I recall turning twenty-five being an unpleasant milestone that got me thinking a lot about my future. I considered how unimaginably old I would be in the year 2000, the bar against which everyone measured time’s passage in the last century. Forty-five. Holy crap. What would my life be like by then? A doddering old man wearing Depends, soaking my dentures in a glass of Efferdent?
Twenty-five was an age at which I could still jump off a three foot wall if I wished, landing and bounding like a coiled spring without injuring myself. Pain was usually a temporary annoyance, maybe a few throbbing hours after a hard workout. A pleasant burn that made my muscles sing. And there really weren't many three foot walls where I lived. Parkour hadn't been invented yet.
Twenty-five was also the age at which I got my first glimpse into the kind of pain that becomes familiar and more frequent as the decades pass and the body loses its resilience. It was the year I headed to Wisconsin with a group of friends for a weekend getaway. Upon stepping out of the car into the cool north woods I took a deep breath of naturally pine scented air and promptly choked on a bug, coughed hard and heard a snap in my upper back that doubled me over. It was an immobilizing dislocation of something in my rib cage that was crucial to standing up straight and breathing without wincing. It was not a spasm that could be stretched out, a knuckle that could be cracked or a fatigue that could be rested away. It took me out of action for the entire weekend, flat on my back and swallowing my friend’s mother’s potent pain relievers in hopes of rejoining the fun.
But still, I recovered from that incident within a few days or weeks.
I visited a chiropractor yesterday for my injured knee. As a new patient, I was presented with forms to fill out and an interactive patient history program on a small computer terminal. A diagram of the human body, front and back, covered with small circles to indicate regions for treatment accompanied a list of qualifiers. To click inside a circle, in my case on the left knee, indicated an area of pain. Associated adjectives helped the doctor understand if certain activities initiated, aggravated or alleviated symptoms.
Presented with this cartoon version of myself and a crayon stylus, it occurred to me that recovery time from injuries in your forties and fifties leaves you with a patchwork quilt of pain, overlapping in time and debilitating to the point at which a pain free day is noticeable in the way a terminally ill patient is often reported to sit up in bed and state, “that feels great!” just before collapsing dead. “Wow, I feel great today!” Oh crap, that won’t last.
I began to poke the screen with my electronic pencil. My left shoulder hasn’t been right for four years. It is aggravated by exercise or lack of it, a true no-win scenario. And come to think of it, my right knee isn’t what I’d call a hundred percent, nor is my right wrist. Hell, I haven’t been a hundred percent since 1972.
Poke, poke, poke, I colored in the circles. My back hurts all the time, sometimes when I awake in the morning after a night spent running down hallways looking for a classroom on the last day of the semester or chasing antelope in my dreams. My stomach hurts. Apparently I can no longer digest pepperoni. Poke, color, poke.
Doctors shouldn’t ask questions they don’t want answered, I thought as I completed the exercise. But maybe this guy had magical methods unrevealed to older, less athletic patients afraid to admit their frailty. After all, he is the team chiropractor for a major professional Chicago sports team. These young bucks take a beating regularly and come back for more within hours or days. Many of them are in their twenties. Some are twenty-five. Oh yeah. Just starting to hurt. They have no idea what lies ahead.