A cluster of lanterns was visible from my window, drifting gently upwards in the night sky with no direction. They must have been propelled by the joyful energy of the people below, the will of their eager launch parties, and the magic of Loy Kratong festival itself, for there was barely any breeze on this stifling tropical night. Raising myself up delicately to look out of the window, I gazed longingly at the beautiful spectacle of orange constellations ascending gradually like lost, sedated fire flies. I was alone and house-bound, trapped by disability on the first-floor of our town house and unable to join my friends out on the streets.
Loy Kratong was due to be one of the highlights of my time in Thailand; I had planned to travel with friends to enjoy the festival in one of its best manifestations (at Sukothai) and drink in the wonder of a skies and rivers full of light. But then, at age 28, while absorbed in the fascinating complexities of life on the Thai-Burma border and involved in gaining career-advancing experience, I had found myself in great pain resulting from a prolapsed disc (commonly known as a ‘slipped disc’) in my lower back. The day I realised something was seriously wrong was not long after a trip to Laos to renew a visa, during which a cycle ride down long gravel paths had caused me to experience severe shooting pains and jolting sensations in my back; As I sat in a meeting at the UN refugee agency listening to discussions on displaced populations, I found myself distracted by the feeling of something being displaced in my own body! I had been ignoring the grating sensations in my right lumbar area for a few weeks, caught up in the bigger issue of the 7,000 Karen refugees living in temporary self-built camps along the border whose rice rations would soon be depleted. But now, even trying to walk or sit felt completely… wrong. Perhaps that’s not a helpful description. But it wasn’t just painful, but simply wrong, out of place, disjointed.
I did not receive the best advice from the doctors in that small, frontier town. Instead of keeping mobile, which is the current mantra for back pain sufferers, I was told to take bed rest for 4 – 6 weeks and remain as straight as a plank. This advice generated a cautiousness in my movement, frightened of making a wrong move which might impede healing. But amidst the obvious frustrations of being house-bound for a whole month, and the uncomfortable dependency on friends and my boyfriend of the time to bring me food and water each day, a niggling question kept arising: WHY and HOW did this happen?
– I am only 28! Isn’t it only older people who get degenerative discs? – Slipped discs are also caused by accidents, but I’ve never had one! A bumpy cycle ride isn’t brutal enough in impact. – What is wrong with my skeleton? My bones must be deficient in something? – I must have had horrendous posture all my life? (unlikely, I had an athletic, active youth).
Then gradually, with so much time to reflect, I realised that actually I had had a history of lower back weakness but had never admitted it or took it on board. Hazy memories of coccyx pain during my undergraduate dissertation, and a more recent diagnosis of sciatica during my masters dissertations, that tingling sensation in my spine when I used to bend right over and proudly fold myself in half to touch my toes with ease… As long as those complaints didn’t prevent me from getting on with my chosen activities, in my mind, they were just passing niggles. Just momentary annoyances which my body has overcome and not worth making any serious adaptation for. If you recognise any of this so far, please take heed and listen to your body!
I’d be interested to hear from other people whose vertebrae have misbehaved with no apparent cause at a young age. I can only speculate that my disc prolapse was a result of abusing my body during an active youth of demanding, explosive, high impact competitive sport: While my suppleness continued, I lost the muscle strength to support my range of movement.
That was November 2011, now here I am over two years later still struggling with pain and limitations caused by that bulging disc. But looking back, I remember watching those sky lanterns floating and wishing I could be outside enjoying the full experience of the festival. feeling them lift my spirits despite not being able to leave the house and enjoy the full experience. This was the first realisation that my world was about to become much smaller, not just the spacial boundaries within which I lived and moved, but also the dreams and possibilities I laid out for myself. Being forced to put my life on hold has made me feel like those drifting lanterns: direction-less and out of control.
But yet I remember the sight of the few lanterns I could glimpse from my window still lifted my spirits and left me with a sense of awe, and I remember the gratitude I felt towards the sympathetic friends who brought me a lantern to launch from my balcony earlier that evening. This was the first of many lessons my back was to teach me. Be content with what you have; You already have enough.