A Journey of 23 Years


November 16th – a day of significance – this one marking the 23rd anniversary of my spinal fusion surgery. For at least the first decade, I referred to this day as my re-birthday. Though I may not always outwardly express it now, in some, peripheral sense, I'll always think of it that way. A version of my self ceased to be that day – a new iteration took her place. 

In some ways, my acknowledgement of this day's significance has been inaccurate. While it represents the day that my physical body was modified in 'permanent' ways that have affected me greatly, assigning such importance to that fact alone fails to recognize how much work came before and after. However obvious the pivot of undergoing such a major procedure, when considered alongside the much harder to define inner parallels, the physical shift seems glaringly simple – devoid of the same depth of meaning inherent in its spiritual counterparts. 

In truth, the surgery was a sort of disruption – an earnest yet misguided attempt to correct a deeply rooted issue by external means. Which isn't to say that my decision to undergo surgical 'correction' was an act of cowardice or defeat. On the contrary – the journey I had to take to arrive at that place of resigned acceptance was decidedly arduous. For years, I had been so stubbornly opposed, so willfully certain of its futility, so doggedly determined to 'fix it myself.' And maybe all those doctors were wrong, anyway – maybe I was just supposed to be uniquely shaped.

It took a tremendous presence to listen through that stubborn voice, to hear beyond the thinking of my smallest, most proud self, to acknowledge how much worse my curvature was getting and quietly come to understand that – I am not my body – that, not so unlike a vehicle in need of extra attention, I simply traveled in a body that possessed challenges beyond my ability to fix on my own – that, allowing others to help me address those challenges – surgically or otherwise – did not make me 'spiritually inept'. Quite the opposite – cultivating a healthy, necessary detachment was the most 'evolved' choice then available to me. 

In that way, today will always be significant. It will always represent the first moment that I let go of my own ideas of 'rightness' and – from a place of sincere humility – chose to trust in something greater than I – in that intangible, universal wisdom I felt I'd tapped in to – that revolutionary epiphany that led me to calmly lay down beneath the surgeon's scalpel, without the slightest hint of resistance.

I could not have known then, the scope of the sacrifice I was making. Nor could I have predicted just how much I'd come to mourn the self I let go of that day. I had no way of seeing that far ahead. So, instead of tending to that invisible wound and allowing space for necessary grieving, I threw my attention in the opposite direction, skillfully convincing myself that the story of my twisted spine/self was a thing of the past – a moment to mark and remember rather than an ongoing narrative requiring careful attention. 

4 years post-op

In many ways, the metaphor of a rebirth is accurate. Post-surgery, I discovered a physical beauty in my shape that I'd previously been incapable of perceiving. I traded the baggy, skater girl clothes for garments that accentuated my unique curves rather than concealing them and I dared to say yes when a dear friend asked to photograph my undressed form. Through her images, something in my awareness of self was healed. If only that perception had truly penetrated beyond the physical. 

Still, this delicate, newfound notion that, perhaps...a body as damaged as mine could be lovely rather than shameful or grotesque – that, just maybe, I might even be considered sexy – this unfamiliar perspective allowed me to embrace my sensuality – to play with it, and even to flaunt it. After hiding for so long, the liberation of being seen and appreciated was intoxicating. So much so, that I became even more inclined to ignore those unacknowledged wounds. 

I'll say that I had a good run of it – those years of willful avoidance. It was, in a very real sense, like a second adolescence. I experienced a life that, finally, did not revolve around the central story of 'wrongness' that my scoliosis had come to represent. I had a blissful few years of NOT focusing on my troublesome physicality – of inhabiting my vehicle proudly, exploring its softer edges, being occasionally reckless in the exploration of my own boundaries as I toyed with promiscuity...silently relishing a kind of visibility that I'd never imagined I'd enjoy. 

I have evidence of those years – some fragments beautiful in their portrayal – some, awfully embarrassing – a broad spectrum that affords a retrospective clarity, allowing me to easily recall and marvel at my own, youthful fortitude. Through the eyes of others – at least superficially – my self-acceptance grew less tenuous. 

I bared my scar-etched skin to countless photographers, painters, artists. I allowed innumerable eyes to study and sketch the lines that define the shape of me – a shape that I had so sadly regretted for most of my life. As much as my present self recoils at the idea of being so vulnerable – to be, not only naked, but a willing object of artistic scrutiny and interpretation – I applaud the courage I embodied back then. I can see a genuine joy in my younger face – a comfortable grace. For a brief time, I enjoyed being in this body.

