Not Choosing Helplessness

Now that occupational therapy was winding down, I would only have to go in once every couple of weeks to have my arm measured and splints adjusted. It was going to be up to me to wear the splints each night. I wanted to help speed the process along by going to the gym most days of the week. There I would find exercises that would keep my arm and shoulder engaged. I had come into the year already doing several upper body exercises, but I now wanted to do some that more specifically targeted my shoulder and triceps.

The first machine I’d located was the lateral shoulder raise. I had done this one time before. It was difficult, but I had managed to get four sets of ten reps each. This time, I noticed that my shoulder was sore, so I dropped the weight down to 20 lbs and increased my sets to 15 reps. My shoulder was still a little sore for the first few reps, but by the end of the first set, the pain was gone. I realized that simply moving the joint was the most important thing. As I used it more during the coming weeks, I would gradually be able to lift more. Stretching a muscle group is the first step to strengthening it.

The next muscle group I wanted to work was my triceps. I desperately wanted to strengthen that region because I would never be able to actively straighten my arm if my triceps couldn’t overpower my biceps. Because of the crook in my wrist, I couldn’t perform the vast majority of the triceps exercise that I was used to. Every time I tried to grip the handle of a machine, my wrist would collapse, rendering me unable to do the exercise. This frustrated me to no end, but I kept trying different exercises until I settled on one that felt more productive. That turned out to be triceps extensions.

With triceps extensions, I would lie down with my back against the bench and lift a dumbbell over and behind my head. Once in this starting position, I would lift the weight. This strengthened my triceps and even increased my flexibility. But what really bothered me was that not being able to open my left hand caused me to grip the dumbbell improperly. I was trained to always pay attention to correct form, so I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I might be cheating my body. I kept doing this exercise twice a week, but I wanted another to do the other two days I worked out. That’s when I discovered that one of my gyms had a reverse dip machine.

Triceps dips had once been my favorite exercise. I would do them until my arms burned. But after the stroke, there was no way my left wrist would allow me to support my body weight with my arms. But seated dips could be a compromise. I sat down on the machine and tried to grip the handle with my left hand. Because of the weakness in my grip and the inflexibility in my wrist, I couldn’t do the movement properly. I rested my forearm against the handle and did the exercise by flexing against my elbow. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the compromise I would have to make until they adjusted my wrist splint. It was a way to keep moving forward.

It was hard for me to not become impatient. If I hadn’t shown restraint, I would have been in the gym every day, trying to get myself fully recovered as quickly as possible. On the days I wasn’t at the gym, I was able to see just how far I had come in my ability to perform daily tasks. One of the first things I thought of was sweeping and shoveling. My wrist had finally become flexible enough that I could do more than hold a broom; I could now actually sweep with it. If I practiced sweeping every day, it would build even more mobility in my arm and shoulder. So I went to the grocery store and selected a sturdy broom. Lifting it up, I rotated it until I was satisfied that my wrist would allow me to use it.

The winter hadn’t been nearly as severe this year. The snow began melting in February, allowing me to walk Mary in the backyard sooner. I bundled up against the cold and took Mary out for a stroll. I could tell the difference right away. The months of increased weight and frequency of lifting had made my legs stronger. I walked Mary all around the yard. Stooping over to pick up after her no longer held any sense of peril. Falling down just wasn’t much of a danger. And even if I did fall, practice had shown that it would take fewer than ten seconds to rise back to my feet.

Surveying the backyard, I could still see a little snow, but it would be gone in a couple of weeks. When it was fully melted, I could finish mastering the terrain. In 2018, I had compromised, walking Mary on the pavement. Last year, I had started walking her all over the flat part of the grass and had even ventured up the stairs to the upper patio. This year, I would start walking up and down the hills. I would also commit to climbing the stairs every day. This would be the year when I would lose my fear of walking Mary anywhere.

The next Tuesday I had to go vote. The only problem was that I was scheduled to go to the gym that day. I didn’t want to mess up my rehab schedule, but I wanted to do my civic duty as well. So I scheduled a ride to the gym through Metro Mobility and told them to schedule my return ride to drop me off at the polling place. Not knowing how long the lines would be, I scheduled myself to be there for two hours. My first ride was scheduled for 9:15 am; my last ride was scheduled for 4:00 pm. I was going to be out all day. I normally got drowsy every afternoon, so staying awake might be a challenge.

I kept my workout relatively short that day. My primary goal was to hit the milestone of four full sets of 80 lbs on the leg press. I loaded a 45-lb plate on the machine for my warmup. Then I walked over a grabbed a 10-lb and a 25-lb plate. For the first time, I walked across the floor with a weight in each arm. I had avoided this before for fear of falling. I didn’t have my cane or a free hand in case I needed to catch myself. I was basically performing walking lunges. When I’m healthier, I’m going start doing actual walking lunges carry 25-lb plates in each arm. This will go a long way toward continuing to develop my balance, speed, and confidence.

When I finished lifting, I had about an hour to wait until my ride would arrive. I walked over to the snack bar and had a fruit smoothie. While I was there, a club attendant sat down to ask me about my stroke. I told her about the entire ordeal from the stroke until I moved back to Minnesota. She confessed that she was afraid to do cardio and elevate her heart rate because of medical concerns. I advised her to consult a cardiologist if she really wanted to get advice about a safe level of activity for her body. After that, she had an ideal job for following the doctor’s advice: all of the cardio machines were equipped with heart monitors. She could use them to stay within the range her doctor prescribed. Before leaving the gym, I wrote down the title of my blog. She could read about my concern and struggles to achieve the correct level of cardiovascular health.

As predicted, my ride to the polls arrived to the gym a little late, but it still dropped me off before I was scheduled. There were no lines. Plus, my left leg was a lot stronger than it had been four months before. So I was prepared to stand in long lines if necessary. I moved with speed and confidence through the process. I was so proud of how far I had come in just a few months. I had to call Metro Mobility for an early ride home. They picked me up before the time they were originally scheduled to drop me off there.

I went home that evening to work on my blog. Right before I began writing, I received a Facebook anniversary picture notification. The photograph was one from three years ago. It was of several friends and me during my first visit back to Mississippi. I look very happy, but I was secretly terrified that my weight had gone up so much since the stroke and might never come back down. In my mind, I am hopelessly obese and a candidate for another serious stroke.

This is why I spend so much time walking around shopping and trying to keep my body moving when I’m away from the gym. My goal isn’t just to recover muscle function; I want to address the health factors that lead to stroke. My body fat needs to come down significantly. My balance, energy level, and speech will be better simply by reducing it. And, of course, I need to lower my blood pressure.

Every time I walk Mary, climb stairs, walk around Target, or force my body to get out of bed, it is a struggle against feeling helpless. I can still remember waking up in a hospital bed and fearing that I might have another stroke. I recall looking at my expanded waistline and feeling like there was nothing I could do to stop it from getting bigger. Every second provides a chance to make decisions about how to manage my body. Even if I sometimes go with instant gratification, I have already made the choice against helplessness.

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