Straighten Up, Girl

By MacKenzie Dexter

Straighten Up, Girl by MacKenzie Dexter

When I was fourteen, my spine was pinned with twenty-two screws and pinched with two ten-inch rods to correct my scoliosis that had curved my body at a sixty-four degree angle. I was a teenager, anxiously awaiting for womanhood to arrive wrapped in a pink bow sprinkled with Midol.  I was excited about this pivotal moment in my life that finally gave me a reason to wear a bra. And then, the surgery happened.

My mother tied a stiff blue hospital gown around me, and my father lifted me into a portable hospital bed draped in white sheets. The drugs injected into my arm gave me a wave of shakiness, nausea, and humor. The high gave me the courage to crack jokes to the Crucifix on the wall above my temporary bed. I told Jesus how funny it would be if the doctors ran me down the hall yelling “Stat!” as if I were a prop in a mediocre hospital show.

The nurse came to retrieve my body for the operation once I was in a state of physical and mental numbness. The high and color drained from my face as the barrier between my parents and me thickened.

*

Her body was separate from her mind. She was curious if the scalpel would struggle to cut in a straight line due to her nervous shaking. She was scared for her naked body to be exposed to a room full of strangers. She was petrified that she would wake from her sleep to see organs and muscles spilled on the table next to her. As her limp body sat on display for the doctors to prepare, her mind focused on the tranquil shades of blue. Hypnotized, she fell into slumber as the brown-eyed doctor counted down from ten.

*

I’ve been told that being a woman is about taking control and listening to your body. My body had become a silent corpse.

*

I woke up after the seven hour surgery in the ICU crying out for my mom; at least that is what the nurse told me. The drugs took up half of my body weight, so my memory struggled to stick. I tore my eyes open to see my parents staring back at me with fabricated smiles. Around me sat a chair, food, and a toilet: everything I needed but barely used during my time in the hospital. My favorite and most used object in the room was the drug button.

I’ve been told that being a woman means having your body torn apart for the ability to grow life. I was told this was a gift, but after the surgery, my body refused it.

*

Her body was paralyzed. She could feel the screws piercing through her vertebrae. The two rods acted like magnets, her spine as the barrier. Specks of dry blood masked the holes that covered her skin. Tiny receptors were scattered around her flesh to signal dangerous nerve contact that could result in paralysis. The shock threw off her whole system. Her digestive system, her nervous system, and her reproductive system would be halted for months. Her body had more important things to worry about.

*

I’ve been told that women are to be quiet and humble about their pain.

Menstrual cramps, childbirth, and emotions are to be kept quiet. It isn’t lady-like to complain, so I stayed silent. I couldn’t do anything by myself. I couldn’t use the toilet without someone helping me sit. I couldn’t walk up the stairs without someone pushing me. I couldn’t walk in a straight line without someone directing me. Not only was my body’s center of gravity off, but so was everything else. My dreams turned into nightmares, my pain turned into a number scale, and my cheerful family turned into mourners. I felt the pain of each family member who swarmed my hospital bed. I would lie to the nurses and pretend I was doing better than I actually was.

*

She saw her body for the first time during a forced shower. Her child-like figure peeled out of its depression-soaked bed and submerged itself in holy water. No matter how many times she rinsed and scrubbed, she was still pale, frail, lifeless. She wept at her reflection.

*

I’ve been told that good women are meant to have faith. I lost my faith the moment I was told a simple plastic back brace was supposed to be my ticket out of the hospital bed. Yet there I was, fresh metal placed inside of me.

During my stay in the hospital, a priest came and visited me. My family was Catholic, so they welcomed him into my room for prayer. I was unable to mark the sign of the cross because I was too weak to lift my hand to my forehead. I just stared at the priest and thought of the Crucifix hanging on the wall outside the surgery room and the jokes I’d made to it. The laughing had ended and the anger had settled. I knew no amount of praying could stop this pain.

I was angry. I was expected to give God the credit for healing me and overcoming this obstacle. I was hurt that I felt guilty for taking the credit of my personal healing instead of giving it to God. I was devastated that God put my parents in a place of guilt and heartbreak over something they had no control of. I sat in my bed stiff as a rod, the priest ending his prayer with his hands, his sign of the cross, for me.

*

Her body rejected everything that was forced into it: food, water, medicine. All of which shot out of her throat the moment it touched her stomach. Her body grew sensitive and tired of thoughts and prayers, medicine and love, encouragement and apologies. She begged to be left alone.  

*

When I got home, the house was drenched in “Get Well Soon” signs, my favorite foods, my curious dogs, and optimism. While I was grateful for all the presents, I just wanted to stop hurting, which was the one gift no person could provide. I walked into my bedroom, greeted by my Crucifix hanging on the wall.

*

I’ve been told that a woman is most beautiful and desirable when she is skinny. My body was bony ribs, flimsy joints, and flat-chested. Finally, I was what society wanted me to be.

*

But, her body became nothing. The only weight it had left was from the metal rods and screws jammed into her spine. Her bones contained a stranger’s marrow, her under-eyes plagued a dark, muted color. Muscles supported by little more than an encouraging mother. And she despised it.

*

A week after coming home, I abruptly decided to quit taking my medication. The physical and mental pain of constantly being sick and looking like a stick pained me more than the actual physical ailments themselves. But quitting the medication cold turkey shattered me, causing a war of withdrawal. My body craved the drugs it had grown to need, and when it didn’t get them was met with savage spasms and violent vomiting. My father force fed me bread at early hours of the morning so my stomach wouldn’t forget how to digest. All the while my mother carried the psychological weight that I could no longer bear.

*

Her body fell into an opaque sadness. This was not one of the side effects listed for a major surgery. She slept for the majority of the recovery time; it was the only way to escape the reality of what had become of her life. She was exhausted. Months surpassed the year. Healing and repair were slow-moving, but so was the absolving of her guilt for her lack of positivity, her happiness. This began to keep her up at night. Unlike the medication, she struggled to drop this gloom as easily. It began to control her being and numb her in an entirely new way.

*

I’ve been told that women are supposed to be more emotional. We are treated as though we are overly sensitive creatures who get upset over everything. No one seemed concerned when I adopted these sensitive female traits because that is how women were supposed to act, right?

*

Her body slowly became stronger–there wasn’t any other choice. For years her regrowing nerves would zap and twitch, sending shocks down her spine, a sign of healing. This signalled that her body was recharging. Slowly, she began to regain weight, hips, and teenage angst. Soon she would be re-assimilated. Soon, she would be normal.

*

After months of healing, I had to go back to school.

I was terrified. The anxiety of accidentally hurting my back, having to talk about it, or someone point out the giant scar on my back consumed me. For months I had to fight through unwanted exhaustion, soak my scar in vitamin E oil so it would hopefully fade, and find outlets for my frazzled mind. I grew frustrated with not getting immediate results. The only solution for my troubles was time.

I’ve been told that every woman has a defining moment in her life that officially makes her a woman. It is not through her body’s yearning to reproduce, the purchase of a first bra, or from society’s loud catcalls. It is through her power to keep going.   


MacKenzie Dexter was born and raised in Helena, MT. She moved to Bellingham, WA to attend Western Washington University where she is a junior studying English, creative writing and journalism, news/editorial. Outside of school she enjoys reading, writing, art, and connecting with people. After college she hopes to find a career where she can combine English and journalism to tell stories in an informative and creative way.