Use it or lose it – Life through the Lens of Parkinson’s

If I don’t use my muscles, they can atrophy. Is it the same for social skills?

By Teresa Swartz Roberts

Blog 39. Copyright 2021

A while back, I took some video of myself in preparation for an appointment with my Parkinson’s specialist. When I ran it back, I noticed that I had a stiff upper lip. I don’t mean that I was being particularly brave in the face of adversity. My upper lip was literally stiff and unmoving. In order to have it rejoin my face and become part of my smile, I had to find the muscle that would move it, which is not as easy as it sounds. I needed to take a good look in the mirror and practice. I had to find reasons to smile, even though my mouth was hidden by my COVID 19 mask whenever I went out. I had to believe that relearning to use that muscle was worth the trouble.

I’ve been wondering about myself. My Honey and I eat at the table, but my table manners are missing in action. I hope to eventually go out to lunch with friends. Will I be able to do it without resorting to picking up my food—my non-finger food? What about mental muscle? Students who have been out of school for summer vacation—or for a pandemic—sometimes lose some of their math skills, science vocabulary, reading habits. Most teachers must review last year’s lessons before moving on to new material. Do students who are not interacting with their peers forget how to listen or how to take turns? Are they experiencing social atrophy? Am I?

I’ve also been wondering about The United States of America. We seem to have forgotten how to talk to each other, much less do the heavy lifting required to work together. How are we ever going to regain the spiritual muscle to forgive each other? There’s some truth to the notion, “Use it or lose it.” But the question I would like answered is “Is the loss permanent?”

Astronauts who return to Earth after months in weightless space can regain their muscle mass, but it takes a long time, and they can’t afford to be unable to move upon reentry. A small malfunction could mean disaster if an astronaut cannot fix it. That’s why, according to NASA, astronauts on the International Space Station exercise two and a half hours a day.

So what if I’ve been a lazy astronaut? What if I can’t summon the motivation to move off the couch? Or Heaven forbid, what if I’ve been on a ventilator in an ICU, motionless while my body fights an invading virus?

I look at the future through two lenses. My Parkinson’s symptoms get a little worse if I skip a single day of exercise. In other metaphorical words, I live on the International Space Station. If I want to move, I must move every day. That’s not a terrible thing. I am grateful for movement, so every exercise is another opportunity for a thanksgiving prayer.

But I’m not enough of a Pollyanna to believe that everything will come back to me if my body is struggling to breathe to the point that a machine has to do it for me. To be honest, I am not sure I have the strength to start all over again. I may not want to work that hard.

Hmm, that doesn’t sound very hopeful. I am not in the ICU. I am not yet vaccinated, but I can reduce my risk. I can pay attention. I can listen to the scientists. I can still get sick, but I can still NOT get sick.

In the meantime, I am going to start working on the skills and strength I will need to return to society when the time is right. The first step for me is to identify the muscles I will need. I have been working on my posture. It took forever for me to find the muscles that bring my shoulder blades together and down away from my neck. But I did it. I could not see the muscle clearly in the mirror as I had been able to see my stiff upper lip. I had to dig deep to find the muscle I needed.

Surely I can locate the muscles I need for compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. I need to remember that the first step is to look inside myself, to dig deep to see what’s missing. And get it moving again.

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