I also began to see how my stubbornness in the face of this pain, my struggle to overcome it by willpower, reflected the stubborn denial I held onto in the clutches of my drug addiction. I have always been overwhelmed by my feelings and eager to incapacitate them, to deny them, to defeat them. Of course I couldn’t. I understood my addiction as a condition that could be treated but not curable. To stay sober, I had to learn to accept my emotional pain, to tolerate my own feelings. I also had to accept something that my super-driven self was most afraid of: that I needed help. But somehow, in the depths of my journey through back pain, I did not see the connection and continued to resist and fight.
I religiously practiced my physical therapy exercises and visited my chiropractor, and over the course of many months my condition improved and eventually went into remission for two years. I threw away the foam machines, returning to my writing as I slowly walked on the treadmill desk I had completed. I believed my body was fixed.
But last fall, shortly after moving from Brooklyn to Iowa City, the pain in my back returned, bringing with it an excruciating three months of sciatica. I went to a sports medicine clinic, then to a neurologist, and finally to a pain clinic. I took new types of muscle relaxants, most of which were 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 pinned 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 up and pack all my things. In the weeks that followed, she found me a rollator, took me to a clinic for a spinal steroid injection, and made a makeshift bedpan out of Tupperware one excruciating night. The privilege of having someone willing and able to look after me in this way with love and without pay is not lost for me.
Susan Sontag wrote in “Illness as a Metaphor” that “everyone who is born has dual citizenship, in the realm of the healthy and in the realm of the sick”. How reluctant we are to admit that there is only one kingdom and that some of us just don’t have to travel its more rocky areas just yet. It is inevitable. We’re all going to need care. We will all long for a place to stay. Until then, we can freely decide to what extent we want to give in to the fantasy that wellness is a state that we have somehow worked for, and not a passing happiness that is guaranteed to come to an end.
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 in due course. 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”.