It’s nearly 5 months since my fall and it feels important to notice how far I’ve come. I can raise my left arm into the air almost as high as the right one. When my left hand is behind me, I can raise it slightly above my waist. There was a time when I couldn’t even get it behind me enough to try working towards this position. I’m moving through the world with more confidence, no longer afraid of falling when I venture out. I’ve been doing InterPlay movements more freely when I teach and when I practice alone. The next milestone will be going back to my Zumba dance class, something I have not felt ready to do until now.
Looking back over the past few months, I got some inspiration from one of the poems I wrote 20 years ago for my first book Stillpoint, which was on self-care. At that time I was visiting my son Kevin who was on the gymnastics team of his university. During the particular meet I was able to witness, each member of the team, when it was their turn, fell off their apparatus and was unable to complete their routine. I was struck by the dejection and disappointment in their body language as they exited the space.
Trained as a dance, I was used to the practice of covering a mistake, or at least not reacting to it with a grimace, or some body language that in theatre would be labeled “braking character.” As a dancer in the chorus I was trained to not react to a mistake or misstep but to proceed as though that was the way the routine was suppose to go. I imagined that if I had been the gymnasts’ coach I would have tacked the following note to their dressing room door –
Falling is not a giant zap from the gods
meant to embarrass, humiliate, or hurt you, but,
falling is one of the things that happens
in the process of “going for it,”
as you move too close to your growing edge.
It is a sign that you have made an error
and you need to;
BREATHE…….as in keep breathing
LAUGH……… as in keep releasing
GET UP… as in keep moving
LAUGH………as in keep enjoying
and get back on the horse,
ring, barre, or floor!
SMILE…………as you uncover, discover,
recover, the lessons of each particular fall.
“How long will it take,” I asked, “to heal my broken shoulder.” Everyone I spoke to, the doctor, the nurse, the physical therapist, all responded in the same vague, hesitant manner. Looking off into the distance they each said some version of “three, four months. Maybe six.” Someone who had actually had a shoulder injury said, “It was a year until I was totally back to where I was.”
Looking back now that I’ve made it to four months, and that I’m not where I want to be yet, I see that this unpredictability has made it hard to plan my future and to have realistic expectations of myself. Last week I traveled to California with my husband and I did very well. Moving swiftly through the airports and eyeing the folks in wheel chairs gave me a clear comparison of how far I’ve come since my first flight only a few days after my injury. On vacation I wasn’t able to continue my daily physical therapy exercises as I’d been doing at home, but I was active in ways I’m not in my daily life. Hiking on uneven terrain offered my biggest challenge but it’s hard to say how I would have done with two good shoulders.
Today I found out that Medicare has decided I’ve healed well enough because they are ending their reimbursements for my physical therapy sessions and my secondary insurance will cut off when Medicare does. I’m remembering this bazaar system from when my daughter was a physical therapist. At least a dozen years ago, Medicare established an arbitrary cap on the reimbursements it will make for a patient for Physical Therapy in a single calendar year. There is no accounting for where the patient is in their recovery, with the possibility of customization for patients who have experienced a heart attack or a stroke. Corinne was convinced that no one who knew anything about physical therapy and how it works was on the committee that wrote those guidelines. I am surprised that they haven’t been modified by now.
Routine is the foundation of momentum so I will need to establish a new pattern of actions to continue moving towards my full recovery. I don’t like the disruption but I am grateful that I have the resources to get the help I need. I realize that others in my situation are not as fortunate. As a feminist I know that the personal is also political, so when given the opportunity I’ll join my voice to that of the Physical Therapists and patients who have been trying for years to change this self-defeating system.
“You’re not as you were,” the doctor tells me as he shows me the x-ray of my shoulder. The picture has little meaning since I’m not totally clear on what the shoulder bones are suppose to look like. It’s three months since my fall, and after he directs me to push against his hands and reach up overhead he declares, “you are at 80 percent.”
I agree with his assessment but let him know I will not be satisfied until I have regained what was for me, a full range of motion. He’s careful to make no promises. He tells me to make an appointment in three months and continue physical therapy. If I am not satisfied with my recovery by then he will do an MRI and see whether there is any surgery that would help. If I’m satisfied with where I’m at that time, I can cancel the appointment.
Standing in the examination room with my husband as my witness I am grateful for yesterday’s conversation with Susan, a dancer friend from Chicago, about her own recovery from a shoulder injury. “I’m at 100 per cent. I’ve gotten it all back,” she says as she moves her left arm in a gigantic circle overhead and reaches behind her. She looks straight into my eyes when she says, “I wanted you to know that. It’s possible,” and then she tells me how she did it. Physical therapy twice a week, 20 minutes of exercise three times a day, and Reiki sessions weekly to deeply relax the muscles that are constricting the movement. In other words, it takes work but it’s doable.
