Eleanor Ainge Roy: How back pain at 17 changed my life

By Eleanor Ainge Roy

Eleanor Ainge Roy steels herself for what she knows lies ahead.
Writer Eleanor Ainge Roy.
Writer Eleanor Ainge Roy.

The first cut changed my life. The neurosurgeon's knife sliding into my soft, taut, 17-year-old skin. As I lay unconscious, the doctor sliced the protruding disc, freeing my spinal cord from acute, debilitating pain. A routine back surgery, but very unusual for one so young.

For months I had walked like a hunchback, withdrawing from school, friends and relationships. At physio, in preparation for the discectomy, I burst into tears, and the physiotherapist suggested I should "talk" to someone.

I rapidly stopped crying. It was only because it hurt, I said. It hurt so much. Radiating out from the damaged L5 disc and shooting down my right leg, into my toes.

When I woke from the surgery, I found my knickers had been removed during the procedure, so I could be positioned, drugged, upon a hoist on the operating table, my bare bottom in the air.

After, as the anaesthetic and morphine swirled through my system, a nun came into my room at dusk and ran a warm flannel over my naked back.

"Thank you," I whispered as she gently brushed my teeth, and smoothed back my sweaty hair.

"Spit, dear," she said.

The recovery was like a feverish dream. My mind muddled and exhausted by a damaged body and daily codeine. I read Lolita, On The Road and Anna Karenina; watched Baywatch and 90210. I devoured one National Geographic magazine, cover to cover, every morning.

My mother helped me in and out of the shower, my father took me for slow walks in the garden. Five metres one day, 10 the next, followed by long sleeps.

Twice a day I rubbed rosehip oil into the gnarly wound. Then once a week, and finally never as the years passed and the scar healed - thick, raised, and white. The pain lessened, especially in warm weather and I mostly forgot about it.

Until, a decade on, when L5 ruptured again, worse this time. "Like a squashed donut," my neurosurgeon said. L4 had ruptured too, causing pain and numbness in unmentionable places.

"Another discectomy," the surgeon said. "You remember, don't you?" He was kind and professional, meeting my eye quizzically, waiting for any response. "Just like last time."

I nodded. Calm. Nothing was like last time.

I'd been a child then, and it was taken for granted I would be cared for. Warm and safe in my family home.

But at 28, my life is my own. There is a mortgage and bills to be paid while I am not earning. Dogs to feed and walk. A job that will suffer while I am gone. And a mind that, somehow, needs to be protected from the gloom ill-health can bring.

There are people to help me, I'm lucky. But the idea of being an invalid again makes my heart beat a panicked rhythm. Lying helpless, dependent, checked out of life, like an injured animal that takes to its burrow.

"It's really rough," said an old editor who had the operation, as we sipped wine by the fire.

"It knocks you for six, you can get a bit weird in the head. I'll visit though, I can do your washing for you, and your vacuuming too."

As spring begins to bloom in the south, I take my dogs to the forest for longer each day. As we pant up steep hills, the sun on my neck, I marvel at the vigour and vitality of my young body. The ease with which I can still twist and jump and dance.

After my bath, I stand in front of the mirror and stare at the exposed curve of spine into hip, and hip into thigh. I picture the MRI scan, the blue-black discs collapsed and bent out of shape, and the spinal cord - wounded.

On the surface, though, all I see are smooth lines and clever engineering. How transfixing the roll of a hip can be, how pleasing a plane of skin, unbroken and uncut.

The freezer is slowly filling with meals, and my bedroom has been softened, making it a space I can spend days and weeks. I prepare to disappear, making the house as comfortable as a prison can be.

Closer to the cut, I am going to buy myself a silk nightie. It will make me feel less embarrassed as I lie in crumpled sheets, blinking up at my carers.

"Tea, please."

It humbles you. It tests you. Your real friends sit by your bed, and play podcasts. Your looser ties wonder why you haven't been at the bar in ages - maybe you've moved?

Time passes. You do heal. You remember how much you need people. How offhand you can be with them when you're healthy and well. How usually it seems okay to get through this life alone.

And then the gas flows. Your eyelids drop. Your paper knickers are cut off by a gloved nurse, and the surgeon lowers his sharp knife to your skin.

But your people? They're in the visitors' lounge; nervous, worried. Waiting to greet you with a smile when you wake, and call their name.

- Canvas

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