Clean and Elegant

Clean and Elegant

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Erin Ball, My Favourite Acrobat

Erin Ball is my favourite acrobat. If you have made the excellent choice of following her on Facebook, you will know that she posts the best selfies and videos on the Internet.  You might also have noticed that her legs end below her knees.

Exquisite photo by Gilles Gelinas!
I like acrobats, and I like to talk to people about their lives. I have been dying to interview Erin for almost a year. As fate would have it, she is extremely busy walking upside down and flying around in various shapes. Lucky for me, Erin generously squeezed me into her eventful life while I was in Onterrific in June. Erin picked me up at the Kingston train station. The back of her car was full of hula hoops, trapeze contraptions and one or two pairs of legs. We did the interview at the Kingston Circus Arts, where Erin teaches silks, trapeze, aerial hoop, partner acrobatics and conditioning.  
If you’re wondering how someone becomes such a versatile and talented acrobat and circus teacher, you need not worry, because I asked.  Surprisingly enough, Erin didn’t take up moving until her early twenties. Movement just wasn’t part of her thing. Then one day, a friend dragged her to a yoga class. She was 23.
As everyone else struggled through the poses, Erin really took to it: “I remember my first pigeon pose, and I was like, oh, I could really get into this.”
Years ago in Montreal, I saw Erin do a backbend in a yoga class. Before I knew what was going on, she had her face between her thighs. She certainly didn’t seem to be struggling all that much.
After that first class, although Erin didn’t get into yoga right away, she decided to go to college and become a personal trainer. Yoga came next, and then circus.
Erica: “Can you talk about falling in love with the circus?”
Erin: “I was living in Boston… Saw a poster for a hula hoop workshop and signed up to do that. And it was kind of a love-hate thing at the beginning, with hoop. Then maybe six months later, if that, I saw a busker’s fest here in Kingston and there was a couple there doing partner acrobatics and the flyer was on the base’s arm doing a handstand… It blew my mind and I said, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen, I need to learn how to do that.”
She found a circus school in Toronto and then Vermont at the New England Center for Circus Arts. There, she became particularly enamoured with the trapeze. Although Erin possesses a natural level of flexibility, strength was something she had to devote a great deal of time to. The process was exciting and empowering. Erin went on to complete teaching courses many disciplines including aerial silks and trapeze, acro yoga, hoopdance and pilates. Within four or five years, Erin started teaching aerial arts and other circus skills out of Kingston.
Erica: “Would you say that movement is now an integral part of your identity?”
Erin: “Yes, mentally, physically, emotionally, I need to move.”

