An unusual topic, I guess, but I feel compelled to write about the spine. In a literal sense.
When I was a teenager, I had deplorable posture. It’s still nothing to write home about. But, you know, when you’re young you’re under the thumb of your parents. And my posture wasn’t good enough for mine. So they sent me to this special doctor, this bone specialist. To see if there was something seriously wrong with me.
I took offense to that. I took it to mean that whatever I was doing was somehow not acceptable. That they suspected me of being defective. I could have told them exactly why I had bad posture, but I didn’t choose to. It’s because I had no self-confidence. I rounded my shoulders and carried my head down in a human version of a submissive gorilla, not wanting to meet anybody’s eyes.
Lots of tests later, the doctor said there was nothing wrong with me except bad posture.
I’ve done some work on it over the years, but it’s not easy. When your shoulders have rolled forward for years, you can’t just pull them back again. The muscles don’t work that way. They’re too stretched out in back, too foreshortened in front. But for the last several years I’ve added stretches and strengthening exercises to my morning Yoga that are designed to reverse that a little at a time. And it’s getting better.
Many of you know I lost my mom in March of this year. She was about 90, just a few weeks short of the big decade birthday. She was in robust health throughout her final years in almost all ways. The flaw in the system—and I saw this about a year before she died—was her curvature of the spine. It was quite severe, the condition that was once called a “dowager’s hump.” Sounds like something that would be cosmetic only, but late in her life I saw the writing on the wall. The rest of us balance our heads and shoulders on our skeletons. My mother’s head and shoulders were thrust forward, and she had to hold up the weight of them with the muscles in her back, and with her spine. As her muscles and spine neared ninety, they were no longer up for the task. Soft tissue injuries became an everyday occurrence, and her spine was riddled with hairline fractures. But she resisted pain medication until the very end, because of the fall risk. Her spine was the weak link in an otherwise healthy system.
The condition ran through her family. She once told me a heartbreaking story of a female relative who broke off an engagement because she knew she would soon be hunchbacked, and I guess she didn’t want her prospective husband to see her that way. And she never told him why, so of course he was devastated. Amazing how we let these issues rule our lives.
A few months before she died, I asked her when she’d known for sure she’d inherited this curvature of the spine. I guess I wanted to rest assured, at 57, that it had missed me.
“Oh, I knew in my thirties,” she said. Then she went on to tell me that this is why they sent me to the doctor all those years ago to have my spine checked. Not because I had failed them by not standing up straight enough. Because she was afraid she had failed me by passing along a congenital spinal condition.
For what it’s worth, I’ve begun to stand up straighter. I sit up straighter, and I notice when I’m being lazy with my spine. I have the ability to hold my spine straight, and I should use it. It would behoove me to be grateful for that. Not everybody on my mother’s side of the family was so lucky.
Part of me thinks it’s a strange thing to write about. Posture. But every time I talk publicly about something like this—my cuticle biting habit, for example, which is thankfully still in remission—I find many more people than I realized are going through similar issues. And that everyone comes out feeling a little more human.
So…tell me. Is posture an issue in your life? What does it mean to stand up straight?