When I was 11 years old, I felt a jarring, excruciating pain in my left hip while doing a plie.
My life changed in an instant. I stopped dancing ballet and instead spent four months visiting doctors offices and getting second opinions. Then, my orthopedist recommended exploratory hip surgery. Before entering the operating room, a required chest X-ray suddenly made the surgery moot. My hip pain was a symptom of a different problem: I had scoliosis.
Scoliosis is a curvature of the spine of more than ten degrees and occurs more in girls than boys, typically around pre-adolescence. After three different doctor’s opinions, I was fitted with a Boston brace to correct the curvature—a white, hard plastic contraption which I was supposed to wear for 23 hours a day, if possible. If the brace didn’t work, I’d need surgery.
It was me against my spine. In my mind, surgery was the enemy. I was determined to wear my brace for as long as I could stand it. I only ever took it off to bathe. But after three years of pain and perseverance, my spine continued to curve like the letter s. I needed surgery anyway.
It was me against my spine. In my mind, surgery was the enemy. I was determined to wear my brace for as long as I could stand it.
And so, before I turned 14 years old, two titanium rods were fused to my spine, and I had to relearn how to walk.
After college, I wanted to do meaningful work within the sustainable food field. The jobs I landed happened to be physically demanding. I worked as a Garden Educator with elementary school kids on a quarter-acre lot. This job often required me to lift heavy objects or turn the soil to prepare a garden bed for students to plant. Friends would tell me: “Have the students do the hard work.” But I didn’t want my condition to influence how I did my job. Most days, my muscles ached at the end of my shift.
On Saturdays, I worked as a Farmers Market Manager where I had to lift and load tables, chairs and tents into my car. I enjoyed my job, though I wasn’t a fan of the physical demands but knew it was part of the deal. Having a sore body at the end of day had become normal, and I refused to acknowledge the increase in pain I felt correlated with the kind of work I did.
“You need to be careful with your back,” my dad would tell me. He had a point, but I refused to listen. His comments annoyed me: subconsciously, I interpreted them to mean: You’re limited, less capable. My body wasn’t going to get in the way of my work.
My body wasn’t going to get in the way of my work.
A couple years later, I took on a part-time gig for a food truck company. In a single shift, I might have to set up and take down hundreds of chairs, dozens of heavy lamp posts, and hundreds of pounds of music equipment. I didn’t like the job, but I told myself I needed the work: in hindsight, though, I was doing the manual labor to try to prove something to myself.
One night, a friend watched me finish my shift, loading and unloading heavy gear from a 16-foot truck. When I was done, he was upset with me.”What are you doing? You need to be careful with your back! Even I wouldn’t do that job!” He was rightfully concerned, but all I heard was the insidious subtext: You’re not capable, you’re less than, your body isn’t up to par.
I was disappointed my friend wasn’t impressed with my physical abilities because I was proud of what my body was capable of. I went home with sharp pain shooting through my back. I felt like a ragdoll.
A few years later, while overexerting myself as I cleared thorny bushes for my own big garden, it suddenly dawned on me that this wasn’t the way it had to be. Whenever I chose to pick up something heavy, or push my body to the limit, I was doing so because I thought I had to.
I thought I had to show everyone else I was capable. But no one was questioning my abilities.
I thought I had to show everyone else I was capable. But no one was questioning my abilities. Not my dad, not my friend, not the world. I was on an unknown quest to show the world that my back surgery wouldn’t limit me, but the only one who was questioning my body’s ability was me. And maybe, just maybe, I didn’t need to push my body so much to prove to myself that I was strong.
Since then, I heed my body’s warning signs. Yes, it took over a decade before I had an epiphany but I’ve finally learned the importance of respecting my body, especially my back. It’s my responsibility to take care of myself as best I can because no one else can do that for me. This is what my father was attempting to explain all along.