The Mobility Chronicles: CP Edition [Part 2]

Back in January, I wrote a blog post and opened the door of my current mobility struggles, while simultaneously opening the floodgates of all the emotions associated with my declining mobility. In some ways, it feels like the level of those emotions has increased, but honestly, I think they are fears and concerns I’ve had my whole life, so now that they’ve come to light, it feels like I can’t even breathe some days because of my level of panic, anxiety, and unrelenting anger.

In between the time I wrote the initial post on this subject, I’ve gone back to physical therapy, which was a huge step for me. Past physical therapy experiences have resulted in a form of PTSD, so the fact that I was even able to walk in the building when I had my first appointment was a really big deal. I’ve only had two appointments with my new physical therapist, but so far, so good. During my initial appointment when I was evaluated, I spent 90% of the appointment discussing my past PT experiences, the panic and anxiety I now feel as a result of my past and the pain I experienced, as well as the experience I had when I returned to physical therapy 3 or 4 years ago for the first time since I was 16. To put it bluntly, returning to PT that time around didn’t go well. I had no idea I was going to have panic attacks, but I did, and they scared the crap out of me. Therefore, when I returned to physical therapy this time around, I knew what to expect in a sense. I was utterly terrified and it took a lot for me to even think about going, but I had a better idea of what my response would be.

Therefore, about a month before my initial evaluation appointment, I talked with my psychiatrist about my concerns, in the hopes that she could prescribe me with something that could at least take the edge off so I could walk in the door of the physical therapy clinic without having a panic attack. The fact that I even had to ask for a medication to help me made me feel weak. However, I have battled my depression and anxiety and been in mental health therapy long enough to know that sometimes talk therapy itself can’t 100% fix a problem, especially when it’s literally a chemical imbalance in your brain. Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not one of those people who thinks the entire country should be medicated. However, all I know is that for me, the combination of talk therapy and medication has allowed me to be a functioning member of society without feeling completely debilitated by my anxiety and depression.

Anyway, upon returning to physical therapy, knowing I had something that could help me from totally going into a panic attack and not being able to get through the appointment was a relief. It was like knowing I had a safety net if I needed it. I will say, though, another huge part of returning was getting myself mentally prepared that physical therapy this time around would not be the same as physical therapy when I was 11 or 12 that required intense physical therapy post-surgery. For me, that meant creating mantras in my head, like “You are in control,” “If it hurts, you can’t tell them to stop,” and “If you have to get up and walk out, that’s okay.” In short, the mantras help, but so far it has meant repeating them in my head over and over for the entire hour of my appointment.

In short, each PT appointment forces me to face internal demons that I’ve been battling since childhood, and that shit is hard. I remember the day a few weeks ago when I went to my first appointment. I got through it, but for the rest of the day, I was in a very thick mental fog. I had built the appointment up in my head, expecting a continuous panic attack. Since that didn’t happen, my mind had to adjust to the fact that what I was preparing myself for for over a month wasn’t as intense as I was expecting. Despite that, facing these fears head on on a daily basis is exhausting. I’m sure that over time it’ll get easier, but for now, it just sucks. It doesn’t feel fair. I shouldn’t have to have such an intense internal battle with myself on a daily basis, and yet, here we are.

Recently, I discussed my anger surrounding my declining mobility and having to use a walker with my mental therapist. In short, I’m infuriated with myself and my body constantly. I hate that my mobility has reached this point. I’m pissed that I didn’t do more to hold off this moment for as long as I could. It literally makes me want to scream and cry, simultaneously, on a daily basis. It’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to deal with this now. I thought I had 10 more good years of independent mobility without having to depend on the assistance of a mobility aid. But the universe had other plans.

To be honest, facing my declining mobility as a result of my disability feels like the hardest thing I have ever had to do. The simple fact of feeling like I am being continuously “mentally tested” on a daily basis is enough for even the most mentally strong individuals to take pause. So, today, I’m taking pause. I’ll pick up the fight again tomorrow.

