By Carolyn Palmer, GCFPCM, Ph.D.
One day I could walk without much thought.
Then one day I couldn’t, even with thought.
It started with what felt like a pulled muscle in my back. Tense over my dog’s emergency surgery, I attributed the pain to those very anxious few days. But then I developed a sustained fever, and sought medical attention; the source of symptoms was yet unclear. In a couple weeks’ time, I started needing a hiking pole for support. A few days after feeling slightly numb in my legs, I could not stand. Emergency room doctors diagnosed a spinal infection eating away at my thoracic vertebrae T7 and T8 and the disc between them. In an immediate laminectomy, the neurosurgery team removed the disc, cleaned the area, and installed stabilizing 10 inch rods from T4-10.
Since then, in hospitals and at home, I have been learning to walk again.
To go from fully functional to being unable to stand, in a month’s time, was shocking. It has also been head-spinning to recover function. The Feldenkrais Method has been central to my recovery.
Stepping into healing
The Feldenkrais Method has been newly helpful in all the ways that I’ve practiced it for the 13 years before my surgery. When first out of surgery, every movement was so effortful. I had many opportunities to figure out how to use less effort, such as in rolling from side-lying to sitting, relaxing my death grip on the walker, or releasing shoulder tension as I used a cane. The practice of differentiating components and qualities helped me identify where I felt specific sensations and where I felt little, and where I could feel improvement. A Feldenkrais colleague and the Physical Therapists reminded me sometimes to look where I was walking rather than at the floor, which brought me upright, able to breathe fully, and in better alignment in walking. A Feldenkrais Method & Somatic Experiencing teacher guided me in noticing and integrating emotions and thoughts during physical activity. Fellow Feldenkrais teachers gave me good ideas for imagining smooth, comfortable walking and stair climbing.
The details of all of these Feldenkrais practices matter, so here are a few examples of details that mattered for me in months of learning to walk again.
Finding the line
I find the line: that extended, least-effort, full-body support for standing, striding and stair climbing. The injury caused lower body paresthesia which expressed in numbness; light touch that feels cold/hot/painful; tingling; prickliness; sciatica that particularly affected my sensation of leg joints. They felt uncertain, unstable – where was my hip? Could I rely on my ankle to respond quickly enough? Could I rely on a knee without over-extending or buckling? Physical therapists guided me through many stages of balancing, walking, and strengthening. My experience with the Feldenkrais Method guided me in how to engage all these physical therapy activities with good form. This good form included using more of my whole body, e.g., extend the entire side, heel through knee and hip and ribs, when placing the foot, and also not more than is necessary, e.g., release those shoulders.
Finding good alignment was vital for my joint health even before this neural catastrophe, and it was now crucial, given the reduced sensations and stability while neural pathways healed over 12-18 months.
During one of my sessions at the rehab hospital’s physical therapy gym, I remember watching some other patients going through their paces, and noticing how significant their impairments were. In the next moment, I recognized that I was actually more impaired than they were! In that instant, I felt my heart open wider, both for others and for myself. I continue to feel this shift, identifying and resonating with my fellow humans, and acknowledging how much I’ve been through and how much work I am doing.
Updating my self-image
During the month of declining function before I had a diagnosis, and the recovery months since surgery, my self-image has lagged behind my competence. Competence has been a moving target. One primal example involved walking up stairs. In the rehab hospital, I found climbing stairs to be enormously effortful, and a knee or hip sometimes buckled unpredictably. Part of the training was preparing me to handle steps into my home where there was no railing, just the wall of the house, thus reducing help from my arm, and demanding more stability and strength from my legs. Even with the assistance of the PT or a family member, it was intimidating every time. Yet I progressed in the number of steps I could climb, and my physical therapist declared me ready to go home.
The steps remained scary and challenging. I felt nearly panicked at times, facing that first step up. I worked on my stair anxiety with a Feldenkrais teacher who is also a Somatic Experiencing (SE) practitioner. I visualized the final step, noticing the relief I felt at finishing the stairs. I imagined the beginning, before even taking the first step, unpacking the anxiety, noting confusion about which leg to start with, breathing to calm and prepare for action, placing the cane, pushing off, stepping up. The process slowed down the micro-moments of physical, emotional, mental experience, and encouraged recognition of what was working. Returning to visualizing the top-of-the-stairs finish at the end of our session, I could sense that it was not only relief I felt, but also accomplishment, that I could rely on myself to do this again. The teacher said that taking the time to notice these features when not actually doing the stairs would, hopefully, help when I actually returned to the stairs. I could tune in to what I was feeling as it arose, and also remember that sense of how I could rely on myself. This gave an immediate and sustained boost to my confidence. It gave me ways to slow down when I needed that, credit progress even when feeling anxious, and feel the anxiety lessen as stability and strength increased.
This slowed, gentle, integrative titration of activity and rest, anxiety and competence, was a method for bringing my self-image and ability into agreement. I was anxious because I feared falling, a primordial fear made ever more present by my current state. The combination of Feldenkrais Method, SE, and physical therapy methods helped me reclaim a sense of agency. I was ready to handle the stairs, and venture out of the house for lunch in a nearby town.
The Feldenkrais Method has been central to my recovery. So have been other modalities I’ve experienced, and the attention and care of practitioners, friends, and family.
When I started this essay, I appreciated that the focus was on one thing: walking. It seemed so much simpler than writing about all of my recovery. But as I wrote, walking implicated so much of myself, both biomechanically and psychologically. I recognized it’s not simple at all, of course. Walking is not just walking. When my self-image aligns with, and supports, my competence, each step tells me how I’m doing, and takes me further in the world.
Carolyn Palmer, Ph.D., is a Developmental Psychologist at Vassar College, and a Feldenkrais Method and Child’Space ® movement teacher. She studies lifespan action development, embodied learning and teaching practices, and contemplative practices. Carolyn offers lessons, classes, and workshops on using movement to enhance attention, learning, comfort, parenting, and teaching. During her recent recovery, she has been grateful for guidance provided by Feldenkrais and Somatic Experiencing teacher Dan Rindler, and by her wise colleagues, Feldenkrais Teachers of the Hudson Valley.