When I was twenty-one or so, I made a bad decision for my body. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. I had to purchase a bag for my books, and I chose a black messenger bag, one that I could toss over my left shoulder. The strap crossed my chest, and the bag—if I arranged it just so—landed on my low back.
I knew that backpack would have been better for my posture, but backpacks reminded me of elementary school, of days when every item I wore was up for deep public scrutiny, and nothing I owned was ever cool. Now that I was twenty-one, I was pretty sure that there was no way to make a backpack cool—unless you were already cool, which I wasn’t. And so I bought a black messenger bag, and sewed a zebra-striped patch of fabric over the brand logo, and carried that bag with me everywhere for years. I carried everything in it: books and notebooks and bottles of water; groceries and snacks and a travel umbrella. Because I didn’t have a car, I carried it up and down hills, from my apartment to the bus stop and back again.
Over time, that bag broke me in a few small ways, but I didn’t really know it. I knew that after a long day, my neck and shoulder were sore, but I didn’t think much of it. I’d rub into the soreness with my fingers and then I’d move on with my day. Now, nearly twenty years later, I think about that bag’s wide strap, and how it pulled against one side of my body, steering my vertebrae ever so slightly off course.
A year or so after I retired that bag, the muscles in my neck would spasm every few months. I’d wake up sore one morning and discover that I could turn my head to the right, but not the left. I saw a chiropractor, who often asked me: “Are you sure you weren’t in a car accident?” She would ask this before cracking my vertebrae back into place and sending me off into the world. After the adjustment, my muscles would let go, and for a few weeks or a few months I would be mostly pain-free. I saw her on and off for years.
Once I had Stump, my second child, I stopped attending to my damaged neck. I didn’t have space in my life for appointments, and so I tried to outsmart my body. Whenever I felt a muscle spasm coming on, I simply opened my bottle of Aleve. If I caught the spasm early enough, it would never take full hold and I could continue to drive and check my rearview mirror, to grade papers, to lift my kids, and to do all the other awkward bodily things that mothers do. For over three years, I thought I was clever. Who needs the chiropractor when you’ve got Aleve?
And then, in June of this year, I began to notice and new sensation: a tingle started at the top of my left shoulder, traveled down my arm, and landed in my fingers. It was distracting, not painful, but it grew more and more insistent. Every hour or so, the sensation recurred. Sometimes it came and went in moments. Other times it lingered long enough that I would try to shake it away.
Aleve didn’t touch it. I would take one and then another, but still the tingle traveled back and forth all day. I waited for my body to heal itself. It didn’t. It took me months to get around to asking my doctor for a referral. I put it off, because I suspected that addressing my haywire nerve might not be a simple endeavor, that it would require more than one or two adjustments, that to adequately heal I would need to commit some time and energy to healing. I was right.
My new chiropractor is not like the old one. He doesn’t crack my neck and send me out the door. Instead, he spent a full hour systematically testing the strength in all my muscles. He ordered x-rays and offered a diagnosis: bone spurs and moderate arthritis in my cervical vertebrae. He scheduled me for three appointments in a single week. The commitment is a drag; it interrupts my life. But the bigger challenge is this: each time I show up, I have to trust him. The exercise of trusting him addresses yet another broken spot.
“How’s this?” he says, as he locates a tense spot in my jaw. “How about this?” he says as he locates the spot at the base of my neck where the nerves pinch and send the tingle down to my fingers. “I’m good at irritating people,” he says. “Just ask my wife.”
In every exchange, my chiropractor manages to be at once gentle and caustic. “What the hell were you thinking?” he asks me, after he discovers my pelvis is torqued. I appreciate his sarcasm. It’s a smokescreen that creates distance between him and his touch. If he were only kind, or only gentle, I might melt. That would not be good for either of us.
Instead, I lie on the table and he places his hands at the base of my skull. “Press your skull into my fingers,” he instructs. I do. He pushes back. As we work with pressure and soft tissue, I wonder how that sentence sounds to him: press your skull into my fingers. Does he understand how personal that sounds, or how much trust he’s asking me to summon? Or does it sound to him the same way Take out your copy of the reading sounds to me?
In those moments I make a choice to let go, to let a near-stranger press his thumbs into the base of my skull, to let him turn my head ever-so-gently this way and then that way. Scenes from bad ninja movies run through my head—you know the ones where one ninja kills another by simply twisting his opponent’s head? That image comes through my mind, and then it leaves. I reassure myself that my chiropractor won’t kill me. (He won’t, right?) “Take a breath,” he says. I know what’s coming. The gesture is swift, but not forceful. He turns my head slightly to the left, and then pulls to the right. I hear the crack he is after, the sound of vertebrae rearranging, making space. I feel that space in my neck as I leave the office, but also in a deeper place in the hollow of my chest. My body has shifted from a tense and fearful thing to something roomier. For the moment at least I’ve become a being who is ready to receive care.