‘Feldenkrais Saved Me’ by Julie Rainbow
Article from Post Polio Newsletter, Sept 2015
I was born, third of four children, in 1951 soon after my family arrived in Sydney. My parents were immigrants from Europe, my father German, fleeing the Russians for fear of his life and my mother Romanian. After staying in migrant hostels they eventually bought a bush block over the coalmines at Wombarra on the Illawarra. My father, an electronic engineer by training in Europe, worked at the Port Kembla Steelworks and later on the famous Snowy Mountains Scheme. He built us a tiny stone house on the block in Wombarra – so tiny. When I see it now I wonder how we squeezed into it. No running water or electricity. I have such clear memories of it. I recall vividly, although only around 3 years old, my great shock at being unable to stay standing. My mother’s Singer treadle sewing-machine came rushing up towards me as I fell. Luckily there was just room enough for me to fall and miss it. But I was so angry. It was polio – paralysis of all my limbs and unable to speak.
My mother spoke very little English. Father was often away working in the Snowy Scheme. Where we lived was quite isolated, without public transport or a car. With 3 other children in the family, the doctor felt the entire scenario would be too traumatic if I was hospitalised so I was nursed at home with him visiting.
As I was recovering, part of my rehabilitation was to be stood up at the window to wave to the doctor as he drove off. My parents also spent precious money to buy me a set of toy pots and pans to entice me to re-learn firstly the gross motor skills of standing up and walking over to Dad who was holding the toys, then the fine motor skills of grasping and holding onto them. I don’t recall how I learnt to speak again. I was lucky to have no obvious lasting disability. A few years later I was immunised against polio along with everyone else in my primary school.
Then I forgot about polio. It was a sort of fairy tale myth from a long ago time and place – nothing left to remind me.
But I could never do handstands or cartwheels and was never the first choice to have on the team at sport or playtime. I did love swimming, walking and hiking, climbing up the escarpment. At high school I did play competition hockey. After high school I trained in Early Childhood Education and taught in the pre-school at South Tweed Primary School 1978-1982. When I look back now at my time teaching, I can remember that standing for long periods made me very tired and uncomfortable but I gave it no thought then. I also did not seem to have the stamina of my peers. I got tired more easily and fell asleep at the movies more often than not.
By 1984 I had 3 children and was living on 10 acres of land in the Tweed Valley with my partner. Life was very busy and physically demanding. In 1989, now 38, I began to have troubles with my lower back and bad sciatic nerve pain. I was eventually hospitalised. The nurses had only 2 minutes to make my bed before pain would drive me to lie down again. Strong painkillers gave me some respite but after one month with no improvement I was sent home.
It was a year of agonising pain. Sometimes I would actually bang my head on the verandah uprights trying to over-ride that pain with another. I had physio twice a week for one year with no lasting relief. (Two hours relief was the limit from physio.) In the past and since then, acupuncture has helped me for various conditions but not for that issue. I almost moved into a float tank in Murwillumbah. It was lovely to float in the warm magnesium-fuelled waters and I found out that I am not claustrophobic, but still it wasn’t the answer. I did get used to pain somewhat and I could tell when others were in pain. I began to put chairs about in my place of work for me and for others too. And, armed with a good supply of pain killers I went to work in our family business at Stokers Siding Pottery. My partner, a retired science teacher, made pots out the back and we sold them in the lovely old building that once was a General Store. It was a quiet business in those days and I had a bed that I could rest on when there were no customers.
I had to take painkillers constantly – every 4 hours. Can this be my life from now on I thought? Hopefully not. Then two things happened. A friend gave me a cassette by a man called Frank Wildman entitled “Dealing with Back Pain” – and it helped. It was Feldenkrais. An advertisement for Feldenkrais treatments in the local paper caught my eye and my first treatment was a miracle. I walked out in much less pain and my walk was not my limping painful gait of the past year. For the first few months I used painkillers several times a week and then was able to give them up except for the occasional exceptions. Since then Feldenkrais has played and important and constant role in my life and I don’t know what would have happened to me without it.
