All the test results were negative except for a B-12 deficiency. Pernicious anemia is what we suspected. We even bought a book that said that people more prone to pernicious anemia were tall, pale, and had large ears. It didn’t say anything of glistening scales that had manifested on my feet since the back injury. I had become almost a vegan but I did eat yogurt in the dining commons. This peculiar book said the best way to get B-12 was by eating unwashed fruit.
Nonetheless, we thought we had an answer. The B-12 deficiency was what was causing my neuropathies. My physician father thought that I could have possibly pinched some nerves due to excessive bed rest. The neurologist who saw me at Whittier, Dr. Brett, later turned out to be, as my brother coined him, a “dipshit.” We went to see him for a follow-up visit. The hematologist had said that my red blood cells were not indicative of pernicious anemia and whatever pain I was experiencing was related to my back. My father asked Dr. Brett a lot of questions: if it wasn’t pernicious anemia, why was I experiencing nerve pain? At this time, I had been going to a physical therapist where technicians conducted ultrasound heat therapy on my neck, and that relieved my referred eye pain tremendously. Our local ophthalmologist had been astute about guessing where the eye pain was from.
I tried to tell Dr. Brett the origin of my eye pain but he would cut me off. My dad then attempted to speak to him doctor to doctor. Brett interrupted, “Look, there obviously is a problem here. I’m afraid her problems are going to take a life of their own. She has a back problem; she had scoliosis, we know that. But she’s not dating; she’s not in school.”
But I planned to go in the fall! How did he know I was not dating? How come he was not talking to me directly?
He continued, “I would just die if one of my kids quit school. I suggest that you go home and just get ahold of these problems because I’m afraid that they are going to just take a life of their own. She has a chronic problem; it’s been going on for over three months and that means it’s chronic.” Then he escorted us out of his office.
I was terrified. I didn’t even know what he meant. Did he mean that I was going to have this pain forever?
I had a talk with my dad that evening. I asked him what Dr. Brett meant. My dad, brimming with optimism, replied, “It’s going to get better. You need to learn how to deal with chronic pain, and how to ignore it. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.” He grinned with an encouraging tone, “No pain, no gain. Also, friends are likely to visit someone when they are sick for a short time, but they’re going to stop coming if the person doesn’t get better, because it turns depressing.”
I was resolute at that point that I would do mind over matter, for I did not want people to be depressed when they saw me. The pain had to be in my head; it was too odd. I must have imagined the scales, too. I had fallen in love with “The Little Mermaid” in my last English class at University of California at Berkeley. My mind and spirit kept going back to Hans Christian Andersen’s gorgeous prose. I was feeling I belonged deep in the ocean — waiting for my debutante ball, falling in love with a kelp farmer to attain an immortal soul. That must have been part of the problem. I was just letting the pain take over me. I then decided I would ignore the pain.
That same evening, I sat for ten minutes, even though it hurt. I bent my back and cleaned my room, even though it hurt. I stretched my torso, and I danced, even though it hurt. I was overcome with exhaustion and went to rest on the bed in my brother’s room, which had the “firmer” bed, with a moist heating pad. About ten minutes later, while lying down, my entire back spasmed up to the point that I could not even lift my arms. I could not stand up. I could not turn to my side. I could not pick up the telephone. Physical therapists were always asking me to give my pain a number from zero to ten, zero being the least amount of pain, ten being the most. This was definitely a ten. It was as if I was being possessed by a nefarious spirit. What happened?
“Mom! Mom!” I screamed.
“What? What?” she said in a dismissive tone. She was in the living room watching the new series Law and Order, which I thought only sickos watched. Nonetheless, she hurried over to me.
“My entire back completely spasmed and I’m in so much pain that I can’t move!”
“You’ll be better in a couple days,” she told me.
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“Because you’re stronger now.”
There was no way I was going to get better in a couple days. I just knew. “Bullshit,” I told my mom. “Bullshit.” That was in May 1995.
It actually took a year to get to the point I was at before I re-strained my back by “ignoring” the pain. To this day, that was the most frightening and devastating time of my entire life.
“You’re paralyzed by fear,” my dad told me. He was in denial that I had re-strained my back.