Erin flies again.
Wonderful photo courtesy of SVPhotography
I am always super perplexed to hear stories of amazingly active people enduring ordeals such as amputations or spinal cord injuries. So often these things happen to the kinds of people who take full advantage of all their limbs and cells. I suppose legs and intact spinal cords come in handy for everyone, but this seems particularly true for acrobats, which is one of the reasons I find Erin’s story so compelling. Here’s what happened:
Erin: “I was upset and went for a drive to clear my head. Kept driving. Got out of the car, went for a walk. Sat down and my feet got wet right away which is where the problem happened. Went to get up, couldn’t feel my feet, so I couldn’t walk from that point on.”
Erin had driven about 45 minutes from her home in Bath, Ontario, which is almost 30 km outside of Kingston. Nobody knew where she was going and she’d left her phone in the car. It was March of 2014. Right away, her loved ones reported her as a missing person, but Erin remained lost in the woods for six days. Erin can’t remember much of this time. Given the harsh Canadian winter conditions, and a lack of food and water, she likely went unconscious early on.  
Erica: “Do you remember them finding you?”
Erin: “No. I was unconscious. My body temperature was 19. I was found by a police dog and I guess people came in and pulled me out to an area where a helicopter could get me and then I was flown to a hospital where I think I was out for a few days. They opened me up and put in warm blood and warm fluid. When I woke up I was massive and bloated and didn’t recognize my body.”
Erica: “Really? Because of all the weird fluids and stuff?”
Erin: “Yah, I have photos from the first few days when I was awake where they had to use a lift to get me out of the bed and to sit up. It was crazy.”
Erica: “You couldn’t really move at that point either, so you’re waking up and movement is so integral to your life and like, could you move your hands?”
Erin: “I don’t remember.”
The nurses showed Erin her feet a few days later.
Erin: “There was a very specific point where it all changed and was purple and bloated…”
Erica: “But the rest of your body, your hands were okay?”
While she was in the woods, Erin remembers putting her hands over her coat and crawling across the ground. She thinks the reason her feet were so damaged was because they got wet.
Erin: “I guess it was because my feet got wet, but I managed to keep my nose and my fingers. Super lucky.”
Absolutely, Erin was lucky to be alive. But parting with her feet was not such an easy transition. Erin spent three relatively horrific months in the hospital before consenting to the double amputation.
Erin: “Yah I was kind of in denial. I asked my mom recently to see photos… In the beginning they were purple and bloated with maybe a few patches where there was regular skin colour and then they just got progressively worse. Towards the end it was unbelievable. Like I can’t believe that that was on a human body. They were black. They looked like shrivelled up leather and they were starting to self-amputate. It was pretty intense.
And originally I had been told, yah you should keep walking on them and then I was told, no definitely don’t walk on them and I was kind of trying to walk on them but yah, they were starting to fall off and they were making really weird noises, like squishy. But I had this idea in my head that they were gonna grow back or I don’t know… So I just was not ready to accept that I needed to have them taken off. So woods was March 2014 and then the surgery was June 12, 2014. And eventually it was my family, they had tried to sign for me to have the surgery and the doctors couldn’t do it without my consent, so eventually they convinced me to go ahead with it.”
I asked Erin if finally making the decision provided her with some relief. Instead of wondering and vacillating over the unknown future, now she could go ahead and move forwards with the reality of having no feet.
Erin: “I wouldn’t say it was a relief. At that point I was kind of like well, I’ve had the high points of my life and that’s it, my life is over now.”
At the time, she was only 34. For the months following the amputation, Erin struggled to eat and do much besides lie in her bed, her arm covering her face.
Erin: “I had pretty much given up and decided I wanted to die.”
Depression was not something she’d ever dealt with before. Legs or no legs, there is never shame in being depressed. But I’m sure most of us can recognize what an enormous challenge it must have been to have to reconcile yourself with such massively life-changing events. Unless you are like me and have the twisted and unhelpful tendency to distress about the possibility of unlikely events, you probably assume that your legs are these highly useful things that you’ll get to keep.
Erica: “Did it ever occur to you that something like this would happen?”
Erin: “When I was eighteen I used to ride freight trains. So I travelled across Canada and the U.S. hitchhiking and riding trains and I fell off a train one time when I was trying to get on and I felt my legs go under the train and hit something and in that moment, it flashed through my head, oh my god, I’ve lost my legs and it was like wow, super powerful. And then somehow I got pushed from under and I scraped my knees on the rocks and that was it.
Other than that, I never never would have thought… My body and all parts of my body were so important to what I was doing.
It was something that I definitely never thought would happen to me. I remember in teacher training for aerial arts they were like, do you want to work with amputees or whatever and it was so far out of my brain, I was like, I have no idea, I have nothing, like no. Cause I don’t know anything.”
Erica: “So that’s not a world that you were ever familiar with.”
Erin: “No.”
A good fifteen years after falling off the freight train in Calgary, Erin woke up from the surgery and found that she really had lost her legs. Depression reigned for several months. With movement and physical achievement so fundamental to her sense of who she was, Erin felt totally devastated and lost. Plus life at the stark, soulless hospital, with its airplane food trays and sterile vital checks is enough to get anyone down. I wondered if Erin had experienced some sort of breakthrough or epiphany when the depression lifted. She said that there was one point in September when she tried prosthetics and for a moment, she snapped out of it.
Erin: “It was like, okay, I’m gonna live.”
I remember the video she posted during that time. With tentative confidence, Erin walked back and forth along the prostheticist’s room’s walkway. You could almost hear the people in the background holding their breath.
“I am so freakin happy right now,” Erin had written on Facebook. But soon afterwards, she went back to not getting out of bed. Finally in January, things started to shift. By February of 2015, Erin was committed to using prosthetics every day.
Erica: “What shifted?”
Erin: “Time, I think and just being sick of the hospital, and I just made the decision, I have to get out of here and live, so it’s time to walk and do circus.”
Surprisingly, walking turned out to be somewhat more difficult than circus. From inspirational Ted talks and the cutting edge prosthetics you see in the Paralympics or on Nike commercials, I always thought that the technology available for amputees was quite excellent. It turns out that wearing prosthetics is often extremely uncomfortable.  
Erin: “My legs are in sockets, so normally the tibia and fibula are joined at the ankle but now they’re not joined at all, so now when I walk they’re being pushed apart and there’s a big nerve that runs along in there and so it really bothers me. It’s like a lot of nerve pain just from walking in the sockets. And there’s been a big adjustment period and a lot of pain just having the bone at the front in contact with the socket with every step.”

