There are few things more humbling than falling down.
Figuratively? Sure. A failure of any kind, a falling down of sorts, is tough. As much as people love stories of redemption, they are more sympathetic to the rising action than the falling action.
But I’m talking about literally falling down. I’m specifically talking about a grown man, 42 years old, going rear over teakettle while doing something he’s done a thousand times: running down a sidewalk.
I expect this sort of thing from time to time from my young children. They don’t have as much practice as I do, and they aren’t as wise to subtle elevation shifts for cracks in sidewalks. Sometimes their limbs grow overnight (really, it’s true) and it takes some time for their stride or center of gravity to catch up. They skin their knees, get a Band-aid, and a few minutes later the tears are gone and they’re back at it – likely to fall again sooner rather than later, for a while.
But how do I explain it when it happens to me? When I’m running down a normal sidewalk on a cloudless morning, and next thing I know I’m tumbling, scraping the sidewalk (hand and leg, but no Band-Aids for this tough guy) and rolling into the grass for a softer landing.
How after a stunned second or two I’m trying to spring back to action, checking for damage, and fielding a question from a concerned motorist who clearly saw the whole thing. “Are you OK?” she shouts from a rolled down window. “I’m fine!” I shout back, and begin jogging again immediately as if to prove it.
Am I OK? My goodness, how bad did it look? Well, I did just fall down in the middle of a sidewalk. I’m in no position to judge the judgment or concern. Mostly I’m just stunned.
I’m less than halfway into the run at this point, about two miles from my destination, so I have some time to try to figure this out. What happened?
“Maybe it was a consequence of my decision” is the first possible conclusion reached by my busy brain. Less than 30 seconds before my epic tumble, I had paused at a red stoplight at the intersection of Cleveland and St. Clair in St. Paul, contemplating whether to keep going straight on Cleveland or turn onto St. Clair. Big decision, I know.
My original plan had been to run down Cleveland all the way, just an out-and-back, but isn’t that kind of boring? I could make a rectangle, take St. Clair to Fairview, then head back south …
I like having a plan, and I generally like sticking to the plan. I tend to have irrational fears of the things that might happen if I deviate from the script, fantasizing about the awful things that could befall me by making a simple change.
(I’m equally attuned to the idea that it’s entirely possible that by changing a plan I might avoid disaster as well, but it’s easier to envision the terrible thing that could happen instead of the mundane order that is never interrupted).
The light changed, and I kept running straight on Cleveland, as planned. Left, right, left, right, decent pace, sunny day … bam. Scrapes, concern, resumption, and the thought: If I had only turned right, this probably wouldn’t have happened.
Or maybe trying to control what’s coming is an impossible errand and a giant waste of energy when all we can only hope to do is react in the moment?
Or maybe there was a chance it would have happened anyway, regardless of my direction?
That’s the next route for my busy brain, and it’s the least comfortable one.
About five years ago, when I was given a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, I naturally read, read and then read some more about what might happen to my body.
It was a frightening thing to hear when you are 37 that your body is broken in some way. Anything that happens to you after that suddenly becomes a question: Is this a symptom? What’s going on? The worrying, checking and wondering are rocket fuel for anxiety. Maybe these symptoms are just anxiety? But then it’s still kind of MS. Around and around.
When you are freshly diagnosed with something and tell people about it, you naturally get well-wishes, encouragement and questions about how you are feeling. You might attend support groups, as I did, and see people in far worse shape than you — more rocket fuel, this time for guilt and fear.
Slowly, though, you might start to get a handle on things and what works for you. For me, what works is pushing MS as far into the background as possible. This is not to be confused with denial or wishing it away because believe me, I know it’s there and real.
This is to say that I’ve come to espouse a theory that dwelling on a disease can become a disease itself, and that counterintuitive to conventional wisdom I believe that talking through every bit of it might not be healthy — that it gives the thing power, instead of taking it away.
When I can push it to the background, I feel as normal and healthy as I can feel. Combined with the things I can proactively do like eat a reasonably healthy diet (aside from occasional taco binges) that reduces inflammation, like give myself injections three times a week to keep symptoms from progressing, like get adequate sleep and rest (with varying levels of success) and regular exercise, this is how I manage.
I’m not sure if one thing is more responsible than others … or if nothing is really responsible and I just like the idea of doing everything I can … but generally I feel good. I feel better now than I did four or five years ago when the diagnosis was fresh. That makes it more possible, I suppose, to contain it to the background.
But exercise: If I go running on a hot and humid day, it’s likely my legs because of MS will feel sort of “heavy.” The best way to explain it is to imagine you are running with very small but noticeable ankle weights – not enough to stop you or even slow you down much, but still a deviation from optimal or normal.
Friday wasn’t the hottest or most humid day in which I’ve run in the last five years, but it was in the upper 70s and climbing, with plenty of stickiness. Maybe those heavy legs weren’t lifting high enough off the ground, and as a result I tripped and down I went?
It’s possible, I decide, though I also know this: Not in the last five years, or even in the last 15 years for that matter, have I ever just biffed it while running – heavy legs or not.
By this point, I’ve reached the turnaround point and I’m running back toward the scene of the crime.
Maybe I was just distracted?
I carry my phone with me pretty much wherever I run because I don’t have a Fitbit, my phone counts my daily steps/mileage and if they aren’t counted did they really happen? (Awful logic, but 2019 logic).
I seldom listen to music while I run even though all my music is on my phone. The internalized rationale for that is that I don’t want a noise distraction. I want to be able to feel the run, to notice my surroundings, or at worst get lost in my thoughts.
But carrying a phone is, by definition, inviting a distraction. I look down at it constantly to check the time, to see notifications, to react when there’s an incoming call or text. I took pictures of my tumble wounds and texted them to my wife WHILE I WAS RUNNING.
I don’t need this distraction, really. (Proof that I can be easily distracted: Periodically while writing this, the lyrics from that Chumbawamba song “Tubthumping” pop into my head because, you know, I get knocked down but I get up again. And by the way, did you know it’s wamba and not wumba? I did not, but good thing I Googled it right in the middle of far more serious thoughts).
It’s entirely possible, I decide, that I had looked down at my phone. And maybe there was a crack or raised part of the sidewalk? As I run back past the approximate area where I fell, I slow down and look VERY carefully at every imperfection. A-ha! It could have been there, where the lip is raised a good inch. I probably wasn’t watching where I was going, caught that spot and down I went.
We are all distracted idiots, trying to do too many things, outrun the uncomfortable in-between spaces, fit it all in, and forget. We have no idea what the ridiculous pace of our lives is doing to us. We are just running and adapting.
I get back to the gym, take a shower, remember how much hot water stings on an open wound but know the pain was both temporary and necessary for the cuts to heal.
I still don’t know for sure why I fell. Maybe it one of my big brain guesses. Maybe it was a little bit of everything. Or maybe it was none of those things that made me fall.
Maybe the universe just wanted to knock me down – didn’t want to hurt me too bad, at least not enough so that my 5-year-old couldn’t tell me later (as she did) “I still have way more scrapes than you – to remind me how important it is to think, how good it is to feel, and how nice it is to get back up again.