I was not a happy teenager. My thoughts revolved around back pain. Can I make it through class without standing up? When did I last take Advil? How far will I have to carry my backpack? In high school, those metal seats with the desk attached were my enemies; I wondered if I could make it through a whole class without standing up for a break. Like most people I tried hard to be cool but my main preoccupation was managing pain.
At 15 I began complaining of a pulled hamstring, and when I was still complaining a year later I was taken to an orthopedist, where x-rays revealed Spondylolisthesis in my low back. A fracture in the facet joints had allowed the vertebrae to fall forward, narrowing the nerve canal and causing shooting pain down my right leg.
The surgeon suggested a spinal fusion but I wasn’t in enough pain to fathom that option. I remember him saying, “You’ll know when you need surgery, because you’ll be crawling in here.” Thus began my introduction to every other type of rehabilitation.
My first stop was physical therapy. A stinging electromyography test showed nerve damage in my right foot. Electric stimulation and massage provided no relief for the constant low-level and occasionally shooting nerve pain. Next I tried a series of acupuncture treatments but again, no change.
A physiatrist, who specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation, had nothing to offer except a referral to a little known specialty with a funny name; Feldenkrais. Surprisingly, I had a few hours of increased flexibility and pain relief after this gentle series of directed movements. But the pain came back quickly and soon I was off to college and still managing chronic pain.
Throughout college I diligently did sit-ups because I heard the key to a strong back is a strong stomach. Despite this effort, the constant nerve pain remained and my back began to ache in the mornings and evenings. I felt unstable and broken in the middle. And over 4 years of playing girls division III tennis in college, the thing that increased most was my Advil intake.
After college I moved to San Francisco and landed my first desk job. 8 hours a day of sitting brought more stiffness and aches. Stiffness while I watched my friends run to catch the bus in the morning and I walked gingerly until my back warmed up. And aches as I left the happy hour early because my back was so tired I could not stay upright a moment longer. I began gentle yoga, which didn’t change my back pain but did increase my flexibility. I enjoyed the grounding, calming effect, but if I missed a few days I lost the flexibility I had gained. When I finally got into Feldenkrais again later, I gained the flexibility and didn’t lose it. But more about that later.
Over time, managing pain became larger than the pain itself. It affected my habits in thinking, my emotions, and my experience of life. For 8 years managing pain framed my entire life experience. By the time I was 23 I felt like I was 80. As the aches and pain increased, the surgeon’s warning from years ago came back to me. I was ready to crawl.