The Tribe Has My Back

On a mission from Gah-dd.

There is something to be said about being part of a tribe – even when that tribe is only two people wide.

This message was hit home for me today at work.

My back has been acting up for the last few days. This isn’t a little soreness from pulling weeds or playing with the kids a little to strenuously. This is more of an ongoing on-again, off-again issue that has plagued me since I had a herniated disc a year-and-a-half ago. At the time, I was in excruciating pain, the kind of pain that compelled me to call my parents to take me to the emergency room, with me in tears as they wheeled me into the hospital.

Reason for the problem: wear and tear. I’m 46 years old. 24 of those years have been battered down by the life of a chef. Add to that a couple years of running, and you have a slam dunk of a diagnosis. But my back got better after four months of rehab. Since then it’s flared up now and then. It’s becoming a bit more frequent now. I often need to take several days off in a row. Rebounding is never quick. But I am used to it.

In the last few weeks, I have stopped running. I have stopped my workouts with my physical trainer. I have an appointment with an osteopath in a week and am going to book an MRI as well. I am going all out to get to the bottom of this. I need to.

But back to the tribe.

They got my back, but I have my gut.

As I have been trying to navigate this, I have been open about my frustration in finding something that will satisfy me in the way that running does. I am a strong believer in the mind-body-spirit connection, and it holds true for me. When I move my body in a meaningful way, I feel more connected to myself and to the Universe. I feel more intact and whole. I am more integrated into myself which helps me in dealing with others and life in general. In return, being of sound body reverberates to a greater soundness of emotion and mind. Of spirit. It’s the whole enchilada, baby. So when the physical is taken away from me, it’s like removing one leg from a stool. Total imbalance.

Many well-meaning folk have suggested many alternatives to me – yoga, pilates, power walking, swimming, aqua fit, CrossFit, weights, walking the dog, tai chi, etc. These are all wonderful suggestions, and yet…they don’t work for me. I tried to express my gratitude to these people for coming up with new ways to get some fitness in, but it still irked me. It wasn’t them who got under my skin, but it was something in my reaction. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I spoke to Steve today.


Steve is a waiter at my work. He has had an array of injuries that make mine looked a stubbed toe. Steve has a similar build to mine, and only a few less gray hairs. He was an athlete growing up until he was injured and found himself no longer able to do anything physical. He was out not for weeks like I was, but for years. He was suicidal at one point not only because of the physical pain, but also the pain of losing his identity. Steve knows what it’s like to be in pain, and feel left out. He understands the mental and emotional roller coaster of not being able to do what you wanted. He told me he felt robbed of his childhood.

This wasn’t trauma, but in some ways, it felt like it to him – complete betrayal of his body towards him. Helpless.

I told him about how I was struggling, and that no one quite seemed to understand that this was more than just not being able to run. It’s not the actual movement of running that I miss, although that is part of it. It’s what running represents to me. Yoga and other more gentle activities and practices don’t touch the place within me which needs attention. There is very little satisfaction in doing those things. But I couldn’t explain whyI felt frustrated and annoyed.

Steve then dropped some truth onto me.

“People don’t understand unless they’ve been there, Paul”, he said as he leaned against the wall near the elevators. He watched as I smoothed my lower back out, trying to massage the pain out. “I used to do intense workouts. If I didn’t almost puke after my workout, it meant that I didn’t work hard enough at it. Pushing myself was the only way I knew how feel alive. When I ran, I was doing wind sprints and intervals. When I lifted weights, it was quick sets with short recovery time. When I played rugby, it was full on abandon until I bled.”

Can someone spot me?

I nodded. I am the same. When I do intervals, I love the high I get of feeling like I am running rather than jogging. It’s the difference between listening to an aria by Pavarotti at Carnegie Hall and listening to some kid playing the kazoo on the subway. My body feels it differently. It gets into the place of light.

“Those other activities Paul, the pilates and all that stuff, that’s not us. We’re not cut from that cloth. It doesn’t speak to us because it isn’t us. I can’t do that stuff and feel at peace. Others can and that’s great. I am built for what I’m built for and I have paid a price, and so are you, but that doesn’t take away from who we are.”

I eyed Steve up and down, his knees recently shot up with liquid to keep him buoyant and to be able to do his job, to live relatively pain free. I saw the hernia belt and other appendages he wore sticking out from the top of his uniform pants. This guy was speaking my language. He was reading my mail. I could feel that connection strengthen. I knew I was talking to someone who understood, who got it. And I knew he got me because in the past he has watched me walk for only a second or two and knew that I was in pain. He knew it the way an alcoholic knows another alcoholic. It’s sketched in the auras surrounding us, and only we know how the decipher them.

