Friday, August 15, 2014

How I Got My Back Back

On Sunday I helped lift a giant refrigerator up and down stairs. Today I carried a squirmy toddler all over the zoo in my arms for three and a half hours. My back feels fine. In fact, it feels good.

If you've known me for longer than six months, you've probably heard me complain about back pain at some point. Chronic pain is like that. It makes it hard to talk or think about anything else.

Starting when Westley was about a year old, every day was a game of Russian roulette with my own body. It was not a question of whether or not I would be in pain today—the pain was always there—it was a question of how much pain? In the mornings, before I'd even tried to roll over in bed, I would begin to wonder: today would I be able to sit, drive, walk, lie down, lift my baby? As time passed and the pain increased, the state of my low back determined the course (and mood) of my days.

There was no obvious source of the discomfort. I hadn't been injured. I'd had horrendous back labor with Westley, but as soon as a baby's head was no longer pressing into my spine, my back felt great! The pain seemed to come out of nowhere. Doctors suspected something might be off with my digestive system, or my pelvic floor muscles, or both. Or maybe I had injured my back, and I didn't remember? That seemed unlikely, but, I guessed, possible in my postpartum haze.

Because I had no real diagnosis, I tried all kinds of things to fix my back, some of them bordering on the crazy. I tried physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic care, various forms of exercise including a series of yoga classes designed to heal back pain, heating pads, ice, vitamins, herbs, and support belts. I spooned with a giant piece of selenite. I had wires and sensors placed in my vagina for pelvic floor biofeedback therapy, and ate things I never imagined I would eat ever again or at all (salmon, yogurt, cod liver oil, beef heart). I figured that if I explored enough avenues, one of them would lead somewhere good.

Some of the treatments seemed to work a little, for a little while. Other aspects of my health. I slept better. My energy levels improved by leaps and bounds. My mood was less volatile and my depression all but vanished. But my back still hurt, to one degree or another, all the time.

The thing that finally worked was a book I found by accident.

I was searching the library's catalog for The Divided Mind by John E. Sarno, MD. However, the first book to come up under Dr. Sarno's name was called Healing Back Pain. I checked it out and read it in four days.

My back felt better after two days. Dr. Sarno describes a condition called Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS), and a type of person(ality) prone to experiencing it. I saw myself in passage after passage, and despite some skepticism (was this the Forer effect at work?) I was able to internalize Dr. Sarno's theory enough to erase my pain before I'd even finished the book.

TMS pain involves muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments but it starts with the mind. The pain is real, and it's awful, but it exists only as a distraction from repressed trauma and unacceptable emotions. In other words, there's nothing wrong with my back. (My L5-S1 "problem" isn't a problem after all.) It's my feelings that are broken.

I've been pain-free since May. The past three months have been exhilarating in their normalcy. I'm filled with ridiculous excitement every time I watch myself do a totally run-of-the-mill thing without any back pain. I can make the bed and not worry that I'm going to collapse. I can carry Ivy in my arms for an outing and not be immobile the next day. I can walk and even dance in high heels! I can lie down in any position I feel like.

Chronic low back pain was practically my whole identity for six years. I wish I hadn't suffered unnecessarily for so long. But I feel stronger, healthier, and happier now than I remember feeling—ever.

I'm really back.


Thursday, August 14, 2014



At 4:18 this afternoon, Ivy turned two. It seems just right for her. Perhaps I think that because I've been telling people she's two for a couple weeks already—because I like the way it sounds. But Ivy is the kind of two people think of when they think of two-year-olds.

On bad days, the word "terrible" comes to mind.

Ivy can't stop moving. She screams. She throws things. She runs away, full speed ahead, never looking back, often laughing. She is terribly strong-willed and difficult to distract. She does not take no for an answer. Among her favorite phrases is "can I?"—which, smashed together in toddlerspeak, sounds like "kai"—but it's not really a question. She will ask all day for the thing she wants. Even (and especially) if the answer is no. "Kai banana?" We don't have any bananas. "Kai banana?" We don't have any bananas. All gone. "Kai banana, wight now?" Ivy, we don't— "Kai cookie?"

Anything can become an obsession. Her attention span is ridiculous. I recently watched her put on and then try to buckle her own sandal for twenty minutes. A few times she asked, "Help?" but each time before I could move she bellowed, "I do it!"

Her favorite game—one she invented—is called "Ready-Set-Go." When I'm standing in the kitchen, chopping or mixing something, Ivy will suddenly appear next to my leg: "You play Weddy-Set-Go wif me?" Then we go out in the back yard and stand at one edge of the deck and Ivy says, "Weddy...set...GO!" and we run as fast as we can to the other side of the deck. When we get to the edge, she says "good job, Mama!" (assuming I followed the "as fast as we can" running rule) and then: "Weddy-Set-Go again?" This would go on for hours if I let it.

Ivy has no Medium setting. She's fearless. She climbs things, sometimes shouting "Catch!" as she throws herself into my arms. She loves to hang on monkey bars or furniture—"Kai dangle?"—pulling her knees to her chest and lifting her feet off the ground. She thrashes while nursing, does somersaults in her sleep. Even when she's concentrating hard (Twenty minutes! On one shoe!) I can see her vibrating with the energy of doing something.

Since Ivy was tiny, I've been calling her intense. The more I get to know her, the more I understand that a huge part of her intensity is passion. She is passionate about life, in a brand-new-person way: insisting that we count the animals in the farm book each time, trying on all the shoes at the thrift store, taking huge, audible gulps of milk when she nurses. Ivy feels things deep-down. Everything moves her, so she can't stop moving.


Happy birthday, dearest girl. I'm overwhelmed and overjoyed to be part of your amazing life. 


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Out of the Blue

I was just thinking about him. Ivy's birthday is coming up, and I was remembering that when I was in early-early labor, we watched Aladdin while waiting for Rob's mom to come pick up Westley. I had just been wondering how the guy who was my first favorite actor was doing.

And then I read that he was gone. At first, the news was more eerie than sad.

This morning, I took Westley and Ivy to KidsQuest Children's Museum. We arrived right at opening time, and they were still setting up for the day. One young staff member was sitting on the floor, finishing something on a low blackboard. After several minutes and a thoughtful pause, she stood up, to reveal a beautiful "life-size" portrait of the Genie's face, blue and smiling.

My heart stopped. (I regret not having my camera with me. I pray that some other patron captured the image, because the amount of love and care that went into it was undeniable.) I spent the rest of the morning in the bipolar headspace of witnessing both my children's joy—Train table! Arts and crafts! Enormous Light Brite!—and also my own deep sadness.

Robin Williams' humor was a consistent source of joy in my childhood, and suicidal depression was a profound sculptor of my young adulthood. I want to say something meaningful about the tragic overlap of the two, but all I can think is, No. Something has gone terribly wrong.


* * *

Westley and I watched Aladdin this afternoon, while Ivy napped in my arms. It had been long enough since Westley had seen the movie that he'd forgotten most of it, and the jokes had him jumping up and down with laughter. I had forgotten the Genie's ecstatic, triumphant exit: "I'm history! No, I'm mythology! Nah, I don't care what I am—I'm free!"