The Art of Falling

fall down

Something rare occurred Thanksgiving morning. I was outside, trying to pry some carrots out of the suddenly frozen dirt of our garden, when it happened.

That section of the yard is slanted, and has always been a treacherous tract for me. Perhaps it was because the ground I was standing on was hard, lumpy, and I couldn’t get a good foothold when I felt my balance shift. Whatever the reason, my bad foot got caught as I was shuffling to my right, my ankle turned, and I was confronted with two choices: stand my ground and risk the full brunt of my weight collapsing on the ankle, which would have resulted a moderate sprain at minimum, or save myself from imminent injury, let gravity do its thing, and let myself fall to the ground. It really wasn’t much of a decision. I stopped resisting and let my body fall.

I wouldn’t say the fall hurt, although it was definitely not a soft landing, and the ground’s rock hard surface did scrape up my right shin a bit. But when my rolling body came to a stop, I reached for my cane, which I relinquished when I stooped over to break up the garden’s surface, clumsily got back onto my feet, and anxiously looked around to see if there were any witnesses. There were none, and I resumed my task. Ten minutes later I was back inside, free from the sub-freezing temps and whipping winds that made the wind chill feel like it was below zero.

The tumble was fairly benign, and the only souvenirs that remain from the episode is a dime-sized scab on my shin and a bruised ego.

Falling is not uncommon for people with MS, and I am no exception. I don’t fall often, averaging perhaps two or three times a year, but it was not always that way. As I rose from the ground and got back onto my feet that freezing Thanksgiving morning, I couldn’t help but reflect that the reason I usually don’t fall very often, or get injured when I do, is because of body awareness and mechanics.

In what seems like a lifetime ago, I joined our college’s Modern Dance Company at the beginning of my freshman year. I had never been involved in this kind of performance art before, but I liked dancing, and I thought it would achieve two important priorities: meeting girls and becoming more flexible. The first priority is self-explanatory, but I had planned on going out for the varsity baseball team later that spring, and I thought being more limber couldn’t hurt.

One thing that my four-year experience with the company taught me was general body awareness: specifically, how it moves, how it is positioned at all times, and where everything is centered. Our company’s director always used to implore that we “find our center” during the first half hour of each class as we stretched, and the lessons learned from those four years have been invaluable to me on the occasions where I do fall.

After the first few tumbles, which were a complete and unexpected surprise that left physical marks, I realized that I needed to become more aware of how my body was centered at all times, which in turn allowed me to apply those lessons. The results were twofold.  First, the number of  falls dramatically shrank, and when I did fall, I was able to protect myself from serious injury by positioning my body in such a way that I was able to cushion the blow of hitting the ground.

How does it work? I try to be aware of my center, and therefore my balance, whenever I am on my feet. Why? Because if I lose my center, the balance of my weight shifts, which makes my body lean in different directions. When the upper half of my body leans too far forwards, backwards, or to either side, my balance is shot I down I go like a sack of potatoes. Being aware of when I am reaching the point of no return has prevented more falls than I can count, but like last week, they do occasionally occur.

This is where the other part of body mechanic awareness comes in. Before I hit the ground, I try to turn my upper body sideways, exhale, relax the muscles and get into a quasi-fetal position, all within a split second. The goal here is to fall on my side, saving my teeth, facial bones and other joints in the process, in addition to not having the wind knocked out of me when I hit the ground. With the exception of one time many years ago, when I missed the last step on my back stoop with food containers in my hand, I’ve been pretty good at avoiding these kinds of disasters. The back stoop episode occurred during a cookout when my parents were around, and my mother, who had never seen me fall before, nearly freaked when I hit the ground. Nidan, who was maybe ten at the time, thought it was the funniest thing he ever saw, but that is a different story.  That particular crash was the only time I can remember where I wound up with impressive bruises and multiple road-burn type abrasions. It could have been much worse.

I’d rather not fall at all, obviously, but they are inevitable, and when they do occur I would much rather have the fleshier body parts absorb the impact. So far, I’ve managed to avoid anything catastrophic, and hope to keep it that way.