“Listen man, the elevator’s coming, I have to go, but we’ll talk again.” Steve gave me a slight salute, turned and joined the other staff on the way to their shift.

I felt energized because I felt like someone was finally receiving what I was trying to transmit.

I felt validated.

I felt seen and heard.

I felt that I wasn’t alone.

Steve gave me the gift of fellowship. And of course, the Universe being the Universe of abundance, found me talking to a security guard no more than five minutes later, who had seen me and asked about my condition. He confessed he had the same thing, and told me that it was the only thing that made him cry with pain. He too understood it. I felt that pain of his, through my own. Another tribe member.

Even tough guys cry.

Of course this all comes down to the idea of belonging. Of commiserating from shared experiences. Of lifting one another, of giving unconditional support, of feeling like our condition is not unique and exclusive. I know there are millions of back pain sufferers out there, but I haven’t met any like Steve who also understood the psyche of someone competitive, someone who likes to feel the grind, of someone who wants to touch the sky to feel complete.

Fellowship has been vital for me in my healing and spiritual growth, in all aspects of my life. I have my recovery fellowship, my family fellowship, my writing fellowship and my running fellowship. I have bubbles of community which soften the blow of my overactive mind and my prideful self. Fellowships light the way for me, and show me that others have traveled the same path. Fellowship extends a hand not out of pity or gain, but out of compassion and empathy. Out of paying it forward. Balancing the cosmic ledger. Allowing the spirit of generosity to fly free.

I am grateful for my fellowships. I am grateful to Steve who really helped me to see things in a different way. I am grateful to the men and women who have helped me in all aspects of my life, for fun and for free. I am grateful to have a free mind even though I sit with a back locked down. My job now is to pass it on to others, others who feel that they are alone, to add to their own tribe.

We alone are enough, that’s true, but man, it’s nice to have some homies along for the ride.  They’ve got my back.


32 Comments Add yours

  1. tallulahwolfangel says:

    Paul, so sorry you are losing an outlet that is both physical and spiritual. For me it was belly dance that gave me that connection. One of the highlights of my whole life was dancing on the day of the Harmonic Convergence in 1987, and I loved dancing and teaching dance for many years. When I got RA and could no longer dance I was devastated and really, I have never found anything to take its place. But I have found other things that stretch me in different directions, and other connections to the Divine. Some of the wisest words I ever heard in my long journey to wellness cam from a Reiki practitioner who told me the reason this happened is so that I can “learn to move through the world in a different way.” Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Your insight about lifting each other up is so timely, and translates well to many aspects of our lives.

    1. Paul S says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this. It’s quite a loss too, eh? (What is RA, by the way? sorry!). I love what the Reiki practitioner told you. I am inclined to believe this kind of thing. It’s like we are taken on a course we weren’t expecting. It’s a blow to the ego, and the image we have of ourselves, and sometimes it’s very, very challenging (especially when poor health is involved), but I too believe that it’s for some greater good. One we are not privy too at the time.
      I really appreciate you sharing this with me.

      1. tallulahwolfangel says:

        RA = rheumatoid arthritis. Thanks & many blessings to you too!

        1. Paul S says:

          Ah thanks for clearing that up! I am sorry that you have that.

  2. ainsobriety says:

    I’m sorry you are suffering. Because that’s what suffering is…wishing things were different than they are.
    I’m going to respond with a little story. Not to discredit your experience, but to perhaps add a thought. If you don’t like it please just let it go.

    I used to be intense Anne. I did crossfit. I lifted weights. Heavy weights. I did p90x in the morning and spin after work. I at a ketogenic diet. People respected my intensity (or I thought they did, maybe they all thought I was crazy, who knows). I dabbled with running, but it didn’t give me as much thrill as bootcamp, and I much preferred to be indoors. This was how I was for years.

    When I quit drinking I started to go to yoga. Until this time I scoffed at yoga. It was for weak people. It was not intense. It didn’t have the bang I needed.

    But somewhere I started to hear a voice inside that said I didn’t need to grind myself into the ground. That finding stillness was part of my journey. That if I could learn to just be, and accept that entirely, I would be ok.

    Over the past 4 years I waver back and forth. There are some seriously intense forms of yoga that I love. I slide towards hot power. I am lured by the idea it will be hard and advanced. I practice and have thought this type of yoga. It strokes intense Anne’s ego. During these times I become easily agitated and self destructive.