My mother and my father were scheduled to go to Chicago for a family friend’s Bar Mitzvah. I pleaded with my mom not to leave me like this. I could not even get around the house. I was in absolute terror of how the pain had seemed to possess me, how it had unpredictably and mysteriously entered my body. I had done nothing dramatic, just ignored the pain a little here and there.
My mom told my dad that she was going to stay with me an extra two days and just fly out later for the reception. My dad’s eyes popped open with shock. He lowered his head and shook it in frustration.
“She is very, very anxious,” my mom said to my dad.
My dad shook his head again.
It is hard to believe that these were the days when my late grandmother could still drive, for she had already planned on coming from Pacific Palisades to help me and watch over me. But I needed someone by my side, someone whose hand I could hold, someone who would break a pencil for me, because I physically was unable to break it. I had to channel my anger and frustration into something.
I needed to call Artemis, my best friend who was at UC Santa Cruz, but it hurt to hold my phone. I could not stop sobbing. My mother let me lie on my parents’ bed and use their phone which was very lightweight. I told Artemis that my back had a relapse. I told her that my dad said no one would want to visit me anymore and how I would lose all my friends because I would be too depressing to visit. She retorted immediately with, “Bullshit, that’s bullshit.”
I expressed that I really didn’t care anymore and wanted to swallow a bottle of Darvocet pills. Artemis told me that would make her very sad, and that she still wanted me to be here. This was the point where my friendship with Artemis became sealed with gold. She is still my dearest friend and without her, I would not even know what the definition of the term “best friend” is.
My physiatrist did not understand when I told him I could not have aggressive exercise done to my back anymore. I said that I tried to ignore the pain and I threw my back out. The young, pale, ignorant doctor with many credentials to his name said, “What exactly do you mean ‘threw your back out’?”
I looked him sternly in the eye, and from deep in my throat, the words came out. “I could not stand. I still cannot hold a glass of water. I cannot drink water unless it’s with a straw, and even in that case I cannot bend. I have to have someone hold the straw directly to my mouth so I can drink. I cannot sit, even for a millisecond.”
He looked perplexed. He said, “Okay. That’s not what we usually do here. But if that’s how you want it, we can do more gentle exercises here for you and be more aggressive on your leg muscles.”
That was a mistake. As I was finally healing my back and was now able to walk a mile on a treadmill, I was told to do squatting exercises. I was doing these exercises beside my physical therapist, who then said, “Ow.”
I said, “How am I supposed to do it if it hurts you?”
She said, “Well, you look better than I do.” She was envious of the pounds I lost by not being able to fucking stand to eat my meals, let alone have an appetite to eat them.
I was so determined to strengthen my legs, though, for I never ever wanted to injure my back again. I was told I could injure it again by a simple sneeze, or from reaching for a pencil.
A few days later, I was swimming in our backyard pool. Dead cornflower bees floated in the chlorinated water, along with ashes from a brushfire the night before. My legs literally “went out.” I could hardly stand or walk. I had intense pain from my toes all the way up to my quadriceps.
I remember my parents putting ice packs all up my legs. Eventually, they ran out of ice packs and had to use frozen foods, including peas and strawberries.
“How come my toes feel numb?” I remember asking. “They’re so cold that they’re numb.”
My mother responded, “That’s because we’re going to cut them off and eat them.” My dad gave her a strange amused look. I was discovering for the first time that my mom had a dark sense of humor. But then, I looked down and saw that my feet had fully transformed into glittering emerald fins. My parents then snapped off pieces of my numb, frozen fin feet like peppermint sticks. They ate them that evening as sushi. My leg pain vanished.
Editor’s Note: Experience some of Tamara Hattis’s poetry in this issue of Wordgathering.
About the Author
Tamara Hattis is a poet and collage artist. Her art and poetry have previously been published in The Sand Canyon Review, Badlands Review, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, The Deaf Poets Society, and Incandescent Mind: Editions 2 and 3 by Sadie Girl Press and Cholla Needles Magazine, issues 15, 18, and 20. Her debut full-length book, Colors of My Pain, is now available on Amazon.com.