Having said that, all bets are off if you lose balance on the stairs. This has been and always will be my biggest fear, because a soft landing is impossible in that scenario, and it is vital that anyone with balance issues be aware of their body mechanics every time you step ono them, especially when you are going down the stairs. Otherwise, the results could be catastrophic.

This doomsday scenario almost happened to me last August, when I was going down the stairs in the grandstand section at Fenway Park. If you know Fenway, there are at least thirty concrete steps that begin at the top of the grandstands and proceed all the way down to the loge box area.  Instead of taking the longer route, where I would enter the seating area at the bottom of those steps and go up to my seats, I was lazy and decided to take the much shorter route to my seats. This meant I entered my section of the grandstand from the top of the steps and worked my way down to the seats, which were about fifteen steps down.  There are no rails to grab onto for support, and after a couple of steps, my knee locked, my body lurched forward and I felt myself careening forward. I remained upright, but had lost complete control for three or four steps, and understood that in a few seconds a bad scene would unfold.

I remember thinking that this was going to really hurt, that something was going to snap or break, that blood would spill, and I would be humiliated in front of hundreds of people. Fortunately, Zorro, my trusty cane, landed against one of the metal seat legs that was anchored in the concrete. This slowed the momentum to the point where I could grab the top of an empty seat. My hip dug into the corner of that seat with he full weight of my body behind it, which stung like hell, but it stopped the fall, and was infinitely better than hitting those concrete stairs and rolling down God knows how many steps.

My recommendation to those of you who are susceptible to falls is to stay in the moment and be generally aware of your center at all times, which is right around the navel area. If you can keep your weight and balance centered on that point, you won’t fall very often. And if you do, you will be more aware of what is occurring and hopefully be able to position your body so you don’t get hurt when you hit the ground. If you can manage this one time, it will become second nature, and it will go along way in preventing this (or worse):

cast

And please focus on each step whenever you are on the stairs, or avoid them altogether. One of the things I am most looking forward to in the new house is everything is going to be on one floor. That will be one less hazard to deal with.

 

My First Time

shock

There are very few events in my life that I vividly remember: my wedding day, the day my son was born, and where I was when I first saw the images of the 9/11 attack that brilliant late summer morning in Connecticut, come to mind. They are all etched in my memory so clearly, that not only can I recall images of the occasion, but emotions, smells and things of that nature. Perhaps this is because they were so profoundly momentous and meaningful.

The day MS entered my life is also on that list. My first time, as I like to refer to it, occurred out of nowhere like an unexpected and unwanted bolt of lightning. Of course, I didn’t have a clue  what was going on at the time, or that it represented the beginning of a life-altering journey.  Be that as it may, the experience was so shocking, and the consequences so profound, how could I not remember it?

Ten years ago, I dragged my lazy ass downstairs into the cellar early one Tuesday evening, and stepped onto my treadmill for a long-overdue workout.  I had been in good shape for most of my life and, while not a fitness fanatic, worked out more often than not. For some reason, I had fallen into a rut and had not touched any exercise equipment for over a year, and was getting soft in a lot of places I didn’t like. For months I had vowed  to resume working out because, as a creature of habit, I knew all I had to do was get started and it would become part of a regular routine.

So I seized upon the thought to take that first step, ventured downstairs, strode onto the treadmill, and turned it on. Back in those days, my typical workout consisted of a ten minute warm up, followed by forty-five minutes of gradually increasing speed before concluding with five minutes of winding down at much slower speeds.

On that fateful evening, I didn’t make it past the first ten minutes. Shortly before the warm-up concluded, I felt a strange sensation in my right leg. At first, the leg felt heavy, as if a large weight was strapped to it. My reaction was to increase the treadmill speed, thinking it might work the kinks out. Bad move. In less than thirty seconds, the leg went from feeling heavy to being completely unresponsive.

The only way I can describe what I thought was going on in that moment, is that my leg simply stopped working. The knee wouldn’t bend, my foot wouldn’t lift, and I literally couldn’t control it. The limb felt as if someone had sucked the bone from it, and what remained was a limp, lifeless, piece of emptiness. Keep in mind this all occurred within a matter of seconds, and my mind didn’t have time to understand what was going on. All I knew is something was terribly wrong.

