Curves in all the wrong places: celebrating 30 years with a metal spine

One grey morning in October 1990 I was woken at 5am by a nurse at the spinal unit at Basildon Hospital, in Essex. It was time to shower before my surgery to correct my scoliosis.

Thinking back all these years on I was probably already awake. I’d had to sign a form the day before the operation to say I would not hold the hospital responsible if I was paralysed as a result of the surgery. That’s the kind of thing you can roll over in your brain for a few hours. I was 22 and terrified but had no choice. My spine had a 72% curve. Both twisting sideways and forwards. My skeleton looked like a trainee baker was failing pretzel class. I was in so much pain before my operation that I would often pass out when I’d lay down at night. Scoliosis takes no prisoners.

I remember standing in the shower thinking I was about to be handed a death sentence. Ten hours later, thankfully, I emerged from the surgery with all bits intact, connected and moving. Just. I’ll be honest I can’t remember much about the following four weeks only that morphine became my best friend. My other best friends were the two cassette tapes that the nurses, who I had to rely on for everything, would alternate in my treasured Walkman. I was too weak to even lift my arms. The tapes were Faith by George Michael and The Best of Aretha Franklin. Both artists are sadly no longer with us but both are etched in my heart, as are all of the songs on those tapes.

My body was physically ‘turned’ by the nurses throughout the day and because I was so utterly helpless and immobile I would often imagine that I was being twirled around, a la Fred and Ginger, to George’s Kissing a Fool. Even when I hear that song now I’m back on my imaginary dancefloor. It’s always a beautiful moment of peace, love and fluidity.

My spinal orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Alan Gardner, was something of a genius and the surgery he’d devised was ground-breaking. He was an amateur sailor, and all round adventurer, and essentially he’d implanted a yacht mast in my back, albeit one that was knitted together with bone taken from my hip. Before the yacht-mast surgery the other option was Harrington rods which kept you upright but gave you no flexibility, meaning you’d always need someone to tie your shoelaces.

Winning the postcode lottery I ended up at his unit and I’m hugely grateful. Without him, I’d almost certainly be in a wheelchair, and 50 years earlier I’d probably have been dead before I hit 40. Wishing to thank him, a few years ago I tracked him down and we had tea and biscuits at his home in Essex. By now he was long retired and enjoying a sedentary life with his family, pottering around the garden and enjoying a far less gory schedule.

The first thing I noticed was how short he was (not too short but in my mind he was this towering presence) and then I realised that I only ever saw him when I was laying down. Ha! He told me his back story (no pun intended but come on, this piece needed at least one), and maybe in the future I’ll share the interview as it’s ridiculously entertaining.

After I’d peppered him with questions about what he’d actually done to me (and grimaced at most of it) he asked to look at my back. This is a man who has literally seen inside all of my body and pulled my spine straight with his bare hands so I thought the least I could do was oblige. At this point it was two and half decades on and I thought time had most likely taken its toll on his work. But as he studied my back, like Michelangelo admiring his artistry on the Sistine Chapel, he finally declared that I was in fine condition. ‘I did a bloody great job, even if I do say so myself!’ That still makes me laugh. And yes, he did do a bloody great job.

I was told post-surgery that I could register myself as disabled and get all the benefits that it provides such as a blue badges and I don’t know what else, walking sticks? I said no. I was 22. I didn’t want to see myself as disabled. I wanted to live my life four inches taller, straighter and with great energy. There were many things I wanted to do and see. My immediate recovery took a couple of years (and that’s most definitely another story) but as soon as I could I got back to my life as a journalist in London. I could move, I could live independently and I could live a normal life.

Or could I? Normal life was always a struggle. I was too young to realise that life after such lengthy and invasive spinal surgery could never really be considered normal. I’ve lived with pain daily for 30 plus years. My stamina threshold has always been really low. I just couldn’t work out how other people commuted day after day, worked eight hours and were out all night and it not affect them so profoundly as it did with me, even in my twenties and thirties. After working a full week I’d often have to spend an entire weekend resting, and even that was never enough. I suffered from migraines and was often out of breath. I couldn’t stand for long periods of time. The very essence of the surgery wore me down. I was drained. Worse, it was solitary. A lifelong lockdown. With hindsight I see that my physical state impacted my life in ways I just couldn’t fathom at the time. I used to brush it off or pretend everything was okay. Fool.

There were tears in private. There have always been tears. There have been tears today. If your spine is abnormal, even one that has been shored up by metal springs and pins and is stronger than it has any right to be, and even if people laughingly call you the bionic woman, you are not. You are weaker than everyone else.

Your spine is your lifeline. It connects every nerve and muscle. It enables you to stand tall. It’s the most profound part of your body. Fuck with that and there will be problems. And as a woman, to have curves in all the wrong places really messes with your sense of self. How could I ever be considered attractive when I looked like a drunk calligrapher’s version of the number eight, with my too high left hip, my protruding back bone, my uneven shoulders. I’ve always been hugely self-conscious of my shape. What a waste of time. And yes that’s easy to say now but when being attractive, vital and healthy is really important — I’m talking about the years that you are looking for a partner to have children with — then it can really do a number on your psyche. Again, that’s another story for another time.

So while I’m truly grateful for all that I have in terms of flexibility, movement and strength, that 5am wake-up call on that grey October morning was just the start of a life-long battle. You can’t see the pain but like condensation on a window, it’s just there.

All I know now is that the fight to remain as pain free as possible is ongoing; the fight with my spine that seems intent on collapsing further remains as intense as ever and coming in a close second, the fight to look at myself and say ‘yes, you’re twisted by you’re still attractive’ may never be resolved. Believe me, they are fights. You can’t submit because if you do, that’s when you fall in on yourself, not just physically but mentally too.

So my philosophy has been to attack life with optimism and curiosity, and that pursuit of adventure has taken me from my hospital bed in Basildon to many different places across the world, working as a journalist, and back again. I’ve really tried to live the best life with the best intention. Not always successfully, granted, but I’ve given it everything I have.

It’s ultimately Dr Gardner’s skill that has enabled me to do that. He started the process; the rest has been up to me. I try to eat well, sleep well, and keep my core and muscles strong. And even on the days I hurt I still exercise. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve left a Pilates class or gym session and gone home and cried my eyes out at my useless cranky, fucked up, lop-sided, faulty, aching, disappointing body. Believe me, 30 years on I’m still trying to figure it out. But I’m still standing, I’m still moving and I’m still listening to George and Aretha.

One of the few photos of me after my spinal surgery. I wore bad hair and a plaster jacket for five months. Some of my metal work, top right, and me with Dr Gardner in 2016.

Postscript: I’ve never written this down before and it’s made me feel extremely vulnerable. There’s so much more to share about this experience so I’m not surprised it’s cutting deep. It’s hard for me to write about. (And I’m speaking as a journalist who once had to describe eight shades of lipstick for the beauty page of a women’s magazine). If any of this resonates with you please leave a message.

Freelance journo & lecturer, and the author of ‘Ryan is Ready For You Now…’ the ultimate guide to interviewing a celebrity. Apparently both ‘wry’ and ‘useful’.