As such, today's anniversary still has meaning – it still marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. I still awake on this day and fall into a sort of melancholic reverie, tracing the paths I've taken since then – gingerly passing over each clumsy misstep – compassionately remembering each, seemingly miraculous recovery – quietly patting myself on the back for making it this far. 

It hasn't been easy. I've come to understand that those critical, post-surgical years were a missed opportunity. I should have had some kind of structured physical therapy. I should have done everything I could to support my remaining, unfused vertebrae. Perhaps then I might've avoided the extensive degeneration that now ails me. I can shake an angry fist at the sky, crying...'NO ONE TOLD ME!!' I can lament the lack of external care, the marked absence of experienced guidance or even the tiniest bit of advice as to how best to care for my changed body. And yet, I can rightfully blame no one but myself. 

More accurately....it is a blameless truth – simply the way it is/was. I cannot truly fault myself for not knowing – cannot fault the timing of my storylines nor the differences between then and now. I had no immediate access at my fingertips – no google nor facebook nor pinterest by which to search for others with similar stories – no easy way to research best practices – no warnings from others about what not to do. I was painfully alone in my journey and I did the best I could.

I'm not proud of how quiet I've been for most of the past 23 years, so hellbent on not appearing weak – so determined to prove (to whom, really?) that this story did not define me – wanting so much to believe that I could 'go it alone', that I might simply continue to bear the increasingly debilitating chronic pain in agonizing silence. I suppose the dam was bound to eventually break, which it did...four years ago, on my 19th re-birthday, when I publicly shared the image on the left (a composite self-portrait), including a candid confession about how much I hurt. 

Since then, I've let the difficulty of my struggle be known by more than just those closest to me. Allowing that outward shell to crumble, daring to expose the naked truth of my suffering, has been not so unlike those years of baring my flesh. No longer upholding a false 'okayness' has allowed me the space to relax into the depths of my pain – to breathe into all those aching parts of me – to sit with them long enough to hear past their incessant complaints and begin to understand the emotional wounds they represent. Little by little, I'm learning how to repair my deeply skewed sense of self – an endeavor I expect to be engaged in for the remainder of this life. 

So – in solidarity with my 19 year-old self and the unknowable sacrifices she made, I intentionally choose this day for other, meaningful occasions. Perhaps to magnify its importance – to ensure I continue this annual ritual of deep reflection – to encourage the increasingly exhausted parts of myself to keep going, no matter the pain and heaviness – despite the tired voice that begs me to just lay down and give up – to keep showing up and CHOOSING life...every...single...day. 

Two years ago, today, I received a tattoo – the inspired work of an artist named Kris Davidson – the purpose of which was not simply to adorn my skin, but to heal one of my deepest wounds through the act of receiving those inked lines – to repair the invisible damage done to my not-quite-3-year-old psyche, in the same moment my physical body was breaking. 

As he expertly pressed ink into beautiful lines, over sensitive scar and excruciating metal, I re-imagined my fall, visually repairing the ladder that broke beneath my tiny self all those years ago – repeatedly retelling the story with an alternate outcome – over and over and over again, feeling my tiny hands gripping that rung, now fortified by my willful imagination – letting go the rung and reaching for the edge of the roof – sensing the strength of that rung as my weight rested upon it, as I fearlessly pulled myself up and over, safely moving towards my siblings on the other end, rather than falling fatefully towards my brother on the ground. 

That story – the tale of how my body came to be so unfortunately twisted – is one for another day. Today....THIS DAY, belongs to its subsequent lines – to the girl who found an unlikely courage, daring to undergo an irreversible operation – trading a severely twisted yet flexible spine for a painfully fused one – choosing immobility and space for my lungs over continued shrinkage in height and the inability to breathe deeply. 

Today, I honor her strength – I recognize how far she's traveled – I breathe deep and thank her for returning my lungs to their full capacity. I forgive her years of pretense – her brief departure from feeling 'broken' – her understandable need to focus elsewhere for a while. I acknowledge the fierceness of her enduring spirit.

On this day...I do my best to remember that SHE...is ME. Her tenacity, which I find so admirable, still resides within me. However far away she may so often feel – for today, at least, I can hear her whispering at my center...gently cheering me on...

'...Keep breathing, Zippy. You've got this...'