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  • Jan Flynn

When Your Back Goes Out


It’s the same yoga move I do almost every morning. A seated forward fold, legs straight out in front, sitting bones grounded and all that, hands reaching for my feet. Easy-peasy.

Until I feel something go twang in my lower back.

For those of you who also have tricky vertebrae, you’re familiar with the stages of coping with an episode wherein your spine, for reasons known only to itself, decides to stab you in the, well, back. Like the stages of grief, these can unfold in any order but generally go like this:


“Darn,” you say. Probably you use a much stronger word, but you don’t fully admit what you’re in for. Your next thought is something like, “I’ll be okay if I can just back off this stretch/walk it off/stand up carefully/drive home slowly,” or whatever fits your situation.

And then you do that thing, or try to. When the resultant shock of pain brings you to your knees, assuming you can get down that far, it’s time for:


Your face may have turned white, but your language is colorful in the extreme. You’ve been here before, and you don’t deserve to go through it again. You didn’t do anything wrong! You picked up that bag of groceries just the way you’re supposed to! All you did was reach for the $%@!!! steering wheel while looking over your shoulder. How are you supposed to bleeping drive?

You were doing yoga, for Pete’s (probably not Pete, but you get my drift) sake. Yoga is supposed to be GOOD for your back!

The betrayal from your own spine causes you to spend a few moments seriously questioning the premise of intelligent design. But you can’t stay down here forever, so you move on to:


You begin addressing your pain as though it has agreed to enter negotiations with you. “How about this,” you offer. “I’ll take two (or four, or a handful) of (whatever NSAID anti-inflammatory you have on hand), and then you can bugger off take a break. Sound good?”

Your pain stares at you, its skeletal face impassive. “See?” you say into its silence, as you swallow the pills with a big glass of milk so they don’t eat your stomach lining. “You’ll feel better in twenty minutes, no problem!”

Twenty minutes later, your pain is wearing a grim smile. It speaks wordlessly: Thought you could get rid of me that easily, did you?

You offer it a bath in Epsom salts, a massage, physical therapy, your first born, anything. Amused, it observes as you spend your effort and money and remaining sick days. At times it pretends to be mollified. But then you breathe too deeply, or look over your shoulder, or fall asleep in the wrong position (you’re exhausted), and it returns. As though weighted by malevolent bags of sand, you sink into:


Your sense of time is distorted. You’ve been in pain for maybe three days, but it feels like three years. You begin to believe you will always feel this way, have always felt this way, and there is no future for you that does not include walking around with your knees half-bent, looking longingly at the shoe strings you can no longer tie without help.

You feel deeply, extravagantly, sorry for yourself. Everything in your world turns a dispiriting shade of gray. You can’t do any of the stuff you were planning to do, and you certainly can’t do anything fun. Life as you once knew it is over. You’ve become useless. What’s the point, you wonder. You consider pouring yourself yet another drink.

About the time you notice your partner’s sympathy has begun to wear thin, you pull yourself together — carefully, while moving slowly. You enter the final stage:


Gradually, you come out of the fog of self-absorption. It occurs to you that there are people — many, many people — for whom this level of pain, or much worse, is an inescapable daily reality. Come to think of it, you have friends who have dealt with, or are currently dealing with, chronic illness or serious injury, and yet who carry on and find joy in life.

All you’ve got is a minor back spasm. It will go away. And even if it didn’t, you too could carry on. Crying about it certainly hasn’t made you feel any better, after all.

Strangely, once you accept your pain, its nature changes. Its demeanor morphs from cold and cruel to almost compassionate. I’m here to remind you of a few things, it says, things you were in danger of forgetting.

So you stop arguing, stop wheedling, stop whining. Especially, you stop fighting the reality that your back needs time to heal.

You shut up and listen as your pain teaches, or re-teaches, you its lessons. Lessons about humility, and empathy, and accepting help with grace, and perspective. Even, if you’re brave enough to take them in, lessons about mortality.

And even though your back isn’t quite happy yet, your perspective has shifted. It’s deeper, more thoughtful, richer than it was a few days ago. You find there is very much for which you can be grateful.

But you’ll be even more grateful when the damn spasms in your back finally relent.

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