The world can be divided easily into two groups of people. Those who have experienced serious back pain, and those who haven’t. As a sufferer from a chronic but (thankfully) episodic problem with my lower spine, these days I can totally pick a person from either of those groups pretty much instantaneously.

The first time I experienced my condition was when I was in my late 20s and I was driving along the highway from Goulburn to Sydney. I don’t actually recall doing anything at all to bring it on – I merely shifted my weight in the seat.

SKRINK! (Each time you see that word, I want you to imagine that it is the Bernard Herrmann knife-stab motif from Psycho – you know, that high-pitched violin screeching sound). It was like someone had taken a marlin spike and rammed it through my back.1 I put my foot on the brake. SKRINK! Again. Bad move. But I couldn’t keep driving. I finally got the car to stop on the side of the road. My breath was ragged and I was whimpering involuntarily with the excruciating pain.2 With every effort of willpower I got out of the car and lay flat on the ground. It was all I could think to do to attempt to stop the agony.

In a minute or two, a car pulled up and a middle-aged woman jumped out and hurried over.

“My God! Are you OK?” she cried.

“It’s my back… I don’t know what I did but it’s terrible.”

“Oh,’ she said. ‘I thought it was something really serious.”

I know now that this woman was in Group B: People Who Have Never Experienced Back Pain.

Now, in mechanical terms, what is wrong with me is very common and something that can happen (to anyone) surprisingly easily. It’s just a muscle weakness in my back that allows my spine to make contact with the nerves that run along it. It tends to be a kind of a feedback loop – the muscle goes into spasm, the nerve gets pinched, I involuntarily ‘overcorrect’ (to avoid the intolerable stabbing pain) which causes the muscle to spasm even worse… and so forth. It doesn’t take much to trigger it – I had a particularly bad episode in 1987 that was instigated by merely bending down to take a power plug from a socket. Thankfully it only happens every two or three years, and usually it’s correctable by my physiotherapist and I’m only out of action for a few days.

But it hit me on Friday night worse than I’ve ever had it before, and, annoyingly, all the local physiotherapists are closed over the weekend, so I’ve been completely bed-ridden for the best part of two days. I don’t really take to that very well. To give you some idea of what it’s like, let me describe what I did just now when I decided to get up and make myself some tea.

Sitting up in bed with computer (while I sit still, I feel COMPLETELY fine). Slide computer off lap and take blanket off knees. SKRINK! Make whimpering noise. Slide legs off side of bed. SKRINK! Jesus! Stand up and walk to kitchen like a ninety-year-old man. Put kettle on and inadvertently knock sharp knife off bench. Instinctively move bare foot out of the way to stop artery being severed. SKRINK! Fuck! Try to pick knife up. SKRINK! SKRINK! SKRINK! Fucking Jesus Cunt Fuck! Whimper. SKRINK! What the fuck? I barely moved that time! Give up on knife. Fill kettle. Mince around in terror that the pain will strike again SKRINK! Thanks. Make tea (Eventually. It takes three times longer than normal thanks to the the additional swearing and the stop-start nature that has now been imposed on the process). Take tea and cup back to bed. Attempt to set teapot down on bedside table. SKRINK! SKRINK! FUCKING SHIT JESUS BLOODY HELL! SKRINK! Scream. SKRINK! Drop teapot on table from six inches above and hope it won’t fall off. Do the same with cup. SKRINK! FUCK. Attempt to get back into bed. SKRINK! SKRINK! SKRINK! SKRINK! SKRINK!.

Every time the pain hits it’s as bad as the first time. When I do finally manage to get back into bed, sitting up straight, the pain is totally absent. The problem with pain like this is that there is no visible sign that there’s something wrong. So what my family sees is me sitting in bed seeming entirely OK (because as long as I don’t actually MOVE, I am) and having a jolly ol’ time on the internet. And, if I have to get up, I seem to suddenly go into Tourette’s-like convulsions of screaming and sobbing for no visible reason. If you’ve never experienced this kind of pain, you simply cannot know what it’s like – I know, because up until it happened to me I used to be part of Group B. And I know, because of this, that those in Group B who see you hobbling about think you’re hamming it up! Well, they might attempt to be sympathetic, but I know that what’s really going on in their minds: ‘Oh come on. It can’t possibly be that bad. You were FINE a second ago.’ Eventually they even lose the sympathetic air and you can almost hear them saying ‘Yeah, yeah, we get the idea – it’s painful. You can stop with the screaming now.’ Only you can’t stop with the screaming because it’s FRIGGIN’ AGONY.3

You know you’ve discovered a Group A person, though, when you tell them what’s wrong and they go a kind of ashen colour. Their brain instantly replays a little bit of the pain for them – it’s an involuntary response reserved for those of us who have been to this special circle of Hell. Usually their sympathetic words are confined to ‘Oh Jesus. Fuck.’, and they sometimes grab reflexively onto a nearby shelf or other stable object.4

The other shitty thing about this problem is that it makes me so incapacitated. The smallest tasks become almost impossible and even showering or putting on my shoes creates whole new vistas of torment. I’m not really good at sitting doing nothing so I probably do the worst thing I can do under the circumstances and make numerous attempts to get on with my normal life, despite urgings from Violet Towne to take it easy.

It really gives me renewed respect for all those people out there who live with remorseless chronic pain. You brave and courageous souls! I salute you! SKRINK! Aaaaagh. FUCKING HELL!

  1. This is colourful imagery, you understand. I don’t really know what it would feel like to have a marlin spike rammed through my back, but I imagine it would not be pleasant. []
  2. The word ‘excruciating’ comes from the same word roots as crucifixion. []
  3. I have to be truthful here and say that Violet Towne is really one of the few people who can be classified as belonging to neither Group A or Group B. She is a very empathetic person. I think she understood how bad the pain was when she saw me turn white and lose my power of coherent speech the first time I got stabbed in the spine. She has also been good-natured enough to put up with my constant moaning, and has been looking after me very well through this latest episode. []
  4. The Group A people can be divided into two further groups: Group A1, who know that you’re in for some serious physiotherapy and a few more days off your feet, and Group A2, who offer you some kind of idiotic remedy involving acupuncture, homeopathy or crystals. When I’m in agony and beset by peddlers of woo-woo, I want to grab some of those crystals and shove them right where the sun won’t make rainbows. []