In the first few days afterward, this is what I heard: Alternate warm moist heat with ice packs. Then I heard don't use ice. Then I heard don't use heat. Then I heard potassium, which meant bananas. I heard calcium, which meant milk. I heard vitamin K — I still don't know what that means. Henry, raising his arms above his head, told me to hang like this from a bar. Henry then said to hang upside down from the same bar. If you do this, he said, as he passed me my egg sandwich, you will never have any problems. Someone had a chiropractor who was magic, someone had an acupuncturist. I went to both. The chiropractor said to come back the next day, I went back the next day. The pain got worse. Now I couldn't put on my own shoes. I began Advil, two at a time. I tried to wait six hours between doses.
What happened? some asked. I said I'd just come off a weeklong head cold, that I'd been run-down. I got on a small plane and flew to Dallas to give a talk to 900 people, a benefit for a transitional shelter called The Bridge. I needed to work on the talk on the plane, on my new computer, a MacBook Air, a computer that weighs almost nothing yet has a keyboard that is so small you have to screw up your hands to type. Tiny plane, tiny computer, my body tied into a knot. I got off the plane and felt something — a distant ache — in my lower back. I think I even limped a little, getting off the plane. In the hotel room I did some yoga. I worked on my talk. I went to bed early. I woke up, did some yoga, some sun salutes, some downward dogs, but it was hard to touch my toes. I had to bend my knees. I gave my talk, got on the plane home — the same tiny plane — got off in New York, and limped home.
Two days later I couldn't get out of bed without wincing. Three days later I couldn't get out of bed at all. Little involuntary moans came out of my mouth if I turned my body in any direction.My back had been replaced by a sheet of glass, and any movement would shatter it. I tried to put on my socks, I couldn't put on my socks. My wife was out of town and I had to get our four-year-old to school. Humbled, I had to ask her to help me put on my socks. Gleeful, she helped.
If I went to a doctor and asked what was happening, I knew what he would say — You're getting old, he'd say. Doctors have been telling me that for the past five years. My body is getting old. Maybe I'd had a good run with my back, and now the run was over. My wife texted me the name of her chiropractor, I didn't trust chiropractors, I thought they were little more than snake-oil salesmen. I made an appointment. I biked over the Brooklyn Bridge. Biking was easier than walking, or sitting — somehow I could still bike. It was two days before Thanksgiving and everything was shutting down. The chiropractor had me stand against a metal contraption which lowered into a table. He manipulated my legs, he climbed on top of me, my vertebrae sang. I was very grateful. I left feeling better and went to an acupuncturist he recommended. The next morning I woke myself at four to take Advil and go back to sleep so I could get out of bed at seven. I got up, got my socks on, got my daughter to school, biked back in the city. The chiropractor lowered me on his metal table, he climbed on top of me. I left feeling better and biked home.
It was the day before Thanksgiving. My wife flew in and we drove upstate. In the car, each turn in the Taconic was strangely excruciating, and the Taconic is all turns. I swallowed more Advil. The next day I was on my hands and knees, unable to stand. Some friends were coming up as well, for the holiday. I welcomed them stiffly but was glad they were there. They asked what happened. I told them about the tiny plane, about the tiny computer. Mark said to lie perfectly still, Todd said to keep walking; often they spoke at the same time, one in each ear. Some more friends came over. How many Advils are you taking? Todd asked. You need to take more, he said. Take four at a time, it's an anti-inflammatory, it needs to build up in your body. I thought it wrecked your kidneys, I said. Liza said, Dr. Sarno, have you read him? Dr. Sarno says to breathe into it, into your pain. Dr. Sarno says it's all in your mind, it's your fear that's causing the pain. Liza leaned over a table — Visualize your back, she said. Take in a breath, send it into the pain. I leaned over the table and breathed into my back. It did feel better. Liza had struggled with back pain as well, but now if she felt something coming on, she simply breathed into it for two minutes and it vanished. Later in the night she'd wag her finger in my face — I can see you are not breathing.
Todd said to lie on my back with my feet up on a chair. It felt better, once I crawled around on the floor, trying to get in position, whimpering. Rebecca came over. Have you had a massage? She gave me a massage. Debra came over. You need to stand like this, she said. You need to bend your knees, always bend your knees, and twist your femurs inward and curl your pelvis forward and tuck in your tailbone. This is how you should stand, she said, all the time. You have to teach yourself how to stand, you have been standing all wrong. Betsy told me that once she jumped out of a car into a field of wildflowers, just because they were so beautiful, and she threw out her back, just like me. Two Vioxxes, Betsy said, and the pain was gone. Isn't Vioxx illegal? I said. Isn't that the stuff that was killing everyone? Daniel said to sleep on a hard wooden floor for a year, and I would never have another backache. Tom said, You always get depressed this time of year, maybe this is a way to focus your pain on something other than the anniversary of your mother's death.
The thing about chronic pain (though I hesitate to make any claims — two weeks is hardly "chronic") is that you know exactly what the future will be. You know that tomorrow you will be in pain, and there's something eroding in that, in knowing that future. The Monday after Thanksgiving, almost two weeks into it, I went to a doctor who specializes in sports medicine, Dr. Hamner. He treats Olympic athletes and marathon runners — the ones who win marathons. I told him I'd ridden over from Brooklyn on my bike, that I could ride but I couldn't walk or stand or sit. I told him I was living on Advil, up to 12 a day at that point. He asked if I'd had a bicycle accident recently, and I said no.
Then I remembered. Two days before I got on the plane to Dallas, I'd wiped out, for the first time in years. I'd hit a curb the wrong way and the bike went out from under me and I did a barrel roll across the dark, wet, empty sidewalk. I got up and felt a little banged up, nothing serious, but as soon as he asked, I knew — the fall had strained something in my back, set a fuse which burned for the next few days, until boom, I could no longer walk. I felt relieved it wasn't my small computer or the small plane — to give up either would require some major changes. I had already wondered if I'd have to start dictating every word, which left me feeling empty. That it was from an accident made sense, and over the next two hours, Dr. Hamner applied heat and vibrations and needles and oxygen and analgesics and anti-inflammatories made from flowers. He showed me some exercises and told me to take sitz baths. He showed me a video of a marathon he'd run on the North Pole when he was 70. He kept joking with me that I had to get off the heroin. I left his office and haven't had an Advil since.
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Nick Flynn is the author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, and The Ticking Is the Bomb. He divides his time between Houston, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York.
Books mentioned in this post
Nick Flynn is the author of The Ticking Is the Bomb: A Memoir