What happens when your spinal column goes from 17 mm to 3 mm? You’re in pain. And the pain leads you to have anxiety and depression. Which drains you of energy. Perhaps this is why you lose weight; perhaps not. Perhaps this is why you’re achey in other parts of your body; perhaps not. Perhaps this is why you’re losing sensation across your forehead, nose, and lips; perhaps not.
If you’re 46 years old with two kids and a job and a life of yoga and swimming and dog walking, you’re alarmed. You seek change. You go to your doctor, who orders x-rays, and when they come back clean she doesn’t follow up on next steps. You assume it’s your age – perimenopause – and up your supplements. Fish oil, D, B12, turmeric, calcium … Your doctor thinks it’s anxiety and suggests a med. After several months of feeling the anxiety creep from your back to the crown of your head, spider like, you relent.
You go to chiropractors, one of whom thinks it’s “totally in your neck,” another of whom thinks it’s “true sciatica” – unless it’s the piriformis syndrome.
You add an anatomy app to your iPhone.
You see a physical therapist who within ten minutes of arriving in her office suggests “dry needling” (a modality definitely in need of a new name). You’re so sick of the pain, you want to be game, so you say yes. “It doesn’t hurt,” she assures you, “It just feels weird.” With your earbuds in, listening to the Devi Prayer for one of many times on this journey, you try to drain out the fluorescent lights and the Pat Benatar. You remind yourself that you did natural childbirth with flying colors – heck, you enjoyed it! – and yes, this DOES hurt. You leave the office and cry off and on the rest of the day; your period, which has been dormant for months, starts in a gush, and you believe like never before in energy channels.
When the pain doesn’t go away you feel, well, really fucking angry.
You go see an Alexander Technique practitioner who assures you – staring at you with a bizarre, other worldly intensity that suggests she’s looking for something she’s lost in your eyes (you’ll discover months later with great unease just what this is – and it’s not your spine) – that she can help, that within a few months of seeing her you’ll feel “vital” again. She emphasizes this word and you want to believe. It sometimes hurts so much to walk up the stairs at night that you climb on hands on knees. You’ll drink any Kool Aid to make this go away.
You go to your dear friend the massage therapist. She helps to knead it out for a day, but she also tells you that the pain comes from anger. So you go home and google “anger” and try to release it – to be good, to be pure, to be deserving. When the pain doesn’t go away you feel, well, really fucking angry.
You keep doing your yoga. Then you do more yoga. “What if you stop doing yoga?” a fellow yoga teacher and Pilates instructor asks. She uses a tone of voice that says she knows how hard this is, which helps. You go home and cry and stop doing asana. You call it a “downward dog diet.” This makes more room for breath and meditation – these will lead you far in the coming months.
You see a Rolfer and a Feldenkrais practitioner, you get cranial sacral therapy. Some of it really helps. But at $120 there is no way you can sustain it.
Your therapist thinks you can unburden the part causing the pain. You try.
Your relationship falters. Trips. Skips. Pauses. Aches. Because you are not all there; you are a ball of pain, and who but a saint can care day in and day out about someone’s pain? On a March day when you’re pretty sure that maybe the relationship is probably over you sit in your car parked in the parking lot of a former TB hospital and scream and cry – pissed as can be, scared to death. There is sleet – again – it’s been snowing and cold all winter.
The relationship mends and you want – so badly – to be whole for this person, with this person. You’re only just beginning (I know, it’s a Carpenter’s song); you want to be healthy together.
Your son tells you he’s tired of knowing that his mom is in pain. He wants the “non-pain mom.”
Your daughter stubs her toe and cries, and then pulls herself together and tells you that she knows she doesn’t hurt as much as you do.
You go to a therapeutic yoga training in Minneapolis in April It snows. Nearly every pose is contraindicated for people with spinal stenosis. You fidget in pain through most of the training, rapt during the talk on fascia.
