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Wednesday, 06 September 2006 00:00

Who’s the wimp now?

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Just in the past couple of months, I have been forced to confront a prejudice I didn’t really know I had. For years, as it turns out, I have secretly harbored a suspicion that most people who claim to suffer from debilitating back pain are either hypochondriacs — who complain about everything from chronic migraine headaches to an unbearable sensitivity of the eyelashes — or simply freeloaders looking to get out of work and/or draw disability, the sort of people who show up to court hearings in wheelchairs and neck braces and are seen the next day playing racquetball or doing workout routines on the uneven parallel bars.

This prejudice wasn’t anything really active or malicious. I wasn’t writing any letters to the editor about it, or organizing any rallies. When I’d hear someone complaining about “back pain,” I would just sort of roll my eyes and think to myself, well, I guess I’ll have to find someone else to help me load this piano onto the truck. Wimp. While I’m busting my hump at work next week, this guy will probably be laid up on his overstuffed sofa eating Fritos and watching “I Dream of Jeannie” reruns.

I would say that my doubts about back pain were similar to my doubts about the existence of UFOs. I wasn’t saying it wasn’t possible that flying saucers existed, just that I hadn’t personally seen one, and believed quite earnestly that most of the people who claimed that they had were bonafide nut jobs looking for book deals, guest appearances on the Maury Povich Show, or attention from that special girl, the one with every season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on DVD, the one who believed that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a conspiracy between the mob, the FBI, and the Baltimore Colts.

As someone once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, if UFOs are real, why don’t they land in major metropolitan areas — why Hush-a-Bye, Kansas (population 43), instead of, say, Pittsburgh or Dallas — and why do they always abduct people whose credibility is rather startlingly questionable, instead of, just a random example, Vice President Dick Cheney, whose credibility is — uh, never mind. Let’s just say I haven’t seen a UFO and move along.

That’s the thing with back pain, as well. You can’t really SEE it. On the surface, people who claim to have it appear “normal.” They look just like they did last month (except for the grimace), when their backs were fine. To the skeptics, their tortured movements and severely limited range of motion seem over the top, even melodramatic. They can’t pick up a piece of toast without a great production, a masterpiece of agony, a Herculean effort. How hard can it be to lift toast?

But what if one day, one fine morning when the birds are chirping, the coffee is brewing, and the sun is rising smartly over a day as crisp as a new dollar bill, you discover that a UFO has, in fact, landed in your back yard? What if you yawn, stretch your legs, rub the sleep out of your eyes, and then turn to roll out of bed, only to feel as if someone beneath your bed just stabbed you in the base of your spine with a dagger? What if, when you finally manage to sit up, gasping for air, pain radiating through your body like a cross between a giant bruise and near total sunburn, you discover that it is not just a bad dream, not just a temporary spasm. The pain has set up camp in your lower back, pitched its campfires all through your torso, clearly planning to stay for awhile.

There is no point reaching for your pants. You could no sooner put them on by yourself than you could build your own UFO and fly to a planet where no back pain exists, a spineless place perhaps, like France. You take a look at yourself in the full-length mirror — you look the same as yesterday (except for the melodramatic grimace). On the surface, your body is quiet. But on the inside, there is a riot. Your blood is boiling, scalding your insides, moving around in there as if you were a giant lava lamp. It’s a volcano in there. No, it’s an earthquake, and the base of your spine is the epicenter, throbbing with every heartbeat like a smashed finger, sending tremors through your body. You need breakfast, but someone will have to get it for you. How can you possibly be expected to lift toast onto your plate?

Suddenly, you believe in chiropractors for the first time. You would believe in the Tooth Fairy if she offered any relief from the excruciating pain. You make an appointment and head to the car. Getting yourself seated behind the wheel has become an act of great daring and exquisite suffering. You lower yourself slowly and reluctantly, as if sitting in a bath you’ve let run too hot. Unable to turn your head, you check the rearview for oncoming traffic. On the way to the chiropractor, you scan the horizon for UFOs, half expecting to see a fleet of them.

You want to know the worst part? Sooner or later, someone is going to ask you to help them move a bed upstairs, and you’ll have to decline: “Sorry, bad back.” Karma will sit on you then like a Sumo wrestler. Rolling eyes, the whole bit. An expression. A judgment summed up in a single word. Deadbeat.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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