Somewhere Between Inside and Outside

Last weekend, I went shopping at H&M, not with the intention of buying anything in particular, but more so to browse and see what new, hopefully-less-crazy direction women’s fashion was taking in the fall. This might not make a difference to the average shopper, but for me, because I wasn’t actually looking for anything, I was less purposeful during my time in the fitting room.

Fitting rooms are one of the few places where you can see multiple angles of your body without twisting around. The H&M fitting rooms, at least, hang one mirror flat on the wall and another at an angle in the corner, so you can see how ridiculous the back of your head is, actually.

For me, the angled mirrors the fitting rooms are the only way I can see my own back without contorting; it’s the only place where I’m reminded of how uneven my back is.

Surgery Xray
Before and After | Photo Courtesy of my dad

I wrote about my back briefly a year ago, but only as it related to my physical fitness. For a story that’s remarkably important to me, it’s one I don’t tell often (which is also surprising given the fact that I now only keep a few friends who’ve known both pre- and post-op me)…

In October 2005, when I was in 6th grade, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. To “treat” it, or to hopefully stabilize the curves and keep them from progressing, I  would have to wear a back brace for 20 to 23 hours a day until I stopped growing.

My brace, a Boston brace, covered everything from my chest down to my butt. The interior of the brace was covered with padding of varying thicknesses, all of which were specifically calculated to hold or push various parts of my torso in particular directions, to best counteract the growth of my spinal curves.

Bracing was — pardon my French — hell. I sweat easily, and the brace smelled in the heat. I couldn’t wear trendy, tight-fitting clothes or bras in middle school because I had to specifically wear cotton undershirts underneath the bulk of my brace. I had to plaster bandaids on my hips to avoid chaffing.

I hated the brace, but I also loved it. After two years of wearing it, my back muscles were too weak to support me for longer than an hour without tiring. I relished the relief of the support that I so hated.

In 9th grade, my doctor told me that I had finished growing, so I could stop wearing the brace. It was a bittersweet freedom though; my curves weren’t stabilizing. I would need surgery.

D-Day was December 7, 2009.

Death_to_Stock_Tactile_1 copy
Photo Courtesy of Death to the Stock

I went into the hospital around 6 am, walked myself into the operating room, and hopped (literally) onto the operating table just after 7 am.

My parents were told that my surgeon made the first cut around 8:20 am, and they would receive phone updates throughout the day. (Fun fact: During spinal fusion, they flip you over halfway through the procedure, wake you up, and ask you to move your toes to make sure nothing’s gone wrong. I don’t recall this, but I did move my toes.) My parents could expect to hear that I was out of the OR by 4 or 5 that afternoon.

They received the call around 3:20 pm. Things had gone smoothly, and I was out of the operating room with all of my extra hardware — two rods, 18 screws, and three wires —  installed along my spine, holding it straight.

I don’t remember much of my time in the hospital. I know I moved rooms a few painful times, and I watched so much Jeopardy. Frankly, all the days blended together in a mix of pain and drug medication and being rolled from one side of my body to another.

The one day that remains distinct is the day immediately after my operation, and that’s only because I remember wishing my mom “Happy Birthday.”

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Food, teddy bear, and me. Clearly nothing has changed. | Photo courtesy of my dad

Since December 20, 2011, the day of my last follow-up appointment, my back has been been deemed fit for the rest of my life. I don’t, and didn’t, have reason to reach back out to my doctor earlier this week to get another x-ray, but that jarring moment in the fitting room, of seeing my perpetually uneven back, prompted me to go anyway

My shoulders slump at different angles, my shoulder blades jut out unevenly, my rib cage protrudes in one direction out of alignment with my hips, my waistline is unsymmetrical, and my bra strap sits at a slant on my back — still.

Don’t get me wrong — I love the 14-inch scar that runs down my back, and I hope it never fades because it’s easily my favorite physical feature. (Those of you who’ve seen my junior prom and college graduation dresses will know I take every chance I get to show it off.)

Sometimes, I just forget that this scar is attached to a very uneven back.

It’s not that I forget what I’ve gone through, but rather that I become influenced by what everyone else sees: my “perfect” posture when I’m sitting onstage in orchestra, my “poise” when I’m casually perched on chairs or ledges.

Even though there’s constant pressure in my lower back I can’t relieve because my hips and shoulders can’t rotate that far in opposite directions, even when I see myself bending at right angles or I just can’t roll my body because my spine doesn’t do that — I started assuming that everyone’s observations, when combined with my experienced immobility, meant that I was perfectly straight and poised outside my body, inside my clothes.

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Note the back | Photo Courtesy of my mom

I’m not looking for sympathy or pity.

I love my back. It provides me with almost flawless posture (To those of you who can tell when I’m slouching — don’t give away my secret). I can go about my day-to-day life, and though my college application essay about my surgery prompted UC Berkeley to ask if I wanted to report a disability, I don’t consider myself disabled.

On the contrary, after several years of babying my back in high school, I’m now attacking my physical limitations with a sort of vengeance.

I’ll do ab workouts — even though it’s incredibly difficult to train your core muscles when you’re forced to move your back as an entire plate. I’ll go rock climbing — even though I’m terrified of bouldering and falling flat on my back. I’ll dance bachata — even though learning how to body roll and move my hips correctly gives me lower back pain for the entire day following.

A year ago, when I wrote that original blog post, I was just beginning to feel the differences of being physically active: I felt more confident about the way I looked and felt happier in general.

Now, a year out, even after being reminded of how my back bears — and will always bear — the scars from the battles I fought with scoliosis, I realize that I haven’t felt self-conscious about my body in many, many months.

Yeah, my back is pretty wonky. But it’s got my back.

I can’t fathom the prospect of having to go through surgery again, the thought of having to relearn how to walk and bend over and re-engage all my adjusted back muscles. I think my mom said it best: “The older you get, the more frightening the thought of your surgery gets, doesn’t it?”

15-year-old Courtney walked herself into the operating room. 22-year-old Courtney knows that the girl seven years her junior was braver than she is now.

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