My Walking Stick
By Karen Mizrach
On July 4, 2018 I was scrolling through Amazon’s options for walking sticks. Finally, I settled on one that was part of the “Survivor Series”. I know that because I recently went back to my purchasing history to check when and what I had ordered. It was a hand-carved, 40” natural looking stick, with a flower etched in the wood and a leather strap at the top; a relatively cool looking choice. When I think about that day now I’m struck by the significance that it was Independence Day, and I was trying for my own independence.
Six months earlier I had suddenly become ill with vertigo. It happened in the middle of the night and it was terrifying. After some weeks, the vertigo stopped, but my symptoms settled into a constant sense of imbalance. I couldn’t walk correctly or easily. I had to quit my job teaching. There were days I could barely navigate my house, never mind get to a doctor. For many months I was lost in a world of solitude, disability and fear. It’s been quite the journey; with many doctors, physical therapists, and medications. But I believe things started looking up when I took matters into my own hands. Ordering that walking stick was a defining moment.
I had missed walking, hiking and just being outdoors. Even going to get my mail down at the end of my street was a challenge. On that Independence Day when I ordered my walking stick I began to feel some hope. Hope, and also fear. Would I be able to go out in the world and take a chance on being able to stay upright? I worried about being seen differently, about falling, about the whole transition from housebound to independent. But, I was determined to try. And with a flower engraved, Survivor Series wooden stick I had no excuses.
It wasn’t a simple task. I had trouble just wrapping my mind around the fact that I, a not very old, formally healthy, strong woman, had to learn to walk with a stick. It is a mental challenge that I didn’t ever consider before I undertook it for myself. Of course I know people who use canes, walkers, wheelchairs, etc., but I never thought about the psychological leap it takes to begin using assistance to move.
The first time I took my stick out in the world was a nerve-wracking experience. Never mind that I didn’t know if I could physically even move using it, but I felt like I had a neon sign on my forehead that said “There is something wrong with me.” There was something wrong with me, so I’m not sure why I struggled with this concept. Pride, embarrassment, fear, change in identity – it’s all part of it.
Someone suggested beginning to walk on a track, so I could see my car and feel safe if I began to panic. Off I went with my very hip walking stick to a nearby middle school track. I found one that was gravel, without lines. The lines on tracks caused me balance problems – you know what I mean – so I avoided them. The first time I made it around the track once, taking 20 minutes to do what used to take me a few minutes. And it was terrifying. When I was on the far side of the track I felt like I was miles from safety. I talked to myself, saying “Come on Karen. You’ve got this. One step at a time. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.” Constant babble like that eventually got me around. And I did fall – in love with that stick.
For 6 months I went to the track almost everyday. That stick was always with me as I pushed myself toward moving again. It was a comfort and a grounding tool as I moved like a turtle on a surface that usually felt like it was shifting from under my feet. Now I can walk the track without the stick, only using it for more unlevel walks through the park or on trails.
I love my wooden stick with the little carved flower. It stays in my car, along with a growing assortment of hiking poles and canes. Now I can use that stick without embarrassment or fear or hesitation. I still go to that track a couple times a week. It holds a special place in my heart. It is the place on this earth where I taught myself to move again and reclaim some independence. So here’s to my Survivor Series Stick and my middle school gravel track! Thank you!