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Unlearning to Walk

Wednesday September 01, 2021

One of the most frustrating things about Parkinson’s is losing skills you worked hard to master, skills fundamental to everyday existence and formerly performed easily without a second thought. Take walking. 

Walking is described as a series of controlled falls. Walking with advanced PD can be described as a series of uncontrolled falls.

Remember how difficult it was to master this skill? As a toddler, you went through hell learning to walk, your every few tentative steps interrupted with painful prat falls. Raise your hand if you have no scar on you somewhere to testify to the difficulty of learning to walk. Still, the incentive to walk upright like your parents and siblings was so strong you persevered through the punishment and eventually, walking, running and skipping became second nature. 

This form of getting around has been one of the distinguishing marks of humanity. Most of our fellow creatures go on all fours, all six or even all eight, the redundancy factor ensuring safety. But not us. We walk proudly upright, on a measly two legs, heedless of the difficulty and danger involved. From our lofty vantage point we look down on the “lower” life forms that creep, crawl, or, God forbid, wriggle their way from place to place.

With Parkinson’s the processing of all the information necessary for walking on two legs can exceed the ability of our damaged, dopamine deprived brains to cope. When the complicated balancing act of bipedal locomotion gets too complicated it freezes up, and down we go. I have fallen in pizza joints, fine restaurants, sporting goods stores, grocery stores, in parking lots, and on public streets. 

There is a special pain that comes with this, on top of the scary and painful consequences of hurtling to the ground with the inevitable  possibilities of bruises and broken bones. To be unable to walk is to give up something that marks us as uniquely human. All that suffering when learning to walk as a toddler now appears in vain. Ouch.

While falling can be a blow to your self-esteem, it can raise your opinion of your fellow humans. To see another person fall awakens the empathic response in many people. A visible tumble will elicit cries of “Are you alright?” from total strangers, who will make a fuss over you, offering comfort and advice, ignoring the normal custom of avoiding involvement with people they don’t know. 

You respond by minimizing the pain and damage, insisting you are all right, fine, never better, while privately wondering if you can get back to your feet or if some bone is broken. Your refusal to admit the gravity of, well, gravity is a badge of your precious independence.

Still, deep down, you feel gratitude to those who offer solidarity and solace in the face of the breakdown of your basic ability to balance on your own two feet. It’s almost enough to make you swallow your pride and admit you have a problem. Almost. But then you think better of that idea. 

Swallowing is another skill that you are losing to Parkinson’s. 

Peter Dunlap-ShohlPeter Dunlap-Shohl
NWPF Blogger

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