This month's "The Mirror" column was written by AJ Garcia © 2014, all rights reserved.
They say that practice makes perfect, and they are correct: perfect, or a close equivalent. Nowhere is this better proven than when a martial artist who has spent long periods instilling proper movements and responses into body memory sustains an injury. Having learned the mental and physical discipline of practice in aikido, iaido, jodo or another art, the budoka has those resources to draw upon in recovery, and his existing physical conditioning and body memory give him a better chance of healing--even in severe cases.
I've been a long-term columnist for The Mirror for seven-some years now. Those of you who read the column regularly may have noticed I did not write one at all in the last year. The reason? I had a stroke a year ago. The first clue I had that something was wrong was my vision skewing in the night, which led me to calling a friend to drive me to the emergency room, where they pumped me full of clot-busting drugs, struggled unsuccessfully to stabilize me, and finally admitted me to intensive care. It was a six-days-in-the-hospital, almost-never-come-home-stroke. It's taken me 12 months to get back to pretty much where I was before I had it. I move a little slower now, and I still use a cane for additional stability when walking long distances or standing for extended periods, but that is getting better as time goes on. Other than that, I have reclaimed my life.
This article is about how my aikido training helped me recover.
Having incorporated so much movement deeply into body memory, it was still there to access, although impaired. Concentrated practice brought much physical motion back quicker than I think would occur with those who had not so trained. The mental discipline to attempt to recapture such motion sooner rather than later also helped me on the road to recovery. Anything I had been capable of doing before, I insisted on trying again right from the start. No, I didn't want a catheter and a bed-pan when I finally had to 'go'--I wanted to walk the 8 feet to the bathroom and use a real toilet. No, I didn't want to use a walker for stability. I had brought a cane with me from home, one that I'd used 10 years before with a previous illness and kept; I wanted to use that. I had the nurse unplug me from my monitor, bring my I.V. bag, and, between the cane and feeling the wall, I made it to the little room. Using the toilet itself, the mechanics of sitting, getting up, cleaning myself, was a struggle, but I knew I had to master it again. I took it slow, focusing on the movements. The nurses were uncomfortable that I'd insisted on doing this, yet over the next days I got better at it.
All during this time, my eyes were not functioning correctly. The left eye saw clearly high and to the left and the right eye saw below midrange and to the right, and the vision in that eye scrolled like a fast-moving movie trailer. With both eyes open, the focus would not come together, so I had to close one eye to be able to see halfway clearly where I was going. A neurologist came and tested me for strength, I had a good solid grip, probably due to my years of weight lifting, but I could tell I was much weaker than I had been. As for the eyes, she said my vision might
come back after several months; she was not optimistic. I was determined that it must.
I still had the body-memory of how to exercise, and in the hospital bed I put my limbs through a routine to activate the muscles; moving my arms like I was lifting weights, flexing my feet and legs. And I tried to draw my vision together. I would focus on the television in the room and try to pull the two images together, to overlap them. They never did, but they moved a little closer in the six days. To me it felt like the hardest weight-lifting I'd ever done, and left me exhausted.
Friends came to see me. I was neither depressed nor attempting to be upbeat--the situation was so overwhelming, I just determined to persevere. I didn't understand why some friends looked so mournful/shocked, as if they'd already buried me--until I saw in the bathroom mirror that one side of my face drooped. I couldn't draw my mouth up on that side to smile. I couldn't work my lips to form a whistle, and I felt like I was coming out of dental anaesthesia. It wasn't until I got back home again that I got the idea to identify where the controlling muscle was on the working side of my face, and then press it on the drooping side to provide resistance. I couldn't raise my mouth, so I tried pulling the muscle further down instead. I could do that. A muscle is a muscle, and moving it at all will make it stronger--so for two weeks I practiced repeatedly pulling it down daily for several minutes, and one day, that side of my face could pull up a little. Today the feeling and muscle movement is fully restored and my face functions normally. I can smile and whistle again!
Fortunately, the stroke did not affect my ability to think clearly (not much). I was conscious and observant and able to speak. I remained present
in the best aikido sense of the term. I knew that I knew more about my health history than the doctors did. I questioned them about the medicines they were giving me and rejected one I knew I was allergic to. I had worked in a hospital when I was in college and I knew that ultimately I was responsible for my care--I had to stay alert and on top of things mentally, but boy! was it ever a pull for me.
On the fifth day they stabilized me, and after 24 hours of my staying stable, sent me home with a handful of generic prescriptions (so I could afford them, just barely) and advice to follow up with a doctor on rehabilitative therapy. I had no money and no health insurance, did not qualify for Medicaid in my state (I wasn't caring for dependent children), and calling around could find no charity that provided such services. So I knew that I would have to try to rehabilitate myself on my own--to at least make the effort to see if I could. I didn't want to give up on my life or lose my ability to live independently.
I knew I had to keep "always moving forward," as we say in aikido: every day trying to do more, never giving up. I had plenty to be depressed about and lots of worries, plus sadness about my condition and circumstances. I knew I had to banish these thoughts from my mind and put my entire focus on getting back to the functional level where I had been: I had no time for a pity party. I mentally made up a list of what I needed to relearn to do in order to maintain my independent life: be able to shower, brush my teeth and hair, feed my cat and scoop the litter box, take out the trash, get food from a grocery and cook it to feed myself, do my laundry, clean my apartment, read and write.
