Monday, January 11, 2016

Let's Talk About Falling

[Photo is of me, smiling, dressed in a light blue coat with the hood pulled up.  It looks to have been taken when I was 7 or 8.  Photo credit to Mom and Dad, around 1989]

I was around seven years old, and engaged in a serious game of original Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo Entertainment System with my brother when it happened.  My brother, though only four, was a Nintendo aficionado, and playing against him took intense concentration.  He and I were both on a large leather footstool, and I was kneeling.  My body tensed up as I tried to make Luigi jump over a hole, and I fell forward off the ottoman - stiffly and face first like a tree being felled in the forest.  My face collided with no less than three shelves which held the television set and boxes of our toys.

It wasn't the first time that I had ever fallen - far from it - but it was one of the most memorable.  I didn't cry or even tell my parents.  Just picked myself up and carried on, though my face was sore and I was sure it would bruise (though it never did).

Cerebral Palsy affects many things, including the ability to fall properly.  My header into the shelves was actually preferable to the way I usually went down.  Typically, I fell backward.  I remember, often, coming home from school with a goose egg from falling out of my chair and hitting my head.

Though I can't remember it, I'm positive I had to be taught how to fall correctly.  I know it didn't come naturally to me.  Spasticity means that I tend to go down hard and fast, and it never felt possible to go against my body's natural momentum and attempt to fall forward.  Usually, instinct is to break your fall by putting your hands out, but mine were usually full - Canadian crutches meant I couldn't often break my own falls.

When I was younger, slipping or losing my balance were the most common reasons I would go down.  The older I got, though, the more likely it was that I would crash and burn spectacularly due to one second of inattention.  When I was a teenager, I went to climb up the stairs to the main floor of the house.  I was sure I had grabbed the railing.  But instead, I grasped the air, and fell back into the wall behind me, so hard that I dented the plaster.

These days, most of the time, I know better.  I grab for anything I can to slow my momentum.  I do anything I can to ensure I fall forward rather than backward.  And in the moments when a fall seems inevitable but can be avoided, I yell for help and my sis is there to give me a hand.


- Practice falling:  This sounds weird, but the more you can train your body's muscle memory in what it feels like to fall forward, and break your own fall, the safer you will be.  So get a mat, and practice from a more reasonable height than fully standing.  Start on your knees and practice putting your hands out in front of you to catch yourself.

- Be available:  If you have a child or another family member with CP, recognize that their balance will be affected.  Offer to help and be open to what your family member needs.  My youngest brother often asks, "What can I do?" which works really well for me.  Sometimes, giving us the assistance it looks like we need actually throws off our balance even more, so be patient (it takes a lot of concentration to talk and do something that could potentially result in a loss of balance) and stay calm.  We are nervous already.  Nerves impact our spasticity and make it even harder to move.

- If we fall in front of you, try not to freak out and please don't laugh:  It can be scary and/or unnerving to witness a fall.  For people with CP, though, it's just a part of our lives.  Please don't laugh or make jokes at our expense while we are on the ground and don't gawk and point asking everyone around you if we are okay.  This has been the very best example I have come across to the reaction I prefer when someone sees me fall.

- When possible, take the mobility aid that offers you the most security:  If you are like me, and have a couple different mobility aids to pick from, always choose the one that offers you the most security.  Family and friends, understand that outside factors like weather (rain or snow), linoleum floors, and crowds are all potentially difficult to navigate through, and might mean we would prefer wheelchair to crutches, walker to walking unassisted, etc.

Falling is a part of my reality as someone with CP.  It's just a fact of life that our bodies don't listen to what we want them to do.  But if we can feel a little more prepared, secure and like we can trust those around us to stay calm and offer help when needed, it can make things a whole lot easier.


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  1. Very helpful. And love that pic of you!

  2. Thanks, Mary Evelyn! Always glad to know you're reading!

  3. Thank you so much for linking to my blog on yours - that's how I found you.

    I love this post - the tips you give are great. You've really shared from the heart.

  4. Welcome! Thank you so much! I've admired a lot of your posts as well for a while now. Glad to be able to stay connected and see your updates.

  5. LOVE this post and love the tips!! I can relate so much that it hurts (ha! pun intended).

    I fall ALL THE TIME, and I *hate* when people freak out and crowd around me...I get that they're well-meaning, but all of that panicked attention just makes the whole situation wayyy more humiliating. I love Tim's calm reaction to your fall - that's my favorite kind of reaction as well; check in to make sure everything's okay, but don't make it into a bigger deal than it needs to be.

    I was actually explaining this to a friend not too long ago - I had tripped and fallen as we were walking together and she PANICKED. She was so freaked out that, when I fell, I actually apologized for scaring her, hahahaha...After I got up and brushed myself off, we talked about it and I explained that falls are my "normal." In fact, when I fall at home, typically my family members ask if I'm okay, but other than that they barely even look up - not because they don't care, but because THAT'S how normal falling is for me.

    I also love the "practice falling" point. When I was around five, my dad did this with me and I remember being SO scared, but falling is such an important skill! When I broke my femur years ago, part of the reason why the injury was so severe is that I was actually trying to AVOID falling forward (big mistake!!) because I didn't want my elbows and face to hit cement. I had a few seconds before I actually fell to "decide" (in quotes because we never have MUCH control over how we fall!), and I ended up shifting all my weight to one side and landing sideways. This meant that my femur received almost all of the force of the impact and...well, you know how that story ends! ;) If only I had fallen FORWARD.

    I'd also like to add to what you wrote about CP making it more difficult to fall properly (which is SO true!)...another complicating factor is that the spasticity in our muscles actually increases the force of the impact, thereby increasing the chance of injury. This is why oftentimes people who are very drunk (and hence are "loose," with low muscle tone) can survive really bad falls and escape with minimal injuries. I guess there's not much we can do about this tightness, but #themoreyouknow! ;)

    Thanks again, Tonia! This is such a great post, and I can't believe I hadn't seen it before! P.S. I love the photo of little Tonia! :)

  6. Hahaha! Yes! Tim's reaction was the best! It's so much better when people stay calm. (Have you ever seen Open Season? "Stay calm! STAY CALM!!!" Hahaha!)

    I just read about your broken femur! So terrible. Yes, definitely just take the elbow scrapes! (Though I got plenty of those as a kid and I remember how bad they hurt! I also used to scrape up my TOES, because I used to play outside barefoot and I couldn't reliably pick up my feet. I remember coming in from outside crying and having to soak my scrapes in warm water - agony as a little kid!)

    Yeah, that makes total sense! (I was about to write "That makes total tense" as I am wanting to comment about muscle tension...) I always love to gather all of your scientific info! So interesting!

    And thanks! (Glad you like the picture! I found it randomly in a box! Looked really cool and artsy, though I am sure the camera was out of focus or I was running by with my walker, LOL.)