Written by Emily Jane O’Dell for Al Jazeera
Muscat, Oman – I am elastic girl. I’m as stretchy as they come, but I’m coming undone. My joints keep dislocating. Tendons tearing, ligaments loosening. Even my voice box is leaping out of place. What’s a girl with messed up glue to do?
“You should join the circus!” adults used to say when I showed them contortionist tricks as a child. Back then, I thought my freakish flexibility was a superpower. But my superhero dreams were dashed when I got hit by a bus while riding my bike in Harlem, learning while in recovery that I have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome – a rare and incurable connective tissue disorder that can cause dislocating joints, rupturing organs, blindness, and even death from cardiac defects.
My limber limbs once primed me for master ballet classes with Gelsey Kirkland and All-State varsity sports titles. Reaching the highest levels of Ashtanga yoga was a breeze. But what was once a blessing has become more like a curse.
Dozens of times in a day, my bones would slip from their sockets – my elbows when I swim, my fingers when I type, my shoulders when I open a door. I almost choked to death on my own voice box last summer when I was swimming backstroke and my larynx ripped out of place. Left in its wake – a paralysed vocal cord.
Call me Humpty Dumpty for I am beyond repair. Though I am in need of a number of surgeries, surgeons do not dare to suture my widespread tears. The risk of cutting into my cursed cartilage and stitching up my slow-healing skin is too great. I bear many wounds that will never heal.
I landed in a hospital in Turkmenistan a few years ago after my hips tore out of place while I was researching Sufism and shamanism on the border with Iran. “Eta elastichniya deyavooshka,” the Soviet-trained doctors said in Russian – “This is an elastic girl”.
Back home I was given two choices by top hip surgeons in New York: become mummified in a body cast for six months after a risky surgery or make peace with a motorised wheelchair and morphine. I chose the latter and eventually managed to walk again.
Back on my feet, I’ve taken my act on the road to hospitals in Lebanon, Oman, India, and Mongolia. I’m breaking new ground as a medical mutant in the Middle East and Asia, sharing what it’s like to inhabit a body that challenges the authority of medicine and trespasses the conventional boundaries of pain.