I had begun pushing myself in the gym in early February by going four days in a row. My reasoning was that by forcing myself to work out while physically depleted, it would increase my all-around fitness and spur faster rehabilitation. These periods were so intense that I found myself taking two days off in between periods. The first day would be dedicated to rest and recovery. I would typically hang out in the building, blogging and spending time with Mary. I would try to go out on the second day and find ways to move around. It could entail running errands, grocery shopping, going out for coffee, or running errands – anything to keep my muscles moving. Otherwise, I worried, they might tense up.
My friend Sandra called me up to invite me over for dinner the second weekend of the month. On the Saturday she came to pick me up, we still had not decided on anything. We decided to go for Indian cuisine at the restaurant that is routinely rated as the best of its kind in the Twin Cities. It had been snowing all month, so when we arrived, we couldn’t find parking nearby. All of the strenuous work I had been putting in gave me a great deal of confidence. Walking through a few yards of snow was barely an afterthought now.
Once we made it inside the restaurant, we could see that the dining room was already filling up. The hostess led us to one of three tables that weren’t already occupied. There was so little room that I had to twist and sidle around people to get to my table. I could easily tell that my stability and balance had increased since I had been there last July. By the time we got to our seats, I felt accomplished, as if I had just made it through the obstacle course at a therapy gym.
Sandra and I had not seen each other since we had gone to see Ron Stallworth last autumn. So much had happened since then. We had both traveled; I had been released from physical therapy and had received a new brace. There were also a lot of exciting changes to the national political scene. It felt relaxing to just enjoy Sandra’s company without being distracted by the prices on the menu. I had even become better at managing my economic situation.
Soon our dinner came. I had my favorite – Rogan Josh. It wasn’t as hot as I normally like it, but I didn’t mind. The company and the food made the evening. Soon there was live music and the restaurant filled up. My double vision cleared up, allowing me to take in everything around me. For a person who had so recently suffered deprivations of all five senses, having them engaged so fully all at once made for an intoxicating night. Normally I go home with a few leftovers, but I felt as though not eating the entire meal would be like leaving something of the evening behind.
The next day was another day off from the gym. Instead of leaving the building, I went down to the basement to work on my blog again. Before I began writing, I wanted to practice walking without my cane. I had recently decided to stop using my cane while in the building, so I had no problem walking back-and-forth across the length of the room. Now I concentrated on walking along the straight lines of the floor. I had worried about my ability to walk a straight line before, but even this wasn’t a challenge.
Next I decided to try balance exercises. The first one was spinning around in a circle as fast as I could without losing balance. I went clockwise. Then I went counterclockwise. This was simpler than I thought it would be. So I tried to step sideways several times. This was something I had only ever tried while holding onto a bar. I worried that I might fall while attempting this. But I didn’t trip or fall. So I shuffled back in the opposite direction, and that wasn’t difficult either. Now I felt reassured that I was on track for not needing my cane at all by the end of the year. I sat down to write, feeling quite satisfied with the progress of my leg, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about how to advance the progress with my arm.
The following day I went back to the gym. I focused on upper body exercises. Between each set, I would hold onto handles and stretch my arm. My ultimate goal was to gain a maximum amount of strength and mobility back in the arm. Although this felt like a long shot, I had only recently wondered whether I would ever use that arm again.
One of the things that I knew would help was having assisted living perform range of motion stretches on me each morning. There had been a standing order for the staff to do this before. But during the last several months, there had been few stretching sessions. I had lost my exercise book and some staff members refused to adhere to my requests because they said that the order was not for the hours they worked. To resolve this, I went to the hospital and had an occupational therapist and a doctor to write me new orders including explicit times and repetitions for the exercises.
Once the orders arrived, I informed that staff that I had them, but I would be giving them to management. She immediately began telling me about how she wouldn’t perform the exercises. I told her that I didn’t wish to discuss it; I would talk to management about how to set it up. She reiterated that she would not do them. I told her that I just did not want to discuss it with her. She left my apartment, exclaiming that she didn’t want to argue with me. This was all I had been saying in the first place: I would give the doctor’s orders with management. She could have the conversation with them.
I felt as though I should still be doing something at home to stimulate use of my left arm. One thing that was obviously helping was walking Mary. So I began to walk her around the building. I would even take her outside when she didn’t need to go. This increased the amount of time I was actively using my hand. During these walks, I also practiced varying my grip and moving my individual fingers. It just seemed like common sense that I should keep working my fingers and sending feedback to my brain.
When I wasn’t walking Mary, I found a way to exercise by myself in the basement. I would stand over a chair. Then I would bend down and grab it by the arm or the back. Next I would pick one side up off the ground and set it back down. I would perform twenty lifts per set until I had achieved a hundred reps.
This wasn’t a strength building exercise; it was intended to redevelop my fine motor skills. When I first began the exercise, I would have to guide my fingers into place. But after the first day, I was able to place my fingers using nothing but the muscles of my left arm. Lifting and pushing the chair down also sparked feeling in the rear of my arm. So I was getting some rudimentary use out of my triceps. Between sets I would sit and lean on my left arm, while rotating my wrist and moving my fingers much as I could. The idea was to keep working as many of the muscles as I could. I don’t have any idea how much any of this helped, but I felt better than if I had merely been sitting around not using my arm.
I had been working diligently to get my blog to the point where it was four weeks ahead of publication. Once I was satisfied that I had a month’s worth of posts ready, I would feel as though I could safely start to focus on other things. One thing I wanted to spend more time doing was walking Mary myself. I knew how much she enjoyed going out every day, and I wanted her to associate going outdoors for fun with me. We were also in the midst of the snowiest Minneapolis February on record. Knowing how much Mary loves snow, I also knew that I had to get over any fear I had of falling down.
The first few times I tried walking her after a snowfall, I was worried about my footing. But after taking her out several times a day, I realized that I had developed much better balance over the last few months. The tip of my cane slipped sometimes, but my feet never did. All I needed to do was be careful and take my time. Having recently mastered bending down to pick up after her in the snow, I was quickly losing my fear of walking her in all elements. I began looking forward to the days when the weather would change and I could start walking her several blocks by myself.
Having courage outdoors gave me more courage in the gym as well. The whole time I had been working out again, I had relied on other people to help me set up exercise stations, because I didn’t want to lose balance and fall. Now I began setting my cane down so I could move weights and benches around with my right hand. I was unsure at first, but once I was sure I could count on my left leg, moving equipment around no longer seemed daunting. I focused on placing things where they needed to be.
As opposed to constantly staring down at the floor, I felt comfortable looking at the machines and where I was positioning things. Before the stroke, I had always been meticulous about setting up every exercise. That had been how I had mentally prepared for each set and how I’d remained focus throughout a workout. Not thinking about my feet now allowed me to regain that hyper focus. This contributed to more intensity in the gym and made me efficient. For the first time since the stroke, I felt more like I was working out as opposed to just rehabbing.
In addition to being able to count on my leg to maintain my balance, I noticed that it was growing much stronger. Whereas I had once required help to lift my leg into position for various exercises, I had eventually developed the ability to lift my foot into place on my own, but not without great effort. During the first two months of the new year, I had regained the ability to rapidly raise and reposition my foot. I was now also able to do exercises with my leg bent at even greater angles. I was really excited about going to the gym again. Every workout session from now on would feel increasingly as though it was just another day at the gym.