Live-Blogging Parkinson's: (Re)Learning To Walk
“Keep the juices moving by jangling around gently as you walk.” – Satchel Paige
The act of walking is so basic, so elemental, so essentially human that we take it for granted. We don’t analyze it. We don’t think about it. We just put one foot in front of the other and go wherever we want. From the time we take our first steps as a child, our attention is focused ahead to where we are going and where we want to be – we are goal driven, our feet are just another link in the chain of command that takes us from one place to another. Our feet are truly the foot soldiers of our life.
I have always been a walker/runner. I’ve had no choice: life would call me out, and out the door I would flee on well-muscled legs and bottomless lungs. In my prime I ran marathons and chewed up the rocky trails of Mt. Tamalpais for sport. I would spring from one step to the next with toes spread and relaxed, pushing into the earth like a panther, grasping hold of the ground and pushing it behind me. Each fleet bound led to another, and then another, and then another, in an indistinguishable series of coordinated movements. These motions were fluid and automatic. Together they blended effortlessly together as either walking - which was much too slow, but ruthlessly efficient – or running which was easy, fluid and natural. Moving forward in life was mindless, liberating, and free.
But with the effects of Parkinson’s, everything has changed. Now, especially when I’m tired, I scuffle and shuffle around like an old man in his pajamas and slippers. I feel hunched forward, dragging my heels, wearing down the soles of my shoes at an unprecedented rate. My legs are no longer springs; they have become stiff and inflexible. (The better choice of word might be “flex-less”.) My toes, especially those of my left foot, mindlessly curl into a “fist” which I am forever relaxing. Walking used to be easy money, but now it has become a game of chance… I’m never exactly sure how, or where, my foot is going to come down. When this happens, walking goes from a controlled transfer of energy to the barely controlled ricochet of a drunken sailor; an almost-but-never-quite-in-control battle for balance.
I’m not a cripple, I’m still reasonably light on my feet. I can still fake out a first grader and jog for short periods of time. I walk a couple of miles every day out of necessity, but my focus is no longer on where I’m going because I’m no longer convinced that I’m automatically going to get there. Instead, my concentration has shifted to the process of walking itself. I must concentrate on what my legs and feet are doing at all times. Each individual step has become its own entity - a separate moment. With each step I must stop and remind myself to be more mindful – less I become mindless again.
When I find myself becoming mindless, I snap to and try to alter my step. I mutter “just walk!” to myself and aggressively step forward – taking longer strides and seeking to come down firmly on my heal. But this only serves to throw me off balance and further slow me down. Despite trying to walk consciously and willfully, I soon revert back to my shuffling gait which is again awkward and inefficient. I’m just not transferring weight forward efficiently. I am wasting and losing too much energy driving my momentum into the ground and wearing down the heals of my shoes. Whereas I once used to sit on my own hips like a tourist on a bus, watching the scenery go by as I walked, I now miss the scenery because I’m out behind, pushing the damn bus.
When I trace it, the problem always seems to begin and end in my lower back. There is a weakness there that is inhibiting my stride. Since I’ve had problems with my lower back for years, I hold out hope that I DON’T have PD… that I have something else. But even if that is the case I’m still left with this awkward, heel-grinding gate.
Since I began this journal I’ve been hearing from people who have PD. One of the best descriptions that I’ve heard is that it’s like trying to walk in sand. Someone else said it’s like your shoes weigh ten pounds apiece.
To me it feels like one of the scenes from the movie “Animal House”. Towards the end of that film there’s a scene where the geeky fraternity brother hijacks the marching band by masquerading as the drum major and leads the entire parade down a dead-end alley. He walks with a distinctly herky-jerky, falling forward motion. I don’t know what I look like to others, but I feel like I walk like the geek.
And the blind alley part? I try not to think about it.
© 2012, Jeff L. Howe, all rights
This post is part of a complete journal on my experience with Parkinson's Disease that can be found at: jeff-howe.net. This week at the web site there are also new postings on "Snooze Alarm" in my blog, "The Invention Of Sex" in Einstein's Hammock, and a repost story entitled "Upon The Road To High Adventure: Salt Lake City to Oakland, 1975. There is also a slide show the features my graphics. Check it out.