The Safety Net

basketballhoop
By andrewmalone/ Flickr

By Anjali Enjeti

A seam near our garage door bisects the cement driveway—our family’s foundation for hula-hoop challenges and colorful chalk artwork. At the end of a slight downward slope, roughly fifty feet away, our portable basketball hoop projects a tall shadow.

We purchased it a little over a year ago, and although I have never formally played basketball, every evening after dinner, I abandon piles of dinner dishes that need loading and pots that need scrubbing, to shoot hoops in our driveway.

Lining my bare feet along the crevice, in between moss and stray bits of pine straw, I dribble two, three, four times in a thumping rhythm that shores up my concentration. With unwarranted bravado—I’m competent, but not good—I coax the preteen posse congregating on my porch to try to do what I’m about to do.

One of them carries on in his conversation without so much of a glance. One takes an approving bite of a banana chocolate chip muffin that I’d just pulled from the oven. Another picks at his cuticles. A fourth, my twelve year-old daughter, flashes hopeful eyes. She’s used to my routine basketball antics: Let’s see if I can make a basket with my eyes closed. Let’s see if I can make a basket while standing backwards. Let’s see if I can make a basket left-handed.

But this particular shot, where I position myself a full three car lengths from the hoop, is not usually a successful one for me. Despite this, I call it my lucky shot. And, when the ball whooshes through the net, I feel like a champion. Like David must have felt when he felled Goliath.

I dribble several more times while facing my orange-rimmed nemesis. Some more kids have gathered near my mailbox on bikes and scooters. They’re focusing on me. I haven’t made this shot in a long time, and now I regret calling so much attention to myself.

As I launch the flesh of rubber from my fingertips, I know, right away that it’s going in. The net swoosh of a clean shot makes the victory even sweeter. A chorus of hoots and hollers erupts and I high-five my way back into my house. But I know better. The kids aren’t so much as praising my athletic skills as they are hoping my inflated ego will generate a second round of muffins for their consumption.

•••

Sometimes when I’m playing—hoisting my five-year-old into the air closer to the rim, or showing my nine-year-old how to cradle the ball in her hands—a neighbor passing by our home will slow down at the foot of my driveway to compliment my athleticism. “I wish I had your energy,” he or she might say. “I wish I could keep up physically with my own kids.”

I smile, shrug my shoulders, and offer a neutral, somewhat muted comment in return: “I’m getting older. It’s getting harder.” But truthfully, I’m not sure what to say. Because how I appear on the outside is so far removed for how I actually feel.

I spend much of my day in pain—significant, sometimes excruciating, pain. And I have lived with this pain for so long, I can barely remember what it feels like to function without aching, throbbing, or piercing sensations.

I suffer from coccydynia, a condition where my coccyx or tailbone becomes inflamed. Roughly fifty percent of all coccydynia cases are the result of an injury or pregnancy. The other half of all cases, including my own, have no known cause. Sitting and lying on my back causes my pain, but once it’s inflamed, I am in pain every single second of the day. On good days, my pain resembles a moderate rug burn. On bad days, it’s like I’m sitting on a dagger. And there are often more bad days than good.

I’ve seen countless doctors, tried a gazillion drugs, practiced yoga, and endured physical therapy, chiropractics, herbs, and acupuncture. Some treatments help, some of the time, but any relief is temporary. And there is no known cure.

I avoid movie theaters, car rides, restaurants, churches, amusement parks—any place where I would need to sit for extended periods of time. I don’t ride bikes, nor do I ever eat dinner at the large, wooden table in my kitchen—I stand at the counter for every meal. An hour kayaking, one of my new hobbies, will translate into days of agony. I collapse into bed every night with an ice pack wedged against my lower back. Patches of frostbite have permanently stained my skin. They look like angry, gray amoebas.

It’s taken me eighteen years of pain to stop pretending I am strong. To understand that for all of its virtues, the pretense of strength has a downside. It weaves a tale of happy endings and heroics, which trick its sufferer into believing they are more invincible than they really are.

