So there I was lying on the cold tile of the bathroom floor reflecting upon my life, wondering if this was the end. I really thought I might be dying. Rational thoughts do not go through the mind in a pre-syncopal state and this was no exception. The pain in my lower back was so intense walking from the guest bedroom of my mom’s house to the bathroom that I began profusely sweating, lost most of my vision and heard the strangest ringing in my ears.
“This is it” I thought. “Well, I’ve lived a good life.”
I did not die that morning. In fact my senses came back in a few minutes, although when rational thought returned I wondered how the hell I was going to get to the airport in five hours to catch my flight back home…
I was visiting my mom to give her a 1 week crash course in changing her life, Happy Philosopher style. We were decluttering the house, changing her diet to something healthier; figuring out her future plans for the next few years, talking about happiness, chronic pain, meditation…it was intense. So intense my back decided to let me experience the worst physical pain I can remember having on the day I was supposed to leave.
It was very difficult to stay positive but I do remember thinking “well, at least this gives me something interesting to write about! Now if I can just get to my feet without passing out because I really need to pee!” (10 minutes later I somehow managed).
I’ll be honest, the next hour or so were pretty rough. The ibuprofen and muscle relaxer took the edge off, but the intense pain was just under the surface, ready to pounce at the slightest bend or twist of the lower back.
The irony did not escape me that here I was helping a person with chronic pain learn to use meditation and mindfulness and now I was the one in need of help. I was determined to prevail though; after all I am the freaking Happy Philosopher! Back pain will not take my happiness from me!
Well, my dad was kind enough to give me a ride to the airport. It took me about 10 minutes to get into the car and I was cursing the fact no one had a minivan or monster truck. The small sedan is the enemy of lower back pain apparently. After we finally got moving each bump felt like a knife going into my lower back. I braced for every acceleration and stoplight fearing the worst, but somehow we made it to the airport without without too many curses.
I managed to get out of the car in only about 3 minutes as I wisely adjusted the seat to a more conducive position. Once I was standing, and as long as I moved live a robot I was generally OK (thankfully I have been experimenting with minimalist travel so I had only brought a backpack for a week stay!). And by OK I mean like only a 5/10 on the pain scale.
I made it to airport security and my heart sunk as I realized I would have to take my shoes off. Fuck…this is going to hurt. I thought about asking the guy behind me in line behind to help me untie my shoes but I just couldn’t do it. People are always a little suspicious at airports and I was not sure how that would be received.
Somehow I did manage to get my shoes untied, although I almost knocked over one of those stacks of grey bins you put stuff in to send through the x-ray machine. Luckily I have been doing a lot of yoga recently and although I could not bend my back, for some strange reason I could stand on one leg and lift my other leg with minimal pain. Saved by tree pose!
Half expecting to be strip searched given how my day was going, I made it through security relatively quickly in spite of there being only one line open. I put on my shoes (I still don’t really know how I managed this) and was a little saddened to see that I had another 3 hours before my next dose of pain meds. I walked slowly and robotically to the terminal with a renewed sense of hope, which was quickly doused when I saw that my flight was delayed.
Now I’m not a particularly superstitious person, but it did feel like the universe was conspiring against me. I had booked a shuttle to take me home when I landed which came every few hours, and I did not have a particularly large window between when my plane arrived and the shuttle left. If I missed it, it would tack on another couple of hours to my journey which would be pushing the pharmacokinetics of my available meds to their therapeutic limits. If everything went smoothly I would have maybe 20 minutes to limp off the plane and make it to the shuttle…very doable.
Well, it was not meant to be. The plane was a little later arriving than anticipated. Down to 10 minutes. My optimism was slowly crushed as the plane was boarded. It was probably the slowest boarding process I have ever witnessed. I have never seen so many wheelchairs and families with small children. Wait, why wasn’t I in a wheelchair? These people looked way more comfortable and mobile than me!
Return to the present.
Stop worrying about things you can’t control. You are the HAPPY philosopher, remember?
I sunk into my seat (which had extra leg room – totally worth the upgrade fee!) and prepared for the flight.
…45 minutes later we were still on the runway.
Apparently a lot of flights were delayed and now everyone was trying to take off at once. Briefly I wondered if there was another shuttle available if I missed the next one. This is when I pulled out my phone and started a guided meditation (I love you Tara Brach!)
Well, we finally got in the air and unless something disastrous happened I would make the later shuttle. Another piece of good news came to me. Apparently the upgraded seat I purchased came with a free drink! Perfect! Nothing like a nice Bloody Mary to wash down some more anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxers!
After a little food, booze, medication and meditation I did feel a little better. I managed to stay in the present pretty well and not get absorbed in the “what-ifs” that so often consume us. I managed to have a very pleasant conversation with the older woman sitting next to me. The flight attendant in my section was empathetic towards my pain and in return I was very grateful for her kindness.
Practicing stoicism and gratitude, I was thankful that I was not in the hospital with something more serious. I thought of the love and concern my family and friends had for my well-being. In fact, I was actually very content and happy in spite of my worst pain day ever!
We landed uneventfully; I waited an hour for the shuttle and eventually made it home late that night. I was exhausted, still in serious pain…but happy. I was home, with my family, and better off than many others who have undoubtedly suffered much greater than I. Upon reflection, I have had days in which I have been much more comfortable but was less happy.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
I didn’t get to this state overnight. It took years of suffering in many different ways to achieve this level of enlightenment. I’m not sure how I would have handled this day 5 or 10 years ago. Probably not very gracefully.
My point is this though. If you are suffering, in pain, in a terrible situation or have an unsolvable problem – don’t give up. Keep fighting. Try and find peace. Try and move forward. Your mind is capable of more than you think it is.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.
Whatever is happening to you in this moment, you can choose to suffer a little less in the next. Facing pain with gratitude and optimism is a skill. It can be learned. Don’t ever give up this belief.