I have given a name to my pain, and it is Samantha

I don’t know why Samantha. The referent most often in my head, since Samantha became persistent enough to deserve naming, is of course Samantha Micelli from Who’s The Boss, but even as I write this I realize that the more likely source of the name in the moment that I claimed it was the Samantha who does not exist (except in Olaf’s mind) in Frozen 2. Except even there, she doesn’t exist in Olaf’s mind; she’s a random brainfart that causes Olaf to call her name when frightened, before realizing moments later that he doesn’t know anyone named Samantha. Importantly, neither do I.

Samantha is the name I gave the knot in my back. Samantha began two or three winters ago as a walnut-sized lump of pain in my left lower back, right along the ridge line of my pelvis, where the QL connects. She neither debilitated me, nor went away. She was always just “there.” She may or may not have begun when I actually did throw my back completely out just before Christmas in 2020; when I felt a bullwhip-crack across my entire lower back and fell to the ground and couldn’t get up again for what felt like a year; when I suffered a night in bed when I could neither sleep nor lift myself out of bed to do anything about it. You know: that time my body let me know in no uncertain terms that life is growth, growth is change, and change is chaos, and that all of the above is now part of my daily, weekly, monthly experience.

Was that day the beginning of Samantha, related to Samantha, or something completely else besides Samantha? I don’t know. “Pain is often multifactorial,” my massage therapist will routinely remind me. What about the sciatica this year: Samantha? Was Samantha a harbinger of it, or was it a harbinger of Samantha? When the MRI found the bulging disc in L5-S1, was I seeing the root of all that pain — was I seeing Samantha, in the flesh for the first time? Or another strand of it a contiguous problem? Or something completely unrelated that just happened to live in a similar, endlessly troublesome, part of my body?

I have learned in the past twelve months that you can drive yourself crazy with this kind of thinking, not because it doesn’t lead to some useful articulations of the problem — it does — but because, as should be clear to anyone and everyone with a body, physiology doesn’t come with simple math. Aside from the old standby — “it hurts when I raise my arm like this” / “so don’t raise your arm like that” — there aren’t complete, dependable answers. One and one rarely equals two.

And this isn’t “armchair guy with sore back doing some googling” wisdom, by the way. This was “well-off dude in Canada worked with six separate medical practitioners in 2022 and only ever narrowed in gradually on partial solutions to a relatively simple problem, at the cost of many thousands of dollars and several hundreds of hours.”

Oh, that’s right: I spent 2022 in open war with Samantha.

The Trio

No single or group of people made more of an impact on my year than my physiotherapist, my massage therapist, and my trainer. They oughta have a group chat, not least because they know what all the muscles are called and I don’t, which made conversation between the three of them via me fairly broken-telephoney.

And as much as I’ve always been theoretically or philosophically aware of my privilege, it also pisses me off / makes me grateful almost to the point of bursting into tears, that it took the combined and diligent efforts of all three of those people — backed by two separate general practitioners, and a sports medicine specialist — to get me to the point where I can walk without pain. Because from March till November, I couldn’t.

In May, I went to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which was back in-person after a couple years away. I lasted about 45 minutes on the floor before I had to go home, and because Toronto’s transit agency spends substantially more time working out how not to deliver service than how to deliver it, I also didn’t make it all the way home in a single shot before my ability to stay upright simply went away. It was as frightened and overwhelmed as I think I’ve felt in twenty years.

So see above re: privilege: I am fully aware, now more viscerally than perhaps a year ago, that many, many people are dealing with far worse than this, all the time every day, and that the TTC is failing them even harder than it’s failing me, and that they don’t have access to my three practitioners and three backups as part of first-tier health care in Ontario. And that if I didn’t have a job, good insurance (which covered about half of the therapy this year), and a big pot of emergency money to throw at a problem like this, I’d probably be on a cane right now, with no trajectory on that but further into debilitation.

So also see above: re: gratitude. I cannot actually tell you what it means to me to have, however temporarily or conditionally, surmounted this particular challenge in a way that feels positive. I cannot actually tell you how blessed I feel every time I walk anywhere for more than five minutes. And as to the trio themselves, words can and do fail me.

But I choose the words “temporarily or conditionally” with intention. That’s been something else in my experience of 2022, not just related to Samantha, but with Samantha as the best, most tactile example. This was the year I began practicing hard against letting go of expectations; an overdue lesson from the pandemic, and just from being a mindful person in his forties in this godfuck decade from hell. Expectations lead to nothing but suffering.

The middle way

Hilariously, Samantha came back last week. Not the sciatica, thank goodness; just the old knot of pain in my QL, in the exact same spot. Equally hilariously — and very, very satisfyingly — my massage therapist kicked the shit out of her the other day. Left bruises (on me), but broke Samantha’s soul. Sent that kid runnin’. She’s gone away for a little while longer, anyway. Maybe she’ll be back next week; maybe she’ll never be back. No expectations.

One thing I’ll say for her, and her powers-of-ten escalation as a problem in my life in 2022: she knocked me back into my body, like a reverse Doctor Strange. 2022 has been a very tangible year. It’s been about body awareness, the internal mirror, things that can be lifted, positions that can be held. Getting to know the names of muscles and tendons and ligaments, stuff I didn’t even know I had. Being able to localize a movement to a very, very specific place, like Flex fucking Mentallo.

After 2020 and 2021, this felt purposeful and necessary. The way the consistency of your sweat changes, once you’ve sweated out two years of shit.