Part 2

Memories after the diagnosis.

Neither scoliosis nor Friedreich’s Ataxia gave me too much bother during the rest of my time at primary school (age of 9-11). Everything was flowing the way that life should for a young boy; I had plenty of friends, I was part of a football team, and made the move from primary school to high school seamlessly. I was happy.

I did receive lots of questions from people asking why I had a limp – did I have a sore knee/sore foot? – especially if people saw me running. My parents had equipped me with answers though. My dad always reassured me that the issues other people were seeing weren’t really there; I was just flat footed, that was the problem.

My mum did mention to me that I had an issue with my nerves, and it affected my balance and the way I walked/ran a bit.

The off-the-cuff way she told me – the word choice and the tone – made me feel like it was nothing to worry about though. It wasn’t significant. Which is why this ‘nerve problem’ went in one ear and out the other. I had no curiosity at all, and it wasn’t like I was an uninquisitive child. But there was never any panic in her voice whenever she mentioned this issue, and it was hardly ever spoken about.

Whereas, on the contrary, scoliosis was mentioned and brought up regularly. I could physically see it/touch it, which always put it at the forefront of my mind. Everyone else could as well, and it was pretty straightforward to explain and easily understood by my peers.

I repeated myself answering similar questions for years: “Why do you walk like that?”, “Have you to get an operation?” My spine was the main perpetrator for anything and everything, and this consolidated the idea in my mind that scoliosis was the culprit for however I felt as I got older.

I’d finish off my regurgitated answers by mentioning my flat feet, and then my ‘nerve problem’, if I remembered about it.

*

When I was ten, I remember going to a Celtic game with my neighbours. They had a family member who lived in Glasgow, and was able to get them tickets whenever they wanted.

I had been to a game with them before (the previous season) and I really enjoyed it, but remember having to walk for ages to reach the stadium, from where we parked the car – or at least it felt like we did. I found it really hard work. By not having one of my parents there with me, I didn’t feel comfortable asking to park closer, complaining about it, or asking to take a rest. It was really tiring but I just had to grin and bear it. I was excited the next time they asked me to go but that memory did play on my mind a little.

A further year down the line, the muscles in my back began to ache when I walked distances. The dull nagging made me think about, and focus on scoliosis more, cementing the idea that it was the be-all-and-end-all issue. The ‘nerve problem’ was practically forgotten about. My legs got really heavy and tired as well if I had to walk for a period of time, but this discomfort

was always eclipsed by the pains in my back. I didn’t have the time to think properly about my legs, I just thought the tiredness in them was a knock-on effect from having to walk about carrying my upper body with a curve in my spine.

Anyway, I was buzzing to go to Celtic Park and see The Boys play again. Finding walking more difficult was never going to get in the way of me and the Hoops. I was told there was a spare ticket for my dad to come this time, so the little embers of worry/anxiety, that were beginning to burn away in the back of my head were immediately put out.

Without even saying anything, we parked a lot closer. We still had to walk a fair bit but it was nowhere near to the distance we covered the last time. I could actually see the top of the stadium when I got out the car.

As we headed towards Celtic Park, I remember listening to my neighbour’s uncle – the guy who got us the tickets – talking to my dad. My eyes were busy looking around and taking everything in; the fans, the colours, the stadium. But as I said before, I was quite a nosey person, and my ears were still listening into the adult conversation. I heard the uncle quietly asking my Dad about me … “What’s wrong with the wee man?” The supporters just ahead of us started to sing, and I didn’t hear my dad’s full answer but he started the sentence off with “It’s one of God’s sins …”

What on earth was he talking about? I thought. Scoliosis could be operated on and fixed. What is the big deal? What a strange thing for him to say, I thought. My dad wasn’t even religious.

However, I was quickly taken away by the atmosphere of Celtic Park as I let my ears and concentration fade away from their conversation. I soon forgot all about it.

*

Another memory I have from around this time is when a police officer was called to our house.

