Got Your Back

Sixteen years ago, I tweaked my back moving a couch into the apartment I’d just rented on Second Place in Carroll Gardens. Alice and I were in an “off” phase in our on-and-off relationship, trying to figure things out, not doing such a great job of it. A year and a half earlier, we’d tried living together in an apartment on Butler Street. I’d gotten a job as a magazine editor and for a while things seemed to go okay. Although moving in was a big step for me, it didn’t mean I was fully ready to commit to getting married and planning a life together just yet. In some crucial ways, even though we were now living under the same roof, I kept my distance, which understandably became the source of some frustration for Alice. She made it clear that she needed more from me and that my continued ambivalence was hurtful.

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I tried my best to communicate a certainty I didn’t yet have, but she wasn’t buying it, and so she asked me to move out at the beginning of September 2001, and unhappily I left. For a week, I stayed on my cousin Michael’s couch. At the end of that week, I was awakened by a rocking explosion that shook the entire building. It was the hijackers’ first plane hitting the World Trade Center. Michael and I watched from the window of his apartment as the second plane hit and the towers pancaked in a surreal funnel of smoke and debris. The next day, still in a state of shock, I left his place and moved into my aunt and uncle’s nearby apartment on Columbia Heights, which had become the family crash pad since their decision to live year-round in Provincetown.

At the time, my cousin Maggie and her then-boyfriend were staying in one of the two bedrooms, but in the paranoid post-apocalyptic shit-storm that followed the collapse of the towers, they decided to flee the city, and so for a time, I was able to camp out at Norman and Norris’ by myself, and take stock of my life and see if I could figure out where I wanted things to go.  As unsettled as I was, my situation got no better when I lost my magazine editing job along with a couple of steady freelance writing gigs I had come to count on. For a while, I decided that I would embark on a career as a rare book dealer, combining my love of books with a poker-bred knack for wheeling and dealing. Using credit and my meager savings, I started buying rare first editions on Ebay, selling them to collectors at a decent markup. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t such a great business. The best thing I can say is that I wound up with a rather nice book collection.

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Fortunately, I lucked into a book collaboration with boxing trainer Teddy Atlas, who had gotten a contract for his memoir from Ecco Press. He was offering much less money than I wanted or needed, but when I met him, we hit it off, and I decided it was worth taking a risk on the project. As for Alice and me, we couldn’t seem to cut things off entirely, though we had both started seeing other people while we tried to move on with our lives.

In February of 2002, I was hard at work on the Atlas book, when my aunt Norris, whose generosity in letting me stay at the apartment in Brooklyn I in no way took for granted, informed me that I had one week to vacate the apartment for my cousin Sue and her husband Marco, who had decided to spend the next year in New York, and planned to move in. Although they wouldn’t be arriving from their home in Chile for several months, they’d agreed to spend a significant sum doing renovations and upgrades before moving in, and it was imperative that the work commence almost immediately. I understood Norris liking the idea of her apartment getting a free makeover, and I’d always been fully aware that my occupancy was temporary. Still the abruptness of my eviction took me by surprise. A week to find a new apartment? In New York City? Even if I found a suitable affordable place, what if I couldn’t move in right away? Was there no flexibility? “I’m sorry, Pete,” Norris said somewhat apologetically. “But this is what’s happening.”

By the end of the week, with the help of a broker, I somehow managed to find a move-in ready apartment on Second Place in Carroll Gardens (coincidentally, if you believe in such things, a mere two blocks from Alice’s new apartment). Norris, with Sue and Marco footing the bill, was replacing of most of her apartment’s furniture, so among other things I inherited a beloved but worn dark green velvet couch. On moving day, after everything had been unloaded into my parlor floor apartment, my cousin Stephen was helping me move the green velvet couch from one room to the other when I suddenly felt a painful twinge in my lower back.

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Two weeks later, still suffering badly, I decided to try a storefront acupuncture place a few blocks away from my new digs. I lay on a massage table on my stomach while needles were inserted into my back and legs, then hooked up to a 9-volt battery. The practitioner left the room while strong currents zapped through me. It was weird and not altogether painless; it seemed to me that the current was way too strong. When I left, the pain in my back now radiated down my left leg, and had gone from about level 3 to level 8 on the pain scale. Two hours later at home, it was closer to a 10. I had never felt pain of that kind and I wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, I called an ambulance. The paramedics attempted to bring me downstairs on a stretcher, but it was agony for me to lie on my back, so I wound up having to bump down the stairs on my ass.