I also sensed that I needed to get off the treadmill immediately. I therefore grabbed onto the bar in front of the machine’s control panel, hopped to get my good leg planted on the side rail, swung my bad leg over by swiveling my hips as hard as I could in the direction of my good leg, and let go of the handrail, all one motion. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my balance was shot. I unintentionally lurched forward, tumbled off the machine, and onto a sofa that fortunately was within falling distance. Once my upper torso hit the sofa, I was able to brace the impact with my arms and roll onto my side. Whether I consciously knew what I was doing at the time is debatable. In hindsight, I think instinct took over and allowed me to assess my surroundings, and find a safe landing without really hurting myself.

As I sat upright on the sofa, the lifeless limb was bent at an odd angle, and I had to grab it at the knee and calf to place it in a normal position. My heart was meanwhile thumping in my chest and temples. I tried to curl my toes and move the foot in a circular motion at the ankle, but it would not budge. All I could think of was what the hell is happening to me?

I remember wondering if this was real or a bad dream, but not much else. After about fifteen minutes of sitting there doing nothing but ponder my fate, and I know this because I glanced at the wall clock, it occurred to me that the leg was working again. I could curl my toes, bend my knee, and stand up. All the strength and sensation had come back like magic. I strode back and forth across the room without any issues and sprinted in place, lifting my knees as high as they could go, like a sprinter warming up for a race.

Everything was normal, and I was confused as hell.

I turned off the treadmill, sat back on the sofa and one thought came to mind. “What the fuck was that?!” This was followed by, “what am I going to do?”, and “Who am I going to tell?”

The answer to those last two questions was nothing and nobody. Everything was back to normal, so I decided to ignore the event and pretend it didn’t happen. After all, what transpired was probably a complete fluke, and would never happen again.

Obviously that wasn’t the case. I tried the treadmill again two weeks later and the same thing occurred, only this time I was prepared for it, and stopped the machine once that strange sensation started coming back. Another difference was my foot started drooping and never fully recovered.  An attempt to mow my lawn a few weeks later forced me to accept the fact I could nor longer ignore whatever this was. Thus started the quest to find out what was wrong, which I will share in next week’s post.

Looking back at the event now, it seems so……innocent. I was so naive back then and felt bulletproof. Little did I know that my life would never be the same.

Dreams and the Freedom From MS

dreams2

My wife, who I will refer to as K from now on, and I were discussing the blog during a drive home from the mall last weekend. I reminded her that she had offered to author a post or two this year, and provide the perspective of a spouse living with a person who has MS. You see, the hardest thing about this blog is discovering a topic each week that is new or different. I was having trouble coming up with a subject I could write about, and thought she might offer to rescue me and pen this post herself. Instead, she asked the following:

“Do you have MS when you dream?”

The light bulb went off immediately, and I knew I had my subject for the week. I pondered the subject for a few minutes, and it got me thinking.

After all, I am MS free in my dreams. I don’t limp, I don’t fall, and I am not hindered in any way. Not one iota.

But why hadn’t I thought about or acknowledged this before? Shouldn’t I have? After all, in my dreams I have I’ve run freely, climbed mountains, danced, golfed, and have been a  sexual dynamo. There is virtually nothing I can’t do in my dreams. I am completely free from the chains of my earthly limitations. I can’t recall one time where my conscious reality has punctured the fantasy of my dream world.

This epiphany was both liberating and perplexing. Liberating from the perspective that I know there is one time each and every day where I am a normal human being (at least physically), but perplexed about why I have never considered this before.

Maybe I haven’t thought of this because doing so would only emphasize what I have lost. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism that prevents me from missing or dwelling on what I no longer have. Maybe it’s because I’ve long come to terms with my reality and don’t mourn about what I no longer have. Or maybe I’m not that deep a thinker.

It has almost been a week since K asked that question, and I still don’t wake up in the morning and think about or embrace the physical freedom I just experienced. It simply does not cross my mind. Is that a weird?

Shouldn’t I relish, enjoy, and try to remember what it felt like to be free of this disease.  I believe all of us at various times have realized that we are in a dream, and that what is happening isn’t real. Can we actually make that happen? Is it possible to become more present in our dreams, and acknowledge what we are experiencing?