I had a set of football goals in my garden that I used nearly every day growing up, either by myself, with my friends or with my cousins. The other neighbours we had at the time weren’t exactly the most pleasant, so every time the ball went over the garden hedge and landed in his garden, it was always a debacle. We’d spend ages arguing about who should be the one to chap on the door and ask for the ball back. We were petrified to face the man.

One afternoon when the ball went over, my sister and I created a little hole in the bottom of the hedge which separated our garden and his. It was at the top of the garden so my parents didn’t really pay attention to what we were doing. We used it to scurry back and forward a couple of times without being caught by the man or his wife. One morning we went out and our secret passage had been tied up with chicken wire. We’d been caught.

The following weekend I remember playing with my cousin, and it wasn’t long until the ball went over. This time the man came running out of his backdoor, waving a knife at us and shouting. We got on the trampoline immediately and started jumping, trying to get to a height that we could see over the hedge and get a better view of what was going on. He picked up the ball and held it up above the hedge so we could easily see it, and stabbed it with his knife.

“The next time this ball will be your heads,” he declared, before walking back into his house and slamming the door behind him.

My cousin and I proper shat ourselves. We dropped down and lay on the trampoline, nervously laughing at each other, until we went in and told my parents about what had happened. My mum and dad both just laughed. From then on, my mum bought us really light, plastic, fly-away footballs to use in the garden. They wouldn’t be able to damage the man’s garden flowers if they got kicked over. However, they continued to get thrown back burst.

A few weeks later, I was upstairs brushing my teeth and getting prepared for school and I heard an unknown voice downstairs. I ran downstairs pretending I had to get something from the living room, to try and get a glimpse of who it was. The unfamiliar voice was coming from a police officer. She was standing in the kitchen talking to my mum. My nosiness was going off the scale. I thumped back up the stairs and then stealthily went ¾ of the way back down, and took a seat. The entrance to the kitchen was just at the bottom of the stairs, to your right-hand side, so I could hear every word that was said clear as day, and because I was sitting a few steps up I was completely hidden by a wall.

One of the first things I heard my mum say was “Connor prefers to play his football in the garden. He feels safe, and we can keep an eye on him …” Hmm, that’s a bit weird, I thought. Why is she talking about me like I’m a wee boy? I was glued to the conversation, even more now that I knew it was about me. “My son is disabled,” were the next words to come out of her mouth.

What the hell was she talking about now? I thought. I didn’t really know what that word meant but I knew it was something I didn’t want to be or associated with.

I still remember how weird, and strange I felt hearing her say that. My mind was still ignorant to disabilities. Apart from my classmate in Newcastle I had never known anyone who had a disability, and I didn’t use a wheelchair so how could I possibly be disabled? It made no sense for me to be disabled.

I started to think, and I convinced myself that my mum was blagging the police officer by saying my scoliosis meant I was disabled. The police officer didn’t know that I would be operated on in a few years, if need be, and everything would be fine.

Once this had all gone through my thought process, I wasn’t as confused anymore, I was just angry. How dare she call me disabled, how dare she taint me like that, I thought. As I said, I didn’t even know what it fully meant, I just knew it was something you didn’t want to be.

I had zoned out of their conversation and was listening to the voices in my head, then I heard my name being called out by my Mum, “Connor, can you come down here a minute?”

I jumped to my feet and quickly crept back up to the top of the stairs. I turned around and came back down, making a more emphatic thudding noise on every step, just to try and prove I had been innocently upstairs. I walked into the kitchen, with my hands behind my back. I looked up and the policewoman gave me a massive smile. Thank God, I thought, she didn’t look like she was going to arrest me.

The officer told me not to worry about it, and to continue playing football in my garden as much as I wanted. She was going to have another word with the neighbour and sort things out.

I remember my Mum telling me that the police officer had actually visited the neighbour before she came to ours, and he had been verbally abusive to her. So, she already knew what she was dealing with before she got our side of the story.

Once she left, I was buzzing that we looked to be in the all-clear, but I was still a bit irked that my mum had dirtied my name to help us get there.

