When I was 12 I was diagnosed with scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine. As it continued to worsen, I was sent to a specialist at Guy's Hospital in London and after what seemed like hours of bending over in my knickers and a flimsy hospital gown, surrounded by medical students, the doctor sat me down to discuss my options.
There was talk of operations with rods being bolted to my spine and ribs being removed and shaved down. My mum had to translate all the doctor-talk for me afterwards because hospitals made me sick and I was just trying not to faint. I was a pretty happy kid and it didn't really worry me too much. Operations were for other people, sick people, and all I knew was I didn't have time to have one, to miss school, to risk being moved down a year and lose my friends, to be a year later to start the oh-so-exciting life I had planned for myself. I put my head down and started doing regular physio throughout my teens. I realised my limitations and avoided activities that could trigger back pain. I was monitored regularly, the possibility of an operation looming over me, but luckily I was able to avoid it.
But I have always been the girl with the bad back. Sometimes the scoliosis can put pressure on the nerves in my spine and as all my back muscles are a little askew, it doesn't take much to strain them. I can't carry anything too heavy, I can't stand up for too long, I shouldn't sleep on sofas and anything that jolts my spine can be excruciating.
There's an emotional impact to having a deformation too. My back is broad - "a man's back," I was once told by a helpful girl at school. I have a hump on the right side of my back where my ribs stick out more than they should. I tried to stand to the side in photographs, but then they also protrude from my front left side, as my ribcage twists round, "like a third boob", another supportive girl at school pointed out. Finding clothes to fit was a nightmare. I lost count of the amount of frustrated tears I shed in lingerie changing rooms as yet another bra refused to conform to my twisty trunk. No young woman enjoys having her body criticised, but as an actor, looming costume fittings were a thing of dread as I knew that nothing would fit or hang right. "I have a spine deformity, it gives me a rib hump," I would shyly mumble only to be met with blank looks and a sigh as they murmured something about needing "bigger sizes" and "looser styles." I took their words to heart, wore baggy tops, and grew my hair long.
A few years ago I dieted my way down to a much smaller size. I wanted to know what it would be like to try on the clothes I wanted to wear, rather than the choices I was reduced to. I marched triumphantly into a fitting room only to find that my stubborn ribs and spine had not shrunk down with the rest of me. Apparently you can't starve your bones. If anything, weight loss had made the scoliosis more obvious. I stood in tears, staring at my new slimmer body in the mirror with despair, the proud result of months of hard work and discipline, yet still not blessing me with the ultimate reward. Bending over to pick up the abandoned clothes, I caught a glimpse of myself from behind in the three-way mirror and I saw it properly for the first time. My back. My spine snaking its way up my torso in a bendy 'S'. My shoulder blades, crooked and askew, as if I was twisted at some uncomfortable angle. The right side of my ribcage, bulging in protest out of my back. Yes, I wasn't quite in Richard III's league, but it was there, a definite deformation. I stared for ages as my tears slowly dried up. This was my back. It didn't look like other backs that I had seen but it was my back, and it was the only one I would ever have.
I continued to stare at it as I pondered over my life with this spine. My scoliosis wasn't life-threatening. I hadn't had to go through a long, traumatic, dangerous operation. I had not missed out on drama school or anything I had wanted to achieve because of my spine. Through attempting to manage my back pain, I had learned to take care of myself, recognising when my body needs a rest and treating it with respect. I also discovered the miracle that is Pilates. I had become something of a connoisseur of bras, dresses and tops, knowing from just a glance whether one would fit without having to go through hours of distress in changing rooms. Armed with the style of clothes that I knew suited me, I had developed my own taste and character. I had had boyfriends who had told me I was imagining it as worse than it was, whilst loving me and fancying me regardless of it. No one was aware of it the way I was. No one would ever see it with the same dread as me. I knew there were hundreds of thousands of us afflicted with scoliosis, walking around with no one else aware of it. It was time to kick my vanity to the side and accept my back just as it was.
So, as Scoliosis Awareness Month approaches this June, I find myself reflecting on my condition, and realising that it has given me much more than it has ever taken from me. It helped me see past my physical flaws and be appreciative of what I have instead. It taught me to take care of myself and respect my body. It gave me a sense of humour and it made me grow up. Scoliosis has made me proud of who I am, and I'm thankful for that.