    I have also struggled with injury and arthritis and general aging (I’ll be 46 soon). I have injured my back doing an intense yoga class and had deep fear I would never feel good again. My osteopath resolved that and keeps me moving.

    BUT regular Anne, who has had to work hard to stop looking for external approval and acknowledgement, actually finds deep bliss in seated yin yoga. In a gentle flow class. In completely restorative meditation. I teach a class called finding stillness yoga because I think many people find it really hard to spend time or money just being. We all are conditioned to want instant change. Bang for our buck.

    I never expected this path. I often find myself defending my choice. I bristle when someone calls me gentle.

    But I am content. And I have come to believe that is the purpose of life. Stillness and peace.

    Anyway – just another story. I really hope you find an answer that works for you. Any of us could have an illness or injury that impacts our daily routine. Being able to accept and accommodate that is our life’s work. The alternative is to be unhappy.

    Stillness and peace

    1. Paul S says:

      Thank you so much Anne for sharing this story of yours.

      I have to admit that on first reading, my back was up. My ego was riled up. It felt as if you hadn’t really read what I wrote, and was dismissing it. But I know that isn’t so (I like being transparent here, as you notice).

      I get what you say. I am not there yet, though. To be honest, if someone told me that I could no longer run, then my acceptance would be swift and full. That is how I work, unfortunately. My full acceptance is proportionate to how bad things are. Like the drinking. As long as I had the lurking notions and loophole, I fought it. But when I came crashing down and knew deep down the jig was up, my acceptance came quickly.
      At the moment, I am in the place of looking to adapt. I actually haven’t even thought about running since I wrote this. It is not even on my radar now, which is strange. So there may the be starting of a new acceptance starting. I think even if I am cleared to run, it will different. It won’t be the be all end all of my identity. I am currently just on the lookout for what else I can do.

      I don’t think yoga is the for the weak – I can barely do any poses, and they are hard! So for me, it doesn’t come from that place, but there is still resistance. I will come to some terms with it, and whatever else comes across my path. I do want to come to peace with what my body can and cannot do, because like you said, the alternative is unhappiness. And I don’t want that option.

      Thanks for this Anne – you always make me think.


      1. ainsobriety says:

        Thank you for recognizing I wasn’t trying to downplay your experience. It’s hard to get across what I mean sometimes.
        I find definitive limits simpler too. I have celiac disease. As a result, I do not eat donuts, no matter how delicious they look. It doesn’t even enter the equation.
        And you are right. When the edges are blurred it becomes much more complicated.

        Clearly thinking yoga is for the weak is something I still carry. It’s hard to let go of an identity I spent many years clinging to for self worth.

        I know you will find a solution that works for you. Because you are willing to make the effort.

        Thank you for not taking my comment wrong!


  3. Faith says:

    Just what I needed to read, tonight I’m off to a alanon meeting. Hoping to connect and find others. Right now I need a tribe. (as you say, one will do)

    1. Paul S says:

      Hi there my friend – I am so glad that you hit an alanon meeting. My parents went to alanon meetings for a short while when I first got into recovery. I think it really helped them. Finding others in the same boat was useful for them. I hope that you find your tribe and also that your son also finds his in recovery if and when he chooses to seek it.
      Blessings and thank you for this.

  4. Dearest Paul, I am sorry to hear about the pain. you are right, people need to have lived it in order to understand. This is why I would rather go to AA than see a therapist. I need to talk to someone who ‘gets it’ who ‘lived it’. No amount of qualifications is going to give me the connection I need. I love this line: It’s sketched in the auras surrounding us, and only we know how the decipher them.” I hope you find some activity that you can do that gives you satisfaction. xxx

    1. Paul S says:

      That is true about qualifications. I can read all there is about hockey – history, rules, equipment, etc. but until I have been out there on the ice and mucking it up, I don’t know what it’s like to feel the elation of scoring a goal, the crunch of a bone-rattling check or the feeling of camaraderie in the locker room before and after. And while I love therapists (I am married to one!), it’s the gals and guys who have mucked it up “out there” who I can lean on, who I broker my trust to.

      Thanks for this – my apologies for being negligent in my blog reading! You are one of my faves. I plan to catch up soon!