“Why did you say that?” I said, demanding an answer.

She could clearly see how unimpressed I was. Looking back at it now, that must’ve have really thrown her. My dad was upstairs, reading my sister a story before bed in her room, so she didn’t have any back-up on answering this horrible and awkward question. I remember her using delaying tactics – stuttering and mumbling – before saying, “Well you know, your spine”. “That’s not being disabled though. I’m not disabled!” I replied.

I kept going like that until my mum accepted that she had used the wrong term. I was still angry but I let it go and went to bed; after all, it had got us off scot-free with the police.

*

Scoliosis continued to get the blame for everything, and puberty hit when I was between eleven- and twelve-years-old. The combination of growth spurts and the changing of hormones aggravated my scoliosis, and the curvature in my spine rapidly increased. I began to see and feel the real effects of it.

Although I had had a curvature for a couple of years, it never brought me too many difficulties. My day-to-day life went unscathed, and scoliosis never came into my thinking unless I had to walk distances etc. I was still able to do everything my friends could do.

My parents were just seeing that as well – me getting on with life, successfully making the transition to high school, and having a good time with my friends. My mum had also fallen pregnant around that time so everyone’s attentions were elsewhere. I had turned a blind eye to the worsening of my scoliosis, to an extent, and my parents had turned a blind eye to the creeping effects of Friedreich’s Ataxia. It soon became impossible to ignore though.

*

I loved my first and second years of high school. There was so much change from primary school: the size of the building, the teachers, the subjects, the pupils, the classrooms, the daily timetable – six different classes a day, getting buses to-and-from school, and being able to choose where to go for your lunch. Every day felt like an adventure, especially in first year, and I had met loads of new people. I was confident and sociable so had no problem making new friends, even though my back was becoming more uncomfortable to live with.

Looking back at photos of me around this age – there’s one especially from my holidays where I have my top off – and the curvature looks quite severe. My upper body was permanently leaning over to my left-hand side. But it didn’t start giving me serious and relentless pain until I was in second year, allowing my confidence to remain unaffected

until then, as I wasn’t dwelling on it and feeling sorry for myself. Surgery was going to fix it anyway so I never took the time to worry or fret about it – there was nothing to worry about in my eyes.

I never had any other symptoms that could be related to Friedreich’s Ataxia (that I could see) when I first started high school either, just my strange gait, and all the new friends I met in high school easily understood how my scoliosis was causing this. I never got any other questions once I explained scoliosis, so I was never prompted to go searching for answers or start asking my parents questions about anything.

After a few months at high school, I had settled into a new, large group of friends mainly from Thornton and Markinch. We’d socialise outside of school by meeting up every Friday or Saturday evening.

During the week at school it would be agreed to meet in either of the villages. The night would just consist of us walking aimlessly around the chosen village in a big group – talking, laughing and joking around. Carefree. Drinking cans of energy juice and eating ice poles as we done circuits around the same streets. After a couple of hours, a member of the group who lived in the village would cave in and ‘invite’ us back to their house. We’d all sit in their bedroom and watch films and eat/drink whatever delicacy we bought from the shop earlier.

In the first few months we did this, I was never too bothered about whether we’d go back to someone’s house or not. But gradually this changed, and by the time I was in second year of high school, I was always desperate to go back to someone’s house. The walking began to seriously knacker me out, and the pain from my back was crippling. The bones in my feet ached too. This discomfort tied in with my dad’s story about me having flat feet.

But before we went back to someone’s house there would be one last challenge for me. By that time of the night, we were now bored, and this coupled with the energy and sugar rushes from the drinks/ice poles only meant one thing. ‘Chappy’.

You’d soon hear a chapping noise just behind us, followed by the footsteps of the boys running away, and everyone would immediately disperse, running as if their lives were at stake. The game was hilarious and adrenaline pumping for twelve/thirteen-year-olds. But as time went on, and in line with my growing need/want to be in the comfort of someone’s bedroom instead of walking about outside, I remember purposely trying to run behind everyone else when ‘Chappy’ commenced.