Nearly half a lifetime of pain has forced me to answer this one question: What, for crying out loud, is wrong with being weak?

Weakness isn’t a pity party—it’s base in a game of tag. It’s crying on the phone to a loved one, because you don’t know if you can take the pain much longer. (Even though you know you will, and must.) It grants permission for the enthusiastic pronunciation of the f-word, desperate texts to friends in the middle of the night. It is the recognition that you are drowning, and that you need someone to throw you a fucking life preserve. Sometimes, that person has to be me.

I dread appointments with my array of highly qualified health care professionals. “How bad is the pain today?” they begin, flipping through my chart.

On a pain scale of zero to ten, zero meaning no pain, ten meaning extreme pain, my answer is rarely below five. And in the pause, between their question and my answer, I can’t help but link my entire existence to merciless, numerical increments.

If we’ve only recently started a treatment plan, I’m honest. “Seven,” I’ll announce, with a nod of the head. But if we’ve been working together for some time, with little to no progress, the shame of continued pain—the let down of failure—colors our encounter. I will throw my care provider a bone, graciously reducing the number, as if placing my aching body on some sort of reverse grading curve. I do this partly because I feel guilty about their sincere disappointment in the outcome of the treatment plan. As if I’m some kind of co-conspirator with my condition.

But I also do it because the way I characterize my pain is the only way left for me to control it. If a therapy fails to take even the edge off, the least I can do is choose its value. Because while my provider will spend only one hour a week considering its position on the pain scale, the number will continue to haunt me as I exit through the lobby, locate my car in the parking lot, and sit, motionless, in traffic. It will dominate my thoughts at three a.m., when I wake up to get a fresh frozen ice pack out of the freezer. It will share the same space in my psyche as my social security number.

If I am to achieve any kind of autonomy in agony, it’s in the when, why, and how I describe it. It’s my only option for a long-term coping mechanism. Because the pain consumes not just a singular moment in time, but years of milestones in the distant future. Will I be able to sit during my oldest daughter’s high school graduation? Will I be able to make that long plane trip to visit my favorite uncle in Australia? If I can barely endure this pain at age forty, how will I manage when I’m fifty, sixty, or seventy?

These are the questions that no acupuncturist, physical therapist, or rheumatologist will ever be able to answer. They don’t measure in precise integers on a scale, but hover in the spaces between them, in the infinite fractions and decimals that follow.

Which is okay, I think. Because ultimately, I have to believe, that my life and how I live it, is so much more than a numbers game.

•••

One cool, late summer evening, I rummage through the garage, kicking aside squirt guns and bottles of bubbles in search of my favorite basketball. I have spent much of the day pacing the floor in pain, pressing rotating ice packs into my flesh, chewing through an entire packet of gum while watching crappy reality television—doing anything and everything to distract myself from my colicky spine. I consider going upstairs to lie down, to submit to the merciful unconsciousness of sleep. But the seductive pull of the hoop calls to me from the driveway.

When I finally find my ball, wedged behind the recycling bin, I decide that today, I will conquer a different kind of shot. This time, I will position myself even further away from the hoop and hurl the ball, overhand, like the pitch of a baseball, with the hopes of hitting anywhere on the backboard.

Somehow, on this driveway in front of my home, my pain and I inhabit a level playing field. When I gaze out at the net, with its empty, jigsaw spaces, I conjure a power, a temporary confidence in my body. With the rough surface of the pavement supporting my bare feet, the fragrant scent of gardenias wafting throughout the front yard, I assume the home court advantage. And on this court, no one is keeping score.

Dribbling, I lull myself into concentration. The porch-dwelling preteens eye each other. They are placing nonverbal bets about my chance of success.

Palming the basketball, I take aim at the white square target on the backboard. My thumb pulses against the bumpy rubber casing. My arm reels back like a catapult. When it releases, my sight traces the ball’s arch into the atmosphere. But at its peak, I realize my shot is way off mark, destined only for wind.

I rest my hands on my hips while the collective groan of the neighborhood sounds in unison. My daughter jumps off the front porch to chase the ball into the next yard.

