If you’re luckly enough to be different…

I have recently been asked how I remained “normal” as an adolescent growing up with scoliosis. At first, I thought this would be an easy answer. DUH! I was normal! Unfortunately, life is never that simple. Looking back at my journey, I now see that I was anything but your “normal” middle and high school student.

My first dose of reality hit when I was first diagnosed with the tumor in tenth grade. I told my coach about the tumor privately before practice and took the mats with the rest of my team. It did not take long before someone complained about having to do the routine full out (cheer translation: doing the whole routine with all the stunts and all the tumbling) and my coach blurted out, “Ashleigh has a tumor and doesn’t complain!” It was as if everybody on the team looked straight at me and asked a thousand questions as once; everybody wanted to know the details and the inside scoop. After the interrogation commenced, practice continued, but things were forever changed. Now, whenever I cradled from a stunt, my group was concerned that they were hurting my back. When learning a new stunt sequence, my coach wanted to know if I could physically complete the skill. This list goes on and on…

For those of you who have not grown up in a small town, let me clue you in on something. The rumors are true! Everybody knows everything about everyone! Before I knew it, people from high schools miles away would ask about my back at competitions. I can remember one competition when a group of girls on a different team were talking about “that Dacula cheerleader with some kind of tumor.” And of course, my benign tumor had evolved into a cancerous one in a matter of weeks.

Even outside of cheerleading my back caused me to be different. I started dating a boy named Michael during my junior year of high school. When I asked him what the first thing he noticed about me was, I hoped he would satisfy my hopeless romantic soul with some sweet nothing about my intelligence or personality. However do you know what he said?!?! My back! You see, he sat behind me in Algebra and like any other student sitting in that dreadful math class – his eyes wondered away from what the teacher was writing on the board. Luckily for him, he was a great guy and I didn’t hold that comment against him. (We went on to date for 2 1/2 years)

Although I would have rather blended right into the crowd, based on these few experiences, it was clear that that was simply not an option. So when I was asked this question, I really tried to put some thought into my answer. Like I said before, I wish I could just give the peachy answer that I was normal, but the facts do not agree with that statement. Instead, I turned my attention to what I did in high school to be the most normal me. Most of my actions were subconscious, but here is what some people have told me.

I was driven. Luckily, this has always been one of my strengths. I like to think that I am a highly motivated person and I think this comes in handy when facing adversity. Like many people going through hard times, there were days when I would have rather stayed in bed and hid from the world. There were many times when I wanted to sit in the hallway and cry after someone would make a comment about my back. But where would that get me? I was determined to keep my life as normal as possible. I was the captain of the cheerleading team, I was the editor of the yearbook for two years, and I was a Peer Leader… aka: I put myself out there (not to toot my own horn!) If you hide from the world because your spine is curved or because you are wearing a brace – you are letting the scoliosis win and dictate your life. I don’t know about you, but I was not letting a crooked spine get in my way of life!

I embraced my curve. This is something that I am doing more of in college than during high school. I think Randy Paush, the author of The Last Lecture who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, paints a lovely picture of embracing adversity. He gave a speech called The Last Lecture and it was later expanded into a book. Professors often give “Last Lectures” to their students. This is typically a hypothetical “last speech” where the professor is supposed to impart crucial knowledge about life on his students. Randy, however, knew he was dying and had the opportunity to really give a “Last Lecture”. I have to admit – it is the only book to date that has actually made me cry…and then I cried again when I watch the lecture on YouTube. In his speech/book he says, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” When applied to life, this simple sentence can change everything. Like I have said many times, I could cry and pout that throughout life I had to endure this challenge… or… I can embrace it and play my hand with the cards I was dealt.

Don’t give in. People may (will) talk, the pain may pound, or the embarrassment may overtake your thoughts, but don’t give in! During middle school, I gave in. I was so scared that people were going to find out I had a crooked spine. Obviously if people knew, I would lose all my friends and everyone would make fun of me. However, in high school when I finally started to tell people, nobody really even cared that much. Trust me, people not caring was a VERY good thing in my eyes. I was blown away by how kind people were. I always had people giving me encouraging messages and positive reinforcement. I had to learn not to be the “scoliosis girl” but how to embrace my challenge and become “Ashleigh who happens to have scoliosis”.

Be proud. Only 3 out of every 100 people have scoliosis. If you are one of those lucky 3, be happy – you are different from the other 97 people! Along with embracing your curve and not giving in- be proud! One day in high school, two girls walking down the hall were talking about some girl. Being the “creeper” I am, I started to listen. “…She only wore that yellow shirt yesterday to show off her scar… Ashleigh had surgery…” It did not take long before I realized they were talking about me and my yellow birthday shirt (the day before had been my birthday). My mom took me to Athens, GA to get something new to wear on my special day. I saw this yellow shirt that came down to a V in the front and the back. While I would have normally avoided this type of shirt, I jumped at the opportunity to finally wear something like this. Yes, it did happen to show my scar, but when I thought about what the girls had said – I am proud of my scar. My scar is my story. Meredith from Grey’s Anatomy said it best when she said, “Scars are the signs of a competitor.” So I encourage you to be proud too!

My best friend Shelley and I on my 18th birthday. Notice the infamous “yellow shirt”.

Alter happiness and smile. I recently saw the movie “Love Happens” which tells the story of a man, Burke, who lost his wife in a car accident. One of his coping mechanisms, much like me, was writing. His friend turned his writing into a publisher and three years later he was making a living off conferences dealing with being “A-Okay” after a family member’s death. So how does this relate? Well, one of the chapters in this factious book was all about smiling. Just your simple, run-of-the-mill smile. However, sometimes, this is the hardest thing to do. In the movie, Burke says, “Smile for five minutes every day. After a while, it will become a habit. Happiness is a state of mind.”

I have made this my current personal challenge. I’ll be honest – my life right now is not where I expected it to be, but I am trying to make the best of it. I had my mind set on what “happiness” was and now I am left with two options. A) I can sit in my room and cry until I’m sick or B) I can alter my definition of “happiness”. I think this is also true for people (adolescents) dealing with scoliosis. I’m sure you never imagined having scoliosis and would never include it in a list of things that make you happy, but you just have to alter your state of mind. Find new things to be happy about. I can honestly say that I am happy I had/have scoliosis because I can use my journey for the good of others.

I’ve been told that you should never give advice because you don’t know what the other person is going through, but I can tell you this is what I did.

Be driven, embrace your curve, don’t give in, be proud, alter happiness and smile! šŸ™‚


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