At my favorite dress shop yesterday Helen, a woman who claims to be older than me though she won’t say how much, lifts her arm upwards to show me her range of motion. Her shoulder injury was more than five years ago and her arm is about like mine is now, but she’s satisfied. Somebody else can reach the items on the top shelf. In other words, it’s not only what you’re used to, but also what you’re planning to do in your future life. I’m still a member of the “going for the gusto club” though I realize it takes more effort than it used to.
Another dancer friend and mentor Cynthia, had a shoulder injury a couple of months before mine, (her right, my left). She’s nearly back to a complete range of motion and her recovery program included all of the above along with her spiritual practice of making art with whatever comes into her life. We’ve commiserated about our “broken wings” and when I saw her at InterPlay’s national conference she gifted me an art piece she created out of found objects. It’s a shrine to honor our brokenness – individual and collective, to call on the energies of renewal and restoration, and to remember our bones, and other body parts need lots of love, commitment and a caring community in order to heal.
After ten weeks and the twice-weekly Physical Therapy sessions and daily exercises, I am no longer managing with only one hand. The injured arm still needs strengthening but that’s starting to happen, so being able to drive seems to be in my near future. Monday I get on a plane to Chicago on my way to Racine WI where I will chair the national board for Body Wisdom, the organization that oversees InterPlay. It will feel good to be in a useful role and in community again after so much alone time this summer but getting there feels more than a little daunting.
Several weeks ago the woman who cleans my house and who had broken her wrist several years ago, told me, “It hurts more later on, when it’s healing.” I did not want to hear that and I was hoping that my experience wouldn’t be the same as hers in that regard. But she was right. For me, it’s not just that the shoulder and arm are healing, it’s that I’m challenging them everyday, trying to unfreeze that shoulder, stretch the muscles and strengthen them to regain my range of motion. Every gain brings new discomforts.
Yesterday as I was getting emails about taking a train from the airport to a particular stop in Chicago to meet up with someone who would be driving to Racine, I got in a pretty cranky mood. “Nobody’s getting that I only have a hand and a half to lug my suitcase,” I’m thinking, “although a hand and a half is better than only one.” The low-grade pain running down my arm was a big part of the problem and the ice pack I put on after my exercises had not helped to any great extent. Reflecting on it later I am amazed at the people whose every action in life is accompanied by a certain level of pain. The next cranky person I meet, I’m going to take this possibility into consideration and be in awe of their heroism.
“The quality of your life is the quality of your movement.” Moshe Feldenkrais
I awoke the other morning to the above quotation, and it felt like one of my most respected teachers had come to give me a message of encouragement. Now deep in the daily discomfort and pain of rehabbing my shoulder, I’m longing for a return to the broad range of easeful movement I’ve experienced most of my life. I met Moshe in Dallas in the spring of 1981 when I drove from Fort Worth where I lived, to take part in a daylong workshop he was presenting. I’d heard of him through the Alexander Technique, http://alexandertechnique.com/ another system of somatic education I was involved with, and I knew this was a rare opportunity. Looking at his bio, my meeting with him came just before he stopped teaching in the fall of 1981. He died at age 80 in 1984. In spite of the short time I spent with him, the experience changed my life. http://www.feldenkrais.com/whatis
Moshé Feldenkrais was an Israeli physicist with a black belt in Judo who hurt his knee in a soccor match as a young man. He became an engineer and eventually founded a method of somatic education that uses gentle movements and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning. One of the books he wrote around that time was titled, ”The Elusive Obvious.” wikipedia.org
Something happened just prior to my driving the thirty miles to Feldenkrais’s workshop that set the experience up as a life changing one for me. The night before I had gotten a call from one of my students who told me that the job I had held for two years as a social work professor at TCU, the one that had been listed nationally simply to fulfill the university’s affirmative action requirements, the same job that had been promised to me when I moved my family from Nebraska to Texas two years earlier, had been offered to a white male without a PhD. That morning I had decided to put this entire trauma drama out of my mind and attend the workshop as planned. But as I was driving I noticed my body going into a familiar response to extreme stress, so I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped my car.
Sitting in the drivers’ seat I began doing body awareness exercises to interrupt a movement pattern I had recognized in other situations of extreme stress. Ten years earlier two teenage boys had jumped me after I came out of my neighborhood bank and was attempting to get into my car in the parking lot. As I was sitting at the steering wheel and before I could get the door closed, one boy grabbed me to pull me out of the car. With the boy still attached to me, I slid across the front seat to the passenger side, unlocked the door and exited the car, all the while screaming at the top of my lungs. Shortly after I got home, the police called to say they had caught the boys. An off duty police officer happened to be at the bank observing the scene. He gave chase and captured them. The aftermath for me was the worst headache I’d every experienced and a toothache that resulted in my losing one of my front teeth.
