I have been thinking about backs. Specifically “bad” backs.
When our backs hurt or have a history of injury, we sometimes tell our doctors, trainers, and coaches. When we do, we often say that we have “a bad back.” That was what I was initially going to write about: my bad back. But when I started writing about “my bad back” I thought to myself, “My back is not bad. Why so judgy, Khoudari?”
I began to call my back “bad” when I was 20 years old. I was getting out of a chair at my summer job at my college archives and my low back seized up. Despite being the most boring back injury story ever, the severity of the situation was extreme. I could barely walk, my low back and pelvis were locked into a position that drastically limited my ability to use my hips to walk or my back to bend. Sitting was not an option. Nor was walking further than to the toilet. I could only stand up or lie down. I stayed in bed for weeks feeling very pathetic. I threw myself a top-notch pity party: I ate Pull and Peel Twizzlers by the pound, watched Law & Order reruns, and felt sorry for myself. I also went to see an orthopedist. The orthopedist recognized a herniated disk in my MRI, but said that was pretty common. He said that what I needed to do was to get stronger. He never once said I had “a bad back,” nor did he think this was an insurmountable problem. He was right. I went into physical therapy and became a bit more active. As summer progressed, the stress of the school year dissipated. I was a little stronger and more relaxed. My back eased up a bit and I regained enough movement to live a decent life. At the time I did not train for strength beyond physical therapy.
My body was still weak and to say I was sedentary would be an understatement. My deep self-loathing did not lend itself to self-care. During adolescence I began to hate my body (a story for another day) and unsurprisingly I grew into an adult that took terrible care of my body. Because I was weak my back still felt vulnerable. I moved carefully, like I was fragile. I was constantly told to be mindful of my “bad back.” I lived in fear of my back’s badness. If 41-year old me met twenty-something me I would have asked, “What do you mean by a bad back? Like how is it bad? Is it like spoiled milk? Does it chew the furniture legs?”
After seven years of tiptoeing around my back’s badness I grew weary of being limited and cautious. That is when I began strength training. I worked with a skilled trainer to help my back out. We started with exercises that I associated with physical therapy but slowly progressed toward strength exercises I associated with athletic people. One year later I was nine months pregnant, goblet squatting kettlebells, and I had no back problems. In strengthening my whole body I made my back less vulnerable and I felt free to move.
Years later my back would go out a second time completely leveling me. But just as with the first go round, I tended to it, and it is now stronger than ever. At 41 years old, my back supports me under load, whether that be a barbell or the stress of having an adolescent child. I take care of my back in hopes that it will continue to take care of me.
What I realized when I sat down to write today, was that my back isn’t bad. It never was. I would venture to say that my back and your back - our backs - are pretty awesome. Our backs are home to our spinal cords and our central nervous systems. How cool is that? I love the central nervous system! Our backs connect all our limbs and allow us to do stuff. We carry bags and kids on our backs. In fact I would argue that my back, like many backs, is an overachiever; and you wouldn’t call an overachiever bad. You might suggest to an overachieving friend that they chill out and find some support before they collapse from too much stress.
Another thing my back does, like many backs, is armor up when I feel vulnerable. That is that terrible nagging tension many of us struggle with. And when our backs hold tension, they feel terrible, but they are just trying to keep us safe. If we must be critical we can say that is our backs are “misguided,”, but definitely not “bad.”
I invite you to try to use a more nuanced word when describing a part of your body that gives you chronic trouble. I think it is important. It opens up the possibility of change. “Bad” is at best a vague and at worst stop-you-in-your-tracks scary.
For many of us, our backs do the lion’s share of life’s lifting, especially if we don’t keep the rest of our body strong and our stress managed. So that is to say, my back is at times a misguided, overachieving, helper. My back is not bad. And neither is yours.