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Learning to Drive With a Disability

As I was entering my teenage years, my parents and I were unsure whether I’d be able to drive a car. However, as with most things in my life, I knew I wanted to drive a car, and I was going to do anything I possibly could to make that happen.

While I didn’t drive a car until I obtained my permit, I was driving as early as 5 years old. I used to drive my Barbie Jeep around and around my neighborhood for hours on end. I’d turn on the little Barbie radio in the Jeep and “floor it,” flying down the sidewalk in my hot pink Barbie Jeep. As I got older, my Barbie Jeep transitioned to a go-cart and eventually a four-wheeler, but the go-carts we had were always my favorite. I know I likely drove way too fast, but I remember my neighborhood used to say that they always knew when I had my go-cart out because they’d hear my laughter and screams all the way down the block. Therefore, when I eventually got behind the wheel of a car, I had years of driving practice already. It’d be a piece of cake, right? Not quite.

I have spastic diplegia cerebral palsy, meaning my CP primarily impacts my legs and causes them to be incredibly stiff. Due to the stiffness of my legs and because I knew that my legs had a tendency to involuntarily shake if my foot was placed in a particular position (called clonus), I was pretty nervous about learning to drive a car. I didn’t know if I’d be able to move my foot from the gas to the brake quickly or easily enough. I also didn’t know whether my legs would become tired quicker due to having to be flexed when using the gas pedal and brake pedal. I had been told by my physical therapist at the time that there was always the option to utilize hand controls to control the gas and the brake as opposed to using my legs. However, I also knew that I wanted to do my best to drive just like everyone else.

A benefit I had when learning to drive was the fact that I lived in a small town. Because of that, I practiced driving on dirt roads, empty back roads that hardly had any traffic, and through town where the speed limit was only 25 miles per hour. Typical kids learning to drive might have been frustrated by this, but I was not. I wanted to become as comfortable driving on country back roads as I could. In order to test my response time, we’d be driving around and my mom would say “deer” (proof that we lived in the south), and I’d pretend I saw a deer in order to practice slamming on the brakes. We learned pretty quickly that I had no problem moving my right foot back and forth between the brake and the gas (which was a major relief on my part because I didn’t want to have to utilize hand controls).

The most important thing for me when learning to drive was taking it slow. Initially, due to my own fears, I drove really, really, really slow, but that changed as I became more comfortable. Once I got my permit, took driver’s ed, and accrued a certain number of driving hours, I was ready to take the driving aspect of the test to obtain my license. And despite all the practice I had, I was completely terrified.

When I took the driving test with a woman from the DMV in the passenger’s seat, initially everything was fine. However, within a few minutes my legs started shaking so badly that it was difficult to keep my foot steadily on the gas. The DMV woman noticed the shaking and said, “Why are you shaking like that?” I responded, “I shake when I’m nervous,” not wanting to bring up my disability for fear of her using that against me when determining if I passed or failed the test. Upon hearing my response, she asked me to pull over so I could “compose myself,” though I knew that no amount of sitting still would prevent my legs from shaking. Eventually, the shaking lessened to the point where I got back on the road and completed the test. Once we returned to the DMV, the woman’s response wasn’t what I was expecting. She said, “You almost didn’t pass,” as opposed to, “Congratulations.” Looking back on it now, I still feel like she was just overall skeptical about my ability to drive a car.

Because of my disability, learning to drive wasn’t just about getting my license and having a car to drive. It was so much more than that. It meant independence. It meant feeling included as a functional member of society. But more than anything, it opened so many doors in my future. There have been a few instances where people have been surprised to learn I am able to drive on my own, and I know in the disability world it is no easy feat. But I also know that if I had been unable to drive, I would have found some other way to take on an active role in my world. After all, my life has always been one of adaptation, but it has never been one of defeat.