Back UP

Back UP

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Back Pain!

Back UP

I was surfing a big wave at the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii when the whole thing collapsed on me. I was driven to the bottom, smashing my back on the sharp coral.

No, I was descending the Matterhorn after summiting. My climbing partner, who I was roped to, slipped and fell, leaving me to heroically haul him back up over the precipice, straining my back severely.

No, I was skydiving on my 500th jump when the primary chute and the back-up chute both failed and I fell over a thousand feet, my fall and back broken by the trees that saved my life.

Here’s the less glamorous truth. I was cleaning the garage and decided to nudge a box of National Geographic magazines to the side, to give my wife some extra room to get her car in the garage. The pain was instant. Lower back. I hunched over, howling and swearing at myself.

I knew the box was heavy. I had needed help placing it where it was during our recent move into our dream house by the beach. That’s why I’d opted to just give it a little nudge — and not try to lift it — the few inches to make the extra room for Marla’s car.

And that had been enough to damage the facet joint and put me in what was to become permanent suspension of my forty-year surfing career, and pretty much everything else athletic.

First I tried just resting it to let it heal. I was very fit from surfing three to four times a week at my local world class surf spot, where fitness, like in basketball, is king. After a month and a half of disciplined abstinence, regular icing and personal Pilates instruction, I had to do something more physical or go crackers.

Golf seemed pretty benign at first. It had been a sport I’d long joked wasn’t a real sport because it wasn’t really athletic. I had said I might try it when I couldn’t surf anymore, which I’d assumed would be a full decade later.

It turns out there is more athleticism to golf than I’d imagined, a lot of it very demanding on the lower back. After a month or so of doing “work arounds” with my fledgling golf swing, I had to lay off for fear of exacerbating my back injury that much more.

I sought out referrals to back doctors. All the non-surgical roads led to one practice, so that’s where I went. A facet injection was advised, so that’s what we did. And I was immediately cured. At least that’s how it felt, for ten days.

I felt so certain of this I went out and bought a new tennis racket and tennis shirt and started hitting balls with my wife to get back into competitive form. For ten days.

Then the pain returned.

The next recommendation was an epidural. Yep, an epidural, the injection for pain they administer to women during childbirth.

No effect at all.

I was advised to work on my core at the gym.

I hired a trainer who recommended Somatics, so I did that for a month with no benefit.

Next I auditioned yoga studios. At the first place, the standing poses were too painful and demanding. At the second place, the room was so hot I couldn’t breathe. The third was just right but it went out of business within the month and the owner and head yogini moved to Costa Rica.

Then came a sense of futility and a foray into depression as it became clear that my problem was incurable. I thought I was doomed to watch others from the sidelines — doing what I’d done with expertise and aplomb my entire life — ride sparkling pure ocean waves.

I had robbed myself of physical freedom, and I had constant moderate to strong pain, beginning upon awakening and not abating until I lay down at night. It was my constant companion and adversary.

Next came the pills to dull the pain but they didn’t really work, at least not with unacceptable side effects, so they had to go. I was just going to have to devise a mental approach to “deal with it.”

I resolved to just tough it out every day, to simply do the best I could one day at a time, and not become a complainer. So that’s what I’ve done, for the past ten years.

Being crippled in this way got me out of a lot of yard work and fix-its around the house, but it was also humiliating to have to hire someone to do the work and to pay for things I used to do for free for myself. I became the talkative and probably overbearing supervisor to hired helpers, all tolerant to the last man. I’d been given a glimpse into old age, and it sucked.

Besides surfing I am also an artist and writer and I’d been meaning to write “my book” for decades. I’d spent a year at Cape Romanzof in the Arctic weather outpost my last year in the Air Force, a year deserving documentation, so I set out to do that.

I began painting again in earnest, growing brave enough to paint in public. My art grew from sketching and furtive pastels into full-fledged oil and watercolor paintings, my canvasses growing in size too, up to an oil triptych five feet high by twelve feet wide overall, my skills growing with each new work.

Not the same as surfing, or even golf, but a workout nonetheless.

I’m a voracious and curious reader by nature so all this “down time” provided me the opportunity to accelerate my reading schedule. Since the more demanding books demanded, duh, more of my attention and, consequently, less attention to the constant pain, I headed for the classics, historical and modern, discovering a thirsty penchant for philosophy, world history and current world events.

I also learned how to meditate to calm my mind. I started each day with prayer and meditation, a practice I continue to this day. It centers me and calms me, and I can do it any time during the day when I start getting frustrated and angry at my situation.

I had been a photographer since my teens, so I bought a four-by-five view camera and went old school, where discipline and fidelity to tradition are key to a more deliberate process than the quick affairs of the thirty-five millimeter format. This was Ansel Adams territory technically and I thrived on the challenge of making crisp well-metered negatives and the stunning large sharp exhibit prints they allow.

I stumbled into sculpture and worked for two years straight pouring hot metal aluminum and bronzes of an expressive human figure I invented. I am encouraged to enter them in public art competitions for production into heroic pieces eight feet tall for display in urban environments.

I even took flying lessons because that is something I can do sitting down that allows me to move, literally. I love to move through time and distance and flying allows that.

A couple of months ago I went to my back pain management doctor, also a surfer, and he suggested it had been some time since we’d tried the facet injection treatment. Since timing is everything, he suggested we try it again. My insurance covered it so we did it, twice within a two-week period… and it took!

For two months now, my worst pain, what I’ve endured for over a decade, is gone.

My back is still sore as my muscles rediscover themselves gingerly — I’m not paddling out at Pipeline any day soon — but I’m getting better.

Without the pain my demeanor is better, lighter, brighter, and the jokes and banter come more easily again.

My book is finished and in search of a publisher. I have over twenty sculptures I’m putting patinas on and preparing to launch into the world. I have at least two paintings in the works at any given time.

And somewhere during all this a cartooning muse emerged in me and I now regularly submit my cartoons to The New Yorker for publication.

Reach for the stars, right, because you’re liable to snag a planet? It’s true.

The temptation is to say it’s all the result of poor judgment, of a mistake I made trying to boost that box of National Geographic magazines, but I’m more inclined to call it fate.

Better yet, call it destiny.

I used to curse that year in the Arctic and my time in the military as wasted. Now I’ve gotten a book out of it. One that, if I do say so myself, has merit and style beyond what I might have expected of myself before I began it.

I body surf now instead of riding boards with the crowds. It’s a more intimate connection with the sea and one I have grown to relish.

Much of what I have read this last decade had been on the “some day” list for years.

Now I own that knowledge.

I have learned that it is true that when one door closes another opens. You just have to stop focusing on the one that’s closed and jiggle the knobs of the other ones until the right ones open.

And there are lots of doors.

~ James Daigh ~

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