Chapter 8: The tortoise and the bear

With a significant proportion of the world’s population currently in some kind of “lockdown”, many people are experiencing new and unwelcome challenges – from the denial of their usual freedoms through to loss of income, illness – and of course, ultimately for some – loss of life.

As we have all struggled to adapt to these new circumstances over the last few weeks, it has slowly occurred to me that my “journey” over the last 3.5 years is basically about dealing with unwelcome change – and so perhaps has wider relevance than I had previously supposed.

Increasingly, I have found myself drawn back to Chapter 3 of my blog, entitled “Accepting the bear”. Listening back to the voice recording in this chapter, it strikes me that my “3 things” – accepting that things have changed, being willing to try new / different ways of doing things and appreciating what you can still do – could be applicable for many people in the present situation.

In my case, the changes to my world over the last 5 weeks or so have – somewhat bizarrely – actually created an opportunity of sorts.

For me, “social distancing” describes the way that I already live my life, so I haven’t really experienced any downsides in that regard. However, the absence of regular online shopping delivery slots, combined with outdoor exercise continuing to be permitted, has created a demand for someone with my unique skill set – namely, the ability to ride a bike (slowly) and stand in queues outside supermarkets, in which people are doing their best to avoid having any kind of contact with each other. I am made for this!

More seriously, performing the role of “hunter / gatherer” – albeit fetching fruit and vegetables (plus “nice yoghurts” for my 2 boys – who are both now bigger than me!), rather than catching buffalo – has given me a renewed purpose and sense of self worth. For the first time in a long while, I have felt that I am adding value to the household that no one else could.

Having a role to fulfill on which others are depending appears to be yielding some physical benefits too.

At the outset, knowing that I might need to go to the shops every day to buy essential supplies forced me to actively seek to conserve my physical resources by riding more slowly – who even thought that was possible?

Somewhat coincidentally, over the same period I experimented with a technique called “mirroring”, which is used to moderate the effects of hemiparesis. Rather than focussing on what the weak side (which gives no response) is doing, the idea is to focus on what you are doing with the opposite side (which does work). The aim is to get the responsive side to do what the non-responsive side appears not to be doing. In time, the non-responsive side should hopefully learn to copy its fully functional partner.

So for me, when my right quad is not firing, I focus on using my left quad specifically. It’s tricky to get right – I have a tendency to just overwork my left leg and leave the right out – and the results are a bit hit and miss, but usually after a little while the right leg gets the message for a short period at least.

When applied in tandem with a slower speed of pedalling – giving my weaker leg a chance to receive the message and respond – it appears to be resulting in some minor improvements to the strength in my right leg. I am riding in a more balanced way, using both legs more equally – whereas previously, it seems that I had been thrashing my right leg to keep up with my left, then dragging it around for the rest of my ride when it gave up. Turns out this meant that it wasn’t doing its fair share of work and so was gradually getting even weaker.

Making these small changes to my way of riding – the result of a willingness / need to try a different way of doing things – clearly hasn’t solved the underlying issue of the weakness in my right side, but it has at least allowed me to get the job done.

Thankfully, the need for my services has dissipated over the last 3 weeks – or more accurately, I bought a bigger bag – meaning I have been able to reduce my number of trips to a couple of times a week. Even with the changes that I have made, the combination of my legs / brain were unable to sustain the increased demands of riding / shopping – something I was only prepared to admit after 2 successive weekends spent either asleep / resting my brain or awake, but unable to feel my legs. Well, you didn’t seriously expect me not to have tried to push the boundaries, did you?

So, it seems that perhaps the tortoise did have it right after all – slow and steady does win the race (or at least get you to the shops and back).

This whole experience has also served to remind me not to try to force things – either cognitively or physically – but instead to be willing to go with the flow more and trust that, if something is important enough, I will find a way to get the job done. I had started to fall back into that trap – always pushing for more, looking for the next thing I could do or trying to find a better solution that most likely doesn’t exist – rather than appreciating what I already have.

Which brings me back to where I started – kind of. As I post this, I have just come back into my house after participating in the weekly “clap for carers”. Each time we do this together as a family, I am reminded of what a phenomenal job all the people in our National Health Service do for us every day. Without them, I wouldn’t be here today. So, to them I want to say “thank you” for all that you do – and in particular, for giving me this second chance at life.