The first time my now-husband drove me someplace, I noticed what struck me as a funny habit — or, more accurately, a funny possession of his. Whenever Greg got into the car to drive, he would place a small, floppy, roughly cylindrical pillow under his butt.
More accurately, he would put it behind his lower back, but no matter; I spent the next three years of our relationship calling it his “butt pillow” (“Here, you left your butt pillow on the passenger seat”) and ragging him about it mercilessly. In my defense, I’d never seen such a thing before. Good-natured and easygoing, he would let it go, with a little sigh and a corrective “It’s alumbar support pillow” muttered under his breath.
Then, a couple of months ago, I was driving us home from visiting Greg’s family in rural Alabama. It was a four-and-a-half-hour drive, a stultifying slog up Interstate 65, which I decided it was my spousal duty to manage entirely; he had driven the whole way there, just that morning. Entering the third hour of the journey, the usual you’ve-been-sitting-too-long suspects began to act up: My knees creaked, my neck cramped, my back tensed, then spasmed.
“Ugh, my whole body hurts,” I griped, making minute, futile adjustments to my position. “I can’t believe we have another hour and a half of this.”
“You know what?” Greg declared. “Just try this damn thing already.”
He shoved the little blue beanbag into the space between my lower back and the seat — and something incredible happened. The clouds parted; the angels sang; my back popped easily back into alignment. The stiffness dissipated; my shoulders relaxed; my spine straightened and elongated, like a cat stretching to its full length.
I let out an unearthly groan of pleasure, and then I thought,Oh, shit. Oops.
“This thing is amazing,” I said. “I can’t believe you didn’t make me try it sooner.”
I didn’t turn to look Greg in the eye. Sometimes, when you’re proven so utterly and reprehensibly wrong, after affirming your wrong belief in word and deed for so long, all you can do to deflect the ire of the vindicated is pretend history never happened. Instead, when we got home, I tweeted: “I’m an idiot.”
Really, though: Why didn’tI try the damned pillow sooner? Usually I heed my husband’s health advice; he is a doctor, after all. I suppose I thought: Greg’s a bit delicate, and this is just one of histhings, like his knee brace, or his sacroiliac joint pain, or how sometimes he wakes up with such a crick in his neck he has to roll it around for 20 minutes before he can function. I mean, this is a man who once dislocated his patella pivoting sideways too abruptly.
I’m not that fragile. Not enough to need this kind of aid — an unseemly adjunct, an implicit admission of the need for help. And for driving, of all activities! I thought of that question they ask at the doctor’s office:Are you unable to perform everyday tasks like bathing and dressing?Well, what about driving? What could be more everyday than that?
After I took the first step on the path to butt pillow acceptance, I rubbed a couple of brain cells together and considered the history of my body. At 32, I’m not old, but I’m not so young either, and I’m starting to feel it. The chronic migraines I’ve had since age 6 show no signs of abating; if anything, they’re becoming more resistant to the medications I’ve used my whole life, and I bounce back more slowly from the bad ones.
In more recent news, after a decade of running, my hamstrings have begun to complain, twinging at too steep a hill or too sharp a turn. I have acid reflux — that’s novel and exciting. My right elbow cracks every time I straighten my arm. And I have a rotator cuff strain that has simply become part of my baseline anatomy, cackling, I imagine, at my halfhearted attempts to physical-therapy it into submission.
That’s pretty much what happens with musculoskeletal knocks as you age; they don’t so much heal as accumulate, and you learn to live with and around them. Once the decay of the body starts, it doesn’t stop, but announces itself more loudly, at more moments in the day, until one’s mortal awareness never quite ceases, merely fades in the presence of distraction, until you go to get up from a deeply cushioned chair and find yourself emitting a sound like a dying goose.
Greg wasn’t in denial anymore. Instead, he’d embraced what could help him bat away the incursions of the aging process. When we first met, he’d told me he could never play soccer again; his ankles wouldn’t tolerate the strain, and he wasn’t willing to risk it. At the time, I’d scoffed. Now, the narrowing field of my own athletic accomplishment — let alone day-to-day functioning — has come into much clearer focus. I simply can’t run seven miles every day of the week anymore. Some days, I’m too tired to walk the dog farther than around the block.
