Up until two weeks ago, I had only had two back aches in my life. Recently I had my third one. A more accurate description would be total back spasm or pain in the ass, if you will. I was perplexed and very distressed. The first time was when I was about 12 years old.
The second was when I was a gas-fitter in my twenties and had been humping water-tanks and furnaces in and out of basements. At the time I was sure that that is what was to blame for the “injury.” I recall that it happened in the days leading up to Christmas. Luckily for me my boss's business was slow enough that I was allowed a few days to recuperate.
Recently, I was at work in my job as a letter-carrier and bent down to pick up a fallen letter. Something invisible stabbed into my spine and all the muscles and connective tissue in my lower back turned into frozen rawhide. It hurt to breath, it hurt to stand, sit or move. I gripped the edge of my desk in order to straighten up, while eying the fellow to my left to make sure he didn't notice.
I hadn't recently fallen, stumbled, slipped and was completely baffled as to why this was happening. Waves of pain rolled up from my tailbone and pains shot down both hamstrings to my socks. I lost my appetite and felt sea-sick for a week. I accidentally discovered that sometimes I could breath out deeply and accomplish a bend in the waist that was impossible if I held my breath.
I worked two days in this condition and lay like a corpse on the living room floor at my apartment all weekend as this was the only position in which I could tolerate the pain. I worked two more days and had two days off for Christmas. I took the first muscle relaxant medication I had ever used and can tell you that it made no impact at all. I lay in boiling hot baths to no avail. When walking my route, my body produced enough endorphins to make the pain tolerable.
During my stints of laying flat on my back, I saw millions of still images play at hyper speed through my minds eye. Images from my past. They paraded like photographs and I could feel a physical sensation of something being flushed and re-wired in my brain. It was very similar to deleting a million old files, uninstalling a half-dozen programs and then cleaning and defragging the registry of a computer.
As I mused on this strange set of happenings I remembered that my stomach had been acting very out of my ordinary for several years. I have always been able to eat anything that couldn't run away fast enough and digest as well as a sea-gull. These powers had deserted me and as a consequence I was for the first time eating like a careful bird instead of a healthy wolf. I came to the conclusion that my back ailment was not physical in the sense of a specific physical injury. I knew it was psychological in nature and that furthermore it was a good sign that it was happening. It started in the stomach to prepare me for worse.
I learned long ago that life is pure efficiency. In the case of a human, particularly in the artificial lifestyle we lead in the modern world, the body will suppress certain functions to give more energy to other ones that it deems to take precedence in importance. First on the list is the hunt. Gathering that which is needed to provide for the brood. In this mode, preference is given to certain hormones and energy is given to muscles to do physical work. Pain and discomfort is suppressed as is healing and repair work on injuries already sustained.
In a normal human environment, the adrenaline fueled hunt part of a day would have much more slack time available so that the body could switch gears quickly and do some repairs before the next episode of high tension. In this repair work, extra blood is sent to the work site and nutrients are exchanged for dead cells which are carried away. The physical increase in size of the vessels alone triggers millions of nerve endings and their pain receptors.
Naturally, much of this would occur when the body being repaired was asleep and maybe go unnoticed. Light activity during the peaceful days before the next hunt or fight would serve to keep tissues supplied with oxygen and also stretch new tissue to keep its suppleness and range of motion. In a world of constant ambient stress, this is only possible for the perfectly well-regimented, self-disciplined individual who has figured all of this out in advance.
I received some e-mails from a friend during the period I was with the pain and they contained links to videos of a Doctor who had written several books and was lecturing controversial theories about the nature of illness and addictions. I hadn't spoken to this friend about any problems so it was interesting to see what he was moved to send me at that time. I watched a couple and found that I had come to many of the same conclusions as the Dr. I also learned some new insights about brain development in stressed infants and children.
Simultaneously to all of this, I thanked my Creator for allowing the healing of certain things from my own past to proceed at this time. I recently handed in my notice of retirement to the Post Office where I have toiled for just shy of thirty years, which is more than half of my life to date. The effect of this “light at the end of the tunnel” or lessening of the stress of the hunt which had occupied my life was to shift the gears into repair mode for the first time in a very long time.
I daresay I have more invisible scars than physical but I know that three decades of letter-carrying have placed great wear on many parts of my physical body from head to toe. It is a rule that anything that hurts “going in” will hurt “going out.” This is why I can see the pains in a proper light. It is a far worse scenario to imagine not feeling them. To know that they lurked within, destroying and limiting from deep shadows.
I found myself writing while still in the grip of the back spasm and I was surprised at the subject, when I read it later. I do not write unconsciously but I also do not plan ahead what I will write. I simply go to a keyboard when I know I must and start writing what comes. Like taking a pitcher of water and pouring it out. When I finished the stories, Tiny Gulps Of Air and A Parley With Something Other, I felt “miraculously” as limber as an inch-worm.
I know that if I would have complicated the process by seeking pharmaceuticals a worse situation would have surely been created. To put it in Piney Woods parlance, “It's natural to be tighter than a bull's ass in fly-time when your being chased by a bear but the next day you are bound to notice that you can't dance too good that way.” Masking over the pain or denying its existence are equally futile non-solutions. If you ever find yourself shaking like an aspen in a North wind and you aren't sure why, keep shaking, look up and say thanks. Some old injury either mental, physical or spiritual is being tended to in the natural way.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.