I knew by comments and questions over the last couple of years that people clearly saw my running as very strange and I started to get a bit self-conscious of it. Although the strange walk/run was nothing new, and I had well-rehearsed answers for questions, I was now at an age that I was more aware of things and naturally a bit more self-conscious.

I was now getting pain from it which made me think about it more. It became an insecurity, especially in front of girls. As a twelve/thirteen-year-old, the last thing you want to be seen as, is different. Even the questions began to bother me, especially in PE at high school.

Before my answer just rolled off my tongue without thinking, but I was getting fed up of it.

“Why do you run funny?” a boy asked in the PE changing rooms one day. I had dealt with incidents like this hundreds of times and I can’t remember any of them, but this one has always stuck in my head. I can still picture him smirking in my head now.

I had heard him sniggering during that lesson, when it was my turn to run up and do the long jump. The fact I have such a clear memory of this one incident speaks for itself. I was starting to crack a bit inside. It was getting to me for the first time.

*

After a few months of my first year at high school, I began to feel the pressure from not having kissed a girl properly. I needed to keep with the rest of my friends, I didn’t want to risk lagging behind, and earning a reputation as the guy who still hasn’t snogged yet.

A ‘double-date’ was soon organised with one of my best friends and two girls. It wasn’t exactly a date. It was just like any other night out I went on with the rest of my friends, the only difference being that there were only four of us.

I remember practising how to snog on my arm before I went to bed at night, trying to recreate what I had seen in films. When I had finished licking my arm, my mind instantly turned to another issue about kissing that had been bothering me.

When I closed my eyes, I had noticed that I had difficulties trying to keep my balance and remain standing still. I’ll find a way round it, I always told myself. I was worried about it but I was too determined to let it stop me.

The night out was going well; laughing, talking, and joking as we walked around Thornton. The conversation got a bit more heated and interesting when we sat down at the shelter in the park. My friend brought up the topic of ‘Top 5s’.

A ‘Top 5’ was a mandatory list everyone had in their first year of high school, and it was a ranking system of the 5 people they fancied at the time – who was first was top of the chain, and if you were fifth, you’d be in with an outside shout but there was a lot of groundwork you’d need to cover. My ‘Top 5’ changed daily, so it was a significant but highly flexible list, especially if you were a boy.

The girl that I had my eye on that night had told me that I was in her ‘Top 5’. I was number 1. Result.

Both me and my friend were named in the opposite girls ‘Top 5’ as well. Quite a ballsy thing for the girls to do. But we were both ranked at either fourth or fifth so that diffused the tension. Even though I had been given the all clear to make my move, after the revealing of

the ‘Top 5’, it still took me all night trying to pluck up the courage to do it.

As well as the worry about not snogging correctly, I couldn’t stop thinking about whether to shut my eyes or not. I had a mental image that she’d open her eyes midway through and notice that mine weren’t shut and freak out.

Another boy in my year had been caught doing this a few weeks before. He was now seen as a bit strange and creepy. God knows why he did “have his eyes wide open” according to the rumours. Thinking about it, it would look extremely weird, and scary to catch somebody

doing this. But the poor guy was probably just petrified, not relaxed enough to do as he had been instructed by his mates, and desperate not to do anything drastically wrong, and in being so nervous had committed one of the worst crimes he could. The crime came with a grim sentence; any potential opportunities he had with other girls in my year now were bleak, almost non-existent. I certainly didn’t want to share his fate.

Should I risk shutting my eyes? If I did and lost my balance, stumbled, and fell that would be far more humiliating than being caught kissing someone with my eyes open, would it not? I tried to weigh up the opportunity costs of the different options. I was struggling. I couldn’t take this running commentary inside my head anymore.

While we stood waiting for the girls to be picked up at the end of the night, I told my mind to shut up and made my move. Determination won the battle and took over.

We were waiting outside the shop, so I asked her to walk around the corner and a little down the street with me. I wanted to get out of sight from my friend and the passing cars. We kissed just outside the park gates. It was totally awkward as I had no idea what I was doing. But everything else was perfect.

