It was during winter of 2007, when I was working and living on a small, peaceful and interesting island that I had one of the most traumatic health experiences in memory. My house was in a well-constructed apartment complex, which for some reason did not have an elevator. I cannot recollect if it was for the first time or not when I embarked on carrying a 50 liter can of water from the ground to the fifth floor where my apartment was located. It might have been late evening. I don’t remember feeling particularly strained at that moment; but, the next morning when I tried to get out of my bed my back refused to budge an inch without the most excruciating pain imaginable. I felt as if my back had given away under the weight of the tallest mountain on earth. Literally I was carrying Everest on my broken back for the next three months of my life. Thus began the broken-back mountain phase of my life.
My gut feeling is that it was not smart for a frail person to imagine that he could carry a 50 liter can of water all the way five floors. The only explanation I could retrospectively come up with is that I was going through a depression without being aware of it. Depressed people often do strange things, almost impulsively, without knowing that they might not be acting with a consciousness of the factors underlying their behavior. In the Dialogues of Plato, Socrates goes through the meticulous exercise of asking his interlocutors to give reasons for why they thought something was the case. The exercise is a useful one because it throws light on the motives for subscribing to a particular line of reasoning.
The last thing a depressed person ever does is carefully introspect on reasons for a specific action. What I was doing was allowing myself to commit acts of self-destruction without having control on my impulses because that was the only way I could be myself. One thing that happens when you are depressed is that you want to punish your body. You feel alive and proud to be the owner of something as precious as your body that you can treat in any manner you like without having to feel guilty about it since it is your exclusive possession.
I had to learn the art of crawling in and out of the bed all the way to the bathroom and back; to go to work while it clearly showed that the shape of my body had changed because of the herniated disc; to wear my clothes like a snail often making mistakes while getting into my trousers; to not pick up stuff from the ground except by first sitting on my haunches; all these things took a while but I knew for a fact that my sense of who I am had changed.
I divided my life into two phases: the one, before the disc slipped and after, with the spinal nerve causing intense pain like a sharp and pointed needle driving into the flesh. The life before seemed like a golden period when I was a prince with everything at my disposal; clearly I was hallucinating with my eyes wide open. My wish to turn the clock back, and the hope each time I went to bed along with an antidepressant that I would miraculously wake up without pain, remained unfulfilled. I read a lot and watched films to keep my mind occupied. It is important to distract oneself from thoughts of pain especially when going through the pain. Dwelling on pain aggravates it like warm winds intensify forest fires.
These are moments when one appreciates the role of close friends and family members. The help I derived from friends was invaluable not only in finding a doctor but also in being able to do the regular things related to both my work and my daily life. Though I continue to suffer from chronic backaches of varying intensity, to this day in my life, I am grateful to friends who gave me the time and the space, listened to me and helped me with daily chores when I was in no position to do them by myself.
One thing you can be certain of is that you can’t go through life without human company. This has nothing to do with being single or having a partner; those things are personal choices depending on individual temperament. One should cultivate the art of interacting with people and taking an interest in their lives. This is not out of any selfish motive that they might someday be useful to you. This is because just as we need company it is imperative that we also give time to those who are lonely, depressed and sick without losing patience. The body is the source of our vulnerability, not our mind. The awareness that we are just a body that can be affected by colds, coughs, back pains and countless other minor things is enough reason to make us feel human.
The back pain made me realize that there is no point in bearing a grudge or ill-will against anyone. In the end those people are as much bodies as I am. We simply don’t have to envy anybody beyond a limit. It’s meaningless because the people you hate are likely to experience everything you do in one way or the other. Wealth and comfort seem important to most people; but in themselves they don’t alter the essential aloneness of the human condition. If we are alone it is because of the body. Not because of the heart. Yet, having people close to your heart is what makes the ultimate difference. If there is one lesson that I successfully absorbed with the back pain it is that friendship and love are not words; they are more than just that.
Prakash Kona is a teacher and researcher from Hyderabad, India. He writes when he makes time from his otherwise hectic schedule. “I am interested in a lot of things but my main interests are Shakespeare, British, Continental, Anglo-American Poetry and Fiction (especially 19th and 20th centuries) and World Literature.”