Baby's First Sober Spinal Surgery
Or: how an experimental novel nearly left me paralyzed
For most of my adult life I’ve lived with a slightly-broken back. The human spine has some soft circles of padding in between the vertebrae, and one of mine - one right above my hip - has a tear. A little bit of the soft stuff inside pokes out and hurts me, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot, sometimes poking a nerve and making me feel it in my legs, sometimes fading into the background when I pay attention to something else but never ever really going away.
It’s been there since my early twenties. I’d been building up to it without knowing it by lifting way too much weight at the gym, working to accentuate the already-huge muscles in my calves. As a boy my parents had taken me to the video game arcade from time to time, where I’d gotten so excited about gaming that I’d hopped up and down at the consoles for as long as they let me continue to play, meaning my calves developed much faster than my ability to use them wisely. As an insecure teen I’d stacked mountains of weight-plates on the leg press machine to see how many of them I could lift with my calves alone, urgently searching for some sort of accomplishment and distinction, wearing my back out a little bit more with every desperate rep.
The actual rupture happened on a plane, of all places - not with a heavy lift but with a contortion, one where I tried to cram my body into a ball and somehow sleep on an overnight flight to Finland. Sleep never came, but a persistent and ever-growing pain did. I thought it was a muscle or tendon issue and over the following weeks did a bunch of stretches that made it a lot worse, until finally I went to the doctors and got some imaging done and found out what it was that I was dealing with.
There are some injuries that heal on their own if you leave them alone and take care of them long enough, and this isn’t one of them. I’ve learned to live with a certain level of pain, one that’s never diminished. It’s occasionally shot way the hell up when I aggravate the injury somehow, usually trying to lift something, and then I’ll spend a week or two in bed stricken with agony but unable even to writhe. The acute agony has passed every time I’ve aggravated my injury, but every aggravation has made my baseline level of pain just a little bit harder to endure.
I kind of gave up and lived with it for a long time. It’s bad, but not bad enough to warrant the risks of serious surgery. It just became a part of who I am.
Eventually, though, a Facebook ad of all things brought my attention to a local clinical trial who was looking for some participants. I got some more imaging done and confirmed that yes I was indeed in pain and yes indeed it was a result of my herniated lumbar disc and yes indeed I would be very interested in helping to find a cure.
In the interim, between the injury and the study, I had gotten sober. Alcohol was my drug of choice, as it is for many - I’d never had any serious encounter with benzodiazepines or opiates, but I’d befriended many former addicts who assured me that I would almost certainly love-love-LOVE those drugs if I ever gave them a try.
So, when it came to actually do the study, I found out that it involved a bit of benzo-opiate sedation. They were going to inject something into my spine, and so they wanted to give me a bit of something to make sure I didn’t thrash around on the table by accident and sever a nerve on the needle.
I wasn’t having it. I was certain that the merest taste of benzos and opiates would certainly send me into a frenzy. Years of hard work in repairing my relationships and living with my raw feelings would go out the window in an instant. You’d see me on the news in a week, or I’d just disappear entirely.
I told the study directors that I was an alcoholic and that I would be forgoing sedation. Maybe others couldn’t handle a needle to the spine without anesthetic, but I’m different. I could be a sober hero. There’s a gigantic sequence in Infinite Jest, a novel I read obsessively in my twenties, where a character in recovery endures the agony of a gunshot wound and forgoes all opiates at the hospital, discovering for himself the profound truth of sober living - that no one moment is unendurable.
It’s a beautiful sequence from a beautiful book, but it’s ultimately a work of fiction. I don’t think David Foster Wallace himself ever suffered through such a scenario, whatever his torments. The book is illustrative and insightful and also fairly far from a documentary.
After conversations with my sponsor, who encouraged me to not be an idiot and to follow the doctor’s suggestions, and with the study lead, who assured me that they’d worked with plenty of people in recovery and hadn’t seen anyone relapse off of a small amount of sedation, I very-reluctantly agreed to take it.
I was very afraid on the morning of the operation. I felt myself at risk of death, in a way - the end of my sober life, a return to the living death of inebriation, finding myself once again underwater and watching the surface recede away as I sank. My partner was with me and I had the full support and endorsement of my sponsor and my sober community and the local medical staff, and yet part of me still felt very alone. Addiction is isolation, the all-consuming pursuit of a private feeling, and so even the slightest risk of going back there made me aware that if I felt that craving again that there was no way anyone else could directly intervene.
They administered the sedation via IV, which meant that they had to put a needle in the big blood vessels in my hands. Given my emotional state, this proved to be difficult, because I was sweating. It was very cold in the operating room and my body was slick with sweat, and so they had to stick me three times to finally get it in there.
When I get an IV, I can taste it in my mouth. The saline solution goes through my blood and into my lungs and into my exhaled breath, salty and artificial and cold. And so I tasted the saline, and I knew they’d found the vein, and then they said they were administering the sedative and I felt a little woozy and a bee stung my back and I was outside in a wheelchair, helped into a car where I went home and drank half an energy drink and fell asleep on the couch.
I awoke, to my infinite gratitude, without any cravings. I’d spent so much time in recovery meetings talking about opiates and benzos as things people abuse like crazy, so I’d forgotten that they had any legitimate medical usage in small amounts under professional supervision. Over the coming months my back pain didn’t really change, so either the compound was a dud or I got stuck with a placebo. It did inspire me to take care of myself again, to go to the chiropractor and get massages and use my inversion table several times a day. I do feel better, but any contribution from the drug has been zeroed out by the benefits of just caring for myself again.
After that study I got a call for another one - another set of procedures, more sedation, more question marks. This time, rather than freaking out for weeks, I almost forgot to talk about it.
I couldn’t have predicted any of the above, and I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to put myself in any of those scenarios. “Why don’t I put myself at risk of relapse just to see if I can handle it” is a thought that would raise alarm bells if it occurred to me spontaneously. But it’s moments like that which show me how far I’ve actually come. The anxiety sucked, as does the continued back pain, but without going through it I wouldn’t know myself as having actually changed. I’m not declaring that I’ve “made it” - I’ll make it when I die sober, and thanks to sobriety I’m not in any hurry to die. I am declaring that the ‘bad’ things I go through get to be evidence of good things too, if I choose to see them that way.
Drinking was misery, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, and I hope those who still drink like I did find peace and relief before they die. Recovery, though, has given me the opportunity to look back on my past and make it mean something new. My suffering has changed from something that isolated me to something that brings me closer to people. My past has changed from something shameful into my ticket to helping others. The facts are the same, but the story I tell about them has changed. Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
On Monday I go in for another procedure, a bone marrow extraction, my very first. If all goes well they’ll mix some of my stem cells with a new compound and put it into my herniated disc and maybe it will regenerate. I fully expect to go in and get it done and take my now-usual post-procedure nap, and terror of relapse is nowhere to be seen.
What I have now is an absence of fear about it. The time prior to my first operation was filled with freaking out, and my quality of life was tangibly diminished without anything actually happening to me. This time I get to look back on the past with gratitude and look forward to the future with acceptance - it didn’t get easier, but I got stronger, and did so without realizing it until circumstances revealed my growth to me.
I’m grateful to be where I am, and I’m grateful to have gotten all the help I needed to get here, and I’m grateful to be able to offer help to those who come after me. For everything I face I am grateful to not face it alone. Even if all you do is read my writing, I’m grateful to you for sharing this life with me.