The Back Story

Listen, when you share your house and most of your time with a big-time expert on psychosomatic illnesses, you get a little warped.  A cold, for example, is not simply a case of the sniffles.  No, indeed.  That pesky little ailment can be a symptom of a deeper emotional disorder.  Maybe even a syndrome.

“Are you under some kind of stress?” he will pry.  “What’s going on in your life right now?”

Placed under this annoying microscope like laboratory specimens, our kids and I developed our own coping techniques.  “There he goes again,” we’d remark to each other, rolling our eyes and curling our lips, which is definitely challenging when you’re in the midst of a sneezing fit.  But we did it to try to retain some meager shreds of dignity before we had to blow our noses yet again.

Oh, but you know the old saying about what goes around comes around.  It’s true — and what could be a happier occasion than when the scientific investigator himself gets a cold?

“Boy, your life must be a real mess!”

“Second cold you’ve had this winter, right?”

“Have you noticed — Dad gets sick more than anybody else in the family?”  (Insert knowing family laughtrack at this point.)

Similarly, over the years, I’ve heard my husband’s stories about what some experts say about people who experience pain in their lower backs.  “Lower back pain losers,” he said, again and again.  Emotional issues.  Conflicts.  Voila, back pain in the lower regions.  Sympathy?  Not much.

Until, until that sunny day a couple of summers ago when I caught my husband curled up like a comma.  “My back,” he groaned, “is killing me.”

“This is really kind of sad,” I said.  Other things occurred to me to say — but no.  I was far too noble to give in to cheap comments at his expense.  To quote Richard Nixon, that would be wrong, that’s for sure.  At least until my husband started feeling better. Instead, I showed him some yoga exercises — some good twists — that he performed religiously over the next few days.

All of which I found myself doing recently, as I returned from our trip with a back that was killing me. I twisted, I complained, I writhed in pain, I felt sorry for myself, I went back to yoga, I stopped schlepping those suitcases that probably gave me back problems in the first place.  My husband, whose lower back pain hasn’t returned, but who appears to be permanently chastened, offered nothing but sympathy.

You know what?  We’ve both learned a lot.  It’s not psychosomatic when it’s happening to you.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

9 comments… add one
  • It’s a good thing you guys learned these lessons in middle age, because when you get to my age much of your body hurts some of the time, and some part of your body hurts all the time.

  • If there’s psychosomatic illness, there are psychosomatic cures. Never underestimate the power of the placebo! Or the value of sympathy. I’ll commiserate anytime.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    All sympathy and placebos gratefully accepted.

  • That was so funny, and yet true! I was going to ask if you were living in my house with my husband.

  • Ruth, I love reading your stories!

  • This is a great laugh — thanks!

  • Back pain really can be debilitating. It’s so NOT psychosomatic. I hope you both will be free from it from here on out. One thing that really helps me is a wedge pillow for my lower back. They are pricey (like $50) but totally worth it for driving, plane rides, sitting for long periods, etc.

  • Have I mentioned before that I love your blog? It makes me happy regularly!

  • Great story. I have back pain, my husband doesn’t. Although I don’t wish it on anyone, I sure get a flash of “ha! Now you know what I go through”

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