My Back Ache, My Emotional Barometer

I turned 40 and my body started falling apart.

Mostly it’s my back, but honestly: If your spine isn’t moving right your entire body is a disaster. I’ve battled back pain since college when my altruistic effort to help freshmen move their overfilled suitcases into our college dorm ended with my lying on the floor, back spasming and my body unable to move. Since then my back has been my emotional barometer. There is a direct correlation between how tall I can stand (and for how long) and the amount of stressI am under. I am an adrenaline junkie and use this great hormone to fuel much of my attempts at work-life balance. So often I’m flying along, thinking I’ve got everything under control, and my back grounds me. It reminds me that I am pushing myself too hard, that I am not sleeping enough and that I am about to crash.

Considering this symbiotic relationship my back and I have developed, I was very surprised when, during our recovery from Superstorm Sandy, my back felt great. Pain didn’t awaken me each time I rolled over at night (my worries did, but that’s another story). I was able to clear out closets, throw piles of my belongings to the curb, haul boxes of salvaged items up the stairs. It was my Joan of Arc moment — I was a warrior and this was my fight. During the ensuing months when it felt as if I did little more than sit on my bed (it did extra duty as our couch, dining room table and office desk) my back did not stage a protest. It was strong, mimicking the strength I was conjuring each day when I got out of bed, nuked yet another hot dog for the kids and maintained patience when my contractor did not show up — again.

But then the house got rebuilt. Morning came and I could fry an egg. We had a couch to sit on and a table to sit at while we rediscovered the rituals that had been lost to us: sharing stories about our day, laughing when my son burped (even though we all knew we shouldn’t) and forcing the kids to try a new food. By all appearances, our lives had returned to normal. But by August, while our house was done we still had so many unknowns. There was the startling difference between our insurance company settlement and our contractor’s bill. There was the humbling experience of waiting on line at Build it Back, New York City’s program to help Sandy victims, as if we had our hands out. There were my 2012 taxes which finally had to be faced, an experience I always dread but that this time had my heart racing in the middle of the night. I know I lived through a hurricane but the aftermath resembled more an earthquake, with aftershocks still rocking my foundation at the most unexpected moments.

In August is when I broke down. I had my first panic attack, the first time I could not use my rational mind to calm my irrational one. I had zero patience left for my children. And then my back made its presence known, not with a twinge but with a roar. Standing up, sitting down, bending over, sneezing, coughing, rolling over at night all shot pain straight through me. Where did this all come from? I had done so well up until this point. I had managed the children and the finances and the laundry/kitchen and the rebuild. I had made it through. Why, now that it was all over, was I falling apart?

I didn’t want to think about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had lived through a hurricane, not war or torture or abuse. Nothing happened to me that could not be fixed. And yet — there I was, unable to fit myself into the optimistic mold from which I had been originally cast. I was me but not myself. I had flashes of unexpected anger. The sight of the ocean’s waves or, strangely, the 100-pack of Chinet plates that we used during what I call our “refugee days” of living on the second floor, made me cold inside. And then my body started falling apart.

I finally started to accept that maybe I was flirting with post-traumatic stress after reading this from the National Institutes of Mental Health:

When in danger, it’s natural to feel afraid. This fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to prepare to defend against the danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a healthy reaction meant to protect a person from harm. But in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this reaction is changed or damaged. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they’re no longer in danger.

PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.

I somehow got through August and then September, with its return to school and routines, slowed my racing heart. We gave up on Build it Back helping us and decided to rely on ourselves, which was liberating in its own way. We didn’t owe anything to the Internal Revenue Service, which was a massive relief. And we got a hold off our finances and figured out how we’d make those last contractor payments. Reclaiming control over a life that felt out of control was wonderfully calming.

Despite all this progress, my back still isn’t happy. And I think I know the reason. I’ve spent so much effort on the external — the house, the finances, the family — but have completely ignored the internal. For months I ate horribly — cookies for breakfast, fried anything anytime and I forgot what vegetables tasted like. I drank too much. I sat too much. But that was all okay, then, because I was keeping everything else afloat, often by sheer power of my own will. But now, the ship is sailing on its own. Routines have returned. Normal, boring days are fabulously persistent. And so it’s time to turn my gaze inward.

I’m committed to eating better — lots of fruits and vegetables and less of anything from a can or box — and being aware of the difference between wanting a drink and needing a drink (and finding another solution when it’s the latter). I will start running again, once the weather complies. Until then I’m committed to yoga five days a week, and already I’m feeling a difference. I feel stronger. I’m calmer. And yes, even my back aches less.

With each remaining twinge of pain, however, I know I have a long road ahead of me. But I strongly believe that progress only comes through goal-setting. If you hope for something but aspire to nothing, aspiration will beat out hope every time. I look forward to the morning when I wake up without a groan, can sneeze without a jolt of pain and, most of all, feel that my physical strength once again matches my mental fortitude. Slowly but surely, I’ll put this body back together.



What do you think?

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