I shut my eyes initially, only for a second or two – it was more like a longer than normal blink. Just as I started to feel myself getting a little unsteady, I slowly opened them. She had hers firmly shut. Oh, you dancer! I thought. I closed my eyelids halfway, so I wasn’t gawking at her wide-eyed in case she did have a look, but she didn’t for the rest of the kiss. Where we were was well lit with street lights as well, so I felt completely stable.

The only thing that could’ve made that moment better was if I knew how to kiss. But I wasn’t caring, the whole escapade had been a success.

*

My next memory comes from nearer the end of my second year at high school. I remember sitting in my modern studies class and seeing a few boys staring at me, and whispering. I could tell something was going on, and then I heard one of them mention my name. I wasn’t the type to sit back so I went straight over to them and asked what was going on.

They mumbled a few times and said it was nothing, but they knew that I had called their bullshit. I wasn’t going anywhere, and wanted answers. The boy who was doing all the whispering began to pipe up but he wouldn’t look me in the eye.

He told me that he had a friend who had told him things about me like I’d need to use a wheelchair when I was older and that I wouldn’t live long. “What the f*** is he talking about? Why is he saying that?” I asked, completely confused. The teacher came into the room at that point and told us all to get back to our seats.

I obviously didn’t pay much attention in that lesson, as I tried to comprehend what I had just been told. But I couldn’t process it because it just made no sense. Who was this boy? Why was he making rumours up about me? What did he have against me to do this? I thought, and I couldn’t come up with any possible answers.

The more I thought about it, the more embarrassed I got. To make it even weirder, the boy who was the source of this rumour went to a completely different school, how did he even know my name? I had no way of getting a hold of this guy and finding out what his beef was.

But as I walked to the next class, as if fate had planned it, I was notified that he was meeting the guy in my class at lunchtime outside of the school that day.

I remember at the beginning of the next class the English teacher asked us to discuss what we thought the difference was between the words affect and effect. How ironic looking back at it now. At that point, I had no idea I was suffering from a genetic disease that would greatly affect my life, with the effects of Friedreichs Ataxia being enormous.

The bell rang for lunch and I was overcome with a mixture of dread and adrenaline. I was shaking as I went down the stairwell and met my friends for lunch. I clearly remember walking out the school and seeing the boy standing there. My friends all knew about the situation at this point – rumours travel quickly in high school – so I felt a bit under pressure to approach him and stand up for myself. I wasn’t a coward.

I walked towards him, shouting as I went, asking him why he was saying these things about me. His mouth was moving but I had no idea if he was saying anything. The embarrassment I was feeling had caused a mental block. I wasn’t taking anything in. As I got closer, I grabbed him by the shirt, just below his neck, and told him to stop. I honestly don’t remember

anything he said. In that moment I didn’t actually care about what he said. I just wanted this awkward and embarrassing position I was in to be over. I wasn’t a violent person at all, and I felt ridiculous at how I was acting with him. Not forgetting that my group of friends were behind me watching what was going on.

Although I don’t remember anything he said, I do remember looking at him in the eye, and it confused me even more. He looked like a normal, genuine boy, just like me and one of my pals. Not the type that would make up rumours for the sake of. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

The boy must’ve agreed to my demands and I let go of his shirt, turned away and went to lunch. The next thought on my mind was whether I would have a steak or mince pie from the bakers. I managed to forget about what had just gone on for the rest of the school-day.

When I got home, I broke down to my mum. One of my aunt’s was in the house when I got home that day, and that was a blessing in disguise for my mum. She probably would’ve broken down trying to console me by herself, but because she had my aunt, the two of them were able to calm me down together, and talk me out of my confusion.

I remember them both pretending to be as confused as I was at why this boy was saying these things, and that there was nothing to worry about. I believed them.

I quickly moved on from this situation, but something about it always silently stuck in my head. It was like deep down, on some sub-conscious level, I knew it was the truth. I know

that sounds ridiculous, and I can’t explain it. But the experience was quickly put right to the back of my mind. I never spoke about it again with either my friends or family. It was over.

