The July issue of IMAGE is The Confidence Issue, filled full of Ireland’s leading female voices on our relationships with our bodies.
Having endured three life-threatening illnesses and seven surgeries before the age of 22, NIAMH O’DONOGHUE’s body has been through much more than most people could even imagine. Here, she pays tribute to that very body, and thanks it for carrying her through.
No clairvoyant, oracle or Mystic Meg could have guessed – even for a second – the journey that we would undertake together; all before my life had the chance to set fully into motion.
I remember the moment our relationship changed forever: my 13-year-old petite and boyish frame stood gawking at the misshaped reflection before me. Collarbones protruding. Hipbones bulging. Rib cage twisted. Shoulder elevated. Face ghostly. Little did we know that for the next 12 years, we would go through more together than most endure in an entire lifetime.
The word “scoliosis” was aired and then repeated, which, of course, meant nothing to a 13-year-old who was excited to have the day of school. I watched and listened as medical jargon was fired at my parents who, unbeknown to me, had just had their lives flipped upside down.
Niamh’s scar captured by Dean McDaid
School days were traded for hospital visits and soon, the fear I had once felt for the sharp prick of a needle seemed ridiculous. Pain was to become a necessary evil in order for us to be well again: skin cut, stretched, stapled, glued, foreign bodies inserted, bones pulled and twisted and stitched. While my friends waited for their breasts to appear, I waited to have metal rods and screws bolted to you to stop gravity from pulling us sideways, crushing organs.
Outings with friends and family were cancelled because of pain. Sweets and treats came second to codeine and heat patches.
After our first surgery, I was overcome with a wave of pressure, pain, and dizziness. Two air tubes down my throat and one in each nostril. Five needles wrapped around my hand, pumping me full of toxins to help mask the pain we shared.
We were enshrined in a plaster of Paris body cast to be worn 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight long months. It screamed to the world, and its mother, that something was wrong with us. I hated having to shop in the women’s section to get clothes big enough to cover my awkward shape, and on hot days, stealing forks from the cutlery drawer to relieve the constant itch. There were constant reminders that you, my body, wasn’t like everyone else’s, and probably never would be.
The subsequent four surgeries we would have became a hazy blur of anaesthetic, pills, bruises, and scars. I was fed up feeling the way I did. I felt betrayed by you as I had to keep re-evaluating my dreams of becoming a champion show-jumper, dancer, doctor or vet. But dreams came second to the sudden isolation we found ourselves in; missing nights out with friends for fear of missing regular doses of medication, and becoming too self-conscious to be seen without a heavy shield of clothing.
We learned to walk a total of four times, each step proving our resistance to give in. I no longer saw you just as flesh, blood, bone, and metal: but as beautifully unique and nimble, and the strongest part of my being.
Fashion became our armour, and as we matured, so too did our style and poise, but I hated how overly-lit and overly-mirrored dressing rooms made you look. I hated that your twisted form was uncomfortably restricted by clothes made for women with straight spines.
We grew together, and as we did our likes, loves, and dislikes changed. Friends were made, and boyfriends, hobbies became passions. Yet every time we’d reach another milestone together, you would throw another curve ball at me.
Dear Body, were you testing me to see how soon I’d break? The day I heard the word “cancer”, my world fell silent. I had followed the rulebook; not smoking or drinking, I exercised regularly, and I ate all the right things. And still you betrayed me. I was, for the first time in over ten years, emotionless. I was grieving for you, Body.
Photo: Dean McDaid
More invasive surgery was ahead in a bid to rid you of disease. This time across my neck – from ear-to-ear. Like a permanent smiley-face, it’s a poignant reminder, again, of your unwillingness to give in. We learned together, sitting in a cancer ward surrounded by dying men and women, which is as depressing as it sounds. I felt like a poison was running through you and I was powerless to it: every new lump or cough brought fear.
That same week, while dealing with the reality of hair loss and infertility, you were diagnosed with kidney disease and once again, surgery was our only option. I was fed up, and you were too. You were about to be ripped open for the seventh time. I looked on as other women scolded their perfectly beautiful bodies because noses were too big or boobs were disproportional. All I wanted is for you to be well again.
At 22, having not one but three life-threatening illnesses, I couldn’t have been farther from my “ten-year plan”. My mother – my vital support system – told me that it happened to me because I was “strong enough” to handle it. I call it a case of bad luck.
Now on the cusp of my 24th year, and several important and life-altering moments still to come – a career to build, late-night parties to attend, friends to be made, and lost – I am ready to live.
Looking back on our journey, I wish I could have been kinder to you and allowed you time to heal. I wish we could have met the friends I have now when we needed them most. I wish I could reassure my younger self that you weren’t a monster or the enemy. Today, when I look at you, I see something beautiful and strong that deserves the utmost respect and gentleness in a world that too often implies I should try to change you. Instead, I choose to celebrate you by adorning you with art and showing you off with fashion. I wear our scars with pride. I’m ready, more than anything else, to love and celebrate your power and strength.
I feel incredibly lucky and proud that we have found peace together. I promise to always embrace and love you as I do now, and to one day hopefully give life to another beautiful body who will be taught that her or his body is endlessly empowering too.
This article appeared in the July issue of IMAGE, on shelves nationwide now.