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My Back Is My Enemy

Back pain is worse than the asshole in middle school

Illustration: Chloe Cushman

HHaving a chronically bad back in middle age is like having a bully in middle school: You’re always on edge, fearing some horrible surprise is about to sneak up on you from behind. A bully could abruptly kick your notebooks out of your hand or stuff you in a locker, triggering an afternoon of shame. The bad back abruptly triggers a spasm when you bend down to get something off a lower shelf at CVS, and sends you hobbling off to bed for three days.

But at least you eventually escape bullies. Bad backs, on the other hand, never relent. And they only grow more powerful as you get older, perpetually hovering right over your shoulder. I should know. My Back has bedeviled me for decades, escalating its assault from mere twinges of pain to far more sinister and wide-ranging tactics. Chiropractors, physical therapists, John Sarno acolytes, and Alexander Technique-ians have assured me that if I can just make peace with my Back, everything will be okay. How naïve. My Back and I will never be friends. Our rift goes too deep. Ironically, my Back does not have my back.

I’ll admit it: I started this never-ending war, however unintentionally, drawing first blood with an emotional strike. It began when I was just a young teen. Spotting my first sprout of chest hair, I beamed with today-I-am-a-man pride and joyously monitored its bloom from individual wisps into the pubic hair-like puffy throw rug it remains today. Meanwhile, just over my shoulder, my Back overheard my gushing praise and did what any neglected, second-favorite child would do: it desperately and less charmingly tried to mimic the precociousness of its star sibling. As I hyperfocused on what was in front of me, beguiled by my blossoming masculinity, a messy patchwork of back hair began to spread behind me. It staggered in all directions, creeping up over the berm of my shoulders (the DMZ of social acceptability) and migrating down toward my rear end.

I was unable to look over my own shoulder without a sneer of disgust at this unwanted social handicap, and my Back would never forgive the shunning.

How sure my Back must have been that I would welcome its efforts with joy and how pained it must have been the day I shirtlessly ambled past two mirrors angled just right and caught my first glimpse of what my Back had wrought. Instead of glowing with happiness, I recoiled with revulsion. There was no gleeful praise, no pat on the back. Just me keening, “Nooooo, nooooooo!”

If I’d been a better man-boy about it, perhaps our subsequent lifelong battle could have been avoided. But put yourself in my place: For a teen in the 1980s, back hair was just not cool. For a reminder of its pariah power, I needed only to tune into MTV’s annual “Spring Break” programming. The wide shots of hooting and gyrating beach-going audiences showed nothing but smooth male backs, making it obvious that any man with even a shadow of a follicle had been barred at the gate so as not to mar MTV’s shiny, youthful aesthetic. To put this in perspective: Pauly Shore, the sentient, bandanna’d equivalent of genital acne, was given plenty of air time, but back hair was deemed too upsetting for broadcast.

I was unable to look over my own shoulder without a sneer of disgust at this unwanted social handicap, and my Back would never forgive the shunning. It declared a lifetime of revenge, though back pain would come later. Its first vindictive salvo was to double hair production, upgrading its output from “dusting” to “pelt.” I tried to mow back the growth, but, when shaving, I regularly stopped at my collarbone. That was fine when clothed, but when I stood shirtless, I looked like my head was popping out from a trapdoor in the unswept floor of a barber shop. And, in a brilliant but cruel maneuver, my Back kept two lower kidney-shaped areas hairless. The barren-to-fertile contrast only called more attention to the furry areas, like looking at the results of a forest fire from a plane.

Little did I know that my Back’s resentment hadn’t gone away, it had just been driven underground. The Resistance had set up camp in my spinal cord.

Even my closest friends were unnerved by my hairy Back. During college, a group of us went to the Bahamas, and when it came time to fulfill the mutual “can you put lotion on my back?” social contract, nobody would make eye contact. When someone did bravely take a turn, I saw the post-slather horror at which they queasily looked down at their hands, now coated with a residue of Coppertone and loose hairs, as if they’d just scooped sour cream out of a shower drain.

In my twenties, I retaliated with the depilatory equivalent of napalm: waxing, a cruel but necessary action to force surrender by making it clear who was in charge. And indeed, having a stereotypically brusque Russian woman emotionlessly defoliate all of my Back’s hard work seemed to sap it of its will. I kept at it for a few summers, and each year the hair grew back more thinly, obeying my strict new zoning threat, “You keep your lawn short, and I won’t call the cops.” Little did I know that my Back’s resentment hadn’t gone away, it had just been driven underground. The Resistance had set up camp in my spinal cord.

