If you look up the word balance in the dictionary, you will find a variety of definitions and meanings, but there two in particular that interest me the most.
The first one, which applies to me specifically (and perhaps many of you), concerns physical equilibrium: an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.
Of all the difficulties MS has presented, this one has been with me like a shadow from the beginning. At first, the shadow was small and barely noticeable. Now it is large and long, like those that trail you when the sun is low in the sky towards the end of the day. This has also provided the biggest challenge I’ve had to deal with over the last ten years because, slowly but steadily, my balance has become more tenuous.
In what seems like a lifetime ago, I was a member of my college’s modern dance company. My motive for joining this group during my freshman year was to become more flexible and stay in shape for the upcoming baseball season (and to meet girls, I must confess), but I learned to enjoy the movement and creative aspect of the art, and stayed with the group through my senior year. During this period, I learned a lot about body mechanics, and this knowledge has become invaluable as my balance has eroded. One thing it did, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was teach me how to fall and roll without hurting myself. Needless to say, that has become a very useful skill. I also learned the secret to staying upright.
Marcy Plavin, our company’s director, always urged us to “find our center,” primarily because it provided a better form on stage and made our movements crisp and clean. Now, staying grounded in my center is what allows me to avoid crashing to the ground when my delicate balance is disrupted.
In general terms, my “center” is that spot just above the middle of the pubic bone, and I try to always keep my weight focused on that single spot. This isn’t an issue when I’m on flat terrain, because my body isn’t tilting in any specific direction, and my weight naturally settles there. It’s a different story, however, when I’m on terrain that is sloped, slanted, or flat but bumpy.
First of all, if my foot catches something, regardless of the terrain, it’s a recipe for disaster if I’m not aware of where my center is. Should I lurch forward, I can, with the help of my cane, quickly reorient myself and reestablish my center. As a result, my cane, which was once something I used occasionally, is always in my hand outside of the house. Otherwise, gravity will take over in these situations. I also need to be constantly aware of how my body is positioned, and instinctively react the moment my balance is compromised.
What is weird and infuriating, is what sometimes happens when I’m not moving.
If I’m on flat terrain and allow my mind to wander, I can sometimes stagger sideways if I unconsciously lean to my right. I’m sure this looks bizarre to anyone who witnesses it. They’d probably think I was hopelessly drunk or on something. While this rarely occurs, it does happen.
Most of the dangers that await me are outside of my home, and my yard is a prime example.
My house sits on a hill, and the downward slope has become increasingly difficult to navigate. Part of it because my foot drop has become so bad, that my foot is constantly getting stuck in tufts of grass. As a result I’m literally taking one step at a time, like an inch worm, when I’m out there. But I’ve also had occasions where I’m standing still, not moving at all, and still almost keel over. This used to happen only when the downward slope was on my weak side (the right), but I learned to manage this by transferring the cane to that side to have something to hold me up if I felt myself tipping in that direction.
Recently, going up a particularly steep grade has become treacherous. I have to force myself to lean forward when the slope is behind me because if I don’t, I can sometimes tilt backwards. Should this occur, it is the one and only scenario where I can’t recapture my center. This has occurred a few times, particularly around our pool that sits on a mound that has a short but steep pitch. When I’ve felt myself losing my center while standing on that slope, panic instantly sets in for the briefest of moments because I know that if I reach that point of no return, I will tip backwards, I won’t be able to brace my fall or protect myself, and could really wind up getting hurt. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.
And this is during the summer, when the ground is warm and dry. I hate to wonder what the winter will be like.
To illustrate how silly this has become, even the act of correcting my posture, particularly if the motion is quick, sharp and I’m not holding onto a cane, or aren’t near a wall I can brace myself against, can cause me to stagger backwards.
The bottom line is that MS has stolen my physical balance, and has made it something I constantly have to battle to achieve a stalemate. It is the reason why negotiating stairs requires my full attention and concentration. It’s also the reason why the simple act of walking and standing has become a competitive sport.
The second meaning, which applies to us all, concerns mental and emotional steadiness: a condition in which the competing elements of our life are in equal or correct proportion.
This type of balance is the most difficult for me. Specifically, where is the line between being smart and taking care of myself, and giving in or giving up? Where is the line between between being cool and rationale about the disease and its future implications, and focusing too much on them and panicking? Is it better to stick your head in the sand and not worry about the what-ifs until you’re forced to, or to always think about them and plan for their eventuality. Do I need to concern myself with the prospect that all the drugs I’m taking could potentially shorten my lifespan, or is it better not to think about that at all, to focus instead on the quality of life, and how things are in this current moment?
I have my own answers to these questions and navigate according to that compass. I think I do a good job of maintaining an even emotional keel, and not get too high or too low. One could argue that I don’t take my condition seriously enough, but that’s how I roll.
What I struggle with the most is the proper balance between sharing the fears I do occasionally have with my family and loves ones, and keeping them to myself, which is my typical MO. After all, there isn’t a thing they can do to improve my condition, and sharing too much might unnecessarily worry them more than they already are.
But is that being selfish? Is it better to let them in on the secret that I am sometimes afraid of where all this might lead? That I’m terrified of potentially living in a body held prisoner by this relentless beast, and of having to become completely dependent on them for everything? The thought that one day I might need help getting dressed, eating, bathing or going to the bathroom is my skeleton in the closet. Honestly, that isn’t living, it’s existing, and I don’t want any part of that. That, and the possibility that my condition will become a financial sinkhole that will destroy our financial security, is a cross I don’t want to bear.
I don’t obsess about these things, but they exist. I don’t dwell on them because doing so would destroy that emotional scale, tilting it heavily in the wrong direction. Maybe that’s why I try to keep them at arm’s length, in a blissful state of denial. I own this and keep it to myself because emotional balance is a very delicate thread. One unfortunate tug could unravel everything.
And that doesn’t help anyone.
For those of you who follow the blog, I will be away on a business trip next week and may not be able to submit what up to now have been weekly posts. Expect the next post to appear in two weeks