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Braced not Broken

When I was thirteen, my spine developed a curve. I stood up nice and straight; but somehow, my back didn’t.

I’d learnt about how straight the spine was meant to be several years earlier because someone else in our family had developed scoliosis and needed to have a steel rod fused to their back. The doctors assured me there was no evidence that the condition was genetic, however. It just happened, they said, randomly.

So, I didn’t worry.

My mum did though. She worried enough for both of us. From the time I was ten or eleven, she insisted on someone checking my back regularly. They did, for a couple of years. And at one appointment, the doctor thought she could spot something; a slight unevenness that hadn’t been there before.

I was sent to a consultant and put on the ‘watch’ list, just to be safe. Every six months, I’d get x-rayed at the local hospital; be seen by the orthopaedic consultant then be sent on my way again.

Except one time, I wasn’t sent on my way. The doctors all gathered around my x-rays with their rulers and protractors. They said my slight unevenness had become a significant curve and that other parts of my torso were rotating to compensate.

Things had gone awry – not only for my back, but for my life as I knew it.

As an adult I hadn’t really thought about the whole scoliosis episode, but when I started writing Heaven Sent, I had to mentally take myself back there. I wanted my protagonist, Evie, to have a brace and to feel some of the things I felt when I was told I had to wear a brace.

I was relatively kind to Evie because I gave her version two of my brace, not version one, as I’d initially had. That was called a Milwaukee Brace and it consisted of a hard-plastic corset which had steel struts extending up to a metal ring/choker which circled my neck. It was held together with bolts and wingnuts and it turned me into (as I saw it) some kind of Meccano-like Frankenstein. There was no hiding it. Even a polo neck jumper (had I been able to get one on) couldn’t have masked it. Instead, I had to wear button-up shirts and pretend I didn’t mind the brace being on show. I was barely fourteen: so, of course people my age stared, they smirked, they furrowed their brows. Even teachers would stop me to ask what I’d done. Most people assumed I must’ve broken my neck or damaged my back – and sometimes, I didn’t bother to put them right.

After a while, I was fitted with a Boston Brace. That was considered a far kinder option because it only covered my torso, so there were no visible elements poking out from my clothes. Yet, in some ways, it was more challenging: I knew I looked different, but now it wasn’t obvious why. My posture was stiff, awkward, inflexible. My shape was unshapely. Clothes didn’t sit well on me; they twisted, slipped and pulled. Yet there was nothing visible to account for my oddness. I just wasn’t right.

So, this new ‘improved’ second version was the brace I gave Evie in Heaven Sent. I wanted to capture that inexplicable sense of difference – the one where people didn’t ask; didn’t comment – just subconsciously noted. A difference which was sensed as curiosity and judgement, but which could never be explained or discussed.

Last week, I found my diary from all those years ago. I wondered what I’d said about the brace – how much I’d railed and raged; how miserable I’d admitted to being. In fact, I said very little about it. Almost nothing. I was tight-lipped, even to myself. On the day I went to the hospital for my Milwaukee monstrosity, all I’d said in the entry was: ‘Got my brace. Cried.’

And, even as I flipped through the pages of the diary – day after day; week upon week; year after year – apart from the few brief mentions about physical discomfort, I didn’t write about the experience at all. Instead, I wrote about what I’d had for tea or what I’d watched on TV.

Perhaps it’s why, so many years later, I found myself needing to write about a girl called Evie who had scoliosis. A girl who found someone she trusted enough to explain how she really felt.

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