Welcome to the learning curve, a monthly column where we unpack the complicated experience of accepting your own body in a world that doesn’t seem to want it. This month, editor Nicola Dall’Asen reveals the difficult and complex relationship she has developed with her body due to chronic lower back pain.
My therapist says I was grieving, but no one died.
On the contrary, I mourned my body – or what it was. That’s because, for most of my 20s (seven years, to be precise), I developed chronic lower back pain that went from sporadic and mild to constant and severe. I say it like I am the one who created my pain, like by negligence or by accident, but it just happened. I never fell. I wasn’t hit by anything. One day, I simply left a routine four-hour flight feeling bad, not knowing that I might never feel “well” again.
Before asking, I had every test under the sun. X-rays, CT scans, MRIs…you name it a loud, claustrophobic big X-ray machine, I’ve been there (probably more than once). I had needles filled with steroids pricked and driven into my bones. I did enough stretches to qualify as a yoga teacher. Hell, I even had surgery to replace an entire disc there. I have been observed and/or treated by at least five different specialists. For years I saw little to no improvement in my daily pain level, while frantically searching for a solid diagnosis along with a treatment that would bring even the slightest relief. I dove headfirst into so many piles of hay looking for a straw-colored needle that I lost count.
As it stands, my (second) orthopedic surgeon “sees no reason” for me to be in pain based on my many scans. All I know is that due to a congenital condition, the natural anatomy of my spine is a little wonky. In other words, maybe I was born with this pain rooted inside me, wrapped tight, just waiting for the right time to come. Apparently the right moment was when I thought I was finally at peace with my body. And then it all went to shit.
For a while, I felt like an impostor writing this column – a column about trying to come to terms with your body, trying to navigate the body-shame-inducing rhetoric that society is built on unlearning our toxic beliefs about the body and the self – worth it. Because honestly? I’m getting to the point where I don’t know how long I can do these things myself. Because I never suffer. Because I can’t even try to fall asleep without being physically reminded of all the things that I can’t currently do or may never be able to do again. Because my core muscles are so tight from the weakness in my spine that I can barely breathe properly, which leaves me perpetually dizzy. Because it seems nearly impossible to have fun, and any enjoyment I have is marred by the grimacing, burning, and squeaking sensations, and having to stretch in public.