This is the language of familiarity, the reassurance of someone who has walked at least part way through the minefield and is still alive with a glimmer in her eye.
Your boss buys you a standing desk and you spend all day at work going between standing and sitting, standing and sitting, then kneeling, then child’s pose, then sitting, then standing. Fiddling to find anything that will be okay for a half hour. The bottle of Tylenol always close at hand.
You swim a few laps and then stop. It hurts too much. You can’t walk the dog much more than a block or two.
One day you run into a friend and she talks about her back pain – describes so much of what you’re feeling – and tells you about recovery and the paths of patience she’s walked. You realize that this is what it’s like when an alcoholic talks to another alcoholic; when an abuse victim talks to another abuse victim; when a refugee finds someone from their homeland. This is the language of familiarity, the reassurance of someone who has walked at least part way through the minefield and is still alive with a glimmer in her eye.
You’re actually considering using a wheelchair to visit the Art Institute when you go to Chicago.
You have collected the names of several acupuncturists. You’ve called the university’s pain clinic – but you need a referral. So you call your doctor – again. It’s gotten worse, you can’t do much of anything – you’re actually considering using a wheelchair to visit the Art Institute when you go to Chicago in a few weeks. She orders an MRI.
And this commences a new stage. The stage of long visits to waiting rooms the longest you do with your mom and it is two hours of simply waiting for your name to be called and another 45 minutes of waiting for the doctor to reappear after he’s called away. This is the period of taking off your clothes and putting on dressing gowns. Of waiting for results that don’t come for days.
When you learn that you have a cyst that has narrowed your spinal canal to less than five times its normal width – “severe spinal stenosis” – you feel as though you’ve seen Jesus in your toast. Relieved – not crazy after all. You feel so thankful and hopeful. And then you truly are angry, wanting to call every person you saw in the past year who offered anything other than total humility; anyone who thought she had the answer. You want to deliver the bloody cyst on each of their doorsteps.
The neurologist that you pulled punches to go see was an ass – quizzing you about your body rather than answering questions. Next up was the really nice orthopedic guy who tried to aspirate it. He told you about his kids. He apologized. The nurse held your hand but it hurt like hell. They couldn’t rupture it. You realize that it’s exactly ten years since you gave birth to your son in the same hospital. You taught yoga three hours later – shaking.
So that’s it. You call a few trusted friends for final advice and perspective and then sign on the dotted line with the resident who tells you that you could have a heart attack or die during the procedure. “What’s the risk of the latter?” you ask. “Oh, hardly anything,” he says, “Just like 1 out of 100.”
What lousy, horrible thing had you done to your body?
At this point, you’re ready for anything. Take that sucker out and it will be all better, you think. All better. Instantaneous. And of course you knew that wasn’t true; but you hoped. And when you woke up nauseous and with this incredible pain in the other side of your back, you wondered what the fuck you’d done. What lousy, horrible thing had you done to your body?
But now you’re two weeks out. And weird and wonderful things have started to happen. You found a great woman up the street who will pull out the massive invasion of volunteer trees around your house. The house painter who disappeared shows up and starts to work on the front side of your house. A friend who you were collaborating with and who had disappeared into the very real black holes of full-time work and single motherhood reappears – she’s quit her job, she wants to restart. You call a banker friend to see who might help you untangle your finances. “Me,” she writes back immediately and the two of you meet to start piecing it together. You see a new practitioner and she slowly, patiently, good-humoredly and without huge promises works out the kinks in your shoulder and upper back, offering viable explanations for why they’re there and how they’ll depart.
You start to hear your voice in a new way; like you can use it in a way you haven’t been able to for ages. Where is it coming from – such long distances it’s traveled. It’s coming up the spine, moving from the lumbar through the thoracic to the cervical. Moving from the organs and seat of your being up to your throat and out your mouth. Beautiful, melodious, sure. Your voice. Your heart. Your passions. Returning up that flowing river of the spinal canal.