Necessity is the Mother of Invention (22 Month Update)

May 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Our Recovery Journal

All living beings are born with a survival instinct.  People, animals, and even plants will make necessary adjustments in order to give themselves the best chance to further their own life.  The tiniest chick stretches as high as it can to try and get the worm that momma bird is dangling.  The toughest lion will square off against an even bigger lion in order to claim a kill for its pride.

Survival instinct is a part of our humanity.  When faced with a traumatic event, we instinctively do everything in our power to prolong the lives of ourselves and others.  An adrenaline rush allows for elevated physical and mental action in times of crisis.  While there are those who might lie down and accept their own demise, the natural crisis instinct is to do whatever is necessary to promote life.

Modern living doesn’t provide much opportunity to hone our crisis instincts.  We lead lives that are far removed from the hand-to-mouth existence of our ancestors.  Few of us have ever had to decide whether to use lethal force to repel an intruder.  Even fewer have depended on a successful hunt or fishing trip to keep starvation at bay.

In many ways we are not as in tune to survival as those that have come before us.  We empower the tiny frustrations of life that confront us each day.  Medieval people would never have complained about minutes lost in traffic or the annoying habits of officemates.  Providing for themselves and their loved ones took up all of their time.  There was none left for the kind of daily frivolity that consumes our thoughts.  

The antennas of our life are often tuned into our wants… there is a huge buffer zone between our typical daily life and the absolute basic needs of survival.


A Shock to the System

Our days often run together… months go by and life continues in a similar fashion.  Each new day is like the day before.  When asked how we’re doing, we nod and respond with some short pleasantry.  Life is generally similar to what it was weeks, months, and even years ago.

Every so often it happens… an event that jars our world.  This event awakens the metaphysical part of our being and leads to a reflection of how we are living.  The event might be illness, injury, divorce, or even death.  Someone’s life took an unpleasant turn.  If we are all sailboats crossing the ocean of life, then one of the boats close to us just blew up.  The aftershocks rock all of the boats surrounding it and introduce family and friends to thoughts of their own mortality.  It is then that we have a choice to make: either adjust our course or keep on sailing as if nothing ever happened.

As our boat ages, it weakens to represent the aging of muscles, organs, and brain.  The day will come when it is our boat that experiences problems.  Then it will be our loved ones that have a choice to make.  As they feel the aftershocks of the trauma that rocked our boat, they have a chance to either respond or stand pat.  Some may choose to make changes in their lives while others will decide to remain on their present course.


Baggage… and Permanent Baggage

Some life events hand us baggage must be carried forever.  This baggage is strapped to our boat from now until we reach our final destination.  Everybody has at least a little bit of permanent baggage… people and events that have negatively affected their life in some way.  A small amount of permanent baggage might be a nuisance that can be shoved in the corner of our mind.  As time goes by, it may appear to shrink or even disappear.

The bigger problems in our life stay with us forever.  The baggage that results from a life-changing event might be too big to ignore.  It may be so cumbersome that it inserts itself into our daily routine.  With this kind of baggage, life never returns to what it was before.  In many ways this extra baggage can be a negative, as those that carry it have additional time and trouble devoted to managing it each day.  Extra baggage can also be a positive… a daily reminder that life should be simpler than we make it out to be.  Evidence that there are more important things than the daily struggles and frustrations we put so much of our energy into.

Twenty-two months ago, Jessica’ boat was in dire straits.  The explosion was sudden, unexpected, and devastating.  The aftershocks rocked many surrounding boats.  Hit especially hard was the large one next door and three little ones trailing behind… the family unit.  As the smoke cleared, the extent of the damage became evident.  If it ever did sail again, the boat would do so with a salvage title.

Progress was made bits and pieces at a time.  It was patched together in a Charlie Brown Christmas tree kind of fashion.  The idea of a master plan for restoration was shown to be illogical.  Life would now be lived in survival mode, and this type of living does not allow for long-range plans.  Survival mode means living one day at a time.  It means trying new things and inching our boat forward whenever possible.   This type of living forces introspection and inspires hopes and prayers that things will get better than they are today.

