Editor's Note: Before my surgery, I waddled like a duck. I shifted my weight from foot-to-foot and consciously used my abdominal muscles for balance (most folks are unconscious of this process). I couldn't travel more than half a block before the "creeping numbness" would hit my thighs, causing my right leg to collapse. In addition, a year before surgery, I had slowly stopped my regular exercise routine. For years, I walked 5-7 miles a day, swam 90 minute laps in an Olympic size pool, greeted the morning with tai chi, and ended the day with a yoga salutation to the moon. I use to say to folks, "I'm a fat girl, but a fit-fat girl." I had strange pride in the strength of my arms, the balance of my body, the purpose of my gait. When my arms started to shake after a swim and I could no longer leave the pool, I was heartbroken. When the numbness and coordination left my feet, and the pain of dystonias crippled my toes, Sugar was heartbroken ("What? No more long walks?") The worse thing, though? Being told by the docs eight months ago, "No more Yoga."
As I've said many times, occupational and physical therapy saved my life. (I also sent a huge "thank you" letter to my Yoga trainer-- as you'll see, 23 years of Yoga saved my ass. Literally.) You've already read the story about my left hand. I was willing to put up with horrific medical care if it meant that I could use my hands, relearn to walk, and regain my balance. Relearning to walk means retraining the brain. For me, it had very little to do with my legs. It is a long, intense, fascinating process. I've split the journal entries about walking into 3 parts.
We are dancing. A tall, strong, beautiful Austrian with a gentle mouth and analytical eyes is holding my arms, encouraging my sway. Back-and-forth. One foot. Another foot. Movement forwards, movement backwards. I feel my butt contract, and my abdominal muscles are pulling and pushing my body. It's a conscious move, and reminds me of strength built through years of Yoga and Tai Chi. I am centered and focused on the "moment." To know my body can still move, that there is still strength in some muscles? Wonderful. I have no idea if my legs are moving, and I don't care. I can not feel my feet, and my brain is convinced they are turned outwards, inwards or missing altogether. I suddenly worry and lose my focus. Are my feet even there? I turn slightly to my right and try to see them in the mirror. I stop. I don't want to know what they are doing. I'm not ready for that reality. But the numbness doesn't creep up my legs, and the soft swaying reminds me of a dance. A waltz. Who else but an Austrian could teach this former "twirling white girl at a Grateful Dead concert" to actually dance one of the most beautiful, graceful movements in the world? The music in my head aids my concentration, and I hear the first encouraging words since my surgery: "Good job, beautiful."
"Do you want to lift your legs, try to walk?"
The Austrian is smiling, encouraging my progress. My arms are weak, shaking. I can not feel the floor and my hands lose their grip on the parallel bars. The pain in my shoulders is excruciating. The muscle spasms in my back continue to crawl along my spine, and they (those damn spasms are not a piece of me, they are a separate entity with their own agenda) try to interrupt my progress. I imagine (briefly) chopping my arms off. Anything to relieve the pain. In the end, I don't care. I tuck in my butt-- suck in my gut-- take a deep belly breath-- and lift my right leg. I feel strong, Part of a dance. Confident. A second physical therapist is holding my other side, helping me balance on the bars. A third therapist is following us in a wheelchair. All I see is an end point, a chair at the end of the bars. Waiting. Eight simple steps. I start to sweat, shake and slow down-- but, I stay focused on the chair. I feel the slight movement of my abdominal muscles. The contraction of my butt. I consciously relax, hit my meditation pose, and remain focused on my goal. The chair is 3 steps away, and I have not stopped my dance. I smile.
"Do you want to try and turn around, before sitting?"
I am ecstatic. Who knew that you could learn to walk without feeling your legs? My brain has just learned that my abdominal and butt muscles can trigger a step, keep my balance, unlock my knees. Granted. I would have preferred to feel the floor on my feet, the push of my legs. Before we had started the dance, I had stomped my feet to test the sensation, and I felt no reverberation. Nothing. I suspect the stomping was more of a trigger for the brain, a remembrance of my former (non-waddled) gait.
I start to turn, and I feel the support of the team as they help me keep my balance.
I wake-up in bed. My face is wet, I'm confused, I'm tired. Damn. Another seizure. I grin, though. I laugh. For the first time in almost a year, I did not waddle like a duck. I walked.