Last week my back gave out. In the space of a few minutes I went from a minor twinge in my lower back to significant pain. A few hours later I was in absolute agony, trapped in bed and unable to so much as lift my head or shift my legs.
At its worst, I wasn’t thinking about much of anything at all. I debated waiting and seeing how things unfolded, versus calling for an ambulance to take me to the emergency room. I contemplated the jar next to the bed, and whether I’d have to use it or whether I might manage to escape the bed long enough to make it to the bathroom. I looked at my ceiling and counted the screws in the old, sealed and painted-over light fixture. Two of them. Flatheads. I counted them again. They were still a pair of flathead screws. I started to fantasize about having a screwdriver and making them turn. About what a fixture would look like up there, and what I’d want it to be.
I turned the pages on my Nook, dimly aware of what I was reading. A Warhammer 40K novel about the crippled Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor. I thought about his character trapped in a chair, a mind roaming free but pinned to a ruined body. Then I’d think about how tired my arms were, holding the reader over my head. I’d plan my next move. Maybe I’d try and wriggle a few inches toward the wall, so I could get my head propped a bit. Not yet, it still hurt too much, but maybe in an hour.
Eventually things started to get better. A friend called, a physical therapist, and she told me what was probably going on and how to start fixing it. Some videos followed a few minutes later, showing me how to do things like get out of bed without screaming. She said I had to get out of bed: standing and moving was the only thing that was going to help. I mentioned that was going to be tough and got a glimpse of her professional side: understanding but also uninterested.
“Yeah, it’s going to suck. Get out of bed.”
She was right, of course. With MK’s help I was able to stand and start shuffling around the apartment. It hurt. A lot, and then a bit less. And then less after that. Enough that I could even start to joke about it.
I guess I’d say I was startled. Not by the injury, really. The truth is I probably should have seen this coming. I have lived in my office chair since September, pulling ever-longer days on oh-so-urgent work and professional play. I kept waking up with a stiff lower back, a pain that was in no way normal but became normal through habituation. My weight was slowly but steadily increasing, well beyond any numbers I was comfortable with.
But all of this was trouble for later. I needed to work, needed to make money. After that, I could address all the other things I was letting go to hell in my life. I never noticed that there was no “after”. That I was saving health, fitness, and rest for a time that would never arrive, because work never ends. So when my body finally shut me down, I wasn’t surprised. It was almost part of the plan.
But what did surprise me was how quickly my life reoriented itself around my health. How everything that had been important on Monday was irrelevant and forgotten by Wednesday night. Unlike anything else, it revealed how distorted my perspective has become over the last year. Work that I thought was urgent, too important to be delayed even an hour, was set aside indefinitely without a second thought. Editors that, in my head, I imagined as waiting impatiently for my next draft were the first people to tell me to forget about work and not to worry. In the space of 48 hours my overbooked and stressful life became simple and uncluttered.
Nobody wanted me to hurt myself. Nobody needed anything so badly that I should put it ahead of my well-being. All of that worry and stress that contributed to this injury proved to be my own creation. Everyone seemed to have a better sense of what my priorities should be than I did.
And as the agony of Tuesday and Wednesday fade into memory, I begin to worry I’ll forget the clarity brought on by a few days of near-paralysis and over a week of pain and discomfort. I worry I’ll forget what healing felt like, what it felt like to put my well-being first. I worry I’ll once again start telling myself that I can’t take a walk or a trip to the gym because it’s more important to publish a preview two hours earlier.
I guess I never really did take my health that seriously, in part because my chosen pursuits and occupation are all mental, not physical. Aches and pains would be nice to live without, but it’s not like I needed to be all that fit to do what I do. My always-limited time seemed like it was better invested in more work, play, and reading. Things that could translate to me being better and more effective at my job.
But having briefly lost my health, I finally see how everything hinges on the physical soundness that I took for granted and abused. There’s no life of the mind when you’re pissing into a jar and thinking, for the first and only time in your life, how nice a catheter would be. There’s no play when you can’t sit down and, even standing, your thoughts keep getting yanked toward the lances of pain shooting through your back and down into your hips.
It all just went away, briefly, like a brownout on an over-capacity powergrid. And as I lay there in the darkness, I realized I would have done anything to have the lights come back on, to have my life once again be about the things I can do, instead of the things I could not.