Forward and Up at Seventy-Five

Roey Burden


I have had to learn to walk six times during my life, if you count the very first time as a rather plump toddler! 


In 1935, when I was three years old, my mother noticed both my knees and my left ankle were swollen. The doctors decided hospital and bed rest were the answer and I was admitted to the South London Hospital for Women. As to what treatment, if any, I received, no one remembers, but I suppose it worked. I was sent home after nine months and learnt to walk, as an even-plumper toddler, for the second time. 


At the age of ten, the same swelling occurred and, once again, the answer was hospital, where I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (Still’s disease). I was not allowed to put any weight on my legs, so was confined to bed and given gold injections once a week with a vast needle and syringe wielded by one nurse whilst another held me down. They were very, very painful. I became very allergic to the gold, which had the effect of covering me with a rash. So eventually they were stopped. Heat treatment followed, and I can remember the agony of having a cage of burning electric light bulbs put over my knees and being unable to move away from the intense heat until a nurse came to turn it off. 


At that time no one disputed a doctor’s verdict, but I do now, and am Convinced their diagnosis was made as some sort of ‘label’ which had to be attached to my notes. Still’s disease causes pain and deformities -~ I had neither. However, after nearly a year I was sent home, having learnt to walk again for the third time. 


Thirteen years old and off we go to hospital (Great Ormond Street) once more both knees and left ankle swollen, but no pain, no stiffness, so same diagnosis. This time the treatment was slightly bizarre, as apart from the obligatory bed rest, large wads of cotton Wool soaked in liquid paraffin were wrapped round my knees every night and bandaged up tightly. No physiotherapy was given. I was 

there for nearly a year before I was sent home in a wheelchair. After some weeks, the GP said I could walk again and go back to school. He took one arm, my father the other, and that was the fourth time. No walking frame, no crutches, no stick -just working it out for myself with the aid of anything I could hold on to.

Some twenty years on, after our second daughter was born in 1963, both knees suddenly became swollen again the ankle had dropped out of contention by this time. The doctors tried steroid injections and withdrawing the fluid from my knee (over a pint came out), but neither worked for any length of time, so they decided the answer was an operation called a synovectomy (removal of the synovial tissue). My right knee, being the worst of the two offenders, was duly operated on, although they were intending to do both together. But I had found a voice (albeit rather small) of protest by then and refused. 


I was told I would be three weeks in hospital, but should have known better than to believe that. The operation involved cutting through nerves and muscle. This time physiotherapists were standing by the bed telling me to lift my leg before I had even come round from the anaesthetic! The size and weight of the bandage alone was enough to make this nearly impossible -and, for me, it was. Despite physio three times a day, it took me three weeks to achieve a slight lift and then only by looking to my left. Finally, after nine weeks, I managed a few steps aided by a walking frame and two physios. 


I was walking again for the fifth time, but the legacy of the operation was a tendency for the right foot to kick out by itself uncontrollably, particularly when going downstairs. After several near falls, I took to going down backwards (on the advice of a lighthouse keeper who was used to near-vertical steps) wherever I was I got some funny stares, but took the view it was better to be safe and odd than sorry!

All remained the same for the next three decades. But then, I started tripping and catching with my right foot, and realised I was not picking it up correctly. A diagnosis of a dropped ankle was given by the consultant, and I was recommended for physiotherapy and an NHS ankle support. This turned out to be heavy, white plaster moulded from the back of my calf under my foot to the toes. I found it virtually impossible to walk in - apart from the blisters caused -so abandoned it. A CT scan followed, but revealed nothing. Nerve tests also came back with a negative verdict. The leading company in prosthetics did not think it was a dropped ankle and provided me with a support, fitted and moulded in plastic. This did help a bit, but I was still liable to trip, especially when tired, and my walking was getting more and more laboured due to my fear of falling. I was becoming limited as to where I could go without a car, and was offered a disabled parking permit. 


One doctor gave me a reasonable explanation by saying that the nerves had obviously been cut during the operation and had not healed as they should, so were constantly trying to find where they should go and what they should do. Therefore, some days they were sending the _ correct messages to the brain and other days not. This made sense to me, but still did not provide a solution. I was having physiotherapy on a twice weekly basis as, by this time, my lower back was painful and felt ‘stuck down’. The treatment and exercises always relieved the ache, but it would come back a few days later. 


I had done yoga for some time, which helped keep my muscles active and did a lot for my morale and general wellbeing. At least that Was something positive to look forward to every week. On the advice of the physio, I tried Pilates and stuck with it for two years, but it did not provide the answer.

