you are irreplaceable

“You’re replaceable,” a colleague said to me last week.

These words, seemingly harsh, were delivered with fierce caring and passion upon my return to work after being away for back pain. “I’m replaceable,” she continued. “If I die tonight, my job will be posted by Friday. But I’m not replaceable to my family and loved ones.”

I’d just expressed that I felt ‘bad’ for having missed so much work, after only recently starting in my current position. “Let me tell you right now,” she responded. “Nobody is thinking that but you. Nobody cares. I mean, we care…but we’re all too busy and wrapped up in our own little worlds.”

It was clear I had limited mobility and was still in some pain. “Don’t push yourself,” she cautioned. “Nobody is going to take care of you, but you. Are you taking care of yourself?”

This is perhaps the biggest lesson I’m learning from back pain: the need for self-care. I had been pushing myself, but didn’t recognize it. ‘Pushing myself’ was just so…normal.

The emotional root of low back pain, I’ve read, is feeling unsupported. There were many factors leading to my injury. I didn’t take enough work breaks, I sat improperly and for too long, my yoga practice had lapsed. But the emotional explanation resonated. I’d long felt I was ‘going it alone’ in life: I was misunderstood, my financial situation was a bomb, relationships with men were painful, God was disappointed in me.

But was any of that actually true? Or was it that I felt deeply unworthy of receiving support?

I know this is about my experience of being a woman. I haven’t wanted to be a burden on others, to take up too much space or be seen as too demanding. I’ve tried to be independent and accommodating. On the occasions I have been called ‘selfish’, it’s kicked me right in the gut. For a woman, there can be so much loaded in that word.

Hence the compulsion to people-please, to over-accommodate. The all-consuming worry about what others will think, the inability to make a decision because I’m weighing in so many voices. These aren’t conscious behaviours; they’re deeply ingrained, woven into my cells after many years – probably generations – of conditioning.

My body had long been giving me warning signals, straining against the push to live up to expectations that were largely my own. I felt so responsible to do a good job, and guilty when I let others down. Breaking my back, bending over backwards. How bad does it have to get?

stop and notice the pink

There have been many blessings inherent in this pain. I’ve had to be vulnerable in relying on loved ones for help with everything from cleaning to driving to putting on my socks. I’m physically vulnerable to strangers. Walking to work on the downtown sidewalks, people barrel towards me. I see how fragile this body can be; one random bump could re-trigger the pain.

I’m used to being the one rushing, becoming impatient with slow walkers. I’m now one of them. I’ve discovered that it’s a relief not to rush – to have no choice but to go slow. Some people give me space, and sympathetic smiles. These are small things…but they’re not.

I hope I can hold on to all this, as my back heals. I like being vulnerable. I’m self-protective, but not on the defence. I feel softer, more raw and trusting. And my vulnerability gives others, particularly my loved ones, the chance to show kindness to me.

In receiving this care, I’m realizing that I’m the only one who saw myself as a burden. And I no longer wish to carry that belief. I’d rather be irreplaceable.