Opinion | What if the Ache By no means Ends?

I also began to see how my stubbornness in the face of this pain, my struggle to defeat it with willpower, reflected the stubborn denial I held onto in the hands of my drug addiction. I was always overwhelmed by my feelings and tried to deactivate them, to deny them, to defeat them. Of course I couldn’t. I saw my addiction as a condition that could be treated but not cured. To stay sober, I had to learn to accept my emotional pain and tolerate my own feelings. I also had to accept something that my exaggerated self was most afraid of: that I needed help. But somehow in the depths of my journey through back pain I didn’t see the connection and kept fighting and fighting.

I religiously practiced my physical therapy exercises and saw my chiropractor. Over the course of many months my condition improved and eventually went into remission for two years. I threw off the foam jigs and went back to my writing as I slowly walked down the treadmill desk I graduated from. I believed my body was fixed.

But last fall, shortly after I moved from Brooklyn to Iowa City, the pain in my back returned, bringing with it an unbearable three months of sciatica. I went to a sports medicine clinic, then a neurologist, and finally a pain clinic. I took new types of muscle relaxants, mostly ineffective, and gabapentin, which helped. An MRI showed me the herniated disc that was causing my pain.

After a steroid injection into my piriformis – about as comfortable as it sounds – and a noticeable improvement, I risked an artist residency in New Hampshire. Five days later, the pain had pressed me to the floor and could no longer walk. There I was again: I needed help.

My 65 year old mother had to drive six hours to scratch me and pack all of my things. In the weeks that followed, she found me walking, took me to a clinic for a steroid injection of the spine, and one excruciating night made a makeshift bedpan out of Tupperware. I do not lose the privilege of having someone willing and able to look after me in this way with love and without pay.

Susan Sontag wrote in “Illness as a Metaphor” that “everyone who is born has dual citizenship, in the realm of the well and in the realm of the sick”. How reluctant we are to admit that there is only one kingdom and that some of us simply have not yet traveled its more rocky areas. It is inevitable. We’re all going to need care. We will all long for a place to stay. Until then, we can decide to what extent we want to indulge in the fantasy that wellness is a condition we somehow deserve, rather than a passing happiness that is guaranteed to run out.

Even when my pain has subsided, I understand that I am not “better”. I am different. Pain changed me I understand that it will return in one form or another and that I will need the care of others, and I am determined to meet it with gratitude and grace at this point. My worst nightmare is no longer living in a state of chronic pain and addiction, but rather resuming my old belief that such a life is inferior.

Melissa Febos is the author of two memoirs, Whip Smart and Abandon Me, and a new collection of essays, Girlhood.

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