Erin in cool stripey pants, with her socket-prosthetics.
Thank you to Bryce Murdoch Photography for the stunning photo!
So basically Erin has to walk on her calf muscles which are not really designed for this. And yet, Erin has been amazed at how her body has adapted. When she walks, her calves can actually detect a rock or change of surface from above her prosthetic legs. Despite the pain and discomfort that has come with prosthetics, Erin is already accomplishing far more than most of us could pull off with three to seventeen legs.
Erica: “Do you think you’re more driven than you were before? Do you feel like, ‘I need to be super active?’ ”

Another stunning photo by Bryce Murdoch Photography!
Erin: “It’s different now. Let me think about that a little bit. Yah, I don’t know how to put into words what the difference is… I think before my accident, you know, I was at work and interacting with people but in my personal life outside of that I had started kind of isolating and I think since the accident I’ve realized how important it is to stay connected. Before I spent a lot of time training on my own and I do that now too but I really try to get people around whenever I can.” 

Erin has created a lovely community at the Kingston Circus Arts. Although I used to think of circus as this elite and impossible thing that was limited to the Cirque du Soleil people, it actually turns out to quite inclusive. With so many mediums and adaptations, there is something for everyone, especially when you have an excellent teacher like Erin. I got a chance to try the silks and aerial hoops while I was visiting. Erin struck a perfect balance between helping me feel both challenged and safe, despite my mild fear of breaking my neck. It was beautiful to see all the different bodies joyfully executing so many beautiful and exciting feats. One of the bodies belonged to Erin’s mother Kathy who blew me away with both her grace and her biceps. Erin’s family has been a significant source of love and support during her recovery. It was Erin’s dad who first suggested that Erin take off her legwarmers during a performance. 

Erin's Mom, Kathy, next to Erin. Erin grew quite a few inches when she got new legs and now she gets to be taller than her Mom. Lovely pipes, Ladies!
Erin: “It was really hard, at first I didn’t want to show my legs. That took a lot of getting used to. I was in the middle of a performance and my dad said, you should take those leg warmers off and I was like, I can’t, I just can’t and I did and I never put them back on, but it was like I’m not going to be able to wake up every single day and go out like this and face the world and I have been able to. And I totally do not want to put the legwarmers back on now, but I kind of wanted to make a video of all of the reactions and things that I get in a day. Now I’m totally fine with it but in the beginning it was like, woo, this is a lot.”
The best reactions come from kids, who always ask Erin if she’s a robot. Adults are a little more awkward. They stare and look away, or pretend to ignore the fact that Erin has metal legs. Hearing Erin talk about this reminded me of this lifeguarding training I went to years ago, led by a man who was missing an arm. I felt like me and all the other lifeguards were dying to know what had happened. I asked Erin what the best kind of reaction was.
Erin: “If people are open about it. Ask about it… I can’t speak for other people but I guess for me, I’m putting this out there by choice and so definitely come ask me, it’s here. But yah. I can’t speak for everybody, if that’s what they feel as well.”
I wanted to get a sense of the least helpful thing people could say. Like what has been the worst part, besides the physical challenges and pain.
Erin: “Sometimes people making excuses for me, like you can’t do this because of your legs.”