I’ve already written that getting out of bed is the most physically challenging portion of my day.  Maybe having that ability would kick start the day on a good note.

Perhaps none of this really matters, but now that I have thought about the subject, it would be nice if I could pay more attention to and be more there in my dreams, because I honestly don’t remember what I felt like before MS wrapped me in its tentacles.

I would enjoy reliving the experience.

 

 

 

The Winter Blues

blues

Snow.

Ice.

Wind.

Bitter Cold

Long, dark days.

I don’t generally complain about the winter or yearn for spring until after the Super Bowl, but here we are in the middle of January, I am so done with winter, and I’ve felt this way for weeks. I also don’t normally dwell on these kinds of developments, but this one has got me thinking because I think it’s significant.

While our snowfall this year is above normal, there have been much snowier winters within the last several years. The darkness thing is irrelevant because winters always suck in terms of the amount of daylight we get. It’s dark when I wake up, dark when I arrive at work, and mostly dark when I get home, as we have gained an hour of daylight the last few weeks. Still, I was watching television the other night and glanced at the clock, which read 8PM. It felt like it was 11PM.

It has been colder than a witch’s tit so far this winter, but the same can be said for most of this country, I think. We’ve had more wind-chill warnings than all of last year, and more than in recent memory. The ice doesn’t melt, and the wind cuts through one’s garments and bites at your skin. This is one of the reasons why spring can’t get here soon enough, but that isn’t the main reason.

The sad fact is this winter has been much harder hard physically than any winter I can remember, and I take that as a sign that there has been a fundamental change in how my symptoms have progressed. Everything has been a little harder this year, travelling for one, but I can manage most of these situations. Winters, unfortunately, are different. Walking outdoors often feels like negotiating a mine field. Since everything has  remained frozen for longer periods of time, each step represents a potential disaster. If I fall during any other season, it’s usually my fault for not paying attention, and it’s because of something stupid. The falls aren’t severe as I don’t lose complete control of my body, which give me more ability to protect my body before it hits the ground.

But falling during the winter is usually a true accident. Since I am paying close attention to every step, any mishap is a complete and sudden surprise caused by a patch of black ice I don’t see, or the rubber tip of my cane sliding off something slippery. Either way, result is a violent and suddenly unexpected shift of balance, which prevents me from positioning and cushioning my body before it hits the frozen terrain. Under these circumstances, the chance for broken bones, shredded ligaments, or both, is greater.  Neither has happened, and hopefully won’t because I’m hyper-focused most of the time when I am outside. But there have been a couple times moments so far this year where I was on the verge.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the constant toothache in my lower back and hip prove that my body is protesting more than ever before. I’m sure the extra strain on those areas  from not having the strength in my legs when I’m  working outside doesn’t help. More than any other year, the winter of 2017-2018 has become a test of endurance, both physically and mentally

So yes, I am fantasizing about spring and summer, but summer is no bargain either. Heat and humidity is no longer a friend of mine and can sap my energy in the blink of an eye, but it is easier to navigate without the snow and ice. Besides, I have always preferred sweating over freezing. At least you can wear comfortable clothes.

There isn’t a lot I can do for now other than complain. I’m not going to relocate south because the summer heat would kill me, and New England is my home. As I have mention in earlier posts, moving to a more MS friendly house is high on our list of priorities, but all that will do is make indoor and outdoor maintenance easier. It won’t change anything as far as navigating winter roads, driveways, parking lots, and sidewalks are concerned. It won’t stop the cold and won’t prevent having to deal with snow and ice.

We can spend January through March in warmer weather climates, but I don’t have a job where I can work from home all of the time. I am also, health permitting, seven to eight years from retirement, so that option won’t be on the table for a while.

At least it is supposed to get into the fifties tomorrow, but if the trends continue the way they have so far this year, it will be in the teens again soon thereafter. So much for a January thaw.

Alas, I’m stuck with having to endure winters for the foreseeable future, and have eight more weeks of this shit to endure before spring officially starts. I’ll manage, what choice is there?

And I will probably bitch and moan about the heat and humidity come summer.

