My Body, Chapter 2: Some History

The first time I remember seeing a doctor for low back pain I was in graduate school, maybe 1985. We had moved from one apartment to another and the day after moving furniture I couldn’t move. I had a deep low pain in my back and I knew that something was wrong. I went to Stanford University Health Care. The doctors looked at my back, made me to a few forward bends while they examined me and told me to take anti-inflammatory meds and come back if the pain didn’t go away within a week or two. It was a generally unhelpful session. I felt like something more was wrong, but didn’t know what else to do. If the doctor’s said it was okay, it must be okay

About 5 year’s later as a new faculty member at UC Berkeley I took an aerobic exercise class. At the end of the class the instructor lead some abdominal exercises. We began with a ‘reverse crunch,’ or what I would now call a partial Pilates Teaser. We began in a seated position with our knees bent and our feet on the floor, our hands clasped behind our head. She had us hinge backwards about 30 degrees and then return to sitting. I don’t know how many reps she had us do, but before we were through I had sudden severe back pain and I just lay down on the floor. I was embarrassed, the pain was in my body but my mind went into self criticism: I was out of shape, fat, bad. I stayed still on the floor for a little while, then tried to get up and sneak out of class without anyone noticing. I tried to pretend that nothing had happened. I took Tylenol, or something similar, but the pain didn’t go away.

I don’t know how long I waited before calling my friend, chiropractor Agi Ban. Maybe it was a few days but more likely a few weeks. Denial was not making the pain go away. I have to admit, part of me still thinks denial is the best medicine.

So, I called Agi. She looked at my back and took x-rays. She diagnosed that I had spondylolithesis, grade 1 or 2 at that point. I don’t remember. She did her chiropractic adjustments and gave me exercises. She encouraged me to start taking yoga classes, to get fit and to lose weight. There wasn’t a fix for this condition, only maintenance. I needed to learn how to live with it. I used my denial medicine liberally. I acted as if nothing was wrong.

No one knows for sure how I came by this condition. It can be genetic but no one else in the family has it. It can be caused by trauma and that I did have in fair measure. Somewhere I read that backs are particularly vulnerable to a spondylolthesis rupture in the age range of 7, 8,or 9ish. And somewhere in that age range I had a major a trauma.

I don’t remember how old I was. Grade school. My sisters were at least walking age (they are 4 and 5 years younger than me). We had gone to the beach for the weekend. We had a second floor apartment with a balcony over the sand. My Dad and I had gone pier fishing in the morning and I remember it being cold and that we had to bundle up. Dad and I were the early birds in the family and we’d do early morning things together, watch tv or explore.

Dad liked to ‘tease.’ You could call it ‘extreme teasing’ or you could call it sadism. He did leave bruises and I remember being shocked to learn in therapy that leaving bruises qualified the teasing as abuse. Dad also liked to drink. I assume he was drinking on this day.

He was teasing my sisters and I, pretending that he was going to drop us off the balcony. There was some struggling. Squeals of fear and laughter combined. He was dangling me from the balcony and he dropped me. I don’t know if it was on purpose or an accident. I never asked him. He was dead before I started having serious back problems. I really don’t remember anything else from the day. I know that I wasn’t taken to see a doctor and that no x-rays were taken. I know that I never went pier fishing again. My story was “pier fishing isn’t fun, all I ever catch is starfish.” I believed that story and conveniently forgot being dropped from the balcony.