Saturday, February 7, 2009

“She’ll Straighten Up When She Notices Boys.”

The vertebral column seen from the side

My back hurts.

That's nothing new. It began when I was quite young. I grew tall rather quickly compared to my peers, and my muscles had difficulty stretching enough to accommodate all of that bone growth (at least that was the theory back in those days. Now they're blaming abnormally tight ligaments). Whatever it was, it kept pulling downward against my spine's attempts to grow upwards. This forced my back to hunch forward, and my back became increasingly deformed with every passing year. (Spine image via Wikipedia)

An orthopedic specialist could have explained these things to us, but I didn’t see a specialist. My chiropractor told me to do extremely painful stretching exercises which made only a minute and temporary difference. My problem, in his view, was just a lazy habit. As for my pediatrician…his sage advice was just to wait because, “She’ll straighten up when she notices boys.”

The pain quickly became debilitating. I no longer chose to be as active as I once was.

Children began to tease me, calling me "hunchback." It didn't happen a lot, but when it happened, it hurt.

What hurt more was when well-meaning, worried adults would say things like:

"You need to stand straighter, or you'll never attract boys."

"You probably do that because you're shy. Just stand straight!"

"Is it because you're afraid to have boys look at you? Is that why you hunch forward, to try to hide your figure?" (Actually they wouldn't usually say that one to my face. They would just state their opinions to others when I was within earshot.)

I got the message loud and clear. My hunched back wasn't a physical problem, it was a character defect. There was something wrong with the inner "me," something flawed in the character of Betsy that made my shoulders round. My badness made me crooked, and my crookedness made me bad.

I tried not to complain about the physical pain. I knew I was supposed to be brave and cheerful in public. But as the years passed I felt more and more like I was on fire. Eventually I could find no comfort.

The closest thing I could find to relief was when I would sit cross-legged on the floor and lace my fingers behind my head. I would ask my mother to put her knee between my shoulder blades and pull backwards on my elbows. For those few blessed moments, the inferno would mellow.

Back problems were the norm in my family. We all had them to one degree or another.

Sometimes familiarity makes it hard to see just how serious things are.

Years passed. The pain did not.


Finally, when I was sixteen, I went to see an orthopedic specialist. He took X-rays, and the pictures he got were not pretty.

Wedge-shaped vertebrae.

Years of downward pulling had done more than create a habitual slouch. Jammed together in a forward curve, my vertebrae weren't free to grow in the front like they did in the back. So they stacked up like wedges, not square blocks. There's a name for it: Scheuermann's Kyphosis. kyphosis

Of course the person with "hunchback" still needs to look ahead of herself, not down at the floor. So her neck becomes misshapen in an attempt to compensate for what her back is doing. She develops what's called "Ewe Neck," a concave neck.

Whatever you call these conditions, they hurt.

The doctor didn't look very hopeful. "She's already been in puberty for two years, so her bones may not have much more growth left in them. But we still need to try the one option that might help her."

Before long I found myself encased in plaster from waist to hip. This plaster casting was turned into a plastic girdle, from which grew three metal buttresses (one in the front, and two in the back). These three all joined at a ring which went around my neck. It looked very much like the one in this picture, only less modern.

Photo from

I wore my "Milwaukee Brace" for a year. 23 hours a day. To school. To church. To bed. Out to play in the neighborhood.
Betsy, May 1979

Betsy, May 1979

While the brace forced my spine into a straighter position, the front of the bones had an opportunity to grow in. Unfortunately, nobody knew if my bones would actually grow because of my age.

At the end of the year the orthopedist took more X-Rays and determined that they had taken almost 20 degrees off of my spinal curvature. He also determined that my bones were now through growing, so there was no point in wearing the brace anymore. In fact, he told us that there had been no bone growth anywhere in my body except in those vertebrae. He said he couldn't explain why the vertebrae grew when nothing else did. We replied that people had been praying, and he very quickly left the room.

There was a definite improvement, but my back will never be right. I don't have many pictures of myself in profile view (I don't LIKE profile shots, for obvious reasons). But I did find this one from 1983.

The pain continues; sometimes mild, sometimes like a burning hot poker. And of course I don't "look right." The 25 years that have passed since that photo was taken haven't improved things a bit, I'm afraid.

Ok, so why am I focusing so much blog attention onto myself? This is supposed to be a "God-centered" blog, not a "me-centered" one, right?

