You may recall a while back (October to be precise), I began having trouble with my left arm. The first thing I noticed was how painful it was to put my car into second gear. I thought I had probably pulled a muscle, but when it wasn’t getting better a month or so later, I went to see the osteopath. He said it was a pinched nerve in my neck, manipulated my spine, and the whole thing went from being an irritating nuisance to a big, painful problem that involved me spending way too much time pressing a bag of frozen sweetcorn to my neck. I then went and saw a physiotherapist, who said that the nerves down my arm were too tight, and that there was a posture issue; my shoulder was too far forward and I needed to pull my shoulder blades in at every opportunity. Well, for a while I saw both of them, was rubbed and cracked and generally pulled about and submitted to all manner of awkward exercises. As the months have gone by, I have gradually improved at the exercises, but my arm has not stopped hurting. These days, I can change into second gear okay, but if I hold my arm out straight, I can’t bend it out to the side from the elbow.
I stopped seeing the physio when his treatment didn’t seem to make the least bit of difference, and I have also decided recently not to go back to the osteopath because I really loathe being cracked, and there isn’t much else he likes to do. Plus, between you and me, he’s a bit of an insufferable smartie-pants.
And then last week, I realised my right arm was starting to cause me trouble too. Quite different this time, in that it was mostly my little finger that was feeling sort of numb and tingly, and sometimes there’d be a twinge in my right shoulder. Well, after spending some time with my head on the desk thinking, I cannot go on, I decided to look for a new practitioner. For a while I considered a pilates class, but the problem there is that if I can’t do half the exercises because of my dodgy left arm, I won’t actually be improving anything. And then I saw a link to an Alexander Technique teacher and I recalled the lovely Susan saying that she was a convert; so I thought I’d give it a try.
I nearly backed out before I’d even begun. When I rang the woman to make an appointment and told her about my immobile left arm she said, ‘Gosh, how strange! I’ve never heard of that before.’ Which did not inspire me with confidence, I can tell you. Then when it came to the day itself, I was tired and had one of those skull-tightening headaches that do not make a person pleased to be out in the world. But the prospect of never being able to high five anyone ever again was just enough to propel me into the car and across town.
My teacher was by no means a spring chicken, but she certainly had exceptional posture. The room I entered was quite bare apart from a chair, a treatment bed and a small skeleton that hung at such an odd angle from its hook that I had to wonder if it hadn’t been tap-dancing while alone and was then obliged to freeze mid-shuffle when we came in. It was so quiet that all I could hear was the pounding of my headache in my temples. My teacher ushered me into the seat and had me stand and sit down a few times. Then she began patting and smoothing me down with her hands, often one (blissfully cool) hand on my forehead, while the other traced the pattern of my bones. Every once in a while, she would pat a little more firmly, and another piece of my skeleton would slide into a quite different position. It was extraordinary.
‘Yes,’ she said after a while. ‘You don’t look bad from the outside, but in fact, on the inside it’s all quite asymmetrical.’ She did another pat and slide and shift. ‘There, that’s nice.’
‘Story of your life, isn’t it?’ said Mr Litlove when I was recounting the session to him later. ‘You look all right from the outside, quite a viable human being, even. And then inside is a mess.’
‘Thank you, dear,’ I said.
I gave my teacher a potted history of my life. Academia, then years off with chronic fatigue, and now writing full time. Those years of being ill when I did nothing but lie about on beds and sofas would have ruined any muscle tone I had. And then the gradual return to work saw me hunched over a laptop (which everyone has agreed fervently are the work of the devil, as far as one’s spine is concerned) for what has been now, astoundingly, the past six years. It’s no wonder I’m all out of alignment. She showed me how lightly attached are the collar bones and the shoulder blades, floating almost above the ribcage and easy to displace. The skeleton hung its head sympathetically and I kept a close eye on it – I imagined its lethargy was faked and it might break into a spirited rendition of 42nd Street at any moment.
The exercise I’ve been given is to lie flat on the floor, my knees bent, with a book about two inches thick under my head for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, several times a day. Finally, an exercise I can embrace wholeheartedly! When I read, I have to prop the book up on cushions so I’m not taking the weight of it in my arms. The toughest thing at the moment is the fact that both reading and typing definitely make my shoulders and elbows twinge and my little finger go numb. Reading and typing are what I do; they are what I am, and I don’t really want voice recognition software as I think through my fingers. So somehow, some way I simply have to get this fixed. I have no idea whether the Alexander Technique will help me more than the other solutions I’ve tried, but it was certainly a most restful and soothing experience. I left without a headache and feeling strangely light on my feet. And I’m looking forward to going again. Back in the days when I took Chinese medicine I used to love having my pulse taken, and this feels analogous. It’s a special pleasure to have another person being gently attentive to the internal machine.