This post is the 1st in a series of posts detailing my struggle with chronic back pain and my journey to the path of Iyengar Yoga.

Growing up, I was by no means what you would call athletic. I enjoyed reading, writing, and artsy stuff. I loved learning and was a good student. In high school I philosophized everything under the sun, including ‘small’ questions like the meaning of life and the purpose of my existence. I also loved camping and hiking and developed a strong bond with nature. It was in contemplating the complex relationship between human kind and nature that eventually led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in Environment & Resource Management at the University of Toronto.

In time, I realized that although pristine wilderness was breathtakingly beautiful, it was the urban environment that most intrigued me. How could cities become more sustainable? What is a sustainable city? What is community? Why is community important? I engaged the issues from many perspectives – as an academic (Encouraging Environmentally Sustainable Transportation in Toronto), a community activist (Friends of the Don East), an artist (The Billboard Project), a professional consultant (Contextualizing the Community Walkability Audit Tool), and an engaged citizen involved in public processes (City of Toronto Pedestrian Committee), to name a few examples.

As I got further entrenched in the issues and also in the politics of the discipline, I developed a frustration with the fact that for the most part, the major tool at my disposal was policy development. In the 2 years post graduation, I had been involved in numerous policy documents, many of which, despite their strengths, would do nothing but sit on the shelf. This dissatisfaction coincided with a new role I had taken on as the Coordinator of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, which introduced me to the world of design. I was instantaneously taken by the satisfaction that came from designing and building something through to fruition. As I set my sights on developing this new skill set, I quickly became aware of a distinct need for policy and planner type professionals who not only appreciated the value and power of design, but who could also speak the same language as the designers. This was exactly what I wanted to do, and as far as I was concerned there was no better place to pursue this field of study than UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design.

To my sheer delight, I was accepted into UCB’s Masters of City Planning program. Going back to school at this stage of life – more mature, focused, motivated and passionate, was a gift beyond belief. I was hungry for the teaching and because I was so far from home, friends and family, I did little else besides soak up the teachings. I loved every second and pretty much felt like a kid in a candy store. However, while this sounds like a perfect little trajectory there’s a complicated sub-story happening at the same time…

In late 1999, I was on a ski vacation with my family in Switzerland. I had only been skiing once or twice before, so I was very much a beginner. One morning, I took a lesson and then did some skiing in the afternoon. I remember thinking that the skis were really awkward. I felt like walking and moving in my skis was way harder than it should’ve been, but I chalked it up to being a novice. The next day, I went on a hike. It was beautiful and I remember enjoying it immensely. Then, the next day, my life was forever changed. I awoke in agony. I could not stand up straight and was experiencing severe back pain. It was surreal. I truthfully don’t remember much else about that trip, but somehow my parents managed to get me back home in one piece. Once I was home, my focus became getting myself out of pain. Pretty much everything else went on hold. I went for MRIs, x-rays, physiotherapy, acupuncture, swimming, and saw a whole suite of doctors. Eventually I was diagnosed with 2 severely herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, and a slight scoliosis. The diagnosis may have been relatively straight forward, but treatment on the other hand, was far from it. Back pain is one of those things. Although it’s extremely common, there are several possible causes for back pain, and the true source of the pain can be challenging at best, and impossible at worst, to identify. Needless to say, I explored non-invasive treatment options with diligence. I was only 23 years old, surely I could avoid surgery, or so I hoped.

This was no ordinary kind of pain. This was all-consuming, constant, no-relief, extreme pain. I had pain in my low back. My hips pained me. I had terrible nerve pain which radiated down my left leg to the top of my foot. I went to sleep in pain, I woke up in pain. Day after day, week after week. It was worse first thing in the morning and clearly aggravated by extended periods of sitting, standing, and walking. However, after a couple of months of a strict rehab regime, I began to see minor improvement. The intensity of the pain had subsided somewhat, despite still being constant. The only way I could experience actual respite was if I took pain medication, which of course, I tried to do minimally.

My new normal consisted of planning my day around how I’d be feeling. I regularly anticipated how much sitting and walking I would need to do, and strategically conserved my energy for the things that I thought were most important. Socializing tended to be low priority, while work was high priority. I factored short rests and exercise breaks into my day, but I tried hard to maintain a semblance of normalcy. Because everything is much more difficult when you are in pain, by the time I had survived the work day, I had little energy left for much else. I often felt that it was my love of the work that would get me through the day, kind of like an adrenaline rush, because once I got home and put my feet up, I’d realize that I was actually in agonizing pain. That said, somewhere around now, I applied to graduate schools. I figured, at the very least, it was something to look forward to.

I chugged along with my rehab and when the good news came, I had been accepted to UC Berkeley’s Department of City & Regional Planning, I convinced myself that I was well enough to go. In September of 2001, I moved to California. I brought my exercise ball, a portable chair seat that transformed any non-ergonomic seat into an ergonomic one, and my meds. At this point, I was taking pain medication daily. It was an important part of my pain management strategy. In addition to daily rehab, the aim of which was to ‘make me better’, the medication took the edge off the pain just enough to allow me to have that semblance of normalcy in my life. Without the medication, I think the pain would have drained the spirit right out of me.

So now…I’m at Berkeley. Like I was saying earlier, UC Berkeley was an extraordinary experience. I was continuously amazed by the people I was surrounded by and 100% motivated to soak up as much knowledge as possible. To me, the subject matter was fascinating and I was completely enthralled. The program was 2 years and during the 2 years I kept up with my exercises but I was also spending many, many hours sitting over a drafting table and computer, as well as a significant amount of time walking around doing site visits, collecting data, and taking photographs. Needless to say, my back pain got progressively worse. By the time graduation came, I was barely able to hold it together. The pain was so bad, I had trouble taking care of myself. My husband (then boyfriend) had to come to my rescue. He came out to be with me for the last few weeks so that I didn’t need to do anything other than graduate. He took care of me – he did the cooking, the cleaning…all of the life stuff. At graduation, although I could barely stay standing for the ceremony, I was honoured with 2 prestigious awards – the Eisner Prize for Creative Arts in Urban Design for my thesis work, and the faculty nominated Professional Promise Award. While I was certainly proud of my accomplishments, the irony of being awarded a ‘professional promise’ award given the state I was in, was not lost on me. My husband and my parents packed up all my stuff and got me back home to Toronto. I had survived Berkeley. Now, I needed to put myself back together again.

Next Week’s Post: Life with Chronic Pain