The fact is, being God-centered is the only way to have a good answer for the people who ask me, "Aren't you so angry with the people who failed you? If people had recognized the seriousness of the situation sooner and gotten you help earlier, you could have been spared a lifetime of pain and disfigurement! And what about the people who said those cruel things? How could you not be bitter against them?"

I'll address that in the next entry (which will also be my contribution to the latest Café Chat meme), but now it's your turn. Leave a comment to talk about your struggles with bitterness, and/or your victories over it. (If you write something that’s too long for a comment, feel free to leave a short comment with a link to whatever you wrote.) I look forward to hearing from you!

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Jennifer said...

My entire blog is the product of repentance for the sin of bitterness. I called myself to singleness for my own selfish reasons and upon surrendering this aspect of my life to God, I opened my heart to a man who defrauded me (he said a lot of high-falootin' things to me and never had any intention of following through with the relationship). I spent months blaming God for allowing me to experience heartbreak. All those years building a wall around my heart, only to tear it down and get hurt. I shook my fist at Him and said "This was YOUR stupid idea, not mine!" I felt so betrayed. But God ordered me to make restitution for my anger and the result was glorious.

karin said...

What painful and trying times you have been through. Carrying babies can't have been an easy time for you either! There is something amazing, however, somehow I can always tell when someone has been through the deeper, darker valleys with the Lord. He has used the pain for a purpose and all that pushing, moaning and exertion has brought forth life - richer, fuller, deeper and more meaningful - a labor into life as it were!

I'm still working on sharing some of my story.

Yvonne said...

Betsy, I grew 6" in one year when I was 14, so I know a little of what you felt. My dr. said that if I grew even a half inch more, he would put me in a brace like yours. I stopped growing. My back is still weak. I was in a car accident and got a compression fracture. I know this must have been hard for you to write, not wanting the attention...but thank you. I"m looking forward to see how you build on this.

elaine @ peace for the journey said...

I, too, grew up with back issues, although not as severe as yours. I have a definite curve in my posture and only recently had a "church lady" tell me I needed to work on it. It stung me deeply, and I made sure she knew it. I resonate with so many things you said here. It is a painful situation for any child to go through, carrying with it scars of remembrance to last a lifetime.

My "pain" stems more from a family relationship that should have been a happy one for me, but in the end, did more to damage my self-esteem than any other obstacle thus far. I still harbor some resentment, but it really serves me no purpose at this point.

Thanks for sharing your story here, Betsy. It has stirred something in me tonight, and although painful, sometime that I will spend some time in talking with my Father about.


Sherri Ward said...

Betsy, I can relate in different ways, but more because of my son than myself. Once an ignorant woman stood in front of him as he sat in the grocery cart. She touched his very thin little arms and asked, "Is he hungry?" as though I were neglecting to feed him. I'm sure she'd never heard the word, arthrogryposis. I knew as he grew up I would not be able to protect him from the cruelty of ignorant people. He's grown into a wonderful young man, but I look forward to the day when God heals him and comforts him - something I believe God said to me that He would do. I believe He will do the same for you, and I am sorry you have had to endure such painful trials.

LauraLee Shaw said...

Wow, am I glad you shared this, Betsy. You continue to amaze me with your vulnerable and humble words. No wonder there is such depth to your pen. Pain gives way to depth, I believe.

As for me, I've spend years laying bitterness behind, and I fight all kinds of different forms of it on a regular basis. Growing up with a physically and mentally disabled mother that got made fun of all the time, and alcoholic and abusive father that should've helped her and us instead of hurting us. A patch on my eye and big thick glasses that were the butt of many a joke. In my teen years, boys who mistreated me because I was a mess and a doormat. On and I continue to lay the hurts and the bitterness at the Lord's door, He heals me, though little by little.

The one thing I've totally laid bare and been rescued from is any bitterness toward the Lord. He has always been faithful, always been friend, always been father. He has never once betrayed me or abused me or made fun of me or made me feel cheap. I look forward to the continued deliverance of all that I hold onto from my past.

Thank you, dear one, for opening your heart and soul to minister to some of my wounds. You are very, very, very beautiful to me.

maudie-mae said...

If I had the time, I'd tell you my whole story, but if you have the time, it's all on my blog. Different journey, but some of the same outcomes. And one thing is for sure, life is too short to dwell in bitterness!

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