It happened a few times, actually, and each time the significance of it struck me.
I don't mean that someone said “move to the left” and I went to the right. These occasions were less about the constructs of “left” and “right” and more about my mistaking which side of my body has more function. Because my right hand is so much more dexterous than my left hand, I will always reach for the water pitcher with the right. My right leg has far more voluntary ability than the left leg because I have better connection to those muscles, so I avoid using my arms to place my right leg when I have the ability to simply move it by itself. The left leg often needs direct assistance from my upper-body.
My compensating with my arms to move my legs is a learned behavior, and it can be useful or not, depending on the context. I want to pause here to point out two finer points:
a) Faithful readers will have a red flag go up with the C-word in the last sentence. We talk about (not-)compensating frequently at the gym, as well as the importance of establishing correct movement patterns early on so that as I recover, my walking is sustainable.
b) I note that I move my legs with my arms not because they “cannot move,” but because they are not currently strong- and connected-enough to complete the motion on their own. To me, this is an important distinction, so there will be more on it later.
Before I got accustomed to having a reduced degree of muscle function, I would always try to move my body or stand up as I had previously (I made reference in a post a while back about how the motion of flinging oneself accidentally off the mat became known as the “Theo” on Spaulding's SCI unit). I move in a safer manner now than I did in those beginning weeks because I have a better sense of my body's limits – and with due attention to this previous post, I am very cognizant of what a mixed-blessing this awareness is for me.
A few days ago, I had just transferred into my chair from another piece of equipment and moved to place my feet on the wheelchair footplate. Without thinking about it, I attempted to place one foot without using my arms. After a second of nothing happening, I realized I was trying to engage my left hip flexors instead of the right – not that the left ones are any less worthy, but I know through experience that I don’t get the same voluntary response there that I do on the right side. It’s a tricky situation to describe even now as I write about it, but simply struggling to remember, wait, is this my better side…or was it the other leg? was a shocking moment for me.
A similar episode occurred a day later when I reached for my water bottle in the car and looked at my hand, wondering why I saw some thumb response but very little muscle activity in the other fingers. A panic ran through me for a split-second as I thought, did I suddenly lose all of the recovery I had achieved in finger movement?!
I was, of course, thinking of my other hand, which has gotten much stronger in many movements relative to where it was a year ago. So, to discover (however mistakenly), that I had “lost” that function again gave me a brief chill before I reoriented myself.
For almost anyone else, this kind of mix-up would either be ignored or met with a furtive mental regroup. I, however, have many of my actions defined by the difference between my left and right sides so, for me, it is a form of progress for my subconscious to break through that entrenched understanding.
It serves to remind me to consider some habits simply as temporary placeholders as I meet different stages of recovery. These subconscious confusions are signs of good things to come.