is to help people achieve overall wellness,” he explains. “Mostly we focus on the head space, but really, the right food and enough exercise are really important to achieving a clear mind.”
Bell has to get back to work. I thank him for his time and ask if he’ll be in town, just in case I have more questions.
“Sure,” he says, flipping his notebook open. “But in a month, I might head down to the Outer Banks and do some surfing.”