For the last fifty years, back pain has been a constant in my life—through two marriages, six jobs, the deaths of my parents, a daughter, and many friends, and into retirement. I’ve had a back fusion, which laid me up for four months (and which did nothing), plus visits to chiropractors, orthopedists, and acupuncturists costing me thousands of dollars. (Ditto.)
It was my acupuncturist, however, who suggested a book to me on the psychology of back pain. I didn’t buy the author’s theory that anger is the cause of all back pain, but I did start a pilgrimage of sorts through my internal landscape of other half-buried emotions to see what I might unearth.
Linear person that I am, I went back to when the pain began.
In early March, 1968, I received my draft notice to report for an Army physical the following month. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The previous year, the number of U.S. Troops stationed in Vietnam had risen to 500,000 and there were calls for even more troops. The previous summer, I’d been notified that my military deferment for being married and for being a teacher had ended.
Still, I’d ignored my new 1-A draft card. I was at the University of Vermont, entering my second semester as a Graduate Assistant in English, living comfortably with my wife in an apartment maybe a half-mile from the UVM campus. Academia had opened a wonderful new world for me, an inner world of the mind, removed from outside influences (like war), and I was focused on getting into a PhD program and becoming a college professor.
Then came the draft notice. I didn’t know what to do. One of my teaching-assistant colleagues told me he had contacts in Montreal, just 96 miles away, should I want to defect. I thought about it, but realized I was no conscientious objector; I just thought the war was stupid. My wife, whose cousin had just shipped out to Vietnam, seemed resigned to my going, saying she would move back to live with her parents in Maine and wait for me. (Thirty-five years after our divorce, I wonder if she wasn’t secretly looking forward to moving back in with her parents.)
Well, I decided if I must go, I’ll do it on my terms: I’ll enlist in the Navy, and since if I do that, I’ll have to serve for four years, I might as well become an officer. Which, as I write this, doesn’t make any sense, since, given my age of 25 and my academic background, I doubt I’d have seen combat and my Army tour of duty would have been for only two years. Still, two days after receiving my draft notice, I went down to the Navy recruiting office and signed up for officer’s candidate school. Which meant taking the Navy’s physical examination, which meant going to Springfield, Massachusetts the following weekend.
I recall that most of the men taking the physical were younger than I, of various ethnicities, dressed in everything from ripped jeans to hippie tie-dyes to one guy in a suit and tie. Hair length was even more varied. We were given lockers and told to strip to our underwear. I don’t remember all the various preliminary tests except for being so nervous I couldn’t pee in the cup. But I must have eventually because I wound up in a sort of gymnasium in my boxers. A deep voice told us drop our shorts and lean forward while some guys in uniforms went behind us shining flashlights up our asses.
Next, the voice told us to bend over and touch our toes. In the row in front of me was a guy in a back brace. He raised his hand, and the officer motioned for him to get out of line. He yelled, “Okay, anyone who can’t touch his toes because of a back problem, fall in over here!”
For the previous two weeks, I had thought and thought of ways to deal with my draft notice and had only become more and more confused. Now, without thinking, I followed the guy with the back brace to a room on the edge of the floor. Only after I was walking behind him did I realize what I was about to do and remember why I was going to do it.
When I was sixteen, I’d hurt my back in a high school physical education class. My mother drove me to the hospital for x-rays. A young man—probably some kind of intern or maybe a technician—came out to say that I’d broken my back. Of course, I was upset. The guy left, but then a few minutes later a doctor entered. No, he said, you haven’t broken your back, just bruised it. But, he continued, you have a deformity in your back that looks like it could be a break. He called it “Scheuermann’s Disease,” which I’ve since found is a curvature in the middle of the back caused by period of accelerated growth (Two years earlier, I’d grown four inches in a year). My Scheuermann’s was especially pronounced, with two vertebrae jutting noticeably from my spine.
Remember, said the doctor, if you’re ever in an automobile accident it will look like you have a broken back.
After the bruising went away, I forgot all about Scheuermann and his disease. I played basketball and fought forest fires and did every physical activity I wanted to with no pain whatsoever. Nine years later, however, walking behind this guy in a back brace, it all came back to me, so that when I sat down in that room by a desk with another military type, I was ready. Did I have a history of back problems? Yes, ever since I was sixteen. Did it keep me from physical activity? Yes (there was one exercise on the obstacle course that we had when I was in the forest service that I thought I couldn’t do because I couldn’t bend all the way back and touch my head to the ground behind me. Of course, few other guys could do that one, either.) Was I experiencing pain right now? Yes. (And as I sat there, my lower back really did hurt.)
Okay, son, come back here next week and we’ll take some x-rays.
A month after those x-rays, I received notice that my military status had changed from 1-A to 1-Y, which meant qualified only in time of national emergency.
I was home free.
Except it’s been since that time that I’ve had back problems.
So, is the pain due to guilt? Recently, at a men’s group I belong to, several Vietnam vets were reminiscing, and I came home with my back throbbing. Somewhere, I’d heard the term “survivor guilt.” Going to my trusted Wikipedia, I read, “Survivor guilt … occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic or tragic event when others did not, often feeling self-guilt.”
Could be. The Vietnam war killed two of my classmates in combat, caused a friend to suffer years of depression, another friend to become an alcoholic, and a third to die from cancer caused by the defoliant Agent Orange.
In many cases of survivor guilt, the article goes on to say, survivors spend a lifetime compensating for the guilt of having survived by doing good things. That military physical certainly changed my goals and values. I returned to the University of Vermont less interested in academics and more interested in helping others. And frankly, I think I did more good in the next two years than I would have sitting at a desk typing Army reports or standing on the bridge of a destroyer. Instead of becoming a college professor, I taught high school students of all backgrounds, some of whom I’ve stayed in contact with for over forty years. I became an active member of a church community, working with youth groups and with the homeless.
All of which I’ve been telling my back.
Does it help? Has the pain gone away?
Yes and no. The pain is still there, but I find simply by my being aware of the guilt that might be causing it (emphasis on “might”; I could be psychobabbling), my back pain has diminished to back discomfort, discomfort I accept as a consequence of a choice I once made, and a choice I would make again.