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At the hospital, the nurses gave me Percocet, which changed nothing. It literally had zero effect. By then I was screaming for them to make the pain stop. A team of doctors and nurses rushed into the room, whispered amongst themselves, and gave me an IV drip of Dilaudid, which is a type of synthetic morphine. The Dilaudid didn’t change the level of my pain. What it did was to make me not care anymore.  I was flying without a carpet.

Three more days in the hospital didn’t seem to accomplish much more than increase my appreciation for the wonders of synthetic morphine. From a pathological standpoint there was little change. The pain did diminish slightly, but when I was discharged I was still hobbling around like Quasimodo. Back in Carroll Gardens, I remained uncomfortable, struggling to write for more than twenty minutes at a time without taking a break to lie on my back with my knees bent.

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I’m pretty sure that I first heard about Dr. John Sarno from listening to the Howard Stern show. I’d never been a big Stern fan, but when I saw his movie Private Parts I became a convert. Stern credited Sarno with saving his life. He’d been plagued by back pain for most of his adult life, and had tried everything and spent tens of thousand of dollars without finding any lasting relief. It was so bad that while broadcasting his radio show he often had to lie on his back during commercial breaks. Doctors told him he needed surgery, which terrified him. He was at his wits end. Then someone turned him on to Sarno, and within two weeks of going to see him, Stern was cured. His back pain went entirely away, never to return. According to Stern, it wasn’t even necessary to see Dr. Sarno. You could just read his book and be cured. It was the information Sarno conveyed that made you better. There were no exercises, no medicines, no manipulations. In a nutshell, Sarno believed that all back pain stemmed from repressed emotions, rage above all. He wasn’t arguing that the pain wasn’t real–he attributed it to mild oxygen deprivation and reduced blood flow in the affected area–but he maintained that it wasn’t being caused by structural issues. It’s hard to explain why reading a book that explains this idea would help make the pain go away, but Sarno is very persuasive in arguing his case, and if you’re open to what he’s saying, and it makes sense to you, then the information becomes the cure.

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I’m pretty skeptical by nature, but in my case I had no sooner finished reading Healing Back Pain: the Mind-Body Connection, than my back pain started to leave my body like an exorcised bad spirit. In thinking about the anger I’d been repressing, one thing did immediately jump out: I’d been furious with Norris for evicting me so abruptly, and I’d been unable to express my upset to her, in part because she’d been so generous in letting me stay in their apartment to begin with, but also because she was engaged in a long-term battle with cancer (that she would sadly succumb to years later) which made it hard for me or anyone to be critical of her in any way.

For the next decade and a half, after reading Sarno’s book, I occasionally felt twinges in my back, but I had no further episodes like the one that had landed me in the hospital. Until recently.

Sixteen years ago, when I broke up with Alice, I was leery of taking on the responsibilities of husband and father. She could have let me go, as other women had, deemed me a hopeless permanent boy who would never grow up. But for whatever reason, she couldn’t fully let go. And I couldn’t walk away, as I had so many times before. After all our back and forth, I asked her to marry me in 2005. A year later, Eden, our gorgeous brilliant Eden, was born. My life changed in profound ways, some of them predictable, some not.  I had avoided responsibility all those years in large part because I knew how seriously I took it. I still think of how, when Eden was two weeks old, we had to rush her to the emergency room because she was bleeding from her bellybutton, and that, on the way there, I said to Alice accusingly, “This is why I never wanted a child. I never wanted to care this much about anyone.”

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The reality is that for me fatherhood and family has been the most profound and meaningful experience of my life. But at the same time the burden of responsibility sometimes feels suffocating. In the past couple of years especially, as I have felt not only the physical aches and pains of advancing age but also the pain of living in a time when what I do has become marginalized, the challenge of providing for my family has grown ever more daunting. This past year, I finally achieved a longtime personal ambition by finishing my first novel, but the subsequent struggle to find a home for it has been humbling in more ways than I can say.

In the midst of that particular journey, Alice and Eden and I took another kind of journey, a vacation to Italy this past spring. On our second to last night, sleeping on an unfamiliar mattress in a Florence Airbnb, I woke up at four in the morning with an achy back. I thought the pain and stiffness would abate after a day or two but it didn’t. As the pain lingered in the days and then weeks that followed, I worried that perhaps it wasn’t muscular or structural but was in fact caused by something more grave. Sadly, this is the way one’s mind works at 63. Eventually, I had an MRI that revealed a herniated disk, which in a way was a relief. I went to an osteopath. I went to a physical therapist. I took a course of the steroid Prednisone. Nothing helped. On my annual poker trip to Las Vegas, the pain grew so bad that on my way home, I had to request a wheelchair to get through McCarran airport in Vegas and then again upon landing at Kennedy.

