I’m a “frequent faller.” I fell a lot this summer, and I hated it. I have reduced balance, one of the aftereffects from two brain surgeries I had in 2005. Partial facial paralysis, double vision, and partial body weakness are the other big ones. Because the doctors had to go into the pons, the center of the brain where things like breathing, swallowing, and equilibrium are controlled, they had to lift up the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls, among other things, coordination, precision, and accurate timing.
Messing with those two parts of the brain has far-reaching effects as far as moving about is concerned. In the past, I could just be standing still, talking to someone, and suddenly tip sideways, as if on a ship. I would walk from room to room of my house clinging to walls. Now it’s much better, but I always need a railing going up or down stairs, and doing things like walking and talking simultaneously can take a lot of concentration.
One fall this summer was on the stairs on the way to my son’s daycare. The stairs are concrete, and nothing is so hard as concrete when you slam on it. I feel embarassed to say I was carrying my son, and when I fell on the stairs I also dropped him. Not far, he wasn’t hurt, but he was crying. I had scrapes on my knees and elbows for weeks. The knees I could cover up, but the ones on the elbows kept peeking out from sleeves and under bandages. When someone would ask what happened, sometimes I told the truth, but sometimes, inexplicably, I made up something. I’d say I fell somewhere else, doing something else. I don’t know why. Why would that sound any better?
Is it the shoes? Sometimes I want to blame it on my shoes — sandals. Birkenstocks. Maybe they are too loose on me, and catch in that place between the toes and the shoe. But then I remember that just two weeks ago, I fell wearing my tennis shoes. I was wearing my new yoga pants and ripped them, and the blood from my scraped knee never came out.
Maybe it’s because we moved to a new city. Really — after more than a decade of living in the same town where I knew the best routes to everywhere, I was negotiating new territory, and I had to figure out the safest routes, with the most level ground and least potholes, by trial and error.
I always have scrapes and bruises on my arms and legs. I only actually bite it once or twice a month, but there are countless times each week when I misjudge, say, a doorway and slam a shoulder, or stumble and knock a hip around a sharp corner.
Of course, people don’t understand. Why would they? My realtor jokingly asked my husband if he’d been beating me. It was hard to smile.
I have a nurse friend who talks about how angry nurses get when a patient gets out of bed when they shouldn’t and falls. People do not like it when adults fall when it could be avoided. I have a personal trainer, and we do balance exercises like trying to walk forwards and backwards in a straight line, playing catch standing on balance balls, and standing on one foot for as long as possible. My trainer used to feel bad about my tears of frustration, apologizing over and over, but now he doesn’t. When talking to others, I try not to ever bring up that I have a personal trainer, and this goes back to my embarrassment about falling, too.
Why do I hate to admit to having a trainer, to falling? It has something to do with not wanting to admit I’m different, but why should I worry about that? I’m 34 years old, what do I care? Maybe because walking and having balance should be so simple. It seems like something I should have control over. Not being able to balance makes me seem so incompetent in other areas of my life. What can I handle if I can’t handle this?
I have two small children I can mother, although it may not always be pretty. It means having conversations with my daughter, a kindergartener, about why my balance is bad or my left eye doesn’t move, and making peace with questioning looks from parents in the pick-up line. I have a husband who loves me fiercely, even though I struggle at times with the image the world sees of a “normal” man with a different-looking woman. I’m also a professor, a job I love and cherish. To me, teaching is about connecting with students, and I love nothing more than having those moments in the classroom that leave me feeling reset and centered — I have found that feeling nowhere else.
I can handle life, even though it appears otherwise at times. Maybe I’m afraid that when I fall, I have lost my ability to be someone whom others understand, to play a part in the world, to relate to others. I need to remember that being different isn’t the problem — feeling different is. Feelings are valid and should not be ignored, but I need to remember to look out, look around me, and take stock of all I have handled that is far more complex than walking a straight line.
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