Within Limits

July 3, 2011

Yesterday I got a gang of lads together, from the pub, to bang in the fence posts at the kids home at the end of my lane. The manager there had asked me if I would keep some animals in the grounds, so I’m fencing off a paddock to keep a few of my sheep there. This should have been done much earlier in the year when the ground was soft, but we had such a dry spring, that by the time I was ready the ground was baked hard and we had to wait for some rain to even attempt the job. Anyway, we got it done, but they had to push themselves to their limits.

We all have to live within the limits that our physical bodies allow, but when you live in a badly damaged body, those limits become rather different in nature. For the few people who have bodies that operate at near 100% capacity their limits would be reached by the shear physical effort required to undertake a task, just as the weight lifter has a maximum weight he can lift, or the length of time they can work before tiring too much. In practice, however, very few people are that fit and strong. Most people have weaknesses within them and have to be careful not to aggravate the shoulder they struggle with, the bad back or the old hernia injury. Some people over exert themselves and suffer the next day, but most are sensible enough to learn their limits in order to live comfortably within them.

Now that the posts are in, the next job is to brace the corners and to do that I have to hammer in short stakes to keep the braces in place. I’ll sit on the ground to do this and getting in a good position to swing the club hammer will not be a problem, but, especially with the ground so hard, I will have to be careful. My elbow will be the weakest link and if I don’t limit myself then I’m likely to suffer with tennis elbow. However, the limits of strenuous activity are the least of my problems. The far greater challenge is to live a full and active life within the limits of movement that the structure of a paralysed body allows. Of all the tasks I undertook yesterday, the hardest was to do up the zip on the bag on the back of my handcycle. To do this from my wheelchair, I had to lean forward and hold my body in that position while I fiddled with the zip. That is extremely demanding of limited strength, and weakened structure, and if not careful I could easily cause a strain in sacral region of my spine. All too often have I seen other paraplegics bending over with their body resting on their legs in order to do something with their hands at ground level while seated in a wheelchair. The strain they place on already overstretched structure is enormous. Those structures may be so depleted in quality that they don’t feel the strain, but more the point is that they are simply doing their best to cope with life as a paraplegic and unfortunately fail to find a better way of undertaking the task.

There is an art to living within the limits imposed by a damaged body and it’s actually an art that I’ve learnt to enjoy practicing. When undertaking practical activities, wheelchairs are seriously limiting. If it is something you can do on a work surface then that is fine as long as you can get your knees under the work top. A well designed kitchen is a pleasure to cook in, while a kitchen designed for the able bodied can be very hard work. You end up with your wheelchair side on to a worktop and then have to twist your body to work with your arms at right angles to your legs! When cooking, you tend to move around a lot and a wheelchair is good, but for tasks in the workshop I find the crunched up sitting position in a wheelchair too hard to bear. I would much rather sit on a stool or a chair where I could anchor my feet firmly on the ground (legs work as anchors and support even if paralysed). Many wheelchair users sadly feel that they have to crunch themselves up in a wheelchair in order to create enough stability to use their upper body, but I have always striven to live out of a wheelchair as much as possible. The vast majority of manual tasks, I find, are best undertaken by sitting on a cushion on the floor. That way I can support my body, probably sitting cross legged, in order to use my hands for whatever the task is, gardening, chopping kindling, quad bike mechanics etc. When performing such tasks in a wheelchair it is hard to do so without leaning awkwardly out of the side of the chair. It is all too easy, when living life sitting down to over stretch yourself to undertake a task, but the art is to always know your limits and to position your body so you can work within them.

A good lightweight wheelchair is a wonderful tool for getting from A to B, but it is actually very difficult to do so while remaining within your limits of ability. The sad fact is that no one uses a wheelchair until they’ve lost the ability to do so through pure body movements. Intrinsic weakness inevitably means that the trunk collapses with every push, causing a hinge in the rib cage, and the shoulders lack the structure to transfer the force efficiently to the hands. When I first became a paraplegic I refused to let the wheelchair stop me getting around under my own steam. I have had a car at times, but that presents a whole new set of challenges; hauling a wheelchair in and out while sitting in the driver’s seat for example. I used to think that not even the steepest of hills would get in my way while pushing a wheelchair, but slowly I learnt to limit such activity and now use a wheelchair as little as possible, preferably only on the flat. I still get out and about a great deal under my own steam, but do so these days, much more, using a handcycle. In this I am well supported in a reclined sitting position which allows me best possible use of the hands on the pedals (or hand crank as it is really in this case). I also employ my husky dog, working in harness to take much of the strain. I’ll cycle up to the butcher’s shop or the pub and then crawl in on all fours, or I may just take the dogs for a run, which also gives me fresh air and invigoration.

With all the work I am doing using ABR Therapy to rebuild the damaged structure of my body I feel it important to be as kind as possible to my body, learning to use it within its limits while at the same time living as full and active a life as possible.

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