Faith Gong: Pain in the back

I’ve been middle aged for a while now, but it didn’t feel official until last month, when I threw out my back.

My husband, who has spent much of his adult life sitting at desks and working on computers, was throwing out his back and neck on a regular basis long before he hit middle age. Sometimes he’d just roll out of bed the wrong way, and he’d spend the next few days with his head cocked to one side, moaning painfully. But I have spent much of my adult life chasing after children rather than sitting at desks; this was my first experience with severe back pain.

It happened in the least glamourous way possible. My husband and I had to participate in the same meeting on Zoom, so we were sharing a single laptop screen. Attempting to hide from our children, we chose to attend the meeting in my “office” (a desk and chair set up between the washer/dryer and the sewing machine). My husband arrived first to set up, so he took the chair; I arrived several minutes late, after getting the kids settled, so I perched on a stepladder. I spent the entire 90-minute meeting atop that stepladder, hunched slightly forward and to the right so that I could see the laptop screen. When the meeting ended, I could barely stand.

I spent the next day hobbling around, clutching at my lower back. It hurt to sit, it hurt to lie down. Worst of all was getting up from sitting or lying down: The act of rising to my feet forced me into bizarre contortions as I made noises that sounded like a heartbroken camel. I walked around with an ice pack strapped around my midsection. I felt a sudden upwelling of sympathy for my husband and his years of back and neck pain. I understood now: Back pain is horrible, and when every movement hurts it can make life seem horrible, too.

Thankfully, I’d recently booked an appointment with our family chiropractor. (Side note: I’d never heard of chiropractors until we moved to Vermont, but everyone here seems to see one for their aches and pains. Since my husband throws things out frequently, he visits our chiropractor fairly regularly; I tend to wait until I can barely move. Our chiropractor makes parts of my body crack, gives me some exercises to do, and I feel better eventually. Also, he’s a really nice guy). I’d made the appointment for a separate issue: For almost two years, my right arm had been falling asleep and waking me up at night, and now I was having more frequent tingling, numbness, and pain in my right hand. I’d waited it out through the COVID-19 pandemic, but now I was vaccinated and ready to tackle the issue.

“Oh no! What happened to you?!?” the chiropractor exclaimed as I hobbled into his office.

It turned out that I had sprained my back due to my prolonged bad posture during that Zoom call. My chiropractor identified the source of the problem (with lots of yelps on my end), did something to my back that made a loud CRACK, and told me to take ibuprofen for the next few days, after which I should start feeling better.

Then it was on to the issue with my right arm. After a lengthy examination, my chiropractor diagnosed me with “Classic Baby Syndrome.” The explanation goes something like this: When you care for a baby, you tend to hold that baby on one side so that you can do things with your dominant arm — in my case, my right arm. Over time — in my case, thirteen years, more than a quarter of my life — your body can get lopsided, warped and twisted so that nerves in your neck get pinched and cause pain and tingling down your arm.

He gave me some stretches to do at home and suggested avoiding things that make the arm pain worse, like certain kinds of housework. He wondered aloud whether I need to pick up our 18-month-old, 25-pound son as often as I do.

Now, I know my chiropractor to be a wonderful and involved father, but it’s clearly been a while since he had an 18-month-old around. Yes, my son can walk and climb by himself, but his agenda goes something like this: Open all the cabinets and remove contents. Open all the drawers and remove contents. Notice unattended glass of water — spill it! Notice dog bowls — attempt to eat dog food and pour out water. Diaper bin, toilet, trash can = MUST TOUCH! Repeat! 

So I expect to be picking up our son for quite some time, but there was something that I wanted to follow up on: “I’m pretty sure I heard you say that, in order to heal, I should stop cleaning my house?”

My back pain did subside eventually. The issues with my neck and arm will take longer; healing damage from long-entrenched behaviors takes time. I did not stop cleaning my house.

After my appointment I started noticing how my entire life seems to require my body to be imbalanced and hunched forward. Carrying, feeding, and dressing my son. Leaning over schoolwork with my daughters. Putting in our garden. Cooking and washing dishes. Lugging baskets of laundry to fold and put away. Hanging on to the dog’s leash as she lunges at our ducks, who quack nonchalantly by the side of the driveway. Reading books in the precious pre-bedtime quiet. Typing this column on my laptop.

Annie Dillard famously wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I would add: And how we spend our days gets written into our bodies. I envision archaeologists finding my skeleton thousands of years from now and concluding, “Looks like this one carried babies on her left side for over a decade: Classic Baby Syndrome.”

It seems obvious that our bodies will reflect what we do repeatedly, but it’s in middle age that they start complaining about it. Still, reviewing the list of activities that cause my stiff neck, tingling arms, and a back prone to throwing out, I wouldn’t change a thing. Something has changed, though: Now I try to remember to find moments every day when I can stand up straight, roll my shoulders back, and lift my head (and sometimes my arms) to the sky. I don’t want to rid my life of the things that keep me looking down, but I need to remember that there are other ways to stand.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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