Saturday, March 27, 2010

An Experiment in Living Single-Handedly

Writers do crazy things sometimes. We like to get new experiences to inspire and inform our writing. Today, I tried an experiment. In the novel I'm working on right now, one of the main characters loses her right hand up to the middle of her forearm. She's right handed, and so am I. In order to better understand what her life would be like so I can write her more effectively, this morning, immediately after I got out of bed, I taped the fingers and thumb of my right hand together and went through my morning routine using only my left hand. Read on for the bedeviled details.

Making the bed wasn't too hard, but it didn't come out as tidy as usual.

The cats' breakfast was a huge challenge. Picking up the heavy bowl of water from the floor, rinsing it in the sink, and refilling it from the Brita pitcher was harder than I expected. Being right handed, my left arm is weak and my left hand less dexterous. Using the nondominant hand for ordinary things requires a lot of extra thought and attention.

I had to scrape last night's leftovers from the cats' bowls. I sat on the floor and braced the bowl against the bottom of my foot while I scraped, then dumped the loose debris into the trash.

I didn't attempt to hand wash the dishes. If I had to live like this every day, I would probably use a dishwasher.

Opening a pop-top can of cat food, I could only get the lid pulled about halfway back. I had to use my teeth to grip the pull tab to finish the job.

Opening a child-safe bottle of medicine, I needed to press the lid against the underside of my chin while I turned the bottle with my hand.

Pulling apart a capsule pill to pour the powder onto the cat food, I needed to very delicately clench the wider end of the capsule between my teeth while I pulled the other end with my fingers.

My efforts to stir the powder into the medicine were both slower and less thorough than usual, because I could not hold the bowl in place with a second hand.

Using the bathroom . . . well, I won't go into detail, but wiping with my clumsy, nondominant hand was unpleasant.

Taking a shower, however was not nearly as bad as I expected. Caveat: I did not attempt to shave my legs.

Stripping out of my pajamas was easy, although getting the elastic waistband over my hips with only one hand required more attention than I had expected.

I had to pour an indeterminate amount of shampoo directly onto my head. I think shampooing and rinsing would be significantly more difficult if I had long hair, like my character does. She may decide to get a haircut. I left the shower puff hanging on the peg while I poured body wash onto it, then cleaned my body normally until I realized that with no right hand, I wouldn't be able to wash my left arm or armpit. I had a moment of panic and disgust.

Well, with some painful contortions, I was able to reach my left pit with my left hand. This would be impossible if I had any kind of injury on the left. Then I lay the puff on my thigh and rubbed my left arm all over it. Problem solved.

Toweling off was not so bad. Using my teeth to hold the corners, I was even able to fold the towel and put it neatly back on the towel bar.

I had to pull the deodorant cap off with my teeth. Yuck. As with the shower puff, I was able to reach my left pit with my left hand. I just had to hold the very end of the container with my fingertips and stretch in order to reach it.

Brushing my hair was easy. Making a nice, even part, not so much. I ended up using my fingers rather than the brush to adjust the part.

Next, I had to get dressed. Underwear was easy, as long as it was loose. Jeans were doable, as long as I pre-threaded the belt onto the loops. Buckling the belt was harder, but I managed. It was very time consuming, though.

Then came the bra. Fffffffuuuuuuuu . . .

With great effort and frustration, I managed to put on a zipper-front sports bra. My character lost her hand to mid-forearm, thus I allowed myself to hold the bra in place with my right elbow. This feat would have been impossible for someone who had lost an entire arm. I think a pullover sports bra with no fasteners to wrangle might work, but I didn’t have one to try.

The t-shirt was a piece of cake, although I think my love of loose clothes helped with that. A tight shirt would not have been so easy. Nor did I attempt buttons. I could tuck the shirt in as long as I pulled the pants on over the shirt, then fastened the pants.

Socks were easy, as were pull-on shoes. Forget laces, though.

Unplugging my cell phone from the charger and closing the little rubber door over the port was easy, except that, as with absolutely everything, it was slower and more awkward than usual.

Then I needed to take my allergy meds. To get the pills out of a foil-backed blister pack, I brought them to the kitchen, cut the foil with my fingernail, flipped the sheet over, and pushed the pills out onto the counter. No problem.

I needed an ibuprofen, too. This bottle opened easier than the cat's medicine. I just held the bottle in my hand and popped the lid off with my thumb. But then I tried to dump a pill out onto the counter. It bounced, then skittered across the hardwood floor all the way across the apartment, ending up under the couch.

Then it was time for breakfast. Undoing the twist-tie on a package of rolls was moderately challenging. Replacing it required extensive use of my teeth.

