Feeling Alive

Now that I had someone to help me with my workouts, I could start getting even more aggressive with them. Among other things, this meant that I needed my clothes to fit me better. I was using shoe buttons in most of my running shoes. They had to fit loosely because I needed to be able to slip my feet in and out of them. Once my feet were inside the shoes, I could loop the laces around the buttons. The shoes would stay on, and they would not slide around.

These were fine for casual lifting, but with an increasing number of leg exercises, I had my feet in a variety of positions. Sometimes they were on the floor; other times they were raised and pressed against a machine pad. Still other times, I was lying on my stomach with my feet dangling above my butt. The fluctuations in blood pressure or contract would cause my feet to expand and contract slightly. I didn’t work out as hard as I could, because I didn’t want my shoes to loosen too much and lead to a fall.

For times when I really wanted well-fitting shoes, I kept one pair without shoe buttons. I could put these on, pull the laces until they were snug, then have someone else tie them. That way I could go all out and exercise as hard as I wanted to without fear of working my shoes loose. I’m sure most of the perceived differences were psychological, but a lot of work in the weight room is psychological by its very nature. I think this is even more pronounced in people recovering from brain injuries.

The obvious reason why I couldn’t tie my shoes was the lack of dexterity in my left hand. Shoe buttons provided one solution, but I could not find adaptive equipment for my pants. I would use the bathroom several times before leaving the house, then I would have someone else tie my pants up when there were fewer than thirty minutes left before my ride arrived.

While I was out, I would try not to use the restroom again, since I wouldn’t have someone else to help me tie them again. But because I had once suffered from incontinence, I would often feel pressured to use the restroom shortly after I arrived anywhere. I would have to do my best to cinch them up without actually tying them. I could get them to stay up, which allowed me to work out without fear of my sweatpants coming down, but I was still cautious not to move around too much. So just as with my shoes, I felt like I was holding myself back.

One morning, I finished all of my daily tasks with 90 minutes to spare before going to the gym, so I decided to try tying my own pants. I went and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Then I fished each end of the drawstring out. I crossed the string ends and used the stroke-affected hand to help me complete the second loop and pull it tight. Next I formed a loop with one end of the string. I held this in my left hand, pinching as tightly as I could. Then I looped the other end around it, then tied both ends off into a bow. The string was not as tight as it could be, but it kept my pants tighter. I could now work out as intensely as I desired.

A few nights later we had our first snowfall. It was only a dusting, but it slowly coated the vehicles and surfaces outside. By the time I went to bed, there was a thin layer of white on everything. It reminded me of college or childhood, when snow is still beautiful, if you aren’t the one who has to shovel it.

The next morning, I got up and dressed to go out. I had nowhere to go away from the building, but Knowing how much Mary loves snow, I wanted to spend time outside with her. When we got outside, I saw the snow was not that deep. There were leaves being swept by a circular breeze. Mary began chasing them like they were sentient things. She could have kept this up for hours, but I couldn’t stay out too long. Though I had dressed in a winter parka, I could not zip it closed. So I took her back indoors, promising to take her out again around noon.

A few hours later, I called our friend Rob to come down and help me walk Mary. When we got outside, I let Rob walk Mary. That way she could walk on the grass and explore more of the snowy landscape up the hill and along the sound wall. She even got to dig around the trees for small mammals. This was the kind of excitement I loved to see in her.

Soon Rob and Mary came back to the patio. Since the footing was better, I wanted to try to walk Mary some myself. Rob handed the leash to me, and I clenched my inner thighs and took very small steps so as not to lose my balance. As I walked, I noticed that it wasn’t very slippery. When Mary inevitably tried to run after squirrels, I didn’t lose my grip or my balance. As we came back inside, my whole body felt like it was glowing with pride.

That night I took a long nap after which I had to take Mary out. I was half-asleep
and in no mood to go out. I got dressed and put Mary’s leash on before leaving my apartment and locking the door behind us. We took the elevator to the basement and got off. As I stepped out of the elevator, I began looking for my cane. I suddenly realized it wasn’t there! Apparently I’d forgotten to grab it. Since I was already downstairs, I didn’t think it made sense to back upstairs.

This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I had gone through two months of physical therapy and now I was going to the gym regularly. I knew my left leg was getting stronger. My balance was better and I could lift my leg higher with each stride. I stepped with a great deal of caution to the back door, opened it, and let Mary out. It was a 26-foot leash, so Mary was able to go out and relieve herself on her own.

When she was done, I turned to walk back to the elevator. I held Mary’s leash in my left hand and held my right arm out to my side, so I could catch myself against the wall. Without having to bend down to tap my cane on the floor, I was able to maintain a more erect posture. I took smooth, even strides. It almost felt like I was gliding down the hall.

A few days later I went down to L. A. Fitness for my first planned workout with Drew, the personal trainer. I knew that he’d be busy during most of my time in the gym, so I went in and started working out on my own. When Drew finally walked up, I was performing lat rows. He had me focus on keeping my body pressed forward against the pad so that the proper muscle group was doing the exercise. My range of motion on my left side was woefully short, but each time I performed the exercise, the shoulder region loosened.

After lat rows he had me do lat pulldowns. This time he placed his hand on my lower back to keep me from twisting as I exercised. I could tell from the contact that my form was horrible. I must have spent months overcorrecting for my constricted left shoulder. Drew had to give me constant reminders to straighten my body. I was frustrated, but I didn’t have any mirrors to reference my form, so the continuous verbal cues really helped. My frustration came frpm my years of weightlifting experience that I couldn’t help but think of. I had always prided myself on doing things the right way in the gym.

Now Drew told me that he wanted me to try a few ideas from his mother, who was a physical therapist. The first thing was the lying leg press. I had been concentrating on just working my left leg. Drew advised me to use both legs. First I did a set with both legs. The he had me do just the left leg. This was followed by a set of solo right leg presses. I knew lifting in a symmetrical pattern was always best. But I had just been hasty about trying to develop strength in my lagging left leg.

Next we went to the personal training room. There Drew helped me get down on a floor mat so I could stretch my legs. I alternately got on one knee and stretched my opposite leg. Balancing on one knee had been difficult in physical therapy, so I was terribly nervous about falling over. Drew reassured me that he wouldn’t let me. Having to rely on other people for physical support was counterintuitive to everything I had ever done, so it wasn’t easy not to panic. But eventually I stopped worrying and trusted Drew not to let me collapse. After that I was able to concentrate on stretching.

The last thing we did was modified squats. Instead of using the squat rack, Drew had me hold exercise bands in each of my hands and lean backwards slightly. Now I could squat and stand back up. Because I didn’t have any weight pressing down on my shoulders, the exercise didn’t grind on my knees. I was able to focus on using my hamstrings and engage in proper technique. I had assumed that not using weights would mean that I wouldn’t work that hard. But before long, I was sweating from doing squats too.

The whole time I was lifting weights I didn’t feel exhausted in the least. I later realized that I had an endorphin buzz going. When we were finished, I thanked Drew for the workout. He told me that he liked working with me because it was inspiring to watch me work. His goal for me was to have me able to walk better by February. This seemed like a good target date for trying to walk indoors unaided. I left the gym feeling alive with the possibilities that lay ahead.

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