I’m not sure why during the three months I suffered that it never occurred to me to reread Sarno. But eventually, having exhausted significant time and money on other remedies, I thought to go back to him. I couldn’t find my copy of the book, undoubtedly having given it to an ailing friend at some point. I was about to order it from Amazon but then saw that if I got a trial subscription to Audible, I could download it for free. So that’s what I did. I uploaded it to my iPhone and when I took Eden and her friend to the waterpark last Saturday, I listened to it. The narration was spoken by Sarno himself. Halfway through the three hours that it took to listen to it, as I found myself nodding with recognition at the things Sarno was saying, laughing in some places, sighing in others, the pain in my back began to subside.

Today, a week later, I am virtually pain free, looking forward to resuming playing tennis and doing yoga. The anger I’ve been repressing, the burdens I’ve been carrying, those things aren’t going away. But understanding that they’re there and that my body has been using them to distract my mind from psychic and emotional pain is the key to solving what no amount of medicine or surgery or physical therapy could. Decline and death are inevitable. But I am convinced now that the frailties of the body are actually first triggered by the mind. Sarno says we must ignore the physical pain, that if we do that and soldier on we’ll be okay. That’s what I am now trying to do as I march forward in these uncertain times, trying not to be fooled by the distractions of the body.

 

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About Peter Alson

Peter Alson is a writer and editor. Among his published books are the memoirs Confessions of an Ivy League Bookie and Take Me to the River. He's also co-authored (with Nolan Dalla) One of a Kind, a biography of poker champion Stuey Ungar, and Atlas, the autobiography of boxing trainer and commentator Teddy Atlas. His articles have appeared in many national magazines, including Esquire, Playboy and The New York Times. He has worked as a writer for People magazine, and as an editor for Playboy and for Hachette Publications. He has written screenplays for Paramount and various independent producers, and his TV pilot, Nicky’s Game, starring John Ventimiglia and Burt Young, appeared in the New York Television Festival and the Vail Film Festival. As a poker player he has finished in the money numerous times in the World Series of Poker and other events. He lives in New York with his wife, Alice, and their daughter, Eden.
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7 Responses to Got Your Back

  1. Dear Peter, you know I suffered from extreme back pain during my tennis career, now, not blasting my serve at 120 miles an hour, I am free of pain, but know that I am having shoulder replacement surgery in September, since the ball and socket in my right should is bone to bone, the cartilage all gone. The good thing is that I have a lot more time to write now that I don’t play tennis! Best from your Ptown buddy, Chris B

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    • Peter Alson says:

      Of course I knew about your back. Did you ever read Sarno? You’d find him interesting, I’m sure.

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      • Peter, I have not read Dr. Sarno’s book, but I learned lessons about the mind-body connection from my own experience: the pain was real, with a structural defect in lumbar 5, aggravated tremendously by psychosomatic conditions whereby I pushed my body harder than it could bear. You mention Quasimodo, my limping doppelganger, tilting my spine sharply to the left, and I did indeed “hobble,” as you say. All that is now a memory that I am forgetting! Your story evoked the memory minus the trauma. Good luck to you, my friend! Best from Chris

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  2. Peter, this is such a great post. Tickled my soul to hear you talk about Sarno. I learnt about Sarno when my friend, who suffered from debilitating back pain for over 15 years, finally found the same book and it changed his life from one of daily painkillers to being pain free. Now we all refer to being ‘sarno’d’ when we are feeling pain or fatigue in the body and need to wake ourselves up to the emotional suppressions and trauma at the root of it all. Anyway, as usual I love your vulnerability and talent in sharing your life stories. Looking forward to the next one. p.s I am going to read the book again myself.

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  3. Mani Schwartz says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’ve been dealing with chronic pain for a few years now, and I recently stumbled upon Sarno’s work. I can’t deny that personality-wise, I am EXACTLY the TMS personality Dr. Sarno Describes in Mindbody Prescription. I’ve been doing the journaling work for 22 days with an open mind. I’m curious to see if this will be the thing that helps after conventional medicine has failed.

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