Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Proprioception. It took 33-year old Clark 7 years to find a doctor who could explain what this word meant for his life. If you were to ask him to explain this word to you it would take him at least 15 minutes to give you the full meaning. Often called the sixth sense, proprioception is the way that the body determines where it is in relation to itself; a sense that all human beings inherently have. Clark will say that this definition is incomplete, that no person could ever understand what proprioception is until they no longer have it. He completely lost his sense of proprioception 13 years ago, leaving him to stumble through life without any sense of self-awareness. When Clark closes his eyes he cannot touch his nose. Without his eyes open, Clark cannot point to his mouth. Losing his proprioception has meant losing everything about himself.

Clark worked 12 years for Microsoft, where he stared at a screen for 9 hours on weekdays and attended swanky parties on weekends. He was 3 years away from a promotion and a significant pay raise.

One day Clark’s brain woke up but his body would not. He panicked because he wasn’t sure if his body still existed, he wondered if he had died. He told his eyes to open, and they did. He spent 8 minutes telling his body to sit up but it would not. He could see his left leg, which he threw up in the air causing him to roll out of the bed onto the floor. This action knocked him unconscious for 2 hours, until the driver of his carpool group came in to see if he had slept in for work.

He woke up at 1:00 in a hospital bed in Seattle, his eyes only opening after he willed them to do so for an entire minute. He lay there for 3 months while doctors worked him over attempting to discover the problem. He felt helpless and allowed this helplessness to overtake his life, losing his job and all of his fair-weather friends in the process. He found the hospital to be an agonizing place, where time seemed to stop. It wasn’t until he was released from the hospital that he realized time had been quickly advancing all along.

8 months after he woke up he lifted a cup to his mouth for the first time. Each step of the process had to be isolated and done in the correct order. First he looked down at his arm, bending at the elbow and moving the entire arm towards the cup. He made his fingers curve to fit the form of the cup, and after weeks of practice he bent them together around the slender ceramic body. He willed his arm to move up and towards his lips, looking in the mirror across from his bed to guide it to his lips. Without the mirror he had no idea where his lips were, and during previous attempts he had soaked his chest. His sheets and gown had to be changed, an action that took at least 22 minutes each time. The first taste of water presented to his mouth by his own accord awoke a new sense of independence within.

Each jerky attempt at drinking caused him to feel like a marionette on a string. Though the jarring motions were distracting and unpleasant to behold, they broke up the monotony of his life in the stark white hotel room. No one brought him flowers, and he never expected any balloons. He watched summer turn to winter 3 times before he moved home from the hospital for good.

This condition had forced Clark to redefine himself completely. He had learned to use his sense of sight as a blind man relies upon the sense of touch. When he didn’t know what proprioception was, he defined himself using his accomplishments. Now retrieving toast from the toaster without burning himself was an accomplishment. And yet, when he thought about this, retrieving toast from the toaster, he remembered burning his old self a few times. This thought made him smile. Or at least he thought he was smiling, without a mirror to look into it was hard to tell.

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