My headache was intolerable. It radiated to my spine, or perhaps the pain in my spine radiated to my head. There was a burning sensation in my neck, between my shoulders. I was visiting family in Juarez, Mexico and while there, I found myself often popping aspirin. Quite unusual for me. When I complained of the pain to my mom, she translated my complaint to my aunt who suggested we invite her friend to the house to crack my back. “No, no, no,” I said, shaking my head. My head and back might be making me miserable, but the idea of a stranger from down the street coming in to manipulate my spine was utterly unappealing. “I’ll wait and go to a chiropractor when I get back to Florida,” I told mom.
I excused myself to go take a nap in hopes of relieving my headache. I woke up some time later to laughter and screaming from the living room. I didn’t know what they were doing–all the conversation was in Spanish–but the sounds were not enough to prompt me out of bed. A few minutes later I heard everyone enter my room. I was still half asleep, but I felt activity on my bed that caused me to crack open my eyes to see what the hell was happening. My aunt was lying prone at the end of the mattress and a woman I didn’t recognize was rubbing oil on her bare back. I closed my eyes and bitched to myself. They had invited the woman over after all. The one who cracks backs and lives right down the street. I was aggravated not only because I was woken from my nap still feeling like shit, but because now I had to figure out a polite way to repeatedly decline the opportunity to have some stranger from down the street manipulate my back. While I thought this to myself, my aunt let out a gasp as the woman pressed down on her spine, sending out a series of snaps that sounded like someone popping gum.
I opened my eyes and lifted myself on to one arm; the women greeted me with enthusiasm, glad that I had finally joined them. I watched as my aunt adjusted her shirt and then sat in a chair that was brought to my bedroom from the kitchen. The neighbor woman massaged my aunt’s neck and toggled her head around until it moved loosely between her hands. Then she wrenched it to one side quickly and sharply, sending out snapping noises again and scaring the hell out of me. I thought her neck might break from the force. My aunt had a stunned look on her face, obviously caught off guard by the force of the twisting action. Then she burst into laughter as did the rest of us. She was able to relax enough for the woman to crack her neck again, this time in the opposite direction.
Soon they were calling for me to take my turn. I waved my hand in the air. “No, I’m okay,” I said. The neighbor lady moved on to someone else and my mom whispered to me that my family had invited her there because of me. They thought she could help me. They were paying her. She said the woman had worked on her foot and ankle when they were in the living room, and it had been incredibly painful–she was the one who had been screaming, and my cousins were the ones laughing. However, she said she felt great now. Her feet weren’t bothering her at all. “Really?” I asked. “You feel better?” My mom’s a bit of a skeptic, so for her to participate so willingly, and to recommend it so heartily, well, it helped to change my mind. And my neck and back and head were really hurting.
I agreed to have my back adjusted. When I took off my shirt and turned so that my back was facing the reflexologist (that’s what the woman had studied in school–reflexology), she made a big deal about one side of my body being lower than the other. Since she spoke only in Spanish, I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but she was pointing out various curves and knots in my back and at the base of my neck, and speaking with great emphasis. My family responded with mumbles that sounded concerned and surprised. She had me rest on the bed and proceeded to crack my back and work out a knot in my neck. I felt better afterward, but I emphatically declined having my neck cracked.
But dealing with the daily pain in Juarez helped me to come to this realization: I’m scared of chronic pain. Consciously scared of it. As in, when I have a pain that lasts for a day, I immediately wonder if it’s going to last forever. This occurred to me this week when I started getting dull headaches and neck aches, and knew it was time to have my back adjusted again. I have the great and happy privilege to be pain free nearly every day, which is something I don’t take for granted. I think of my mom who has a pretty high level of pain in her legs every day thanks to all the chemo her body has been subjected to. I think of my dad who had incredible back pain toward the end of his life because his cancer was playing with the nerves of his lower back, creating a sensation so severe that he popped Percoset like candy and it had next to no effect on the pain. Hospice eventually created some Morphine/Oxycontin cocktail that finally provided some relief. Knowing what they experience/experienced reminds me to be grateful. But the other thing about these two people, the two heroes of my life, is that they never showed their pain. I sat next to my father for weeks on end and he never said a word about the pain in his back. Never. Didn’t grimace, didn’t bitch, didn’t say a word about it. I run around with my mom whenever I can, and I have to remember to ask her how she’s feeling. Her legs could be blistering with pain, but she pushes through without complaint.
I’m also amazed when I read about what life was like for people prior to the invention of anesthesia and pain medication. For example, the harrowing description of the surgery Samuel Pepys went through to have bladder stones removed (bladder stones, themselves, being excruciatingly painful):
There were no anaesthetics, and alcohol was certainly not allowed to a patient undergoing surgery to the bladder. The surgeon got to work. First he inserted a thin silver instrument, the itinerarium, through the penis into the bladder to help position the stone. Then he made the incision, about three inches long and a finger’s breadth from the line running between scrotum and anus, and into the neck of the bladder, or just below it. The patient’s face was sponged as the incision was made. The stone was sought, found and grasped with pincers; the more speedily it could be got out the better. Once out, the wound was not stitched–it was thought best to let it drain and cicatrize itself–but simply washed and covered with a dressing, or even kept open at first with a small roll of soft cloth known as a tent, dipped in egg white. A plaster of egg yolk, rose vinegar and anointing oils was then applied. —Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin.
This description makes my hair stand on end. No anesthesia for this procedure; I can’t begin to fathom the pain, and I’m glad that we’ve progressed to the point we have today in our medical technologies.
I wonder if chronic pain is an inevitable way of life as the body ages. A woman came into the vet clinic last week and asked for help carrying in her cat’s carrier. She is a regular client of ours and had never had any problem carrying in the carrier before. I walked to the car with her and she explained that she was having some back and arm problems. She had had surgery once already and seemed to think she’d have to have it again. When her appointment was over, I wished her well and said I hoped things improved soon. She thanked me and said she was in pain pretty much all the time. “Getting old’s a bitch,” she said as she walked out the door. My dad used to say the same thing.
There is another client who comes in pretty regularly who wears a body brace to support her neck, arms, and legs. I think she has rheumatoid arthritis. Her movements are very slow and the brace looks like it would be quite cumbersome. I understand that rheumatoid arthritis is painful and I believe she’s had it for many years. Yet she is so friendly, patient, and pleasant–an upbeat spirit who seldom dwells on how she’s feeling.
And so I’m thankful for the privilege of living pain-free; I’m aware that this can change at any time, either due to changes in health or unforeseen accidents; I’m conscientious in how I treat my body in hopes of keeping it in the best shape I can for as long as I can; but, ultimately, should I find myself experiencing situations like those of the people noted in this post, I hope to find the same strength and grace. Because right now I’m spoiled, and if I have a headache/neck ache/backache that lasts longer than it should, everyone near me is going to hear me whine about it (ask my husband). And surely that’s no way to handle such things.