It’s not the pain, or the bruised ego, or even the distress of realising that getting up is getting harder every time it happens. It’s not the immediate aftermath per se but the experience that is hardest to take. When your body cannot react quickly to anything, falling takes on an unusually unnerving quality. Where before I could catch myself, prepare for the landing, sometimes avoid the fall altogether, now a trip more often than not heralds a slow motion descent from which there is no escape, and an imminent landing for which there is no softening.
With MS when you fall your body is simply rigid and unable to react. Where your limbs were as the fall began is where they are as the fall ends. Which is why stairs cause us MSers such concern. Fall on a stair and there is little chance to protect your head for the landing. At least the “public street fall” usually leaves the head untouched, even if the mind finds the shame as painful as the damage to body. Today it was elbow and knee that took the brunt of the skinning and bruising, and crutch shoulder that took the brunt of the jarring and pulling of tendon and muscle (full cuff crutches are great when you are walking but dangerous as you fall since there is little chance to shake them away as you tumble). Luckily I was in Dundee, a city I have found to be very generous with its fallen.
People in Dundee seem to have that perfect combination of swift, kind, practical and discrete that makes for the perfect post fall assist. Swift because there is nothing worse than lying in a public place as the world curiously passes by (or even worse, over) you and time stretches interminably. Practical as what a fallen person needs is to be asked what they want and then offered it. Not faffed over or have help thrust upon them without checking that is what is actually needed. Kind because, well shocking as it seems a lot of people struggle with being kind to the fallen. Perhaps they think we are drunk. Perhaps they are one of the many who I can only conclude from the frequency of the “angry stare” that a limp or a stick or crutch can elicit from some strangers find disability personally insulting. That one has happened in many places. And finally discrete, because the only thing worse than being ignored or ineptly or unkindly helped, is being excessively fussed over. A crowd of clucking, staring, not helping people gather and launch into the chorus of “Oh are you ok” (Well d’oh… no!) or worse “Is there someone with you?” (Because yes a fallen cripple obviously must have a carer nearby, I can only presume their thinking has gone).
It was a day for falls. Earlier I had been in a cafe when a young mother had stood helplessly by as she watched her one year old tumble backwards off a bench. The paralysed shock that overcomes a parent at that moment is rather similar to the experience of falling with MS. You watch your darling one in horror, unable to act, to save. You cannot do the thing every cell in your body became obsessed with the second that little foetal heartbeat fluttered on the scan monitor. The thing every cell in your body decided it would die to achieve the second you put your head against your newborn’s skin and inhaled. You cannot protect this tiny creature from pain. Some bit of you manages somehow to snatch up the creature, hold it to you, soothe and check and hold tighter and tighter as the enormity of what could have been crashes into the guilt of your role in what was. Hours, days, later the shock and guilt and fear of it all will still crash over you unexpectedly, bringing tears to your eyes.
Watching that young mother this morning, even though it had been years since my tiny creatures had crashed to the ground in front of me, I felt tears rise to my eyes as memories of my past (and present) maternal failings sprang to mind. At home and at work falls and failings abound – real and anticipated. To walk with MS is to risk falling. To live – as a worker, as a mother, as a daughter or a partner – is to risk failing. After all aren’t falling and failing just other words for living?
On many fronts the fear of failing has been especially present these last few weeks. Though as I mused sitting on a wall after my fall this morning recovering myself, I fall because I am still walking. I fail because I am still trying. MS may have eaten away at my equilibrium, may have paralysed or put into spasm key muscles needed for effective and safe walking, but it has not taken it all. I stumble daily but fall less frequently. Perhaps the stumbles remind me to pay attention more, protect me from more frequent falls? My lack of skill in different parts of my working life may cause frequent stumbles, but again perhaps serve as much to protect me from more falls, reminding me to attend better to the things I have managed less well than I should have?
Falling and failing. We are so afraid of these things, so pained when they happened, so fearful of them happening again. By and large I try to ignore my MS, to not be stopped by it. I know every time I walk I risk a fall, but I have to assume (rightly) that most days it won’t happen, or the trip will be light enough to end in a stumble and not fall. When a stumble becomes a fall though, the emotional fall out needs some work.
Initially there is shame and embarrassment. Then anticipatory fear – a fall often precedes a flare up of my MS, though whether causal or correlation I don’t know. Then finally, sometimes a few days later, the sudden sense of the slippery slope again. The recognition of the frailty and temporary nature of “me”. The awareness that as each year passes the me I could have been is further and further away, stolen by MS. The me that is left is less and less able, more and more dis-abled. She now has no choice but to wait for help, to take help, she can’t get off the floor by herself after a fall any more. Her fragility is ever more present. But somehow, magically, so too is her strength. In the street, at work, at home, she is still walking, still falling, still trying, still failing.
And still getting up again.