 

Ice

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I’ve never been a fan of winter. Having lived in New England for most of my life, I do enjoy having four distinct seasons, and I love the sight of the snow falling outdoors, provided I don’t have to commute in it. White Christmases are wonderful, but those have been a hit or miss proposition over the years. Before MS entered my world, I enjoyed frolicking in the snow, engaging in snowball fights, sledding down a steep hill, and even removing snow from the driveway and sidewalks, at least some of the time. I don’t mind the chilly temperatures. but could do without the bitter cold and wind. The truth is, once the Super Bowl is over, I’m ready for spring, but February and March seem to last forever.

Getting around during the winter could be cumbersome at times, but it was never unmanageable.  Over the last several years however, clearing portions of the driveway and sidewalks have become progressively more difficult. So has been getting around on a snowy terrain. Nonetheless, there wasn’t anything winter could throw at me that I couldn’t handle, until this year, that is. There is an old foe that I have succumbed to, whom I no longer bother trying to challenge. That foe is ice.

Ice has become the bane of my winter existence. We rarely get ice storms, but the snow invariably leaves frozen stretches on my driveway and sidewalks regardless of how well they are plowed or cleared. Plus, the snow often turns into slush, which freezes easily.  Worst of all, the snow on or surrounding these surfaces melt during the day and re-freeze at night, leaving a flat, frozen, and often invisible slick of black ice that can easily take me down. And if there is a melt followed by a long stretch of subfreezing weather, the ice can linger for days, but I digress.

We received our first snowfall of the year last week. It wasn’t a large accumulation, and the snow was easy to remove. The next day was clear, the sun was bright and a lot of the snow melted. When the sun set, the temps dipped below freezing and the standing water froze solid. I ventured outside the following morning to move something in the back yard, and had to cross the driveway to do it. On my way there, I mistakenly stepped on one of those frozen slicks and stopped dead in my tracks.

I used to be able to simply shuffle my feet along an icy surface to get where I needed to go, but the deteriorating balance has made that more difficult. What little strength or control I have in the bad leg is rendered moot by a slick surface, and the good leg, which handles most of the body weight, tends to slide more on icy surfaces because of the weight it handles. If that slides out from under me, I would lose complete control and the results would be both comical and ugly.

Unfortunately, I was on a slanted surface, and I soon learned that negotiating icy surfaces that are even remotely slanted is impossible. Gravity takes over, my body starts leaning, and my feet started sliding. Even my cane was rendered useless because rubber-tipped canes have no traction on ice.

I was literally stranded on what looked like a four by four section of driveway, and I was completely helpless and vulnerable. I couldn’t crawl, because that meant I would have to move my feet to get onto my knees, but if I did that, they could slide out from under me. I couldn’t gingerly slide my feet either because the bad leg was on the downhill slide of the slant and kept moving in that direction. I could see myself doing a split on the ice, tearing my groin and hamstrings in the process, howling in pain.

After the initial panic subsided, I saw that all I had to do was reach over, plant the cane into a small pile snow that was within arm’s reach at the edge of the driveway, and pull myself off across the remaining two or three feet without having to lift my feet off the ground. Once I was on solid, snow covered ground, I waddled a few feet down the snowy lawn until I reached a flatter, unfrozen section to the driveway, and made my way back into the house.

With ice, every step is an disaster waiting to happen. It snowed again yesterday and left a thin film on the driveway and sidewalk. When I went to get the mail, I swear I heard the theme from the movie Jaws playing in my head, except the slick sidewalk was lurking  instead of a Great White Shark. It didn’t bite me this time because the snow that covered parts of the walk did not have an icy foundation, and my feet could easily grip the snowy surface.

Public parking lots and sidewalks are even worse. At least I can to a certain extent control how well my home base is maintained when it comes to snow and ice removal, but all bets are off in pubic areas. At least the handicap parking areas are close to most entrances, provided some yahoo hasn’t decided to take the last open spot to park in because there wasn’t an open space nearby.

I once toyed with the idea of  moving to a warmer climate when my working days are over, but as much as I dislike being cold and dealing with the snow, heat and MS are not a good match, so I don’t see myself leaving New England permanently. Maybe finding a more temperate place to live from January through March is the next best thing.

Either that, or I need invest in a lot of driveway salt. Maybe wearing a helmet, shoulder, elbow and knee pads when I venture outside would be a good idea too!