Welcome back to the Learning Curve, a monthly column where we unpack the complicated experience of accepting your own body in a world that doesn’t seem to want you to. This month, news editor Nicola Dall’Asen reveals the difficult and complex relationship she’s developed with her body due to chronic lower back pain.
My therapist says I’ve been in mourning, but nobody died.
Rather, I’ve been mourning my body — or what it used to be. That’s because throughout most of my 20s (seven years of them, to be precise), I’ve been developing chronic lower back pain that’s gone from sporadic and mild to constant and severe. I say that like I’m the one who created my pain, as if by neglect or by accident, but it just happened. I never fell. I didn’t get hit by anything. I simply walked off a routine four-hour flight one day feeling off, not knowing I might never feel “on” ever again.
Before you ask, I’ve had every test under the sun. X-rays, CT scans, MRIs… you name a large, loud, claustrophobic radiological device, I’ve been in it (probably more than once). I’ve had steroid-filled needles poked and prodded into my bones. I’ve done enough stretches to qualify as a yoga instructor. Hell, I’ve even had surgery to replace an entire disc down there. I’ve been observed and/or treated by at least five different specialists. For years, I’ve seen little to no improvement in my day-to-day pain level, all while searching frantically for a solid diagnosis with a treatment that would provide even the tiniest amount of relief; I’ve dived headfirst into so many piles of hay looking for a straw-colored needle that I’ve lost count.
As it currently stands, my (second) orthopedic surgeon “sees no reason” for me to be in pain based on my numerous scans. All I know is that due to a congenital condition, the natural anatomy of my spine is a little wonky. In other words, I might’ve been born with this pain embedded inside me, wrapped up tight just waiting for the right moment to arise. Apparently, the right moment was when I thought I had finally come to peace with my body. And then that all went to shit.
For a while, I’ve felt like a fraud writing this column — a column about trying to accept your body, about trying to navigate the body-shame-inducing rhetoric upon which society is built, about unlearning our toxic beliefs about bodies and self-worth. Because honestly? I’m getting to the point where I don’t know how much longer I can do those things for myself. Because I’m never not in pain. Because I can’t even try to fall asleep without being physically reminded of all the things I currently can’t do or might never be able to do again. Because my core muscles are wound so tight from compensating for my weak spine that I can barely breathe properly, leaving me perpetually lightheaded. Because it feels damn near impossible to have fun, and any fun I do have is tainted by the wincing, the burning and grinding sensations, and the having to stretch in public.