I first threw my Back out in my late twenties, while playing Ultimate Frisbee. At that age, I could explain it away as a one-off casualty of my admirably vigorous lifestyle, no more troubling than a sprained ankle or broken finger. But in my late thirties, after having two children (who must be constantly hoisted, lowered, piggybacked, or Baby Bjorned), Back spasms struck more regularly, at moments completely unrelated to physical exertion. Every couple of years I would be innocuously bending, twisting, or ducking, and be jolted by that familiar skronk — as if someone had reached into my spine and abruptly cinched my lower spinal column like a baggie twist tie. I would then hobble to bed and lay there for a week, dreading every sneeze or trip to the bathroom. And then, just a few weeks before my 40th birthday, I herniated a disc, a pain marathon that made my earlier Back spasms seem like mere discomfort fun runs. As I lay in bed for weeks, the slightest head turn would trigger a body-spasming shock. I would hear my then-small children skitter down the hall toward me, and instead of feeling joy at their impending greeting, I would clench with terror: “OH GOD. PLEASE, DON’T JUMP ON ME. PLEASE, DON’T JUMP ON ME.” Fear of my own children triggered a realization: This was not just bad luck, but rather a tactical offense. This was my Back’s ultimate shot across the stern, timed for maximum symbolism: “I gave you the first forty years; the next forty, I’m in charge, and have I got plans for you.”

I tried yoga, planking, and lifting with my legs not with my Back, desperate to regain control by stabilizing this weakening front. I naïvely underestimated my nemesis. Because while I was hyperfocusing on my spinal cord, my Back was busy elsewhere.

I’ve been fortunate to have held onto a thick head of hair. For years, my unstoppably thick mane has served as a dependable small-talk topic with whatever stylist is cutting my hair, and their gushing only increased as the chasm widened between my unbudging hairline and the retreating of my peers’. It got to the point where I assumed that if I hadn’t lost hair by now, I never would. And then, sometime in my 48th year, my daughter walked up behind me and gracelessly observed, “You’ve got a bald spot,” jabbing her finger onto my crown so I could feel skin on skin. I speedily time-lapsed through all the stages of hair loss (denial, anger, bargaining) as I contorted myself, trying to take a selfie of the back of my own head. And indeed, I saw a visible circle of scalp where once there was only lush landscape.

The penny dropped. This now went far beyond my spinal cord. My Back was recruiting every part of me that lay behind my vertical equator, no doubt spreading an angry rallying cry: “We. Have. Been. Ignored. Too. Long.” It wouldn’t be hard for my Back to rally the back of my head. Many mornings, I delicately pampered my part upon sighting any trace of bedhead. Yet, if a tuft poked up from behind, I’d just slap some water on it and hold it down until it obeyed. I waterboarded it!

I’m sorry, Back.

With the rear of my head now in its thrall, my Back’s insurgency had drafted every rear element above my belt. But it was not done. My Back then moved down to tap the recruit whose treachery would truly break me.

My ass.

My atrophying, sagging, middle-aged ass. I should have seen it coming. I should have been doing lunges! But no, just as I had my Back, I always took my butt for granted. Sure, it was kind of bony, but it served its purpose, giving me just enough padding that my tailbone didn’t make an audible clack when connecting with a hard chair. And then… it was gone.

My butt had been incrementally vanishing over the past few years. It was as if elves had snuck into my bedroom every night and Great Escape-ingly removed a pocketful of ass in their tiny pockets. This slow, incremental erosion was imperceptible until it hit a tipping point that finally revealed the damage; on a recent morning, I found I needed to cinch my belt to one hole past where it had ever gone before — yet I hadn’t lost any weight. The slight shelf of butt on which the aft of my pants normally perched had finally lost all dimension, leaving my pants no purchase to stop from sliding straight down. A belt was no longer insurance, it was my pants’ sole means of clinging to my waist, more bungee cord than belt.

I’ve always had skinny legs, and in middle age they are even stalkier. Now, with the loss of any ass contouring, each one looks like a third-grader’s cartoon drawing of a leg: two parallel lines that start at my waist and end at an overlong shoe.

I am broken. I concede victory to my Back. I realize this all sounds like an Aesop fable, the moral of which is that “age sneaks up on you,” but this is no childish metaphor. This is a cruel, methodical assault on my posture and dignity that I need to stop before everything behind me (heel spurs? torn hamstrings?) joins the fight. I have nightmares in which my Back goes nuclear, sneaking out while I’m asleep and getting a “KICK ME” tattoo. I do not want to spend my remaining pool-going years enduring the jarring thud of flip-flops striking against my fleshless tailbone.

I’m sorry, Back. Grow all the hair that you want. I’ll start sleeping on my front. I’ll install a four-way mirror so I can give you equal grooming attention in the morning. When my kids jump on you, I will demand that they show more respect. I give. I just want my life, Back.

President of Fixate Digital. Vulture/EW/Yahoo alum, and author of “Cabin Pressure: One Man’s Desperate Attempt to Recapture His Youth as a Camp Counselor.”

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