Even now, I’m still not sure how that boy knew about my future before I did.

*

I have another small memory from not long after dealing with that boy. In my final weeks of second year at high school, I had to decide what subjects I wanted to study in my third and fourth years. The subjects I decided on would make up my standard grade exams.

There was a career fair at the school, just before my ‘choices sheet’ had to be handed in, and I wasn’t really fussed for going to it, but my mum was keen, so we went. I had basically already made up my mind about what to take, but there was one subject that was giving me problems.

PE.

There were teachers from every department in the school there, all standing behind stalls in the assembly hall, offering extra information on the content of their courses, and answering any subsequent questions. PE was the only stall I had my eye on.

I knew taking PE wasn’t really an option. My scoliosis had crept up on me during that year and I was starting to suffer from quite a bit of pain, and I couldn’t walk as far, and I knew my spine would continue to get worse until it was operated on. So, there was no chance I could do the standard grade course.

But all my friends were taking it, and were buzzing about it. It was killing me that I wasn’t.

I tried to kid myself on that it was a real option, and that’s how I made it out to my friends as well. If I made it look like it was a tough decision for me, well then it wouldn’t look as strange or peculiar that I wasn’t doing it, or that it was out – with my capabilities. Only I knew it was out of the question, and as long as my friends didn’t, it was fine. They just had to believe my bullshit rhetoric about how I was concerned that “standard grade PE might not be something employers and universities look out for in the future”, so I might not take it.

I don’t remember anything from the night apart from speaking to a teacher in the PE department (He was my PE teacher at the time, and he also worked as a guidance teacher for the ‘house’ I was in at school – he therefore knew things about me). I stood at the stall with

my parents and asked him about the course, and if that qualification was required to become a PE teacher in the future. (My thinking at the time was that once I had surgery, I would be able to do the higher course of PE in my fifth or sixth year at school, which would then open up the option of studying to be a PE teacher at university).

I didn’t even want to be a PE teacher; it was just one of the first careers that come to a twelve/thirteen-year-olds mind, who enjoys sports, and doesn’t know what else he’s interested in. But I wanted to know the option was still open to me.

He looked at me and paused. Almost a gaze. He then looked behind me, glancing at my parents quickly, before returning to me. He started talking but I wasn’t listening. That look stuck in my head. Almost like he was flustered, and didn’t know what to say. Something about it stunk. I knew it all had a reason, but I didn’t know what it was. I never spoke about it to anyone, but it always remained with me, just as that ‘rumour’ did in the previous memory.

My parents approved of my plan to not take PE in third and fourth year, but then to pick it up again in fifth year once my spine was fixed. The following day I ticked the box for studying music instead of PE.

*

I had been part of a football team since we had moved up to Scotland.

Football was a huge part of my life when I was younger. It was the be-all and end-all. My cousins and I loved pretending we were one of top Celtic players at the time, or one of the legends like Henrik Larsson – the King of Kings. The thought of emulating one of the players one day was a dream – and I still dream about it now sometimes.

I adored football, but playing for, and being a member of a team was a different thing altogether. Making friends with a brand-new group of boys – who didn’t know me from school or anything else – was a benefit immediately, and the other benefits that came after a while were just as important; being a member of a group, having a sense of purpose within that group, teamwork, feeling appreciated, togetherness, banter, building your trust in new people, and having loyalty to your teammates.

These were things that I was probably only getting in little amounts from the rest of my life, but being in that football team brought these emotions/life skills to the forefront. I thrived under this new source of companionship.

I was a defender, and I was given the nickname ‘chopper’ because of my no-nonsense attitude, and tendency to slide tackle players – ‘chopping’ them down. I enjoyed living up to this nickname, and more importantly, I loved getting the approval from my dad.

