What My Back Injury Taught Me About Independence

Back injuries can lead to surprising self-discoveries.

Perhaps it’s strange, but I gladly bear the burden of pain and discomfort that continues to this day.

While my estranged husband called me a “strong female lead,” and I occasionally joke about being “an independent woman who doesn't need a man,” I wish I could honestly say either of those statements felt true.

I have spent nearly my entire adult life in serious relationships with men, some significantly older than me, and some who could take care of me, either financially or with the wisdom that comes with age. I could blame it on daddy issues — my father possesses nothing to recommend him for sainthood — but the psychological reasons are near useless. I have fallen in love many times over. I have dedicated years of my life to men I cherished. And I do not regret the beauty and power of mutual and committed love.

But I do acknowledge a fault in my history with men. A lesson I am only beginning to learn in the latter part of my 20s: How to handle difficulty, or even crisis, and handle it alone.

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Three years ago, I herniated a disc in my spine. I was a bartender, and constantly lugged cases of beer in sub-par shoes. One morning after an eight-hour night shift, I couldn’t move from my bed. I couldn’t carry a laundry basket from my third-floor apartment to the basement without silently screaming.

At the time, my estranged husband was my it’s-complicated boyfriend, and he transitioned to carrying the basket for me, while I laid on my stomach, marathoning Sex and the City and adjusting my heating pad.

The next day, I was back to bartending, but only shuffled along in small steps, like grandmothers with tennis-ball-shod walkers. As soon as I was allowed to leave for the evening, I called my boyfriend and he drove me to the hospital. My car sat in the parking lot of my restaurant for days while I holed up in his house, crocked on opiates the ER doctors doled out to me without a clear diagnosis.

The next day my boyfriend drove me to my primary care doctor, who determined I had a herniated disc. He also went with me to several appointments so I could curse out my blessed physical therapist, who taught me how to stand properly (butt tucked in, pelvis directly beneath my spine), how to strengthen my core muscles (endless planks, mainly), and how to loosen my stubborn hip muscles (a complicated process involving lifting my thigh while I lay on my stomach).

I was not without help. I was fully cared for. I had someone to buy me food when I wasn’t working, someone to do my chores when I was incapable of moving, and someone to stroke my arm lovingly when I felt trapped in my miserably aching body. And I allowed myself depend upon those acts of kindness. I may have been healing and strengthening my body, but I was weakening something just as important.

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A few weeks ago, I was working the opening shift at my waitressing day job. In between unwrapping the condiments and straightening the chairs in the dining room, I filled a bus tub with de-greaser for the silverware. (It has to be done several times a day — the dish area of a kitchen is never pristine for long). This particular morning, I lifted the plastic bucket, and felt a wrench in my lower back.

Minutes later, I filled an empty bucket with ice. Once filled, I hoisted it one-handed and carried it 20 steps across the kitchen, with my back complaining the entire way. I knew then the day would be painful. I’d given myself similar backaches before, and they had generally passed after a night on my back with a heating pad.

This day, however, was not inclined to finish that way.

As my double-shift progressed, my mild backache escalated into a major backache, spreading into my hips and then down my right leg. By the start of dinner, I reluctantly went to my manager and asked if there was any way I could get out early and go to urgent care.

I was cut loose and arrived at urgent care a half hour before they closed. I was alone.

Of course I texted my at-the-time boyfriend and called my mother, but seeing as the former lived an hour away, and the latter couldn’t get to me in time to drive me to the office before they closed, I was responsible for lowering myself into a waiting room chair, cringing all the while. I carried my own bag, overflowing with the necessities of life: iPad, laptop, Emergen-C, pill bottles, and other miscellany. I lifted myself onto the doctor’s table with the limited strength of my biceps and without a boost from a loving hand.

I was diagnosed with sciatica (alone), picked up my pain relievers and muscle relaxants (alone), and spent a few days in a loopy haze between sleeping and waking (alone). I experienced the frustrations of worker's compensation calls (alone), and visited my primary care doctor for a follow-up (alone). I was out of work for about a week and a half, and spent most of that time in pain and solitude.

But I didn’t feel lonely, despite the fact that I had become so used to relying on others in moments of sickness and crisis. I didn’t dwell on my lack of a live-in husband or boyfriend. In fact, I took pleasure in the fact that I was able to advocate for myself without an onlooker, that I could turn my sleep schedule upside down without the fear of missing time with someone I loved, and that I was able to continue to eat, drink, and pay my bills with money I had earned myself, instead of relying on someone else’s plastic.

Perhaps it’s strange, but I gladly bear the burden of pain and discomfort that continues to this day. The past weeks have been taxing, sure. I have endured doctor’s visits, insurance company phone calls, and physical therapy.

It has become clear that my pain and recovery is proof that I am the strong female lead of my own life. I am an independent woman who doesn’t need a man to get well. The shoulders to lean and cry on aren’t there anymore, but I neither need nor want them. My own shoulders are strong enough to carry me through.

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