Back Pain

Johanna Shapiro, PhD

When I composed this poem, I was lying flat on my back, munching anti-inflammatories and feeling sorry for myself, in the midst of an acute episode of back spasm. Having had back problems for 20 years, originally as the result of an injury, and later complicated by arthritic and auto-immune changes, I knew the drill. I couldn’t read, couldn’t use the computer, couldn’t watch tv, couldn’t work. All I could do was wait… and think. Experiencing serious back pain is unnerving, because it can strike at any moment, often without a clear precipitating event. It can be agonizing, and over time, debilitating. But it is also undignified. Rolling about on the floor, I began to think of Kafka’s short story, Metamorphosis, in which the poor clerk Gregor Samsa awakens to discover he has been transformed into a bug. Gregor suffers, but he suffers in an ungainly, humiliating way. Mostly he suffers because even his family eventually avoids him, and is relieved when he dies. Back pain sufferers can experience a similar fate. Back pain isn’t glamorous – it’s not like Camille swooning romantically with tuberculosis – and after awhile even loved ones get tired of the whining. You can be a perfectly productive and cherished member of your family one day, and an annoying parasite the next. Not a pretty thought.

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