What Pain Teaches Us (Other than that Acupuncture Works)
As part of my physical healing from some mysterious and not-so-mysterious causes like major stress, I occasionally experience severe low back pain. The latest episode was the worst yet, appearing on Monday at the end of the work day. Like my body decided it was time to go home but my brain hadn’t yet figured it out.
Instead of waiting patiently, my body revolted. One minute I was washing dishes in the work kitchen, and the next minute I was sitting on the floor. I called my boyfriend to pick me up, then decided I could manage to drive home.
By the next day, I was unable to stand without assistance. I walked stiffly with my middle protected, like I was carrying a very fragile, very heavy rock. I couldn’t sit upright and instead arranged pillows in different formations to keep my back muscles from doing any work.
I’d like to say I handled it gracefully the entire time, but the experience wore on me. I thought about all the people who have chronic pain and wondered if this is what their lives are like all the time. My episode lasted 48 hours, from the time it started until I could get an acupuncture appointment for Wednesday, late afternoon.
In that time, I learned that back pain keeps more Americans out of work than any other health condition. A colleague said that he knows of no other physical ailment more distressing and debilitating than back pain. After two days of it, I agreed with him. I was irritable. My thoughts were addled and my responses felt threadbare.
At the same time, in those two days I was more present than usual. My thoughts were more often with my body – how to ease it out of bed, how to reach a cup of water, how to put on my socks – than with my plans or everyday worries. There was a minor crisis at work that barely fazed me, because I wasn’t thinking about it other than when I needed to. Two days of pain clarified and simplified my purpose. I wasn’t trying to solve any world problems through the power of rumination. I was simply hoping that I wouldn’t sneeze, which contracted my muscles where they hurt the most.
Despite my clearer mind, I was eager to see if acupuncture could help me return to more normal functioning. I was afraid to drive to the appointment, knowing that a single painful sneeze could send me careening into an immovable object. My friend picked me up and asked “Should we be going to the ER instead?” I said, “No, this has happened to me before. We’re going to the right place.”
In the treatment room, my acupuncturist, Bob, arranged another complex pillow formation so I could lie on my stomach without putting pressure on my low back. It took a pillow under my stomach and two piled under my calves to get comfortable. I realized that I’ve always taken for granted the work my body does while I’m lying down.
Bob used what felt like 12 needles. One on the inside of each lower ankle, the rest on the small of my back. Only two of them hurt going in, but not like the sharp, linear pain you’d imagine from a sewing needle. Instead it was like he’d released a small globe of bottled up sensation that burst when exposed to the air. When the worst one went in, I exclaimed, “Ooh! That was a good one.” Immediately I felt tension in my right leg, between the whole length of it, needle to needle.
——–> ——-> ——>
After about 20 minutes, almost all the dull ache and tension had subsided. I imagined myself hopping off the table like a little kid. But then when I moved to stand up, the pain was still there. When Bob asked how I felt, I grimaced, and he said, “You can be honest.” In a couple moments, my brain went from “hopes dashed” to “better to have no expectations” to “oh well.”
Then as I was putting on my socks, I noticed a subtle tingling in both feet. Like fairy dust had been sprinkled and the extra was falling off onto the carpet. When I stood up, at least half my pain was gone. I could walk normally. I could have driven home, but of course had no car. Another friend was waiting in the parking lot to drive me home, where I washed dishes and prepared my own dinner.
Today, feeling almost normal, I feel grateful for the pain – it lasted just two days. I feel grateful for my moments of being present, not worrying about economic collapse or widespread starvation. I feel grateful for my friends, my acupuncturist Bob, and my boyfriend who cooked for two days so I wouldn’t have to stand up in the kitchen. I feel grateful for my body, for its weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For its strength and endurance, and for the fact that wherever I am, my body is with me with all its energies and its pains and its mysteries, and that means that I am home.