Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Exercise, a Play in Two Lines

Laurie Clements Lambeth

Setting: Neurology exam room. The patient wears a hospital gown and is seated on the exam table. The doctor, seated on a low stool, faces her. 

Patient: I know exercise is important for people with multiple sclerosis, but ever since my MS has started progressing, I worry about overexertion. What do you recommend? Yoga? Water aerobics? Pilates? Kickboxing? Zumba?

Doctor: Yes.


The actors emerge hand in hand for their bow; the patient loses balance, tugging slightly on the doctor’s arm. A fine job of acting, very realistic. Scattered applause.

The house lights go up. People quizzically look at one another. As theatergoers walk up the aisle’s incline, an usher hears the following:

“It’s art!”

“It’s rubbish!”

“It’s true.”  This comes from the last person climbing that incline, which feels to her like hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, bum leg dragging along as she hitches her hip in accommodation. Along the way she feels her abdominal muscles and hips work to propel her when other muscles refuse. She examines dust bunnies and abandoned programs twisted and rolled into new shapes, thinks of her own body’s twists and changes.

I don’t think I need to tell you that I am that woman in the audience and the patient on stage. 

Before my birth, my family had kind of a relationship with theater and disability. Days after my mother and father met each other acting in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie at South Coast Repertory—she playing the limping Laura, he playing the Gentleman Caller—my mother had to go to court for a parking ticket she couldn’t afford. When her name was called, she was so nervous that she immediately went into character, limping slightly as she approached the judge’s bench.

“Were you in The Glass Menagerie last night?” the judge asked.


“You were absolutely marvelous,” he said. And he dismissed the ticket.

When my mother approached the bench that day, she was unintentionally acting, driven to limp by fear, whereas today fibromyalgia and arthritis limit her mobility. She has given up the yoga she so enjoyed. Last year, understanding the way physical therapy (PT) helped me retrain my brain and legs to talk to one another, and how occupational therapy (OT) opened the channels of communication between my brain and left hand, she gave PT a try. Once she was assigned the right therapist, they worked wonders together. She still has pain, but has learned to take some strain off her knees.

A couple years ago my gait changed for about a year, left leg on strike. Then my left hand slackened. I couldn’t type or hold a piece of paper, money, a pill. Motivated more by my hand’s weakness than gait change, vacillating, too, between acceptance of disease progression and the desire to walk, I talked with my neurologist. In the past I have asked doctors about exercise options, with similar results as in my two-line play: Yes to a multiple-choice question. This time, with my physical abilities far more limited than before, I was sent to specialized PT. There, my therapist Meg astonished me with her creativity and compassion. She got me walking evenly again, helping me engage my core to hold myself up. In OT, I played with thera-putty and large clips and pegboards,  then fine motor work, screwing nuts onto bolts. It worked. Take a bow, Laurie.

Now I am realizing this has taken a turn for the theatrical.

Physical and occupational therapy don’t always form a straight arrow to recovery. As I grew stronger, the work got harder, and I pushed beyond my limits after 2 minutes on a treadmill. I slumped into a chair, eyes glazed. Meg brought me a cool washcloth, and I said, “Thwrank you. That’sshhhh wreealy nriyce. Feewrls good.” Hilarious to hear my own drunk-talk, but alarming, too. Meg suggested speech therapy, which followed.

Graduating from PT and OT was bittersweet. It was a safe, gentle form of exercise with a new friend who could help if I overtaxed my body. At a time of year when people resolve to exercise, I want to, but I fear my own boldness will harm me; in the fortnight between writing my first and second draft of this piece, I literally stepped back into my old gait. It’s time to inflate the balance ball, go back to those PT exercises that helped before. Time to try that adaptive yoga class Meg mentioned in her email months ago.

Laurie Clements Lambeth’s MS diagnosis at the age of seventeen brought her to poetry.  Her first book Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008) was selected for the 2006 National Poetry Series. Currently at work on her second poetry collection and a book of creative nonfiction about MS, she also teaches in the Medicine and Society program at the University of Houston, where she earned MFA and PhD degrees in Creative Writing. To learn more about her work, please visit www.laurieclementslambeth.com 


  1. I feel like even when I push it too far and cause limping and cramps its still worth it for the muscle tone and a say in my own destiny.

    1. This is awesome, thanks for sharing. Moral of the story, keep moving no matter what!!~

  2. I can relate on so many levels. PT was so instrumental getting my right leg to cooperate and getting range of motion back in my right arm. My husband came to pt and learned how to stretch me...not quite as good as pt, or as cute, but it's somrthing. I find water aerobics the best. Thanks for sharing, your style of writing is really great.

    1. That is so funny, Arlene--"not quite as good as pt, or as cute." I love doing water exercise, too, but the pools around Houston are kept at around 90 degrees, so I fade fast. The older folk who attend some of the classes because of arthritis prefer the warmer water. And stopping and chatting. And just standing in the pool. And chatting.

  3. I do yoga, it helped me gain confidence and learn to walk normal...Blessings,

  4. I just returned from my second yoga class. I've got primary progressive MS so moving, any moving, is a good thing. Fortunately, the class is small so the instructor can work with us almost one on one. Brings up a question-How much do you share? In my case, since there's so few of us, the instructor knows and adjusts the movements toward what I can do. Larger classes? Not so sure, or do I want to appear totally clumsy in a roomful of folks, especially if there's a few guys in there? Where's the line? Best wishes everyone.