Wednesday, April 4, 2012


"What's going on?" I asked the woman who was bending my arm backwards.

"I'm tricking your brain,"she said. "Your brain thinks it is still pushing your arm forward, and when the muscles are tired, they relax. That way I can make them move further than they thought they could go! Sneaky, huh?"

I've been going to physical therapy for a month now, for my shoulder. I still can't move my left arm its full range. Still can't bend my elbow and clasp the other arm behind my back without pain.

On Tuesday, Yvonne told me to push towards her. After I stopped, she pushed my arm in the opposite direction. Less pain. We were also getting further than usual.

Tricking my brain, she said. Hard to wrap my brain around the concept of tricking my brain, when I'm already tricking my brain on one level. When pain urges me to stop moving the arm I've been told to disregard the message my brain is giving me. And push through the pain.

Now we are taking it still further. Now, I'm tricking myself into moving one way, while really I intend to move in exactly the opposite direction, except without my noticing!

Hang on - who is in control here? Me or my brain? And which brain? My conscious brain, or my muscle memory?

Afterwards, I sit under a big bag of ice, the 'stim' therapy controls in hand. It reminds me of the electric shock dog control devises some people favor. I can turn it up and zap myself, make myself twitch and the icebag shake, if that's what I want.

A little old lady maneuvers in with a walker. She's dressed in shorts and over-the-knee white tights - and making extremely slow progress. Tortoise like, she heads to a stationary bike. An elderly companion follows behind, and sits on a chair some distance off, waiting.

Adam, a physical therapist, helps the old lady onto a bike. It takes a long time but he is patient. He instructs her to press the pedals forward as far as she can. Then back. She follows the instructions with modest results.

Meanwhile Bob, a guy who's here to work on his knees, waits near the old lady's companion. Bob is a big empty sack of a white guy in shapeless trousers and tee shirt, with unshaven face and double chin. The old lady's companion is black and lanky, wearing a baseball cap. Together they gaze out the windows, onto a spaghetti of highway construction and Route 495.

"You know," says one, "Sometimes this looks like the opposite of progress. What in the world...?"

"I know what you mean," says the other. "I worked in Springfield for fifteen years. Now I won't go near that highway. Now I work in Manassas."

"I hear you," says the first. "I never take these roads if I can help it, except on a Sunday when I go to church."

"What in the world are they thinking?"

"No idea," says the other. "It's an engineer's vision - an autistic kind of vision - If you took the wrong road you'd end up in Toronto. What in the world are they thinking..."

I laugh along with them, making my own comments in agreement. But I'm an outpost to the discourse, off to the side, a minor player underneath an icepack, dialing up the 'stim' - or the electrical shock that goes into my muscles. (Honestly, while it's a diversion, I have no idea what good it does.)

Meanwhile, the little old lady continues pedaling forward and back on her bike. It's hard. And incremental.

I came home and told this story to my husband Ben. "You are making great progress, Manda!" he said. "A few weeks ago, that whole scene would have really bummed you out."

I guess he's right. With small steps forward, we can trick our brains into complying with our intentions. Too bad our brains aren't already on our side.

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