It was that familiar sensation of tension above my front teeth that caused me to stop the car. “I may lose my job, but I’m not going to lose any more teeth,” I pledged to myself. I went into a meditative state to release the tension in my mouth and continued doing this even after I resumed driving. I arrived at the workshop just as it was beginning.
I joined the roomful of people lying on the hotel ballroom floor doing the slow relaxing and releasing exercises directed by the master. I noted the pleasure of moving without tension, of having my awareness completely in the moment. Whenever my mind wandered away from the awareness of my movements, the trauma drama of losing my job triggered painful tension in my gut and my upper jaw. I got the image of myself as an animal opening its mouth to bare its teeth to an aggressor.
It was at Moshe’s workshop that I noted not only how my body reacts to painful events in the external world, but also how to pattern interrupt these reactions, preventing them from continuing to harm me long after the event has ended. I discovered that choice point of the “Elusive Obvious” where, though it takes practice – when life gets tough, I can choose the pleasure of staying present to my body, and continuing aware of ways to move with ease and grace.
When a fall in my dance class a month ago caused us to cancel our European vacation, my husband worked to came up with an alternative. The doctor made sense when he said, “postpone the trip till you can really enjoy it,” but we then both had a block of free time in our calendars. And we both felt in need of a vacation. I started physical therapy twice a week with a set of homework exercises to do twice a day so the alternative needed to be not too far away and in a place where I could continue my rehabilitation regime.
Meanwhile, I had promised my sister, who lives in the Detroit area, that I would accompany her to the Geriatric Center in Ann Arbor where she was to receive results of testing that had been going on for over a year. Before my fall, the center had rescheduled her appointment to a date when I was to be in Amsterdam. After we knew I’d been in the country, I suggested she keep that appointment and I’d figure out how to get myself there.
On his walk one early morning, my husband came up with a plan – we could drive to Cleveland, only 2 hours away, and visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which turned out to be a “don’t miss it destination.” http://www.cleveland.com/rockhall/#/0 We’d stay overnight somewhere near my sister’s house and pick her up the next morning to take her with us for a short vacation. On the way back we’d go through Ann Arbor in time for her appointment.
I found a town, Saugatuck, known as the Art Coast of Michigan http://www.saugatuck.com/index.asp only a three-hour drive from my sister’s house. There would be no sailing, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, or dune buggy rides for me. I’d need to be satisfied with a view of the water from the broad roof deck of our well-appointed condo. I was able to visit the quaint shops and art galleries of the village, survey the history and art museums, and take a ride on the country’s last chain ferry. An evening cruise on the Star of Saugatuck paddleboat was especially lovely, as were the few hours we spent on Oval Beach, one of the best beaches in America, according to systems that rate such things. But a special highlight, which seemed a meaningful chance encounter, was our visit to nearby Holland Michigan.
Monday’s weather forecast had been for rain so we decided to drive north a bit to a larger city where there might be more to do indoors. Arriving in a rain torrent, we drove to the Windmill Island Gardens and learned they had the only authentic windmill outside of the Netherlands. We stayed dry by finding lunch in a Dutch café and realized that on that very day we had been scheduled to disembark our river cruise in Amsterdam. To celebrate that realization, when the sky cleared we went back to the gardens to climb the windmill – no passport needed. http://www.holland.org/listings/Windmill-Island-Gardens/74/
As to my sister’s health, things are still not as we would want them to be but she got some good news and hope from a talented doctor who is determined to get to the bottom of her mysterious symptoms.
It’s been a month since the fall that changed my life and I’m now beginning the restoration phase of the project. Last Thursday I had an evaluation at the physical therapy clinic in my neighborhood where I was given a few passive exercises to begin undoing the muscle tension that prevents me from having use of my left hand and arm. As I now understand it, when my bone broke, it enlisted enormous help from the muscles in my arm to lock it in place so the broken pieces could reconnect and fuse. And for the past month my part has been to hold the arm in a fixed position through the use of a sling, which I wore every day, even at night while sleeping.
I’m loving being able to let go of the sling for all but the times I’m in a crowded public space and need to signal other people to avoid bumping into my left side. I’ve also worn the sling when I’m teaching InterPlay to remind myself not to try to use muscles that have lost most of their strength. Strengthening will happen in the third phase – after the bones are securely mended.
As I’ve begun the exercises to reclaim some flexibility, the emotional challenge has been significant. I’m brought to the edge of tears, not just from physical pain, but from the feelings of shaky vulnerability that become ignited, like a bird with a broken wing continuingly attempting, but not quite able, to achieve flight.
