What Does Not Kill Me

My back hurts.

Do I sound peevish? Or look poutish? In my defence, I’m not whining to a chance encounteree on an elevator: I’m answering a standard intake-interview question from a new physiotherapist. Quite reasonably he wants to know, “Why are you here?”

My back hurts.

I think I do sound peeved. It’s been 27 years since I went to stand up and couldn’t. Well, I could, but crookedly in two dimensions: back to front and side to side.

In the intervening years (27! Did I mention that?) I’ve had intermittent flare-ups, three or four conflicting diagnoses, inconclusive x-rays and physical examinations, a variety of treatments (heat, ice, electrical stimulation, traction, therapeutic massage, myofascial release massage, ultrasound, acupuncture, dry needling, and repeat), professionally designed — and complied with — exercise programs, innumerable doses of stomach-rotting prescription anti-inflammatories, and recommendations from strangers about exercises and over-the-counter meds that worked for them. This is life with a chronic episodic condition that won’t kill you.

My back hurts.

Indeed it does, on not-all-that-many but too-damned-many days, objectively and subjectively respectively. Although it can flare up as often as every two months, I can sometimes go a year without any trouble. Then — for no apparent reason — wham! Every move elicits a yelp and the cycle of doctor’s office, physio’s cubicle, medication, treatment, and new exercise regime begins again.

My back hurts.

Intake and assessment done, I sit in the physio holding pen a few days later, waiting for my first treatment appointment. My back isn’t hurting today: It seems to have settled down on its own. That happens. Except when it doesn’t. And, of course, the treatments alleviate it. Except when they aggravate it. Sigh.

I think it’s called “learned helplessness“: an adverse mental state when a test subject (that’s me) experiences a “real or perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.” Me gives up, because the psychic pain of repeatedly dashed hopes — Maybe this new doctor/physio will figure out what works! — is worse than the physical pain in my back.

But today I’m not thinking about me, my back, or my last quarter-century-plus of fun with it. I’m thinking about the person who just hobbled into the physio’s office, sporting a cane, twisted joints, and a smile. Advanced rheumatoid arthritis? Maybe.

When I attended church regularly, I used to think that one of the best aspects of that community was not that it provided support in my adversity, but that it reminded me that my adversity was usually not much, comparatively. And so it can be with a physio’s office, where I see folks recovering from nasty injuries, or managing with unrecoverable conditions.

My back hurts.

Well, yes, it does from time to time. And I wish it wouldn’t. But it won’t kill me. And it’s up to me to see that it makes me stronger, physically, mentally, and emotionally.


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10 Responses to What Does Not Kill Me

  1. Lorna Shapiro says:

    Nice! Thanks for that.

  2. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – my back also hurts and I blame it on a life lived and not listening to people who told me when I was younger “You’ll be sorry for doing that when you are older.”

    Would I change anything now that I’m older, probably not.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I can run that explanation by my physio and see if he bites. Maybe he’d like to add it to his toolkit of reasons for people who want reasons.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    It sometimes seems to me (a standard opening for bits of presumed wisdom) that all of life can be treated as offering two responses.
    1. To see oneself as victim
    2. To see oneself as beneficiary.
    I wrote, once, about a little bird trapped behind some netting on a bush. I reached in and set it free. Then I wondered what kind of story it would tell its buddies when it got home.
    1. It was awful. This giant hand came and grabbed me and I was utterly helpless. I’ve never felt such despair in my life.
    2. Just when I thought I would never get out, a hand reached in and held me gently and carried me out of the net into the open air and let me go.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – 🙂 Chesterton talks about being eternally grateful for, and amazed at, the bare fact that we exist. So easy to take even that for granted.

  4. Tom Watson says:

    “Learned helplessness.” What an interesting phrase.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – It is, isn’t it? Of course, it was coined to describe research test subjects, not regular folks in regular lives, so I may be using it beyond it’s parameters.

  5. I am sorry about your back. I’m not sure a repertoire of back stories would be useful. But the learned helplessness that sets in when a condition is chronic is serious. Our youngest son’s paralyzed right hand could have been restored early during his stroke recovery according to some of the most recent and advanced physiotherapy discoveries. I tried to persuade his physiotherapists of what I had read, namely, that if the unaffected limb is restricted, e.g., in a sling, that the affected limb will start to recover. If the working limb is not restricted, it soon will take over the portion of the brain formerly devoted to the injured limb. At that point, the brain no longer recognizes the paralyzed limb. It becomes more difficult to bring it back into the brain’s cognitive orbit. You might be able to think strength and health into your back.

    One comfort in this situation is seeing the gradual changes taking place in his facial muscles and speech from his Focused Listening. If the music is progressively clearing inflammation in the brain, it may reach the part of the brain where the right hand formerly used the sound-energy flow. It might remind the brain of what it has forgotten.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Hmm. Maybe I *can* think or listen it better – it would be a less painful intervention than dry needling, about which the less said the better. I hope your son’s progress continues.

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