  5. saoirsek says:

    Ah Paul, I totally get it. Herniated my l4 and 5 9 years ago, that’s really what escalated my drinking along with opiate use. If it’s any help, I’m not of the Pilates tribe either. And it’s not a miracle cure, people who have suggested it to me seem to think it’s the only thing that works and if I don’t do it the pain is deserved. Intervals KILL my back. Swimming helps but not always possible and it takes a lot of organisation. I stopped running for a while but to be honest the lack of running just made me depressed and a little sore to be honest. I started back with loooong walks , bringing my dog and my camera. Then I gradually started running, as the program says…easy does it. I’m with you on this…S

    1. Paul S says:

      I was laughing at the “if I don’t do it the pain is deserved”! I sort of get that sense sometimes, like hey dude, it’s up to you. Don’t resist the resistance bands! I know exactly what you mean. I’m a monster if I don’t start swimming, etc. And like you said, a lot of things take organisation – running is great because I can up and go at any moment’s notice. Getting in an 8 pm spin class is not easy, especially when I have the kids to put to bed, etc. I am not kvetching – lots of folks take classes and shlep stuff around and move stuff around to make it work. I’m no special snowflake here.

      Anyways, thank you for this. I knew you would understand! I too enjoy walking with the camera. It has a purpose in a way, you know? Walking just to walk is…well, boring. I like a task at hand. But it is what it is, and I will find something. I will adjust.

      Blessings – hope you feel better these days!

  6. Marcella Pettorossi says:

    Paul, sorry for your “loss”. I admire that you recognize you cannot do this alone. Fellowship is helps us accept our situations they “get it”. You are an amazing writer very inspirational. Be well my friend, Marcella

    1. Paul S says:

      Thank you Marcella – I am so blessed to have you in my recovery circle, my friend! I love seeing you here. Makes my day!

  7. Dude, yes! “It’s sketched in the auras surrounding us, and only we know how the decipher them.”

    What relief it is. I’ve had that experience. This was an incredible description of that feeling of connection that keeps me coming back to this thing. And I’m sorry to read about the back. I had no idea the depths of it that you go through. You described that well in here. I like what Saoirsek said, “Easy does it.” I think that’s a great piece of advice in this circumstance.

    1. Paul S says:

      Thanks Mark. You know, I almost cut that line! I thought it was too purple-y prose-y…ha ha. But glad it reached you.

      Yeah, the back is a bit better today. Hurts to sit, but at least I don’t need the cane today. It’s a relief. But still looking to get to the causes and conditions (program speak!) of what is making it get that bad without provocation. But thanks for this – I look to the connection whether I like it or not. I need it. Not every second of the day, but knowing that you are all out there, that alone sometimes gives me the feeling of tribe.

      Have a great rest of the day!

  8. ellenbest24 says:

    To understand someone you need empathy, to experience what they do, you have to walk in their shoes, to do that! You have to first … remove your own. X if something took ( permanently) away my ability to write, to read or be a storyteller … the me I am would be gone. Good luck, I will see you with the scribblers 😉

    1. Paul S says:

      Thanks Ellen! Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Resounding yes to the taking away my ability to write, etc. I would be the hole in the donut! I am not sure what we be left. So let’s not think about that, shall we?? And yes, excited to do the scribblers! I am so behind, and I have read everyone’s work so far and it’s fantastic. I have to start giving my feedback and getting on my own piece! See ya and thanks for this! 🙂

  9. Wow. This resonates so much for me right now, Paul. I’ve really had to rely on other sober people lately and it’s been a godsend. Just to have someone echo my experiences & let me know I’m not crazy/alone is priceless. Great piece as usual and glad to consider you part of my tribe too!

    1. Paul S says:

      thanks Sean – sorry for the delay in responding (I have been sluggish in the posting and replying department lately). Glad you’re here and part of my tribe!

  10. I understand your frustration and I’m sorry that’s what you’re experiencing. I sometimes get an unbelieveably restless feeling like the only thing to do is to set off sprinting and never stop until I get into that place of exhaustion and light. My body has other ideas though.

    I’ve been plagued by back incidents for years, particularly sciatica. I’ve had many of those utterly powerless moments issuing blood-curdling howls, unable to move because I’d trapped a nerve. I’m still amazed that no neighbours ever called the police with the racket I made. I’d be hard pressed to think of a joint in my body I haven’t injured and had to adapt my exercise around. I ran when I was young but a knee inury (and surgeries) put an end to that. I compromised by hard swimming then a cruciate injury (in the other knee) ruled out the kicking. Yoga for me has always been more physio than inspiration but it does keep the sciatica at bay, then I developed wrist and shoulder problems making that problematic. You get the idea… My godsend compromise has been a good (elastics not springs) rebounder. I can jump around with surprising intensity without upsetting anything. It’s also great for activating the core stabilizing muscles which is probably good given my back’s history. It’s also fun, like being a kid again 😀 Add in some heavy, hectic music then I’m getting somewhere near where I wish to be. We’re all individuals though, I hope you can find the right thing for you asap.