Between the ages of twelve and thirteen, things took quite a dramatic turn for me, in terms of my ability to play football. Gradually I no longer felt as secure with the ball at my feet, or as stable going in for tackles. I found it difficult trying to run at speed without the ball, and almost impossible with the ball. I began struggling to pass the ball in directions that my brain wanted it go in. A lot of the time my balance would go once I had kicked the ball; I would either fall back, or stagger around, before I found my centre point again.

These changes were all gradual to begin with, but I degenerated quickly once my scoliosis really kicked in.

I was a regular starter for my team prior to these changes. I was ‘chopper’ for God’s sake, I was the man my teammates could count on in defence. I flourished under this reputation, and even my team-mates’ dads called me by my nickname. They would all encourage and cheer me on as I got ‘stuck in’ to opposition players. I felt almost invincible for a while. But these changes brought me right back down to earth.

The image I had of myself, my ego, and from that, some of my personality, was all being quickly destroyed. As these physical and neurological changes took place I began to be named as a substitute. I was gutted the first time I was told. I had never been named a substitute since I joined the club. I felt so ashamed having to tell my dad I was a substitute; it was humiliating.

But – and there’s a tiny part of me that is still disgusted at myself for this now – I also felt a sense of relief.

Looking back at it now, this is where my physical disability also became a mental disability.

My worsening physical health, introduced doses of unnatural anxiety and self-consciousness to my mind. This compounded week on week from there on. Because of how bad my back was at that point, I was getting a lot more questions at school and in my everyday life, and it wasn’t long until my teammates started to become more curious. The initial explanations they had of

my scoliosis and flat feet weren’t enough anymore. At training sessions, I had seen a few of the boys whispering to themselves every time I had done a running or dribbling exercise, or I’d hear the moans from a wayward shot or pass I made.

I began to feel isolated. The sense of purpose, the respect, the loyalty; it was all fading.

The things that being in the team taught me, and the confidence it spurred on, was giving way – something that was unimaginable six months earlier. The ‘disgraceful’ sense of relief I felt from being named a sub, was because it took away the worry of making a fool of myself in front of my team-mates, the opposition, and anyone else who was watching the game. I really didn’t want to humiliate myself or make a mockery of my dad. Doing things wrong in training was one thing, but doing something wrong in a match in front of everyone, and having my dad watching, wasn’t even worth thinking about.

I was ashamed of this worrying and my self-consciousness, but I couldn’t escape from it. The thoughts were too strong for me. I had no idea how to deal with it, and I never dared mention it to anyone. I had gone from such a strong and proud position, to being a complete shell of myself; I went from loving playing football as part of a team, to dreading it. I started missing training sessions. With how low I was feeling, coupled with the increasing pain I was getting in my back, meant that I had very little motivation to keep going. I remember making up excuses to my parents each week in order not to go, shamefully relieved every time I got off the hook.

I had been on a number of trips with the team since I had joined – once to Holland, and twice to the south of England. This time they were going down to Newcastle. I was asked if I wanted to go, and it was weird actually doubting whether to say yes or now. Previously I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid but this was the position I was now in. In the end, fuelled by my dad’s encouragement, I reluctantly decided to go. I remember at the time, making the decision in my head, that this was the last chance I was giving the football team.

I was a ghost for the most part of that trip, and that was what I wanted, not to be seen or heard. My confidence was diminishing and my anxiety/self-consciousness had taken a firm grip.

I was named as a substitute for the game in Newcastle. I remember walking away from my huddled-up teammates who were getting a team talk from the manager, I had a football at my feet, my head down, and just thought about getting home and being with my family. I tried to find a happy place in my mind to forget where I was at the present.

The game had started and my team were getting beaten, and the boy who was being played in the position that I had ‘owned’ for years, was having a nightmare. The boy was actually a striker, not a defender, which made me feel even more worthless; playing him in front of me just showed how much of a liability I was to the team.

I stood watching from the side-lines, with the ball still at my feet, and after a succession of mistakes from that boy, I heard the captain of the team (my old defensive partner) shout out “GET CHOPPER ON!” Immense pride ran through my body for a few seconds. My spirits completely lifted. I was my old self for a split second. My teammates needed me, and I had a purpose, I was important. But once that glimpsing moment was over, I just wanted to tell him to shut up, run away, and hide.

