When I was nine, one of my favorite things to say to classmates was,
“I have rock-solid abs. Really, I do. Punch me in the stomach and I’ll prove it.”
Few people took me up on this unusual offer, but those who did touch my abdomen were surprised to find that it was, indeed, unnaturally hard. One classmate even compared me to a robot. But truthfully, I did not have exceptionally strong abdominal muscles, nor was I a robot; my belly felt hard to the touch because I wore a back brace underneath my clothes.
In the summer before I entered fourth grade, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, a spinal deformity that, if left untreated, can cause crippling back pain and other health problems. Doctors told me that I would need to wear a rigid back brace for twenty hours per day, every day, in order to slow the condition’s progression. The brace, a cumbersome plastic body cast that wrapped around my torso, was designed to hold my spine straight while I completed my skeletal growth. At the time, nobody really knew how many years the treatment would need to last.
Within days of beginning my bracing regimen, I was distraught. The corset-like brace was so tight that I struggled to breathe, and every flight of stairs left me gasping for air. With my clumsy movements and unnaturally stiff posture, I walked more like a wind-up toy than a normal nine-year-old. I tossed and turned at night, kept awake by the pain of my aching back and my sore, blistered skin. My four daily hours of freedom were not enough; I longed for my old body.
The next few years weren’t much easier. One day in seventh grade, a friend pulled me aside in the hallway to tell me that someone had taped a sign to my back. Scrawled in sloppy handwriting on a sheet of lined paper, the sign read, “Kick me. I can’t feel it through my brace anyway.” I smiled half-heartedly at my friend and feigned amusement, but fought back tears as I walked away. I wanted my peers to see my strengths: my intelligence, my kindness, and my thoughtfulness. Instead, I felt that I was being defined by my disability.
It would be dishonest of me to claim that I ever fully made peace with having to wear a brace. Years into the treatment, I still hated that I couldn’t bend over to pick up a dropped pencil or get dressed in the morning without help. Gradually, though, I did realize that self-pity and anger solved nothing. I learned not to value conformity above all else, to be comfortable in my own skin whether or not all of my peers accepted me. I am so many things – a student, an artist, an activist, an athlete, and a person who has scoliosis. No one of these labels, on its own, completely defines me.
Ultimately, I wore a back brace full-time through the fall of my junior year. Doctors now believe that the treatment was successful and that my chances of having an adulthood free of back pain are excellent. I am especially thankful for this outcome considering that many children who develop scoliosis before age ten, as I did, do not respond to bracing and require invasive spinal surgery.
Having persevered through a long, difficult bracing regimen is not the type of flashy achievement that earns me the praise of others. Yet it is, in many ways, my proudest accomplishment. Wearing a brace every day for seven years fostered in me a humble, quiet kind of strength that I believe will serve me well as I move forward. I am no longer a person who quits easily. In addition, the experience gave me a powerful, albeit limited, glimpse into the struggles of people with disabilities. As the sister of someone who has Down syndrome, autism, and severe vision impairment, this was especially eye-opening. Challenges look a lot different when you’ve had a taste of them yourself.
Although I would never have chosen to wear a brace, I can now see that, literally and metaphorically, the experience shaped me into the person I am today. As I have come to appreciate, what holds us back and what propels us forward are often one and the same.