At 19, St. Louisan Lynne Greenberg broke her neck in a car crash. After a long convalescence, the break seemed to heal. She went on to enjoy a happy life as a wife, mother and professor at Hunter College in New York. But 22 years later, the pain returned, and wouldn’t go away. The Body Broken, a memoir, is the story of her struggle with chronic pain. Greenberg will talk about her experience and sign copies of the book at 6 p.m. Friday, March 27, at Left Bank Books.
Q: OK, let’s start with your hometown credentials.
A: I grew up in Clayton and went to Clayton High School until I left for boarding school at 17. My mother, Jan Greenberg, writes books for young adults; my father, Ronald, owns the Greenberg Van Doren Gallery.
Q: How did the pain return?
A: It was sudden. I was in the library when I felt an intense pain in my head and neck. I went to the doctor and found out that the bone I’d broken years ago was still broken and unstable, and that the instability had caused permanent nerve damage. Since then, I’ve been to every doctor and had every treatment, fusion surgery, nerve injections and medications. Nothing works. There is no cure.
Q: When did you realize you’d always live with pain?
A: I was getting a new kind of nerve injection, a risky procedure. The shot was supposed to relieve pain for six months to a year, and I was full of hope. Well, it worked for 10 days. So I got another one, and it lasted for two weeks. I finally decided I had to learn how to live my life in pain. As a scholar I specialize in John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost. I lost the paradise of a pain-free life, and I had to find a new one.
Q: How has this affected your life?
A: At first, it tore my family apart. For three and a half years, I couldn’t go to work or play with my kids. I was in and out of hospitals having one surgery after another. My husband was a rock and my son, who was just entering adolescence, was busy with his friends. But my daughter, who was about 8, felt like she had lost her mom. She was angry and hurt. We’ve worked hard to rebuild our relationship.
Q: how do you manage the pain?
A: I cope through exercise, meditation and distraction techniques, such as ballet, knitting and jewelry-making. My colleagues at Hunter College have helped me arrange a manageable schedule: I teach three afternoons a week, lay low in the morning, and go swimming or to a dance class after work. And I’ve learned to slow down a little.
Q: I’ve read that poetry was one of the resources you drew upon during your ordeal.
A: So much poetry is about pain, either physical or psychic. Emily Dickinson wrote, “I felt a funeral in my brain.” Research shows that she might have suffered from severe migraines. Adrienne Rich had cancer and has written beautifully about surgery and disease. Then there’s the psychic pain of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. It’s comforting to know that others have survived it.
Q: What advice can you offer others who suffer from chronic pain?
A: Figure out how to reclaim as much of your higher life as you can. Say goodbye to the dreams that are no longer realistic, but find a way to transfer that passion to something new. Every day I go to work or be with my family is a victory. There’s so much joy in life.