    I can totally relate on the tribe thing too. I still dream of finding my tribe, albeit a moderately-sized introvert-friendly one. Reading things like this and the interactions that happen as a result has really helped me to believe it’s possible. Thank you for sharing so honestly, it really does help. I hope you find many pain-free days ahead, take care 🙂

    1. Paul S says:

      Sciatica – this is what I have now. One week straight and it’s KILLING ME. I know you know that pain. It wakes me up at 3 am every day and I don’t go back to bed. It keeps me from sitting, standing or lying down for long. It’s relentless. Pain meds barely tackle the pain, and it’s depressing! I saw an osteo yesterday, who says I probably have struggled with fascia injuries my life (it all makes sense as it’s true) and working on that will help me. I have an MRI scheduled for November. She feels that it’s my super tight muscles (and injured fascia) that is causing the trapped or impinged nerve. So it’s slow and gentle stuff for me. I am doing the exercises I used to do when I first got injured, and am looking up more of the yoga-style stuff right now. This shit hurts (excuse my French). It’s the worst. So I get it. I relate to what you say (my tribe!)

      Thank you for sharing. It’s funny that if I answered right away (my apologies for the delay), I would have glossed over the sciatica stuff. But perfect timing – I can totally relate to what you are sharing about. so thank you.


      1. I hope it’s eased up by now. A week is a horribly long dose. After a few days you get that awful fear that it’ll become permanent which is terrifying and depressing at the same time. I had a bit of a dose last week, it started ‘pinching’ at work but I was still functional. By the end of my shift I was dragging my left foot because I got the shooting pains through my butt/hip each time I lifted it to take a step. Fortunately it eased off without getting too bad. These reminders are what should keep me motivated to do the right exercises but it doesn’t always work!…

        Have you heard of Pete Egoscue who created the Egoscue method? He’s an ex-marine who got injured in combat. He was told by doctors he’d just have to ‘live with the pain as nothing could be done’. He decided, balls to that, studied anatomy/physiology and devised a deceptively simply set of postural correction exercises which are unbelieveably effective if you do them regularly. They’re not great during a flare up, I’ve trapped the nerve and got stuck on my back on the floor doing that but they’re awesome for prevention, says me that hasn’t done them for ages and is getting ‘reminders’ :-/

        I really hope you’re feeling better by now. Take care 🙂

  11. Oi vay , back pains the worse Paul, I get a flare up now and again. less now because the injury has caused me to cease a lot of activities, so in a way I’ve given up a bit. I don’t push myself as much as I should and I don’t do my excerses to strengthen my lower back and buttocks. v important this, if the muscles supporting the weakened area are tip top, then its an easier ride(at least for me). Talking to your pal must’ve been a godsend. here’s to a pain free future. another excellent post, explanation of the Recovery Movement as our tribe!! fecking love it!

    1. Paul S says:

      Oh wow – thank you so much for this! You know, what has been happening in the last week is possibly the most painful stuff – sciatica. What a b*tch it is. I don’t wish this on any one! I won’t gripe about it, but needless to say I am not very happy about this turn of events. I am throwing everything at it, and have tests booked, etc. But you are right about the back and buttocks. Very important to build strength there, and have been slowly doing so until this came up. I am back to stretching lightly now and will eventually start doing some strength work. Glad you’re part of the tribe!!! Blessings

  12. Abbie says:

    Just popped in to see what you have been up to. I’m not going to talk about pain & injuries (right here- I’m sure I will at some point today), cos isn’t that a thing that OLD folks do?
    “I may grow older but I refuse to grow up.” 😉
    I’m getting back to participating in the tribal activities, slowly, and finding my physical groove, as well. But enough about me.
    Thanks for being so transparent. You’re a bloody Rockstar, you are!

    1. Paul S says:

      Hi Abbie! I hope you have been doing well! I was thinking of you the other day – so glad that you’re here! You’re the rockstar too. You’ve been kicking ass and taking names for a while now!

      1. Abbie says:

        Thanks, Paul! I’m delighted to be working in a Detox, now, but if I tell anyone about it, I have to kill them (HIPAA). I can’t wait to read your heart, I mean book. ❤️

        1. Paul S says:

          Awww thanks Abbie! Congrats on the fine work you do !

  13. I appreciate the way you show that we all have our own beloved trauma. But…what will your friend do now, I’m curious? Will he go on, contraptioned and appendaged and satisfied at how he’d pursued it?

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