For many months, Jessica made progress because her boat was being towed.  First by doctors and family… then by friends, therapists, and strangers.  She was encouraged to try more things for herself.  Strength gains led to confidence, and gains in confidence to increased effort and function.  Success unlocked her mind to new possibilities.  Motivation came when she saw that she was capable of doing more.  This marked the beginning of real therapy.


You Know What is Exciting… Chores

At its most basic level, therapy involves movements that practice functional proficiency.  Getting up from a chair, turning a wheel, placing pins into tiny holes, and extending to grab objects are all motions that can be translated into functional gain.  A successful therapy program provides opportunity to try new things and build the confidence needed to do keep advancing.  Over a long period of time, Jessica’s therapy program has been consistently successful.

At the beginning, she could do very little for herself.  There were days where moving spoon from bowl to mouth was guaranteed to create a mess.  Days where the stairs seemed impossibly steep.  Days where she could not yell loud enough to secure help from the next room.  Days of frustration for her and exhaustion for anyone within the sound of her voice.  Through all these days, she kept trying hard and working toward bettering herself.

Her hard work was rewarded with slow and steady gains in ability and independence.  I remember her many journeys up the stairs.  She could do two, then three, then four stairs.  Six stairs is approximately the halfway point, and it was here that her progress bogged down.   Weeks went by and she just couldn’t get up that seventh step.  Many workouts later, she broke through and had enough energy left to conquer that which stood in her way for so long.  Once the seventh stair was vanquished, the rest of the staircase soon moved within her capability.

Moms that feel incapable are rarely happy.  Watching others clean the house or do the dishes brought feelings of frustration and resentment.  The fear of falling kept her from doing much around the house.  Jessica dwelled on the idea that her handicap was now making everyone else’s life harder.  Guilt and anger pushed her to argue for doing useful therapy rather than reaching, grabbing, and turning the contraptions in the therapy center.

In introducing real-world therapy, the least dangerous activity we could come up with was folding the laundry.  Jessica sat at the table for what seemed like hours manipulating her hands to transform her first basket of clean clothes into something resembling neat piles.  On the first attempt, I took the basket upstairs and refolded the shirts, pants, and even the socks.  I remember the way she bent and creased our clothes.  Her face told the story of indignant frustration.  Having her fold the clothes this first time took so much more of my time and effort than just folding them myself.

The investments that have been made in her recovery have become more commonplace.  They have also begun to pay bigger dividends.  Her chore list has grown with her capability.  The dishes, dishwasher, and laundry have been added to her daily duties.  She now loads dirty clothes into a mesh bag, throws it down the stairs, and then drags it across to the washing machine.  In addition to throwing the clothes into the machine, Jess can now manage the detergent and softener.  Practice has led to a proficiency level that has just a few remaining shades of gray.


Vacuuming May Become Our Game-Changer

Life is easier when the tools we have to work with can be used to accomplish our goals.  A soft couch, heavy vacuum, and plastic laundry basket are no longer suited for Jessica’s abilities.  In fact, there are catalogs filled with gadgets intended to make life easier.  Whether the goal is to reach further, grasp tighter, or twist with more force, there is likely a tool that can be purchased to accommodate any functional deficiency.

If Jessica could learn to walk without the cane, her confidence and ability would skyrocket.  Use of the good hand while walking would open up a whole new world of ability for her.  Right now, she walks with the cane in her good hand.  Her ability to carry an object is limited by the lack of strength and control in her stroke-affected hand.

Vacuuming is THE activity she can do using her good hand.  She walks over to the sweeper, sets the cane against the wall, and goes about the business of vacuuming the floor.  Keeping her balance and sweeping the floor requires complete mental concentration.  Her walking stance is more calculated… with legs carefully bent to keep her center of gravity directly beneath her feet.

As she moves about the room with the sweeper, Jessica demonstrates a higher level of function than she does during the rest of her day.  Each step is a reminder that she has crawled out of the blanket of security provided by her cane.  Every movement engineered to prevent a fall.  Her body and mind are focused like a laser beam on the task at hand.  She functions as if she is in crisis mode.

Seeing her vacuum is quite exciting.  Although I stay right with her to prevent a fall, Jessica rarely loses her balance.  She sweeps the room with quiet efficiency:  scanning, walking, and pushing the sweeper to pick up any particles that lie on the carpet.  This is a contrast to everyday walking, for she is often unable to scan her surroundings while she is managing the cane.


Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Her recent foot surgery has really empowered Jessica.  Eliminating the pain of walking now allows her to focus more attention on her surroundings.  In addition to walking, she also participates in more daily activity.  For the first time in two years, she is warm enough to sit on the couch without a blanket.  In fact, the blanket has been banished from the family room… it is just too tempting for her to stay in her cocoon of warmth than it is to get up and pitch in.

When we have a problem with our surroundings, the normal human reaction is to either change the surroundings or correct the problem.  When we are irritated by something that we must see or hear, a capable person simply takes care of the problem.  If we can’t fix the problem, it becomes an irritation.  We look away and hope the problem disappears.  When it does not, our feelings about the problem turn from irritation into disdain.

One of these experiences led to a recent breakthrough for Jessica.  The girls made popcorn and ate it on the opposite couch.  The bowl was put in the sink, but some crumbs were left on the floor.  Jess observed the crumbs, helpless to do anything about this new debris on her clean carpet.  Normally she would have called for help, but it is now grass season and I was outside mowing.  Knowing that it would be some time before I came back, Jess determined that she simply couldn’t look at the mess any more.  I imagine that she looked back and forth between the popcorn residue and the sweeper several times before deciding to do something about it.  At some point, she must have decided that it was worth the risk…

When I came in a half hour later, she had a huge smile on her face.  It was more than a smile… more like a satisfied smirk.  The kind of look that says “I know something you don’t know.”  The girls then informed me that mom had swept up the kernels.  She swept them up all by herself while I was outside.  In fact, she swept the entire room!

I have managed to keep myself together during most of the emotional moments of the past two years.  Tears are not something I enjoy sharing with those around me.  I remember crying when she first developed feeling in her leg, when she went up the stairs for the first time, and when she first crawled across the room.  All of these moments were huge landmarks in her physical recovery.  Each of them represented a whole new world of possibility for our life.

In this moment, I cried.  This was even better than the others, for this one was the most unexpected.  This one contained the most potential danger.   This one foreshadowed a Jessica who would eventually walk without a cane.  This one was the first one that exceeded my expectations for recovery.

This gain was made possible by a leap of faith.  A leap of faith that she could walk around the whole room independently and manage the sweeper.  A leap of faith that she would succeed despite the possibility of falling and injuring herself.  Sweeping the room by herself has been the biggest risk of her entire recovery.


Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

We have a large brick mantel in the family room.  If Jessica would have fallen while sweeping, there is a chance she might have hit this mantle and reinjured her brain.  Minor falls can leave lasting damage, and a bad fall could result in her hitting her head on the mantel.  It could mean a permanent setback or even in death.

One might wonder what to do in this situation… if someone you love put their life in danger just to sweep up some popcorn kernels, how would you feel?

After the initial shock wore off, I pondered potential danger of sweeping the room independently.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical care and years of recovery would be at risk if she fell in the wrong direction.  I would never forgive myself for leaving the room to cut the grass that day.

Then again, if she is afraid to get off the couch is she really living?  If she is afraid to do anything new can she possibly have a fulfilling existence?  Is life in and of itself a compelling reason to be a prisoner of a tiny sphere of influence?  Does her medical condition mean that she is sentenced to a life of following rules and avoiding adventure?

If you think that preventing this behavior is the best option, perhaps it’s time to examine your own life.  When is the last time you’ve believed in yourself enough to take a risk?  How many opportunities have you passed up just to maintain the life you have right now?  Are you living a life of fulfillment or a life of monotony?

It all comes down to a basic statement… get busy living, or get busy dying.  If we aren’t embracing new experiences, then what exactly are we doing with our lives?  If our days are ruled by fears and limitations, then is there a chance it will ever get better?

While basic safety is a critical component of our life, real living is not possible without bending the rules a little.  While I’ll usually be there to make sure she doesn’t fall, I am thrilled to see Jessica live outside her comfort zone for a bit.  The look on her face was the look of someone who is truly alive.  Those are the moments we strive for every day.  Those are the moments we will cherish forever.


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