I was subbed on five minutes later. I remember jogging onto the pitch and standing in the position I was meant to be in, praying that the ball wouldn’t come over my side of the pitch much, and I could get away with just standing about. My dad wasn’t there which was two- fold: I had no sense of security at all, there was no one at the side of the pitch who would protect me from anything bad happening, but on the other hand, I couldn’t embarrass him by doing something wrong – a wonky pass or tackle. I didn’t make any major mistakes for the rest of that game – my prayers were answered as I didn’t have much to do – but I remember the glee I felt when the full-time whistle went.

I clearly no longer enjoyed playing competitive football; it was now both physically and mentally draining. I continued to attend the football for another couple of weeks, following the trip to Newcastle.

At our next match, I was named as a substitute again. I wasn’t exactly shocked at this anymore, but the shame continued to endure, and it exacerbated with every week I stood at the side of the pitch, watching my teammates kick off. That week, I wasn’t given the opportunity to play at any point during the game – I was usually subbed on for at least 10 minutes. All of the other substitute players were put on apart from me.

The following week, we were playing at Coaltown of Wemyss. We finished our warmups, and got a quick drink before the coach called all the boys in. Staring at the ground walking towards him, my stomach was churning, as I thought about what he was about to say. I knew it was all over before he said anything.

I couldn’t take any more of this. It was a different pain to what I had ever felt before. It wasn’t physical. It was emotional torture for a thirteen-year-old.

Once he read out the team-sheet I walked straight over to my dad, put my head into his

jumper, and burst into tears. I couldn’t hide the frustration, anger, or confusion anymore. He walked me away from the football pitch and tried to talk to me. But I couldn’t be settled, my decision was made. He knew he couldn’t say anything that would convince me otherwise.

Over the last while, although I tried to hide it as much as I could, my dad would’ve been able to see how this situation had been hurting me.

We turned away and walked towards the car. I sobbed into his arm as he guided me out the park, and I never turned around once to see if any of my teammates were looking. I wasn’t bothered at what they thought, I knew I wouldn’t be back. My dad and I never spoke about that day again. Somehow, I managed to accept what had happened and get on with it.

Hopefully one day I’d play for a football team again after my operation, I thought.

*

It was either during the summer holidays, or at the beginning of third year at high school, that I last met up with my friends for one of the nights out. The usual still happened; walking around, standing about, going to the shop multiple times, and playing ‘Chappy’.

I was in a lot of discomfort just keeping up with everyone when walking now, never mind running. I remember watching everyone run off and feeling almost helpless. I tried to do a jog but I had to stop after about 50 yards. I staggered over to the side of the road and rested on a garden wall. I was completely immobilised with the pain, my head was spinning, and I went into a cold sweat. I was sure I was going to faint. My friends had gone, they had run off in all

directions, which was I was quite glad of, knowing that they couldn’t see me like this. I slouched down to the ground and lay my back on the garden wall. I shut my eyes and tried to breathe as deeply as I could. The cold from the pavement going up and through my palms, travelling through the rest of my body like a soothing wave.

My energy came back after about 5 minutes, and I pulled my phone from my pocket, and called my dad to get picked up. I never told him what had gone on when I got in the car. I was scared and shocked by what I had just experienced, and I didn’t want to talk about it. My body gave me a warning about how serious my situation was with scoliosis that night.

The hospital had been contacted a couple of months earlier when the pain became more frequent but there was a three-month waiting list. I was nearly at the end of it and got an appointment to see the orthopaedic consultant not long after. I was almost relieved when the letter came through the door – quite a change from how I used to feel about seeing doctors. I still feared hospitals but I knew I had to go now. I could no longer live with my head in the clouds. I had tried so hard to forget about the possibility I would need to have an operation, and I had let the progress of scoliosis go on too long without going back to the hospital. My parents and I went to see the orthopaedic consultant/surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in late September/early October.

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