Not surprisingly, since memories are stored in our bodies, working with the inner muscles close to the bone activated a memory of an incident that happened during a bodywork session I did 30 years ago. The practitioner working with me as I lay on the massage table held my left shoulder in her hands. Sending my breath into that place, and with her help, I was able to release tension from deep inside my shoulder, which coincidentally was the same shoulder that I’ve now broken. The immediate aftermath was a sensation of deep chill and my whole body began shivering. When I asked her what this might be about she said simply, “It’s fear.”
A few minutes later when I went outside into the streets of New York City, I experienced that shoulder as porous, and the wind as moving through open spaces I had created within it. I never was quite sure what that was all about but I never missed whatever I’d let go of and I’m hoping I won’t miss the tension I’m working on letting go of now.
It’s day 24 since my fall in a Sunday morning dance class ended my life-as-usual routines. Instead of taking a Zumba class this morning I will sit on a chair in the hallway outside the bathroom door, set the timer on my cell phone and use a pulley apparatus to slowly and carefully, exercise my arm and shoulder. When the good arm lowers the wounded one rises. I concentrate on listening deeply to how my body is handling this simple yet dramatic challenge. The goal is to introduce flexibility while not disrupting the proper placement and alignment needed for the bones to heal on their own.
Since my fall I’ve heard many stories of other people falling, including one of my long time friends Jyoti, who has lived in a memory center for close to 10 years. According to her husband someone left a suitcase in the middle of her room while she was sleeping, and when she woke and began moving about she tripped over it. No broken bones but lots of bruises that needed a couple of days in a hospital.
Last week my neighbor Claire saw me walking with my arm in a sling and she offered to check with me the next time she goes to the grocery store to see if I might need anything. A couple of days later she called. “I’m sorry I won’t be able to follow up on my offer to bring you groceries,” she began. “I’m in a rehab center after taking a fall myself during one of my power walks in our neighborhood.” The culprit was an uneven sidewalk, the outcome two broken bones in her left wrist, bruised ribs, and a sore left side
“Falling is part of life” according to the refrigerator magnet my friend Lynn brought me. She had her own encounter last summer with falling and breaking her heal when she walked out of a restaurant in Lawrenceville and turned her ankle in a hole in the sidewalk. After surgery and relying on a boot and crutches and the generosity of friends to get to work and back for 6 or so months, plus lots of physical therapy, she’s now an inspiring example that healing does happen.
The second half of the magnet’s message, “Getting Back Up is Living,” challenges me to not focus on what I’ve had to cancel, (European vacation, grandparent trip with my granddaughter), or things I can not do (driving my car, taking dance classes, and ballroom dancing with my husband), but on the lessons being provided. I’ve become aware of how attached I am to my competencies. The 4 year old inside me who was ecstatic about being able to tie her own shoes, is still discouraged at herself when she cannot do that or other more important tasks. Looks like she and I are getting the opportunity to relearn many basic skills. I hope we’ll be like we were the first time around, proud and eager to let everyone know of our accomplishments so they can celebrate each small but important victory with us.
It’s day 16 since my fall, the pattern interrupter that broke my shoulder (or more exactly, the humerous where it inserts into the shoulder) and changed every activity of my daily life. Luckily I’ve learned quickly how to sleep on my back in a stable, relatively comfortable position. Not so quickly, I’ve mastered a one-handed version of dressing myself. A friend came over and helped me figure out what items in my wardrobe could work. Tops with wide-neck openings are the only ones that can go over my wounded left arm. The top buttons on some pants make them impractical for fastening and unfastening during visits to the rest room. And forget a bra and contact lenses. Those items can only be included when someone is available to lend me another hand.
It does astonish what one cannot do having the use of only a single hand. I found clapping for my granddaughter as she walked across the stage at her high school graduation impossible, also tying my own shoelaces. Sandals work well but when it turns cold I enlist visitors to my house to help me don my silver sneakers. I’ve had to invent an entirely new method for wringing water out of my face cloth. The childproof tops on our medicine bottles had to be changed out so I could take my medicine on my own. And as I discovered yesterday, locking and unlocking our front door is something I cannot do without assistance. It’s a two-handed operation – you must pull with one hand while turning the key in the lock with the other.
I’m getting quite a bit of exercise just moving about the house. In order to preserve my balance and avoid another fall I must make multiple trips to move items from place to place as I can carry only one item at a time in my one good hand. To recover something I’ve dropped, which happens much more often now, I execute an elaborate slow genuflection of my knees to the ground in order to avoid bending over and disturbing the placement of my ailing shoulder. And that is the overarching goal. To preserve the proper alignment of what the doctor calls, “the bag of bones” that comprise my shoulder and upper arm, so they may heal on their own without the need of the surgeon’s metal plates and pins. So far, so good.
Now I listen carefully to the universe to extract the message and meaning of this experience for my future life. I know already it will be a long time before I take for granted the simple acts necessary for self -care in my everyday life.