It started when I was around a junior in high school. I’m not sure when it “started,” as my memories only go as far as when I was already having daily back pains that prevented me from sitting or standing for too long at a time. They spread throughout my back, and my attempts to relieve the pain were futile. I would stretch, stand up, move around, but I knew that it would always come back.

I guess a source of comfort during this ordeal is the fact that my dad also experienced a very similar thing himself, for many years. He believed that he got it from long hours sitting as his deck, tension rising from his back. A very tense person myself, I believe the same happened, and is happening, to me. My dad was able to treat his pain through endless massage sessions. He no longer struggles with it now, but continues to use a massager and stretch every day. It took him a lot of time, patience, and persistence to now be able to say that he has it under control.

My family is Taiwanese, so by culture we referred to Chinese medicine for treatment. We happened to know a Chinese massage therapist back in Peru, and I paid him several visits throughout my junior and senior year. Through his massages I found out just how tense I (or at least my back) was; my muscles would contract in sharp pain whenever he stabbed his knuckles into my back. Your muscles don’t contract in pain unless you are that tense.

Living in Peru, however, my parents and I have naturally experienced both Western and Eastern medicine first-hand, and have found our ways to refer to one side of the medicine or the other depending on the circumstance: Western medicine for illnesses or diseases that need immediate treatment, and Eastern medicine for slower and more chronic ailments. In my parents’ eyes, my back pain fell in the latter category. It came slowly but persistently, and it didn’t seem like something a Western doctor could do much about.

To have an ailment that my parents believed was untreatable in the Western world was nothing but confusing: how did Western people with similar conditions to mine get treated, especially without knowledge of Eastern medicine? At the time, the dichotomy between what I believed were the two “sides” of medicine seemed just that – black and white. Either you had access to it, or you didn’t. But then again, having access to both didn’t relieve the confusion of being treated in one form of medicine, but not in the other. This confusion expanded to confusion with my own identity – which “world” did I belong to? I guess this is where my interest for Traditional Chinese medicine, and holistic medicine overall, stems from.

Nevertheless, as a high school student, I was torn. I was only 16 or 17, and to have inexplicable chronic pain was the last thing I needed. As years went by and I got more used to it, the feeling of shame that I had on myself never went away. But it wasn’t always downhill.

Something that hugely contributed to the release of my tension and back pain happened during my gap year. I was no longer being pulled by my teachers, friends, and parents about what I was supposed to do, and I was finally starting to hear my own voice. I no longer played the cello intensively nor practiced with the symphony orchestra. I was taking yoga classes, even took some ballet and self-defense classes, biked and was active pretty much every day. Slowly but surely, my back pain dissipated. And as it did, I gradually left behind those memories of pain that had troubled me for the last two years of high school.

Through this experience, I realized that it’s hard to be empathic of other people that are going through something that you have gone through. I may have had back pain for 2 years, but when I stopped feeling pain on a daily basis, I don’t think I could relate to someone who was going through my pain on that same level. Memories and feelings fade as you get through an experience. If one day my back pain does truly go away, I would find it hard to empathize with someone who is going through the exact thing. Sure, I would be able to understand where their pain stems from and relate to their inexplicable pain that never seems to go away. But I would no longer be able to feel that pain.

As I’m now typing this in my second semester as a college sophomore, about 2-3 years since my gap year, all these thoughts race past me. One more that also often crosses my mind is my ability to access healthcare whenever I need to. In Peru, my mom frequently took me to the Chinese masseur. In Taiwan, I was taken to see doctors and other masseurs to treat my condition. Now in college, I may not have my parents to take me to places, but I still have access to an acupuncture clinic or even my school clinic whenever I need to. I have (an arguably sufficient) health insurance, and my parents can afford any incurring costs. I wonder what state I would be in if I didn’t have this kind of healthcare security, if I felt that I couldn’t afford something, and therefore couldn’t get treated for it. My condition is not something that I believe can be treated one-time, so having access to these different healthcare venues hasn’t been the most helpful. But just knowing that I do, that if I ever need anything urgent and I can get treated for it, makes me feel so incredibly grateful to have my parents.

Something that I have been reluctant to do, but eventually succumbed to, is getting a massager. After my dad went to the countless massage sessions and got better, he gradually shifted to stretching, exercising, and using the massager instead. It costs $50 on Amazon, and my dad swears by it now. I tried using it for my back for some time, but I never got around to it. I was afraid that it would put pressure on the wrong parts of my body and end up worsening my pain. But after having continuous lower back pain for a few weeks now, I knew I had to do something about it. I could only do yoga and get acupuncture (which are $30 here) so many times before life got busy and I stopped doing them consistently – not to mention the financial costs.

Thus, I begrudgingly asked my dad to get me the massager, and have been using it every night ever since. I have a different experience using it now than when I first used it before. The massager seems to get all the knots in my back, and though it hurts nearly as much as getting a massage from a person, I have more control over it. The pain that comes from the massage shows how tight my back is, and how much I still need to loosen it. I use it every night now, just like my dad does. I’m wide awake as I turn on the massager, as the pain prevents me from falling asleep, but I’ve noticed that I fall asleep soon after – or sometimes in the midst of it – unknowingly. It relaxes my muscle, and it relaxes me.

I don’t know how long I’ll be using the massager continuously. I just know that, for now, it’s the most sustainable solution to my chronic back pain. A part of me is still ashamed of having to rely on a device to treat my condition, but I’m trying to see it under a more positive light. At least now I can see why my dad swears by it.

Throughout this continuing ordeal, a more overarching thought has also crossed my mind: my parents. I not only have my parents’ full financial support, but I also have their counseling, guidance, and consolation in virtually every aspect of my life. They are there for me, always. As isolated and whiny as I can get with myself during these moments of struggle, I can count on them to take care of me. Even if they don’t have the “best” solution, their reassurance that I will heal is healing in itself. Their efforts to help me be the healthiest version of myself in all the physical struggles that I’ve had thus far is testament of their unconditional love towards me. I wish to someday be as patient and caring towards myself, and them, as well.

-Michelle

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