I don’t want this to sound as if I think I’m special because I deal with pain. I realize I’ve got plenty of company. It’s just that sometimes, I feel like I’m in an over-crowded lifeboat. Sinking.
There a central irony to this story, so I’ll start with the irony and go from there.
Parents, school advisors, well-meaning friends and family are forever urging kids to get out and get physical. Join a team. Take up a sport. Get some fresh air. Exercise. It’s good for you, right?
It is good for you. Mostly. But. Youthful athletic activity is often the start of a lifetime of pain. How many young men destroy their knees playing football? How many girls dislocate their spines in gymnastics? How many head injuries happen during little league baseball games? How many broken backs are the result of falling off horses? It’s not rare or unusual.
These days, everyone knows about the dangers, but it doesn’t stop kids from playing or parents from encouraging their involvement. Safety equipment is available, but injuries happen anyhow. Active sports are dangerous. It’s a fact. I’m not suggesting anyone stop playing sports. Life is meant to be lived, risks and all.
The irony is that sports are good for you if you don’t get hurt. If the helmet keeps the baseball from braining you. If getting tackled doesn’t tear the ligaments and tendons in your knees. If you don’t break your ankle coming down from a jump shot. If you ride well, don’t fall and land on your butt … or head.
For me, it was horses. I love horses. I love riding. I didn’t take lessons. I just got on and rode. I fell a few times. It looks funny when you land on your butt. Everyone laughs as you get up and limp back to your mount. You’re young. You suck it up.
Ignoring pain isn’t necessarily good. Pain can mean something is wrong. I dislocated my spine. Repeatedly. Each fall worsened the problem. One day after riding, I noticed my back didn’t hurt. I couldn’t feel much of anything. My back was numb and aside from tingling, so was my right leg. That scared me. I was used to pain. I figured it was part of athletics. No pain, no gain, isn’t that what everyone says? But numbness was new and I figured maybe I should see a doctor.
My spine was 50% displaced and was pressing on my spinal cord. Which accounted for the lack of sensation. If something wasn’t done about it, I was going to be in a wheel chair before I was old enough to vote — 21 back then.
At 19, it hadn’t occurred to me I might have a real problem. In those days, we didn’t run to the doctor for every bang, bruise or pain not because we were tougher, but because we were ignorant. We’re more sophisticated these days but in the early 1960s, no one thought much about sports injures. Kids played hockey, rode bikes and horses, played sandlot baseball. Nobody owned safety equipment. If we had, we’d have been embarrassed to use it. Only a total weenie would wear a helmet on a bicycle. Has that changed or do kids remove their helmets the moment they are out of mom’s sight?
I went to the doctor. He told me to do absolutely nothing until he got me into surgery. I got a second identical opinion. Don’t bend. Don’t lift. Don’t fall. Don’t do anything. I asked if that meant I couldn’t ride. The surgeon looked at me like I had two heads, both stupid. I figured he meant “No.”
My surgeon didn’t enumerate the risks. I doubt it would have made any difference if he had. I wasn’t going through life unable to do anything active. Whatever the risks, I wanted to be repaired. I wanted to ride. At 19, I had a spinal fusion and laminectomy.
The doctor mentioned I might develop some arthritis at the site of the surgery later in life.
“Uh huh,” I said. Later in life was a million years away. After I healed — a two-year process — I went back to riding. I never fell again. I took lessons, a wise move that might have prevented youthful injuries, but my parents were unwilling to pay for lessons. Too frivolous.
Fast forward 47 years, arthritis began to make inroads. I had to stop riding. My doctor explained if I fell, I might not get up. Ever. The fusion had disintegrated. I was glued together by arthritis, nature’s way of keeping my spine intact. When the pain got worse, I went back to my doctor.
“Surely,” I said to him, “you can do something for me.”
“No,” he said. “Pain management. Cortisone shots will help. For a while.”
I’ve been down cortisone road. The shots do help for a few weeks, after which the pain returns. The human spine isn’t engineered for bipeds. Many of us have spinal weaknesses we don’t know about until after we get hurt. When I was young, a bad back was not so common. With the passing of decades, almost everyone I know has some kind of back problem. Unless you are very lucky, the chances you’ve had a back injury are high. So I live with pain and quite possibly, so do you.
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 and live an active life, you hurt. The years roll on, pain gets worse.
I yearn for a scooter, but the one I want doesn’t exist. I want a scooter that’s an ATV, but weighs like a bicycle and folds up. There is no such thing. I probably couldn’t afford it if it did, but I can dream.
I have had to accept reality but I do not have to like it. Sooner or later we all face an intractable problem or several. It’s a nasty shock if you’ve always believed you are unstoppable. When you hit that wall, I recommend you get some very comfortable furniture.