As she runs it back over, dribbling a few times around the driveway, I consider going back inside the house to lie on my side with my ice pack. Perhaps a hot cup of chamomile tea will help distract me a little from the pain.

“Hey,” my daughter calls from underneath the basket. I assume she’s going to take a shot herself.

But she doesn’t. “You’re not too far off,” she says, tossing the ball back toward me. “Why don’t you just try again?”

•••

ANJALI ENJETI, a recovering attorney, is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Queens University in Charlotte. She writes for ArtsATL, the only comprehensive arts news source in the Atlanta area. She lives with her family in suburban Atlanta.

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22 thoughts on “The Safety Net

  1. A beautiful piece; I would imagine that it’s challenging to have pain at the center of the narrative without making the essay sentimental. I sensed your strength in spite of the pain throughout the piece. Here’s hoping you continue to shoot for “nothing but net” in your ongoing quest! Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Wonderful piece! I also used to shoot hoops (for pleasure and stress relief).
    Time to go find my basketball… Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. This piece made me want to put up a net and start dribbling. Thanks for the beautiful words — a story of strength and the strength it takes to sometimes be weak.

  4. Have you ever tried essential oils? My family and I have used essential oils with great results to treat injuries, allergies, ear aches, etc. Check out the Raindrop Technique (by Young Living) for applying essential oils to the spine. You write beautifully, and I wish you the best!

  5. I have this aliment, too. At first the doctors thought it was siaticia; but they couldn’t factor in the lying down piece! That is when I really feel the “heat!”. Accepting that it will always be, albeit some days better than others, has helped me too. But, like you, I had a hard time “giving in”. I LOVE the closing graph on this piece and altogether, its an essay beautifully written. Best of luck with the MFA.

  6. It is nice to see a new essay. I really love the way it moves from the beginning in a full circle to the end.

    So sorry to hear about the agonizing pain. If I might be so bold – have you checked out: http://www.coccyx.org/index.htm ? They have a section about chairs, and solutions others have found helpful.

    Congratulations on your publication (the poems, too).

    1. Thanks so much, Rob!

      I have checked out the website. In fact, the very first internet search I’ve ever done, was for coccydynia, and this website was the first link to pop up. It’s still the only place for comprehensive information about coccyx pain. On Sunday night, Jon (the owner) is linking to this essay on the website under “personal stories.”

  7. Anjali, this was such a wonderful essay on many levels. For me, it was heartbreaking but also somewhat strengthening — my sister has lived with chronic pelvic pain for many years, and one of the biggest frustrations is how little people understand what effect chronic pain has on one’s everyday life. It helps to have such a good writer expressing it so well.

  8. Thank you for your lovely comment, Antonia. Has your sister found an experienced physical therapist specializing in pelvic issues? I found a wonderful one, and though she wasn’t able to help my pain, a specialist may be able to help your sister.

    I wish your sister all the best.

  9. Thank you, Anjali, yes. She lives in Portland and sees one of the foremost pelvic pain therapists in the country. But, as in your case, the change has been limited. This is one of those cases where just knowing you’re not alone is, for the moment, the only real relief possible. You put it so beautifully with this line: “If I am to achieve any kind of autonomy in agony, it’s in the when, why, and how I describe it.”

  10. I’m sorry it didn’t work for your sister, Antonia. How lovely that she has such a supportive sister on this journey! Wishing you both the best!

  11. My god, Anjali. All week long I’ve been trying to make time to read this, and I’m so glad I did. I once bruised my tailbone on a white-water rafting trip, and the days that followed sucked. I’d always thought my pain threshold was high, but, um, no. For a long time I’ll be thinking of the wisdom of weakness you remind us of in your essay. And I hope someday you find relief for your pain. Until then, swoosh. I’m glad you keep at it.

  12. What an amazing piece – you have not capitulated to incapacity! And beyond the focus on pain, you have given your large family an amazing role model – a woman who is powerful through misery will stand firm in their memories, and leave your future posterity a true heroin to channel in times of great need. Brilliant!

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