Once I was home in the apartment I figured I could move around okay--I know the place by touch. A friend offered to go fill my prescriptions and to go get my refills for as long as I needed her to, and she and another friend said they'd grocery-shop for me. I live alone and had no one to stay with me, so I gritted my teeth and set about to recapture my life. I knew I had to do it slowly and sensibly and allow myself time to heal.
My cat seemed to understand the shape I was in: she followed me everywhere, far more attentive than was predicted by my hospital absence. She was like a nurse, always in the room I was in, obviously very sensitive to my breathing and physical state. At times, at the first, I would suddenly nod off when sitting; she would awaken me by patting me vigorously. She slept in my bedroom at night, monitoring me, and if I fell into too deep a sleep, she would pat me to wake up. Her companionship was a great help to me, comforting and reassuring.
The first couple of weeks I wasn't hungry, but I knew I had to eat nutritious food to keep my strength up. So I ate fruit, milk, peanut butter, bread--stuff that didn't require preparation but that wasn't junk food. Then, when I was coordinated enough and had the energy, I graduated to microwaving a yam or potato, sometimes soup. I got to where I could fry an egg. I kept trying to do more. Eventually I got to where I could prepare two things at the same time for dinner; now I can make three. I have regained my ability to menu-plan and can once again bake bread from scratch.
Every day I did aikido warm-up stretches in the morning while sitting--only the upper body part of them, but it helped keep me relaxed and flexible.
I did my laundry, at first wobbling to the laundry room like a drunk. I couldn't even see if there were spots on my clothes. I bagged up the trash and took it to the bins, making sure the bag was lightweight so I could manage to carry it. I somehow scooped my cat's box and fed her. I managed to water the plants on my porch (thank goodness it was winter; they didn't need that done as much as at other times of the year). A friend took me with her to the grocery store. I had to wear sunglasses to cope with the bright light. I couldn't read the shelf labels or successfully open a plastic sack to put vegetables in. I ran into another person's cart with mine. I paid at the checkout unable to see the numbers on the cash register. But, I was moving forward, and each time I went I got better at handling the process.
I started reading again, one-eyed, as soon as I got home. The first book took me 19 days to read. My eyes tired easily. However, even though I had no assurance I would ever be able to read with both eyes at the same time again, I could read with just one, slowly, and I figured if I had to do that for the rest of my life, so be it. I got a friend to drive me to the library so I could get books.
I also started practicing writing again. My handwriting was illegible, so I practiced printing until it was clear enough to read. I wrote with one hand, while pointing with the other hand to where I wanted to put the next letter of a word. Felt like I was in kindergarten. This took forever to relearn, but I persisted. After four months I tried writing script again, and over time my handwriting has come back, although it's most readable when I've written when I'm not tired.
At the end of this last September, I went back to intermittent on-call work, first one day...then two days...now, some weeks I can do three, though not consecutively. It feels good to be able to work again, even if it is less than before.
I also went back to the iaido mat. The first time I struggled with remembering how to get my hakama on and tie it correctly. I had a very sloppy front bow, but I let it go. I would participate a little and then have to go sit in a chair--Sensei told me to sit whenever I needed to. But I remembered most of my moves (some need polishing) and Sensei was amazed that I remembered as much kata as I did under the circumstances and for having been away 10 months. Here's where body memory comes in. I would need to do a move that I couldn't remember the sequencing in my mind for--yet, once I got started, my body remembered it! The second session was better, I was more coordinated. Our assistant sensei, since I was the most senior student in rank there that day, had me lead the class in sword-cut practice and the first four kata; I did the cuts themselves fine, but staying balanced on my feet was a challenge. I looked at it as another test to see how well I am progressing. At the moment I am only attending class once a month, as getting all my motions coordinated again takes a lot of effort and tires me; I'm still building up my strength. But I go and do as much as I can.
During my recovery, while I would go for walks as I felt up to it, and work out with my hand-weights, I now feel stable enough on my feet to have started a walking/hand-weights program, with a set distance (a half-mile) done all at one time (takes me a half-hour; before this I could do two miles in that time), and adding more distance and weight as I master the first level.
And I realize that my life has been restored: I can do everything now that I used to be able to do, albeit slower at the moment.
So, what are the aikido principles I used?
- Always be moving forward. Keep your momentum in forward motion--mentally and physically--even if, at times, you appear to be moving backwards, even if your progress is painfully slow. Keep your mind focused on where you want to go.
- Practice, practice, practice to incorporate your body movements into body memory. It will stand you in good stead.
- Work with your partners and be grateful for them. I could not have made it through this without the help with practical matters my friends gave me, and the patience they had with my initial bumbling motions. It's no different when you're on the mat. My friends gave me the help they could, and I adapted to do the most that I could with that help.
- Work at a reasonable pace. Complete/learn one move before beginning another.
- Focus on what you can do, not on what you can't do yet.
- Own your mat. Try things that may scare you (remember "that which does not kill us makes us stronger"). Practice without fear, confident that practice will eventually result in success, even if at the moment you can't see how. Banish the word "impossible" from your vocabulary.
- Stay present, focused, grounded, centered. Keep your intent resolute.
And finally, live each day like you are about to die--because each day may be your last. Appreciate the sunrise, the weather, the food you eat, the plants in your garden, being able to drive a car if you do, the occupation you work at--even if it's a difficult one. Appreciate the books you read, the music you listen to, your pets if you have any, and all the people in your life. Appreciate being alive right now, for that is the greatest gift you have ever received.
My wish to everyone is that you all be blessed with a deeper appreciation of all that you have in life as we start 2014. It's good to still be here with you.
Happy New Year!
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.