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Good Words

Friends, my playlist is about to get a major Mama makeover.


Elliott and I have never been the kind of parents to keep our preferred music away from our son. Sure, some of the content got watered down once little man’s ears started to pick up on words, but we never fully converted our music of choice over to a Kidz Bop-approved variety.

Over the last year or so, Brooks – our son who is now five years old – has taken a special interest in singing along with me to the songs that are on my playlist. We sing in the car, he sings along with the music while I work out or while we run down back country roads. It’s kind of become our thing. When we get to the songs that are filled with uplifting messages – messages that reinforce our faith or encourage self-confidence – I always say, “Listen, buddy! These are good words.”

After a few months of me reminding him to pay close attention to the lyrics in certain songs, Brooks has now started to ask me, “Mommy, are these good words?” when he hears …

Crooked as a Candy Cane

"Girl, your back is as crooked as a candy cane!"

The words above are how my journey with scoliosis started. It was a routine school screening, and I was in the sixth grade. Let me say that again so you don't miss it. The. Sixth. Grade. One of the most tender and blessedly awkward, insecure times of a person's life.

To paint a full and complete picture for you, I had just left the classroom where my friends and I had all been having a grand time making fun of folks with scoliosis. (Or at least, what we thought someone with scoliosis would be like. Let's be clear - we had no idea. I feel fairly certain that not a one of us in the room had ever known anyone with scoliosis.) Regardless, we were twisting and contorting our bodies to look like a scoliosis patient, and the most popular gesture among the crowd was to stick both of our arms straight out in front of us, with one at an exaggerated distance in front of the other. (Real class acts, we were.)

I walked out of this environment into a locker room where a grown-up told me that my spine was as crooked as a candy cane. There had to be a mistake. Normal 12-year old girls don't have scoliosis. This couldn't be happening. I had just been making fun of the entire idea of scoliosis, and now my spine is crooked? I couldn't comprehend it.

I remember sitting in my daddy's truck after school that day, crying because of this unofficial diagnosis of something that I thought was so weird and so scary. In the days and weeks that followed, I would receive an official diagnosis of what was deemed "a mild case" of scoliosis, and I would learn that it's in fact not as weird and uncommon as I thought. Roughly two to four percent of the population is affected by scoliosis (which sounds like a super low percentage, but actually equates to six to nine MILLION folks), and the onset is typically between the ages of 10 and 15 years old (during or around the time of puberty).

Since my scoliosis was labeled as mild at the time of diagnosis, I was only prescribed a few simple exercises to try and strengthen the muscles around my spine and deter the curves from progressing. The severity didn't even warrant a back brace, which is a fairly common remedy for folks with mild to moderate cases. We rocked on for a couple of years, operating under the "mild" category, only doing the exercises and periodic check-ins with a local orthopedic surgeon. During this time, I started running track and cross country for my middle school and fell in love with the sport. Little did I know at that point that the option of playing contact sports would eventually be taken off the table, so running would remain one of the few options for long-term competition. One of the many ways that running has been a blessing in my life.

In the eighth grade, the tone of the check-ups started to shift. Seemingly overnight, the level of my scoliosis went from mild to severe. We skipped the stage where a back brace would have done any good, and we sprinted headlong into the stage where surgery would be the only option to correct my spine. And it needed to be done quickly, before my growth plates closed. (This typically happens between the ages of 13 and 15 for females.)


On May 31, 1999 - exactly 20 years ago today - I had surgery to correct my scoliosis. It was Memorial Day, and my surgeon was a saint of a man named Dr. Thomas Bailey. I grew to love Dr. Bailey so much that when he finally released me from his care in 2006, I cried because I couldn't come back to see him regularly.

My scoliosis was of the "S-curve" variety, which means that I had two curves in my spine that caused it took look like the letter "S." At the time of surgery, my curves were 47 degrees and 57 degrees. If you look closely on the X-ray below, you can see the numbers scribbled in Dr. Bailey's handwriting.


Modern medicine and technology are amazing things, aren't they? And this was 20 years ago! The surgery that used to require a full body cast for a year sure has come a long way - they got me out of bed the day after the operation. (But you better believe I took every ounce of morphine they would send my way.) I had gained about two inches in height during the course of the surgery, and, ever the vain female, I remember looking down at my stomach the first time I got out bed and thinking that it looked so much flatter. The curves weren't totally gone, but my spine was significantly straighter than the day before - and it was held in place with two rods (one on each side) and 16 alternating hooks.