I could not for the life of me figure out how to slice the rolls with a knife without holding them with another hand. I just could not gain any purchase with the knife. I ended up roughly and messily tearing the rolls open with my fingers, pinning the more stubborn one down to the plate with my chin. Buttering the rolls was not pretty, but it was easy by comparison. I just had to press my right arm against the edge of the counter (my chest probably would have worked, too) to make a barrier to keep the tub of butter from sliding off the counter while I dug the knife through it. Likewise for the plate while I wiped the butter off the knife onto the rolls. ("Spreading" the butter would imply some measure of grace.)

Opening a too-tight cap on a bottle of juice had me holding the bottle between my chest and the edge of the kitchen counter while I used my hand to wrestle the cap off.

After breakfast, it was time to clean the litterbox and take out the trash. It was no trouble at all to scoop the litter clumps into the trash can. Pouring fresh litter into the box was no more trouble than pouring juice into a cup. The first real problem was tying off the trash bag. Fortunately, it was only about half full. So I held the gathered top edge in my hand and used my pinky to spin the bag until the empty top part was like a twisted rope. I set the bag on the floor and tied a simple knot in the "rope," then jerked up to let gravity tighten the knot.

Tearing a new trash bag off the roll was easier than I expected. Flapping the bag around until it opened up so I could line the trash can, less so.

Actually taking the trash out and returning to the apartment, through three doors (two of which require keys) was surprisingly no trouble at all.

Washing my hand was an adventure. I kind of squeezed the bar of soap between my fingers until I had some lather on my palm. I spread the lather onto the backs of my fingers with my thumb, but I could only reach to the second knuckle. I could lather the whole thumb with my fingers. The back of my hand was just out of the question, as was my wrist. I simply held my hand under running water to rinse it, then patted it dry against a hanging towel.

Reading a paperback book required laying it on my lap, with its spine in the groove between my clenched thighs, so I could hold it open and turn pages with one hand. I think that if I had to live this way permanently, I would buy an ebook reader, because it wouldn't need to be held open.

Writing yesterday's ATM withdrawal into my check register with my nondominant hand was hard, and I can barely read my handwriting, even though I wrote very slowly and carefully.

Typing was slow hunt-and-peck. Frustrating, but actually the very least of my challenges. I picked up speed and used more of my fingers as I got accustomed to it.

After three hours, the tape fell off on its own, so I brought my experiment to an end. My right hand was numb and swollen just from just those hours of disuse, and I had to flex my fingers quite a bit to get the blood moving. Lest you think I taped too tightly, I had only one strip of tape across my fingers and one holding my thumb to my palm. Neither wrapped all the way around, so they should not have cut off circulation.

The main thing I learned is that everyday activities, especially the ones that seem the most simple, need to be approached creatively. Sometimes you have to improvise and use different tools. I used the rest of my body--feet, thighs, chest, etc.--to brace or support things very often, and I used my mouth most of all as a substitute hand. Some things didn't taste good or feel comfortable on the teeth, especially the pull tab of the cat food can and the deodorant cap. And everything--even the easy things--took longer, often two to three times as long. The three hours I spent this morning would have been less than an hour if I had used both hands.

Now I need to think about how this would really affect my character's attitude long term. I put off some tasks, thinking they seemed impossible and I'd just do them later when I could use both hands. For my character, later is not an option. There is no end. Surely she'd get used to most daily tasks, and they'd become second nature and thus less stressful over time. But every new thing that came along, she'd have to do differently than someone with two hands. Every day would bring a raft of challenges. For everything I do, I'm going to try to think about how she might have to do it.

What sort of experiments have you done to get to know your characters? Have you tried anything unusual just to experience what it was like?


Jeannette said...

Great experiment! For further research you might want to visit with an occupational therapist. They have all sorts of gadgets. Remember Dave's sock thingy and elastic shoe laces? He still uses them when I am not around to help him get dressed. I'm sure there are great gizmos out there for people who have lost the use of a hand and arm.

Good luck with this slant on your story.


Cathy Richmond said...

Yep, Jeannette's right - an occupational therapist would
-teach adaptive techniques, like how to open a toothpaste tube one-handed,
-suggest adaptive equipment, such as a cutting board with spikes and raised edges,
-suggest alternatives, like over-the-head sports bras.
Once the stump is healed, it can be used for assist even before a prosthesis.
Rehab OTs use a technique called Constrant Induced Movement Therapy where the weak arm must work because the strong hand is wearing a mitt. So no more taping.
Great blog post!

Katherine said...

UNO offered a similar experiment, albeit for a few moments -- I was surprised at how many people said they wouldn't do certain tasks or buy expensive tools. Some folks can't afford the tools and well, as you learned, you HAVE to do it. Now try pilling a cat w/ one hand.

Anj said...

I can't pill a cat with both hands!