Ouch! That really hurts! My back’s been a mess since I was a kid. Fell off one horse too many. Rebuilt in 1967 — fusion and laminectomy using saws and chisels — long before micro surgery and instrumentation. I’m not special because I deal with pain. I’ve got plenty of company. It’s just sometimes, I feel like I’ve got too much company. We’re all squished together in an over-crowded lifeboat. Sinking. Together.

Me at 20, a year post spinal fusion.

I’ve had a lot of problems with my back over the years. The fusion, which was bone paste made from a piece of my hip, began to disintegrate about 25 years ago, to be replaced by a sheathing of arthritic calcification. That’s not such a bad thing because without the arthritis, I’d (literally) fall apart.

Looking at pictures of me in years gone by, I got to wondering how the long winding road of life landed me here. How did the bright-eyed woman become this creaking achy old thing fighting to keep moving under her own power?

Who is this person?

She doesn’t look or act like me. I can vouch for this because I used to be her, but now I am not at all sure who I am or whose body this is. While I slept, someone slipped in an imposter body. I would jump right on the imposter theory except being me is not something any sane person would want. If I had a say in the matter, I would be healthier, wealthier and younger. Some other body, but I’d keep the brain. I like that piece of me.

Life changes, sometimes in a split seconds.

stages of spondylolythesis
I’m grade 4, considered a miracle I can walk. It’s only part of the problem. That’s the way it usually works. You don’t have a single problem, you have a basket of related problems.

Remember Christopher Reeve? One minute, he was a big, handsome, strapping movie star. A dreadful split second later, he was someone else.

My down hill slide occurred at the pace at which bones and joints calcify. I broke my back when I was a kid. I was reconstructed when I was 19. For the next 35 years, I refused to pay any attention to my spine. I was not going to be disabled. Not me. It was mind over matter and I am strong.

Turns out, mind over matter only takes you so far. Seven years ago, I began to have trouble walking. My balance became erratic. I lost sensation in my feet and miscellaneous reflexes disappeared. I went to doctors, orthopedic hot shots. All of them said I need a new spinal fusion, the old one having fallen apart over the long years. Diagnosis: Horrible spine. Solution: New fusion in which I get screwed together using metal rods. After surgery, I would be in even more pain than now, but my spine would be stable. Say what? This surgery would be the 21st century version of the surgery I had in 1967.

I said Hell no and took my case to the top spine guy in Boston, the Supreme Court of spinal diagnosis.

He said I don’t need surgery. More to the point, he said the surgery wouldn’t solve my problems. Now I heard: “Your back has got you through this far, it’ll take you the rest of the way. Pain control, gentle exercise, and recognize your limits. Don’t do anything stupid.” Like fall off a horse? Lift heavy packages?

There are a lot of members of the back pain club. After you join the club, you usually get a lifetime membership. I finally discovered I have a problem I can’t fix. No amount of persistence, research, medical attention or cleverness is going to make it go away. So I’ve designed the world to make my back happy. We have a back-friendly home. From our adjustable bed, to the reclining sofa, our place is kind to spines.


There’s no moral to this story. It’s just life. If you don’t die young, odds are you hurt. The years roll on, pain gets worse.

I’ve had to accept reality but I don’t have to like it. Sooner or later we all face an intractable problem. Or several. It’s a nasty shock, especially if you’ve always believed you are unstoppable.

When you hit that wall, I recommend very comfortable furniture.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.


  1. Almost 2 years ago I had a spinal fusion at L5-S1. I understand all too well the problems you are having. Since my surgery the pain has gotten to the point of on a scale of 0-10 it at a constant 9-10, more often a 10. Unlike you I never had back problems before this, I fell at work and compresed my spine. I have been to a paim management Dr. before and after my surgery and had just about every diagnostic and block that we know of in Nursing. I have been referred back to a surgeon on 3 different occasions and been denied. The pain Dr. tried to force the Medtronic Stimulator in my back, which has more downfalls and risks, which I found out from Medtronics, when I spoke with them. I was on Kadien for awhile with 15 mg morphine for breakthrough pain. It did no good. So now my PCP has me on 80mg Oxycotin BID, Percocet 10/325 Q4H prn for breakthrough pain, Valium 10mg QID and Glycolax for the problems with bowel movements due to the pain meds. And nothing stops the pain, it may lower it one level on the pain scale, but no more. I was diabled last year in April and put in a wheelchair in Jan 2008. I wish you luck and hope things work out for you.


  2. What a great post, Marilyn: it is unflinching, funny at times, wise and reveals a truth many of us try to avoid facing up to. Thank you for this. And a lovely photo of the younger you. xxx


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