I hesitated writing this post. I hesitated a second time when two weeks later I was deciding whether or not I would make the post public. It’s almost easier to let people believe that what they see is the reality. But if I let others think that my outward appearance matches the underlying reality, then that does not help me accept the reality of my present normal either. The illusion I am talking about is my ability to walk.
The sun was shining on this particular Monday morning, the beginning of week 12 post-surgery. Knowing that we had a faculty meeting scheduled for that morning, rather cheekily I asked whether we could meet over coffee. The others wholeheartedly agreed. Going to a cafe was a good excuse to walk in the sunshine. An hour and a half later, we started walking towards the cafe. A cracking pace was set by one faculty member, I enjoyed the challenge of keeping up. I deliberately go for ‘long’ walks, pushing myself beyond my physical limit, being driven by a determination to build up my endurance to walk distances again. I did keep up with the pace, all the extra walking paid off, but I needed the hour long meeting for my legs to recover enough for the walk back. The same pace was set on the walk back to College as well. A different faculty member made the comment afterwards, ‘you kept up really well, I was surprised that you did that walk’. He was being encouraging; and I smiled and accepted the encouragement, but really in my head I was thinking, ‘if only you knew how’. This isn’t the first time that someone has made a comment like this. Quite often people say, ‘you’re walking so well’ or ‘you’re walking better than I thought you would be’. And quite often the next comment is the question, ‘so when will you be able to drive?’ My walking ability seems to give the impression that I’m nearly there. The reason I was hesitant about writing this post is that I know people are being positive and encouraging; these comments come from the best of intentions. But here is the thing. I know that what my walking appears to be, when not scrutinized too closely, is far from the reality. Impressions can be deceptive. Please let me explain.
Before I started my first theological degree, I was a ballet dancer. We are trained in such a way that what an audience sees on stage captures their imagination into the world being portrayed; transports their minds into a world of effortlessness, beauty, and elegance. We are taught to hide the strain, to hide the pain, to get up when you fall and continue, even when all eyes are watching you. I have been taught to smile, even when everything is crumbling. I have been taught to keep going, even when my legs are telling me I cannot take a step further.
Everything about my rehabilitation plan so far has been about helping me adapt and be functional. I can stand up, but only having learnt how to adapt. Learning to stand without a walking stick took about four weeks. I have to position myself on the edge of the chair, placing my left leg behind my right, placing all my weight forward over my toes, and then recruiting all the core strength available to me, I have just enough capacity to push myself up through my legs, if I use my arms to push myself up, as well. Before all this happened, I would not have thought twice about how I stand up. Within a split second, I could stand, not even thinking about the chain of movements standing takes. Now I have to practice standing, making sure each time that my weight is placed correctly over my toes, otherwise any attempt to stand will fail. I may look like I can stand and sit with relative ease, but this is only because I have now been trained by my Physio to stand, using the function in my lower half of my body that I do have. Is this an illusion? Not in a way that is deceptive, but by the impression I can give if someone watched me. This impression is not the complete picture. If you saw me sit and stand, you could almost think that I have recovered function in my legs to the 80% mark already. Sadly, this is not the reality. I have just learnt how to adapt by using what I do have.
Walking and going up a couple of steps is exactly the same. I always lead with my left foot, my stronger leg; this allows for my right leg, together with my walking stick at my left side, to move forward together. Since my right leg is not strong enough to bear all my weight, the majority of my weight goes through the walking stick. For my right leg to step forward, my hip flexors bend the leg at the hip, but there is very little control over the action as the leg moves forward, and I have even less control placing the foot onto the ground. For this reason, I have been wearing knee high boots. The weight of the boot helps control my leg as I step forward, stopping each leg from swinging around as it moves forward, and the weight on my walking stick means that my gait more or less looks kind of normal. And I haven’t even mentioned the invisible, but ever-present, Ankle-Foot Orthotic that stabilises my right foot and ankle, ensuring that my foot lifts up. If I take away the walking stick, the knee high boots, and the ankle foot orthotic, this is what happens. My right leg has to lead the way forward because it cannot take my weight to allow for the left to beginning stepping forward. My weight completely shifts onto my right, my right hip collapses slightly, and my entire body swings to the right. Quickly, my left leg moves forward and my weight is then transferred to the left leg, my right then swings forward again, picking up my right foot clear off the ground before placing the foot down flat, transferring all my weight over to my right leg. My brother calls this waddling rather than walking, and he’s right. I can do three or four steps like this, but that is about it. If I do more, I risk falling over. That is the reality. Not the impression that a walking stick, knee high boots, and an Ankle-Foot Orthotic can give. The reality is much more ugly and lacks any kind of elegance. The impression of ease and speed is just that; it’s a perception given by learning how to adapt and using what I have, rather than being held back by fixating on what I don’t have. So I’m very thankful that I have learnt how to adapt and be functional with what I have, but I’m also painfully aware that I walk, go up a step, and sit, not because I have the function in my legs, but because I have been given and learnt the strategies to help me move forward.