“Life is short, but my heels shouldn’t be” – How I strengthened my ankles after GBS and got back into high heels.

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If you were to walk into a room full of GBS survivors, you would see people of all different abilities. Many of them would be walking around appearing completely ‘normal’, as if they’d never had GBS; some may be wearing arm or leg braces, some using canes or walkers, and some may be in wheelchairs. Unfortunately about 30% of GBS survivors are left with a lack of strength and balance, and need assistance with walking. The one thing that I notice right away (because this is how my mind works), is that there is almost never anyone wearing high heels. Our feet are usually the last part of our body to regain strength after paralysis, and most of the time our ankles remain the weakest part of our body – limiting many of us from wearing high heels anymore. And one of the most common questions I get from women who had GBS that reach out to me, is “WHAT can I do to strengthen my ankles, so that I can get back into heels!?!

Trust me ladies, I feel your pain. Not being able to wear high heels was one of the hardest things for me to accept about my recovery. Partly because I had worked so hard to get to where I was – not only could I do everything I had done before GBS, I was even stronger in a lot of areas. So it was frustrating to see progress everywhere else in my body, expect in my ankles. But mostly, it was hard for me not being able to wear them, because I felt like I was still missing a piece of myself that I lost from GBS. Now please bear with me, I know that not being able to wear high heels is a minor thing to be complaining about. I am grateful that I’ve had such an incredible recovery and can do all that I am able to. But wearing high heels really was a huge part of who I was as person.

I STILL remember the first pair of heels I bought when I was 11 years old. They were a black pair of round toed Mary Janes, and were honestly about 3 inches high. I wore them the entire day around the house when I got home from getting them, and was an instant pro. I felt like a million bucks. Over the years as I grew into an adult, I wore heels more and more. When I put on a pair of heels – as many women can relate – I felt transformed: physically and emotionally. They made me feel feminine, beautiful and sexy. I never felt more confident than when I was in a pair of stilettos and I rarely left my house without wearing a pair. Other than running shoes or flip flops, I can’t even remember a pair of flats that I owned prior to GBS – I even wore 3 inch heels when I was 9 months pregnant! So not being strong enough to wear them anymore after going through GBS, really made me feel like I wasn’t “me” anymore.

During the first year and a half of my recovery, my focus was on improving the overall strength in my legs. I had to work on simple things, like how to squat down to pick up objects, how to get down on the floor with Casey, (AND even harder, how to get back up), how to lift my toes up when I walked so they didn’t catch on the ground, how to lift my legs up when I went up stairs, and even how to walk in flip flops. Walking in high heels really was the least of my worries, or my focus.

But as time went on, the thought of wearing them again slowly crept into my thoughts. I am 5”7 and used to wear 3 inch heels, so after GBS, I would constantly hear from people that they couldn’t believe how much shorter I was now. I would stare at my collection of heels in my basement that were collecting dust, and my heart would break. Yes, wearing heels truly made me HAPPY! I NEEDED to do SOMETHING in hopes of wearing them again, even if that meant just wearing little kitten heels! So I started working on strengthening my legs and ankles.

If you have recovered, but still aren’t able to wear heels, here are some great things to get started:

Start running. Getting your feet up and off the ground is a great overall exercise to strengthen your legs and ankles. If this isn’t something you are able to do yet, just start with intervals. If that means you only run for 10, or 20 or 30 seconds at a time, and break for a minute or two, so be it! Anything is helpful. For a good three or four years I only ever did intervals of one minute of running and one minute of walking until I was more comfortable running more. And be sure to give your ankles a break afterwards – still to this day I NEVER run on a treadmill two days in a row. You need to give your ankles a break from that hard impact you get from running, so instead alternate with a stepper or elliptical or other low impact equipment.

A step machine is much less impact than running, but also gets your foot pushing off the ankle. To step it up a notch, try stepping using your tippy toes.

You also need to get your foot used to being up in that “high heel” position. Standing calf raises, and walking around holding onto a railing on your tippy toes, will help shift the weight onto the balls of of your feet. Walking along the railing at my gym standing up on my tippy toes is something I used to spend a few minutes doing at the end of all my workouts – I’m sure I looked silly doing it, but it helped SO much!!

Once you have gotten used to these exercises and start to feel stronger when you do them, introduce a very small kitten heel into your life. Start by practicing wearing them around the house a little bit at a time. Once you are comfortable doing that, incorporate them into your daily routine. Find somewhere that you can wear them routinely and safely, somewhere that doesn’t require a lot of walking, and somewhere that does not have any uneven ground. For me this was at work – I would generally only be walking to and from my car and a bit of walking around my office, and I knew the environment would be safe to do so. Over time, my ankles just started to get more and more used to them until I was completely comfortable wearing those kitten heels every day.

It was a very long time before I found the courage to try something higher. Every time I would put on an old pair of 3 inch stilettos,  it would feel unsafe. I just didn’t feel confident enough in myself to walk in them, so I gave up on trying to wear any shoe with a heel that was over an inch high. And this lasted for a few years. I would check out the shoe section in stores and would admire all the gorgous heels, and again, it would break my heart that I knew I couldn’t wear them anymore. I had gone out and bought myself a ton of cute flats and sandals that I loved, but I was stuck wearing little heels that made me feel like my grandma. And even though I had come so far, I still felt like that piece of me was missing.

In December of this past year, after thinking long and hard about my New Years Resolutions, I made the decision to put in more effort to wear the shoes I really wanted to wear. I knew that all I had to do was implement the same thing I had done with the kitten heel, only with a higher shoe. If I had done that, I could do this.

I purchased a pair of boots with a two inch block heel hoping to start there. I quickly discovered that block heels were so much better; they gave me the stability I needed – and the height I wanted. They were so much easier to walk in than stilettos, AND helped my foot get used to being in a higher heel. It wasn’t too long after wearing them a lot that I felt comfortable standing in a three inch heel again.

In January I made the decision that no matter what, I would wear heels at least 3 out of 5 work days. It could be a mix of block heels/stilettos, but they had to be over 2 inches at least. I knew that the more I practiced, the better I would be at wearing them. And my office was the safest place for me to do it.

And as the last eight months have gone on, and I have stuck my resolution, I can finally say that I am back to wearing the shoes I actually WANT to wear.

I still ALWAYS have to think about the environment I’m going to when leaving my house – if there will be uneven ground, or if I am going somewhere that requires a lot of walking, or if Im going out dancing ( or drinking!) then  I won’t usually wear high heels. Sometimes I can still be a bit wobbly from lack of balance, and I’m sure my mom cringes when she sees me rocking such high heels. I am also sure that my PT’s from the hospital would just tell me to stay off of them given my history.  But this is me we are talking about – the girl that stopped wearing my leg braces because I was determined to learn to walk without them. I am the girl that likes to push beyond my limits and I refuse to let GBS hold me back from my goals!

I hope that some of you that may have given up on wearing heels are inspired by me to give it another try. Take your time, listen to your body but push yourself a little. Start slowly and be patient – remember, it’s taken me SIX years to get to where I am today – but one day you just might look back and be proud that you tried.

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*Please remember that I am not a doctor or physical therapist, therefore it is very important that you talk to them prior to starting any sort of new activity (even high heel wearing). Given the fragile nature of our ankles we have to be very careful and pay attention to our bodies when they say stop”

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