On my back
January 6, 2014 § 1 Comment
A year ago I started to get back pain, and though I’ve contemplated writing about it lots of times, I’ve never done so.
Mental pain can be quite interesting. Physical pain isn’t, which makes it an annoying topic of conversation, for which I often find myself apologising. Apologies, then, for discussing it here.
The back, though, is interesting. It has extraordinary power, both in terms of real strength, and also of endurance. It can be misused for years, every hour of every day, and yet it withstands — though not forever.
These are the main thoughts I’ve had about my back and backs in general, and of chronic pain in general, over the past year:
- We are our bodies
- Many people think pain is normal
- Some people think pain is good
- Many people think treating pain is virtuous
- Some people think treating pain is self-indulgent
- It is possible to be angry with and resentful, petulant and bullying towards, one’s own skeleton and muscle fibres
- Without a working back, it is difficult to do almost everything
Our bodies “are ours, though they are not we, we are / The intelligences, they the sphere.”
John Donne’s lines rarely contain one clear message — and these are likely fully of meanings I won’t touch on here. But it’s a phrase that keeps coming back to me. Though our bodies are not everything that we are, they are us, ours in the fullest sense of the word.
Yet we don’t always think so. When my back hurts, I sometimes feel it’s misbehaving, a naughty child. It gets in the way of the article I have to write, or the research I need to do.
On one level I have known that my body is trying to tell me something; but it’s taken a year, and a series of increasingly specialised sessions with physiotherapists, to interpret the intense but silent communication (actually, not always silent; there are now frequent cracks from shoulders and clicks from the sternum with which I’m becoming familiar).
Presumably, there was a time when we were better at understanding how walking on two legs, carrying weight, playing and working impacted on our elegant curved spines. But when? I imagine medieval surfs crippled by the carrying of hay-bales weren’t any happier than average city office workers.
The pain is mysterious, and as such feels dangerous. But gradually I’m starting to understand more: about how tightness in the thigh of one leg might impact on the shoulders, for example. On how the stomach muscles can — and should sometimes be encouraged to — take over from those on either side of the vertebrae.
Stiff upper lip (and everything else)
At my central London workplace, I have complained a lot. I have had several physio assessments, resulting in the purchase of an expensive chair, an ergonomic keyboard and mouse and, most recently, a Swiss ball on which I sometimes sit. It seems to amuse and occasionally annoy my colleagues. I feel I’m striking a blow for them; they probably think of me as that weirdo who sits on the fluorescent space hopper. My physical state is improved by all this, though by no means yet sorted.
But what about everyone else?
People often start conversations with me — usually because of the ball — about back pain, and so I ask them whether they also suffer. Everyone I have met so far has problems: everyone.
People think it’s normal. Some people even have a strange, perverse sense that it’s good. I know this, because I’ve had that sense. Maybe this is a sign I’m working hard, I’ve thought. Maybe it’s a punishment, and one that I deserve.
I don’t really believe this, and maybe no one rationally does. But perhaps it’s one of the factors that keep people from getting their own ergonomic chairs, or insisting their employers arrange for rooms where they can lie down for ten minutes a day.
No one demands this. One former colleague had such bad repetitive strain injury from typing that she couldn’t hold a glass of wine. I met another taking a tennis ball into the toilets – the only place she could go in the whole nine-floor building to do a few pain-relieving exercises.
Suddenly, over the weekend, my back pain hit a new level — it was actually crippling, preventing me from bending forward enough to pick up something off the floor, or wash my face at a sink. I couldn’t swoop forward to stop a baby crashing into the corner of a table. It took me several minutes to work out how to put on a pair of pants.
Perhaps this is a signal, I’ve thought. I know what to do now to treat myself, and it’s worked over the last 24 hours. But knowing isn’t the same as doing, and I’ve also been neglectful, especially over a recent holiday, of doing the things I know will help.
Hence writing a reflective though – apologies again – not particularly insightful blog.
And reminding myself that the anger and fear that arise from pain shouldn’t be directed back at the body that ‘causes’ it. The intelligences need to kick into gear, and allow the time and space and gentleness to let a startled muscle relax, or a tendon to loosen its wild grip on the ends of two potentially graceful bones.