Life-changing events are are easy to miss. This is especially true for the ones that come from nowhere. They don't fit into any of the compartments we make to hold the things that experience chucks at us, and so they just disappear. Only on reflection do these otherwise forgettable episodes take on the landmark status we remember them for.
An event like this happened to me recently. I walk regularly as part of a solution to a major occupational hazard of my profession, programming: long hours sitting in the same position wreaks havoc on a human body adapted over millions of years for regular daytime motion. These seeds of future chronic health crises start sprouting about middle age. Deliberate physical activity, including walking and cycling, was how I planned to avoid the worst of it.
It was on one of these walks, in early February 2023, that things got weird. Out of nowhere, I felt lighter than normal, especially on the left. It was a little like my step had an extra spring to it. The feeling wasn't exactly unpleasant, just strange. It worried me for a time, and then I decided to forget it. There was no box to dump this oddball thing into, so I did my best to Marie Kondo it right out of my life.
The next month would leave me with a heap of oddball experiences like the one I had on that walk. Here are some examples:
- When sitting or standing from a seated position I sometimes noticed my left arm wasn't showing up where it should be. The sensation was a little like the one you get when sitting down on a chair that had been previous pulled out from under you.
- I started making a lot of touch typing errors. After testing myself with a typing tutor application, I noticed a pattern: most of the errors were on keys z, q, w, and x. These are all keyed with the left hand.
- I fell off my bike while dismounting. I couldn't seem to rotate my left leg clear it of the toe clip.
- I started having trouble staying balanced while standing.
- I had a hard time untangling objects. For example, I was trying to get at some grapes on the vine sold in those mesh plastic bags they sometimes come in. Only I couldn't figure out how to separate the projecting stems from the plastic mesh.
- I got tangled in objects. For example, the vacuum cleaner cord.
And so on. At this point it was pretty clear these individually ignorable events all pointed to something.
I scheduled an appointment to see my Primary Care Physician (PCP). If you've never dealt with the US heath care system, it's a challenge to actually see your PCP quickly when faced with a bona fide medical situation. The first opening in my PCP's schedule was months away. To cut the wait time, I booked an appointment with another doctor in the same department for early March.
This doctor (actually two, an intern and an advisor), examined me a few days later. They ran various tests. They asked me to follow a finger without moving my head. They shined light into my eyes, then moved it. They peered into my ears. That kind of thing.
It mostly seemed pretty routine, but I was surprised three times during that exam:
- Using the rubber mallet we've all seen doctors use to test reflexes, my left leg was found to be "hyper-reflexive" and my right leg was found to be "hypo-reflexive". Springy on the left but sluggish on the right.
- I was not able to walk tip-toed, which never seemed like a problem before.
- Lying face down on the exam table, I was asked to turn over. While trying to do so, I nearly fell off.
Around this time, I needed to run an errand by car. I drive a manual transmission, and there's a foot rest to the left side of the clutch pedal. But unlike every other time I'd driven this car for the last 20 years, I couldn't sense when my foot was on the rest and when it was on the clutch. I could reason it out, but I couldn't actually feel it.
Everyone Has a Plan
To cap off a very long list of baffling and deeply disturbing events (many of which I'm leaving out), on one evening in late March I stood up to get out of a living room chair. But unlike every other time I'd done this, my left leg just… froze, feeling like like it was glued to the floor. Continuing my forward motion left me lying face-down. Fortunately, there was no furniture in the way and so I way lying on the carpet. Unfortunately, there was no sweeping what had just happened under it.
Boxer Mike Tyson famously noted, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." In the weeks that have followed, I've thought about this line many times. It gets tossed around a lot metaphorically, like in the startup circles I hang around online. And this was the way I understood it, too. You make a plan, then reality hits you. Deal with it. But I don't think this really captures the essence of what Tyson was getting at.
Only a physical attack threatening your personal safety, and the full sensory overload it blasts you with, will unleash the honest-to-god flood of panic that rips even the best plans to shreds. This is what I felt that night. Panic.
Hey tough guy, what's your plan now?
Plan? What the actual fuck just happened?