Everything I Know I've Learned From My Bad Back

The transformative powers of pain

| September / October 2004

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have back problems and those who don't. I'm not thrilled to acknowledge that I date the origin of my own back problems to the period, nine years ago, when I repeatedly threw my infant daughter up in the air and carried her around in a Snugli. It's a dubious etiology, since another cause would surely have come along soon enough; my back, one physical therapist has explained to me, was an accident waiting to happen.

I wish I got to indulge in the luxury of being lionized as Atlas by my daughter, but I can't. At parties, I look first for a chair, since I can't stand more than a few minutes. I can't hula-hoop with my daughter or dance with my wife. I try to jog, but I often get pins and needles down my right leg. When we take trips my wife has to carry the heavy luggage; at home, she moves the furniture. Atlas I ain't.

You might suspect, I might suspect -- my wife definitely suspects -- that maybe I just have a pathetically low pain threshold. And yet my back doctor assures me that with 'my back,' some people play golf and tennis while others have been on disability for 15 years. I fall somewhere in the middle: I've never missed a day of work due to my back, but I certainly complain about it a lot. I'm not so much a hypochondriac as a misery miser, fascinated by dysfunction.

I'm in the awkward position of being exactly half as old as my father is -- I'm 46; he's 92 -- and being in decidedly worse physical condition. He still swims and jogs and golfs and lifts weights (sometimes, all on the same day), whereas I'm grateful if I simply go to bed at night without lower back pain. A couple of years ago I heard an elderly woman interviewed on This American Life say she would welcome entering the kingdom of heaven because she would finally be granted relief from her incessant physical pain. While I was listening to this, I was driving, my back was killing me every time I turned the steering wheel, and I must admit: I could relate.

Over the past decade, I've seen therapists and therapists and therapists, doctors and doctors and doctors. One doctor said I should immediately have back surgery -- he had an opening later that afternoon. Another doctor said all I had to do was perform one particular leg-lift exercise that Swedish nurses did and I'd be fine. One therapist said I should run more; another said I should run less. One said that human beings weren't built to sit as much as I sit; another said people were never meant to stand upright. One thought I would need to keep seeing him for years and years; another criticized me, after a few months, for not cutting the cord.

I finally saw a back doctor who, unlike 99 percent of doctors I've ever seen, presented himself as a person rather than as an authority figure; ask him how his day is going and he'll say, 'Terrible -- no one's getting better.' He, too, has a bad back, and when he drops his folder, he'll squat down to pick it up, the way back patients are instructed to do, rather than just lean over, the way everyone else does. When I speak to most doctors, I feel slightly (sometimes not so slightly) crazy, whereas I feel like a person, like myself, when I'm talking to this doctor. At my first appointment with him, he emphasized how many of his patients carve their entire identity out of the fact that they're patients; their whole existence is given structure and purpose by the fetishization of their pain, their victimhood. The message was subtle, but I got it: Don't let myself become a suicide bomber.

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