The surgery was on a Monday, and I went home that Friday - just five days in the hospital. Isn't that incredible? I couldn't sleep in a normal bed for a while after I went home, so my parents arranged for a legit hospital bed to be set up in our living room. That's where I spent most of my time for the next few weeks, but we walked every day. First to the end of the driveway. Then down the street to the stop sign. I'm tearing up writing this, not because of the memory of how difficult it was, but because of the selflessness of my parents - cheering me on with every single step down the road, like I was in the race of my life. Those walks were some of the most important steps I've ever taken, and they were with me for every single one.

That fall, I was running cross country with my high school teammates. I didn't get to start competing until about mid-way through the season, but the memory of running (ok, jogging - and that's generous) that first 5k will stay with me forever. It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't fast, but it happened. I finished. And there was no going back - I kept racing all the way through college. I was never the fastest girl on the team (which probably would have still been the case, with or without the scoliosis, let's be honest), but I didn't take a single step for granted. And I still don't.

My scoliosis, and the surgery to correct it, has become one of the most significant parts of who I am. It has brought its fair share of difficulty and, at times, some doses of insecurity. For a long time, I was nervous to expose the scar that runs down the length of my back - which can be a pretty big deal for a teenage girl. There are times even now that my features - which are still not perfect and never will be - catch me off guard and throw me for a loop. My shoulder blades aren't even. My torso will always be a little short. One hip will always be slightly higher than the other.

These are characteristics that are normal to me because I've lived with them for over 20 years. But over the years, I have had a difficult time finding people and resources that relate to my experience. When I was pregnant with my son, I scoured the internet in search of articles and recommendations for what to do about labor. Was an epidural safe? Would it be possible to insert it because so much of my spine was fused? Could it mess up my fusion in any way? Was it safer to just have a natural birth?

I never found the resources I was looking for, and I got so frustrated. All I could find were chat rooms full of women, all of them with a different experience and a different recommendation. In the end, I decided to have an unmedicated labor - not to try and be a hero, but because I was terrified to have someone mess with my back.

I say all of that to say this: scoliosis is woven into the fabric of my story and who I am as a person. It does not define me, but it has helped to shape who I am. But I have never, ever felt like I had this in common with someone close to me. It is an attribute that has felt largely unique and different, when compared to the folks around me. The things that make us unique are often the things that we think are weird and scary, because we don't know anyone else who can relate to them. It's tempting to think that unless we find a community of folks who share our experience, this characteristic will ostracize us and draw attention to us in a negative way.

But here's the thing. The parts of us that we so often view as negative are actually the parts that strengthen us. They are the parts that teach us how to fight a little harder, push a little further, to put up with a little more pain. They give us perspective. They ground us and teach us humility. And they cultivate a compassion within us for others, coupled with a desire to create a safe place for folks to land when they too are feeling insecure, different and scared. When we flip the script and change our perspective on these things - the things that make us different - we are able to light the way for someone else with our courage. We are given a chance to create a community - not necessarily of people who have all experienced the same things, but one of encouragement, empathy and understanding. A place where no story is untold and no story is wasted. One where we bring our collective qualities, support each other and create a diverse place of acceptance. No making fun. No teasing gestures. No mean laughter that's actually rooted in ignorance.

Let your light shine from the places that make you uniquely who you are. Those places often feel the scariest because they don't look like the people around you, but those folks you compare yourself with have their own qualities that make them different. They have their own choices to make about whether they will hide those qualities in darkness or let the light shine through them. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, and I promise you - there is someone nearby who needs you to be brave, bold and authentically who you were created to be. All of it can be used for good - even the parts that are messy, scary and crooked as a candy cane.

Comments

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing that! I also experienced that 6th grade revelation, although not to the same degree. I have a 14 degree curve in my spine and it has only ever caused me occasional mild discomfort when I am especially careless about my posture. I had no idea it was something that could require surgery. Your drive to keep running, even when it would have been so easy to give it o is inspiring.

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    Replies
    1. Rob!! Thank you so much for reading and sharing! Means the world. And so happy to connect with a fellow hope*writer!!

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