When Falling Over Gets You Down

The CHRONICles is a fortnightly column by Caroline Marie McDonagh-Delves and Rachel Charlton-Dailey discussing life with chronic illness, chronic pain and disability. Content warning: this column will regularly discuss ableism and topics relating to disability.

I am envious of small children. Not just because they don’t have to work or pay bills and they can just yell at an adult to get them things – although for all of these reasons as well. It’s because of their resilience.

When children fall over, someone just says “oopsie” and picks them back up and away they go. They land, they make a face, and then they get up and keep going.

Of course, this is because a lot of the time they’re learning to walk. They’re not yet used to putting one foot in front of the other and bending knees and shifting weight. Through a long and complicated process of trial and error – of moving and falling – they get better for next time.

Recently, I fell over twice in one week. The first time I got my foot caught and couldn’t stop the momentum. The second time I was coming down the stairs and my leg just slipped from under me. The time before these it was a foot getting caught as well, and before that I twice put my foot down as I have been doing since I was a baby and my ankle had other ideas.

When a 25-year-old falls over and hits the ground, it’s a very different story to a 2.5-year-old. The potential to start crying is pretty much identical, but I’m not just picked back up by one of my chubby arms and set back onto my feet. When I do get back upright, it doesn’t feel like a miniature experiment has just concluded – I don’t think of it as new data to get it right next time. To me, it feels like a regression.

“As the years with chronic illness continue, I find myself more and more having to actively think about my movements.”

I started walking at just shy of twelve-months-old, and while I’ve never liked running, I’ve always walked like my life depended on it. I had the most amazing balance right up until college. At university, I would walk laps around the campus perimeter road when I got anxious or restless (usually at 3am) to the point that security would set their watch by me and worry if they didn’t see me one night.

Things have changed. I don’t fall over all that often, and I consider myself lucky in that respect. If I stick to flat shoes and level ground then I do okay, even if I don’t seem to have that much in the way of balance any more. But when I do fall, I’m left feeling, if not devastated, then certainly disappointed. Falling over leaves me with a certain amount of tension that I struggle to shift.

Everything I do for at least a day afterwards is about not falling again. Double and triple checking that nothing is near my foot. Making sure my hands are clear for the stairs, so I can hold both handrails.

It’s not even about the physical effects of the fall. I’ve got such a bad pain in my arse muscles that it hurts to sit down, and there was a point when we were worried there was a piece of gravel stuck in my knee; but I’m starting to worry that this time they’ll all go away and I’ll still have this feeling. This worry that I’m not able to walk properly anymore – or at least that my ability to walk is declining. This envy of small children and their sheer resilience.

Most young adults don’t have to think about walking, it just comes naturally to them. It’s like riding a bike (which, incidentally, I can’t do too well anymore either). But as the years with chronic illness continue, I find myself more and more having to actively think about my movements.

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