Back pain forms a perfect metonym for the entropy that defines, well, spending a lifetime slowly dying. If any part of the body won’t let you forget it — the randomness of it, the lack of good sense and planning — it’s your back.
It’s a well-established fact thatthe human back is garbage. When humans became bipedal — when we stood up on two legs — our spines, evolved for climbing and moving in trees,rotated 90 degrees. The human spine, though, is shaped like an “S,” in order to accommodate the birth canal and balance the torso above our feet. So this precariously curved, fragile object — actually 26 objects, composed of vertebrae and disks — bears immense pressure from its vertical load, which often results in back pain and sometimes injury.
On top of that, we make the situation even worse by sitting like earthbound legumes at desks, on couches,increasing our collective risk forcancer, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and early death. Lower back pain is,by some accounts, the most common physical ailment in the world, a major cause of disability and work absenteeism. The World Health Organization estimates the lifetime prevalence of nonspecific (common) low back pain at 60 to 70 percent in industrialized countries. Anyone could tell you they have a “bad back” and they’d be right. Live long enough and you will, too.
Maladies of the back are as numberless and varied as the stars, and notoriously hard to cure: herniated discs, muscle strains, arthritis, dislocations, compression fractures, sciatica, scoliosis, kyphosis, spinal stenosis, ankylosing spondylitis. It’s no wonder, then, that people have been seeking treatments and remedies for centuries. From ice or heat to support accessories, rehab, steroid injections, and surgery, industries and medical subspecialties have sprouted around people’s back trouble.
Of these measures, lumbar support — designed to treat pain ofthe lumbar, or lower, spine— comes in several forms, including back braces, belts, and other orthotics. The evidence foruse of these methodsin treating low back painis sketchy at best, but the effectiveness of pillow-like chair attachments has been examined. A 2010study published in the journalSpinefound that both the angle of a chair’s backrest and the usage (or non-usage) of a lumbar roll are the two most important factors that contribute to a favorable alignment between the head, neck, and back.Another, from 2013, offered participants both a standard and lumbar support chair; the support chair resulted in improved objective measures of comfort (like frequency of changes in posture) in subjects with and without low back pain.
The lumbar pillow is about as low-tech and low-risk as it gets. Wirecutter endorsedsome fancy-looking ones, but any somewhat pliable, narrow cushion you can place behind your low back will do. I boughtthis one from Thermarestfor $29.95, but you don’t even need a pillow specifically designated back-supportive. All you’re looking for is basically a wedge to fill the space between the seat and the natural curvature of your lower back. One of those cheap airport neck pillows could work, too.
I’m drawn to the metaphor of the pillow filling a gap, the space between desire and reality, where our imperfections are revealed — and, often in middle age, cast into sharp relief. Life gradually dismantles the illusion of invincibility, through injury or illness or mere exhaustion. So we make concessions. I, for one, have abandoned all shame at taking the elevator two or three floors, or canceling a social occasion to stay in and nurse a migraine. So much the sweeter, the frank abundance of health which I’ve been fortunate to retain.
If we’re lucky and wise, we make peace with the vulnerability that attends the admission of one’s essential frailty. To be clear, I’m not recommending a Pollyannaish optimism to people with disabilities (of whom I count myself one); at times, life is just shitty and painful, and no amount of conciliatory thinking can palliate that reality. But I would suggest that, in many ways, our limits are more interesting than our achievements, and they define us equally. We are each of us limited, in different ways and at different times, and we will all one day face the final limit of our small existences. United by our failings and restrictions, we might come to find them meaningful, or at least funny, which is all one can really ask.
As for me, despite not infrequent discomfort, I’m doing pretty well. I run long distances and lift moderately heavy objects; I take walks with my husband and dog, cook dinner, sleep soundly most nights. But I’m open to the eventuality of doing less well: of slowing down, needing help, savoring rest as much as activity. And of looking ridiculous for refusing to undertake a long car trip without my weird little blue pillow, my faithful fellow in aging, with minimal kicking and screaming.
Jennifer R. Bernsteinis a writer and cofounder of the New Inquiry.