In the late 1990s I made some bad decisions. I wanted to lose weight and get fit so I joined the gym and was doing lots of pump classes. I did lose weight but felt really bad – back in pain again. Belly-dance was good but I was not good at it. Some of the movements were difficult for me. I could not do what most others could do plus I tired easily during class. I was still also involved in Feldenkrais ATM classes (Awareness Through Movement) and having occasional FI (Functional Integration) sessions with a practitioner whenever they were available in my locality.
In 2007 I was in considerable trouble physically. I had lived in the same town for 30 years and was finding it difficult to negotiate my way around my routines of shopping and other obligations as a partner in the care of our family. I was only in my mid 50’s. What was happening to me? I sat down and wrote a letter to take to my long-term GP outlining my concerns. I underwent a series of investigations: blood tests, nerve and muscle tests, MRI scans. The result was a diagnosis of – LEOP “Late Effects of Polio”
I went straight to the Post Polio website and there it was; all the things I had listed in my letter to the doctor. I joined the NSW Post Polio Network and read and researched widely. My doctor, a good doctor, did not have time to research as much as I did. Plus I probably didn’t know how to explain things to him. I did go onto a patient management plan and went to see an exercise physiologist for an exercise program. These are things which the mainstream medical services provide. They mean well but there is not enough known about LEOP amongst these practitioners to be of great benefit to people like myself. I found that the exercise physiologist was giving me print-outs of the information that I already had and that the exercises we explored were of little benefit to me.
At some stage I became aware of the WA Post Polio Newsletter and the great work done by Tessa Jupp in WA. Eventually I took the plunge and included carnitine and later magnesium in my maintenance regime. They have been fantastic in developing my ability to recover after exercise and in reducing muscle tension and cramping. Trying manganese is to be my next experiment.
In 2013 my partner Bob Connery died of cancer. It wasn’t till later that I realised how for many years I had been covering for him as he, imperceptibly at first, deteriorated and lost function.
The NSW Post Polio Network has a list of guidelines for living with post-polio which are great and which I had never really been able to implement before this time. Becoming a widow, a single person again, changes your life and for me it meant that I had the ability to take heed of the things I needed to; things such as pacing myself both over a day and over a week and listening to my body’s needs so as not to hit the “polio wall” so often.
I needed to reinvent myself socially and emotionally after this enormous loss. I asked myself “What do I really want to do?” The answer was – more Feldenkrais. I am now part of a group that meets weekly to explore Feldenkrais. I have found many free ATM’s online and blogs and readings where I can explore this gem of a learning experience. The current emergent theme of Neuroplasticity – brain plasticity in science and the media , is embodied in this method and it ties in with the principles of “Living well with LEOP” and maintaining and extending the level of function and ability one lives with.
I have for years told people that I am “concentrating on being able to walk”. They think I am joking, but I and many other polios I read about are not joking when they say this. One lady wrote that her GP had suggested that she “consider the wheelchair”. There have been times when I felt “it” considering me but I have been able to maintain my distance thus far and I put this down to the body of work developed by Moshe Feldenkrais. I have met several physiotherapists who went on to train in this method. I have been told by more than one of them – “People come to me for physiotherapy but they get Feldenkrais.”
Moshe Feldenkrais when asked to encapsulate his method in one sentence said “My aim is to make peace between the nervous system and gravity.” This resonated with me.
There are two strands in Feldenkrais – Awareness through movement (ATM) explorations is one. The work is gentle, non-invasive and directed by the participant responding to verbal instruction. We are urged to go slowly, work small and do less, to stay within our comfort zone. The brain and the nervous system then confer and effect changes in the way we are able to function. The second strand is Functional Integration (FI) where a trained practitioner lends their knowledge to your situation via gentle hands-on work. I have always found that Feldenkrais increased my mobility and awareness of the way I can move better without pain.
People who wish to know more about the work of Moshe Feldenkrais may wish to read the two chapters in the new book by Norman Doidge “The Brain’s Way of Healing”, and to explore online. The website of the Australian Feldenkrais Guild is www.feldenkrais.org.au and this is a good beginning.
You can stand, sit or lie. A Feldenkrais practitioner evaluates and re-trains to work better, okay muscles that may have forgotten how to work because of “old polio”. Present habits are brought into focus and new movement options made possible. This learning is then applied to everyday.