Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, September 14, 2010
A recent fling with bicycle riding has left me feeling euphoric and impervious to injury of late, which is a dangerous state in the world of exercise, anyone here can tell you that.
After hard rides (for a 50-something), I come home coasting on endorphins, and the thought never crosses my mind that my lower back — my albatross, my Achilles heel — will ever cause me pain again. After all, I’ve developed core muscles, which are surrounded by (semi-) hard butt muscles, which are held up by (semi-) sinewy leg muscles. It seems to be holding me all together well enough, if a little tightly. Too tightly, it turns out.
Because on a pristine Saturday in September, all wound up with no place to go, I bend over to pull on my favorite boots and feel an electric jolt in my sacro-iliac joint. I’m frozen. Can’t get up. I know better than to panic but panic anyway, then get mad at myself for everything — including getting mad at myself. I think of everything I’ll miss because of pain, and everything I can’t miss, like my job, and all the pain both doing and not doing will bring.
The next day, pain worsened, I spiral downward to the dark defeatist place that scares me and then down even deeper into my bevy of fears. Fear of paralysis. Fear of nonrecovery. Fear of fear. Have I made no progress with my back? I add fear of not making progress to the list.
New York City, 1982. A man in baggy shorts approaches me after watching me dance to a steel drum band in Central Park. He reaches out for a handshake and asks me where I learned to dance. I give him my hand, but instead of shaking it, he starts rotating my arm in its socket, as if screwing something in.
I shrug and tell him I love the music. It’s true. I also love one of the musicians, a cheekbone-y blonde kid hammering out complicated blood-heating rhythms alongside his four Caribbean mentors in dusty shoes.
“You can move,” he says, “But you’ve got back issues.”
Yes. Even then I have all sorts of issues with my back. I’ve tweaked it and thrown it, pulled muscles in it, babied it, not babied it, done yoga, not done yoga. Later I’ll have done even more — done Chi Gong, hung upside down, taken anti-inflammatory drugs, homeopathic drugs, used ice and heat, walked it out, couched it out, danced it out. I’ll romance massage, physical therapy, core strengthening, Rolfers, and chiropractors. I’ll re-injure various spine-parts skiing and rollerblading, I’ll even fall down a ladder, jamming the cervical vertebrae, and further complicating the etiology of my sacred vertebral column.
I’ll also read all the literature. Read what lower back pain signifies psychologically. Read who people with lower back pain are. How they feel lack of support, disconnected, bisected and lost.
“Right?” the man, named Keith, continues. He drops my hand, eyeballing me. “I could help you. I know backs.” It’s hard to say how old he is, given a muscular body, elastic skin, and a slinky, cool-cat Beat Generation way of moving. Deep lines are etched in his face, but there isn’t a single gray hair in the ash blond mop. A week later I call him.
My friends are politely silent — until they find out he has no money, no credentials and off-the-wall ideas. That he plays the piano, worships Sondheim, is a Reichian, subscribes to Janov’s Primal Scream therapy, and eats liquid salads. He keeps the apartment at 80 degrees and walks around wearing shorts and little else. But his posture is a god’s. And he has hands strong enough to reorient the most deeply wayward muscles.
One day, he asks me to lie down with a bowling ball under the small of my back. I’m tense but get down on the floor, place myself gingerly on the ball and arc over it, sensing danger, grave danger. Possible death. “I have you,” he tells me. “You won’t be paralyzed. Just — let go.”
Suddenly, I’m afraid. What am I doing? What’s he got a bowling ball in his NYC apartment for, anyway? I start crying then, and my chest heaves, and I can’t seem to stop. The bowling ball is a wrecking ball and it’s bashed through to something from my childhood — the memory of falling on a sharp and slippery rock at the beach, breaking my coccyx and laying in bed for four days, unable to move.
These pivotal points of life — the traumas and breakthroughs all teetering like backs on bowling balls — are mystifying. But there is the whisper of a suggestion that if we’re patient enough the teetering will slow, will eventually come to a complete standstill until all that’s left is the present moment. Where every point is a pivotal point.
Is this, then, where the healing begins?