About fifteen years earlier, I had attended an adult education class on the Alexander Technique, which was for six lessons only. We started off with nearly twenty pupils but by the second lesson this had dropped to eight. However, this gave the teacher an opportunity to give us all What I now know is called ‘a turn’. I can clearly remember floating down the road afterwards. Why, oh, why did I not ask or look for more lessons then? 


But my miracle was about to start: I met an Alexander Technique teacher who had just set up a centre for the Alexander Technique. From the very first lesson I felt different -a wonderful lightness that I remembered from before and a feeling of mental contentment as well. 


After a month of weekly lessons, I became even more convinced this might be the answer, and so tried a week of lessons every day, and became totally convinced this was it, this was what I had been searching for. It did not happen overnight, but all my lessons helped and some produced ‘Eureka moments’! How well I remember the first time I stood up from the chair without knowing how I got there, and how I would love that to happen again, but have to inhibit to stop end-gaining. Turns on the saddle were of enormous benefit so much so that I bought a saddle chair to use at home when on the computer. This avoids what I call ‘computer crouch’. An expensive purchase, but worth every penny (and it looks good too). 


After the knee operation in 1964, I was told not to kneel again as, with no nerves in my knee, I could inadvertently kneel on a pin or nail. Although I cannot sit on my heels, I am not far off now through learning how to use my directions. Squatting was something not dreamt of, but again I can now do it - I often think of the photo of F.M. doing this - anything he could do, I can and will!

I enjoy the equipment which the teachers use to demonstrate the principles of the Technique: the trampoline, the balance board, juggling balls and scarves. Reading diaries written by past pupils are also of great help when you see they went through the same thinking of ‘It’s not possible’ but then suddenly it is, and becomes second nature. 


Some DVDs of Walter Carrington teaching are also very helpful. 


It was interesting to read of the experiences of a pupil of Alexander’s, Carla Atkinson, from 1943. The following extract is remarkably similar to my own experiences: 

The first noticeable change was that I was walking much better, not tiring so quickly and stepping off with more ease and lightness. I improved steadily and found that many little things I had been positive I could not do, I was doing. A surprising change was gradually taking place. As the so-called ‘physical’ change took place, a ‘mental’ change had to take place too, for we are all of one piece. I found that I was up against all the destructive forces in myself and had to face and fight myself every moment. Thus, for the first time I really came to ‘know’ myself and to cease to be sorry or myself. Anyone who has been through such a training must have a clearer outlook on life and is, therefore, better fitted than heretofore to cope with whatever difficulties may he in store or him. It is hard for a person who has not experienced the release from physical tension given by this Technique to realise that wherever there is physical strain, there must he mental strain as well; that as soon as we are able consciously to give the directions which free the physical side of us, the mental side is relieved of tension and is thus able to function with greater clarity and ease. 

(Conscious Control, p. 28) 

Three years on now, and my life has been transformed. Finally, having learnt to walk for the sixth time, I am walking correctly. I had become so scared of falling I was walking with my shoulders held up in a rigid position. I constantly had my neck bent as I was looking down for any possible obstacles. My asthma was bad because my breathing was restricted, my pelvis likewise, and my legs only moved from the knees in small steps. NOW my shoulders are relaxed, I can walk without looking down, just using my peripheral vision. My asthma is virtually gone and my ‘Whispered Ah’ deals with any breathing problems. My hips swinging, my legs striding out, I can walk without effort. I am floating and love every minute of my lessons, which have enabled me to be free to walk again where and when I want. 


Of course, there have been various points that have proved more difficult than others. Relaxing the pelvis still is as, having walked incorrectly for years, my habit is to hold it up and back, which it still clings to. But at least I now know how it should not feel and am able to think it to the correct place. Releasing my ankles is another sticking point, but in one lesson my left ankle suddenly released taking both pupil and teacher by surprise, it was so dramatic! Another sticking point is keeping my feet evenly on the ground, when the right one in particular has a tendency to roll out, pulling the knees with it and tightening the inside of the thighs. But we are getting there by different Ways of thinking. I have had to realise that the Alexander Technique is an ongoing way of living: there is no short cut and no certificate is ever awarded, as none of us will ever be perfect all of the time, but can only hope to be some of the time. 


I have been immensely lucky in living near an Alexander Technique centre, and having available so many wonderful teachers Who have all helped more than I can say. Lessons are such fun I cannot get enough of them and could be, and probably am, considered by some as an AT addict ! I introduced my eldest grandson to the centre and, apart from having lessons, he practises lying down every day, which he is convinced helped him through recent exams. He has definitely joined me as an ‘addict’. My one sadness is that I did not discover the Alexander Technique years and years ago.