The Mindfulness of Disability

One night back in early December, I fell out of bed. Well, more like slid out. I was wrestling with the flu at the time. My fellow MSers will know what that means. (For you muggles, any kind of flu or cold or infection can send multiple sclerosis symptoms out of control.) I was feeling overall just plain weak. I sat up on the edge of my bed, and in the process of getting back into it, I started to slide off, and didn’t have the leg or arm strength, or mental clarity, to pull myself back in. So, I let it go and slipped onto the floor. I ended up on my side between the bedside table and the bed, unable to move in any direction. We called the Uh-Oh Squad, and two stalwart young men arrived to haul my bulk up onto a chair. Luckily, the only thing that was injured was my pride.

Like most evolved primates, I’m able to learn from events like this. The take away is a reminder to pay attention to every step. When I am getting out of bed, or transferring from my wheelchair to the stair lift, or out of the bathtub, or from wheelchair to car, or even reaching for something in one of the kitchen cabinets, I need to be fully mindful of what my various appendages are doing. I go so far as to actually talk myself through these transfers, paying attention to every handhold and foot placement. It’s a little like playing Twister – left foot there, right hand here, right foot over there, etc., the goal being to not fall down.

Mindfulness extends into other aspects of life. When one of Jack Kerouac’s critics first saw the manuscript of the book, “On The Road,” he said, “This isn’t writing, it’s just typing.” I used to write that way, though not quite to the same effect. I just let my fingers do the work, pouring words onto the page, just typing. The goal was to be mindless, to not think about every word, plunging headlong into the stream of consciousness. I would go back after I was done typing and either make sense of it or not. I think it is safe to say that both the typing and the editing worked better for Kerouac. Writing for me now is whole different animal. It has become an exercise in mindfulness. My fingers don’t work so well, so I have to dictate into a headset. The software that translates my speech into text on the screen works remarkably well, but it requires that I speak very slowly and carefully and precisely. I need to be conscious of every individual word and punctuation mark. I would like to think that my writing has improved with mindfulness. There certainly is less of it, and that is probably an improvement.

There are books and websites and seminars and retreats and smart phone apps dedicated to the practice of mindfulness. Those are all well and good, but in the end, mindfulness is nothing more than paying attention. Mindfulness just means being aware of what’s going on around you. The practice of mindfulness is identifying the “magic moment,” when the mind drifts away from what’s right in front of it, providing the practitioner the opportunity to refocus, and begin again. There are endless opportunities in every day to begin again. Disability provides many of them. In my case, not being mindful can easily mean falling down.

Two of my favorite mindfulness teachers are Pema Chodron and Thích Nhất Hạnh. They have both written several books on the practice of mindfulness, and occasionally host seminars and retreats.

When was the last time you fell down?

I remember many years ago, what I call “In a former lifetime,” my room-mate came home and 0511-1001-1419-2130_Dance_Partner_Falling_Down_clipart_image.jpgannounced with some confusion and a little glee that he had fallen down. Just lost it, and fell down. At the time, it was a curiosity – I had to think, when was the last time I fell down. Not got knocked down, or tripped, but just lost the equilibrium and fell down.
I couldn’t remember when the last time was.

Fast forward to my current life-time. I was out for a walk at lunchtime, and as a public service, tried to kick a big cardboard box out of the road. I lost my balance, and fell down. Right in the road. fortunately, no one saw me, and I was still, at that point, able to pick myself up. I have fallen a few times since then, and I still don’t think anyone has witnessed it. It is a bit weird, as an adult, to fall down. There was the time I was sitting on an easy chair, watching TV, and realized I had slipped forward far enough that I was unable to leverage myself back up so I could stand. I figured I’d simply let myself slip the rest of the way onto the floor, and, using the chair and the bed next to it, haul myself back up. I rolled over onto my front, planning to do a push up and get myself onto my knees, and from there, easy as pie. Nope. Luckily, I had my cell phone, and called my wife who was downstairs, and told her I had fallen and I could not get up. She came up, and tired valiantly to get falling-goofy-picme up into a position where we could get me back on the chair, but my massive bulk proved beyond her abilities. Damn you, Gravity! We had to call the EMTs to come rescue me. (Pro tip: if you ever feel you are getting too big for your britches and want to take yourself down a peg or two, have a few strangers come over to your house and help you do something that 99% of people your age can do all by themselves. Like pick you up off the floor.)

I guess in the end, it was no big deal. The two EMT responders were great. We were able to focus on the humor of the situation, they managed to get me back into to the chair, made sure I was OK, and left. Probably had a good laugh back at the station, but that’s OK. I’m always glad to brighten another’s day.

I’ve fallen a few other times. There is a dent in the radiator at the top of the stairs that is the exact same circumference as the back of my head. I have not had to call for assistance since that first time. But just the other day, I fell in my room, trying to put my pants on. I was hiking them up, and lost my balance, and needed to sit down, but only gotI-ve-Fallen-and-I-Can-t-Get-Up! about half of one cheek onto the chair. It was a slow-motion fall, the kind where you have a few vital seconds to A) realize you are falling, B) notice what you are going to fall on, C) determine if it is going to hurt or not, and D) try to fall in such a way that will make it easier to get back up. This time, I had to do a lot of wriggling on the floor to get myself to the foot of the bed, up onto my hands and knees, and, using the bed, back onto my feet. Exhausting.

Since then, I’ve noticed a distinct increase in my deteriorating grasp on the concept of balance. I’ve come close to falling down the stairs when reaching for my walker, and even a few times nearly tipping over sideways when using the walker. (What kind of doof falls down man-walker-falling-16010445when using a walker?) For some of us, the possibility of falling is ever-present. We just have to keep our wits about us, be as observant was possible when going down, and keep the cell phone handy. A sense of humor is very helpful as well.

(Share your favorite falling-down story in the Comments!)

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