I used to be a gymnast. I was quite good I think. I’m not sure. When I think about it now, I focus solely on my flexibility, in awe that I was able to do that. Bend, twist, flip. Even the easiest skills seem so glorious. I can’t remember my routines or the names of the skills I performed, just that I could do it, and well. I only started thinking about it after I lost the ability to do it. I guess you don’t appreciate something until you’ve lost it.

After I quit (a coach sat on my back to force me into the splits and I decided I had enough) I sold my leotards back to the gym. Years later the last leotard sold and I went to collect the money. An old coach was at the front desk, smiling at me, surprised to see me. We chatted while she got the money, and as she handed it to me, she cocked her head and said kindly, ‘you know you can always come back.’

 I’m not quite sure that’s actually what she said. It was something along those lines. She started talking and all I could focus on was the familiar smell of chalk and sweat, the sound of classes starting, girls giggling, and I realised that even if I wanted to go back (there is no amount of money you could pay me to go back to that sport), I couldn’t. I imagined an airport scanner guarding the door, blaring its alarms if I tried to get through, ordering security to drag me away. 

I didn’t quit because of my back, but knowing that I didn’t have the choice to go back even if I wanted to caused a twisting sensation in my guts. I didn’t tell my coach what had happened, I just shrugged and said ‘maybe’ and left. I have never been back.

Before and After

The weird thing about having your spine straightened by a group of surgeons and black and dekker clamps is that you have no conception of how it will change your body. I knew that I would have to relearn how to walk, climb up stairs, and wouldn’t be able to carry anything. That didn’t bother me. I knew it and so I could control it. I could prepare. 

Yet there was so much I didn’t know. I remember the first time trying to tie my laces. I sat on the stairs, as usual, my feet planted on the oak floor, and absentmindedly stretched down. Except my arms couldn’t reach. I tell a lie. Before my arms didn’t reach, but this time, my back didn’t help to close the gap. It stayed sturdy and straight, as it was meant to

It felt odd, being fixed and yet I could no longer tie my shoelaces. That didn’t feel very fixed to me at that moment. 

I learnt how to tie my shoelaces differently, squatting down or hiking my leg up, yet everytime I think about how this method was a signifier of my new body, the old one gone. 

Moving on?

The shoe laces were the last straw I guess. There were so many things I couldn’t do anymore. I felt like glass. I wanted to prove that I could overcome it. I was strong, I could recover (I went back to school after 4 weeks off). While my wound healed within a few months, it took me over 4 years to accept the fact that the body that I was now inhabiting was not the one I was born in. It was different and I could no longer treat it like it was before. I was never going to be able to do gymnastics again. 

I did other things, of course. I started powerlifting, my straight spine the perfect form. It helped with the grief to an extent but occasionally a memory bubbles up from my gut.

I think about how I couldn’t get out of bed, not strong enough to sit up. Having to roll out onto the floor and push myself up using my hands. I cried the first time, thinking I was stuck, doomed to my sheets, never to rise up again, using all of my energy to manhandle myself out of bed. I still can’t do a sit up. I still roll out of bed using my hands. Some things didn’t change, weren’t skills I could build up, weren’t problems I could fix. I simply had to accept that now I couldn’t do things, including the things I loved.

I loved to hike – again, at the time you don’t think much of it. To be dragged out of bed at 7am for a 14 hour hike was not attractive, but I would give it all to do it again. To walk and walk and not feel immense pain in my back, not have to debate which activities I can do if I conserve enough energy and, if so, who will be carrying the extra weight of my bag. I wish I could just do it, not having to think about it.

I really struggle to conceptualise my body. I am told I am lucky, I should be grateful I can still do things. Yet I look at old photos and wish I could be that person again. That young teenager was taken away from me. While I commend my new body for its strength, I wish it didn’t have to happen.

So I guess I’m still mourning me.