Another terrible thing to say is, “Well, everything happens for a reason.” Ick. 
Erica: “It’s kind of bullshit that everything happened for a reason. I don’t know if you’re into that, but it’s kind of like, it happened-”
Erin: “Exactly. My mom started getting so pissed off. People would say that to her and she’d be like no, you can’t say that. And I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but it happened and there are good things that have come out of it.”
One of the good things is the encouraging online community of people who follow Erin’s posts. As I’ve mentioned, Erin’s selfies and videos are the best and they inspire tons of people.
Erica: “A couple weeks ago you posted that you were feeling sad and missing your feet… do you let yourself grieve and have many regrets, do you have time for regrets or is it more like, I gotta move forward, I gotta get over this.”
Erin: “So I would say in general I am pretty happy, I feel like that’s one thing that’s really come out of this. Like before I would go through periods or days where I would be like uh, none of my clothes work, or I’m freaking out about all this stuff, you know low self-esteem days and stuff, and I find now it’s just like fuck it, like you know what, I have metal legs and who cares. So yah, it’s helped a lot with that.  And yah in general, it’s just like I’m enjoying life and whatever I can get out of it. But I definitely do have times when I feel sad, especially watching old videos where it’s like oh, like I’m so used to this now that I forget and then I see a video and it’s like oh wow, that’s what I was able to do… And it’s like whew. But it’s been really enjoyable finding all the new things, and just discovering and being creative. So that’s been great.

Regrets? I don’t really have regrets about it. But I do allow myself to be sad. For sure. The day of the two-year anniversary of the amputation I spent a period of the day in bed crying. Totally.” 
Erica: “Hard day?”
Erin: “Good day for most of the day, but totally allowed an hour of just crying in bed.
Erica: “But it doesn’t consume you like in the hospital.”
Erin: “Yah I don’t stay there. It never lasts. It’s just a short period of time and then boom I’m back to normal.”
Erica: “And in general, some things are definitely better.”
Erin: “Totally.”
Erica: “Sometimes people go through events like this and they say, I am a totally new person, or other people will say that about you, like oh, you’re a totally different person? How do you feel?”
Erin: “I feel like I’ve grown a lot. I’m the same person, but I’ve grown a lot. I’ve learned a lot. I mean, I don’t know. In some ways I feel different… Yah, I guess I’ve just grown and learned a lot and I’m trying to just make the most of this.”
Making the most of this is a massive understatement. Erin, you are rocking this. What a joy it has been to witness you grow on this unbelievable journey.
“Life is weird and difficult and wonderful.” –Erin Ball, my favourite acrobat

 The End.

Check out the CBC's beautiful video about Erin!
Check out Erin's blog socksandsockets!
Check out Erin's classes at Kingston Circus Arts!

Follow Erin on Facebook! 

Me and Erin. Dream come true!
Exuberant Bodhisattva on Facebook
Twitter: @mypelvicfloor
I Let Go, self-help book by Erica J. Schmidt

This interview is an example of a blog feature I started called, "Asking People About Their Lives," in which I do just that.
I love asking people about their lives.
Here are my other interviews so far:

Asking Matt Wiviott About His Life

Guillaume Part One
Guillaume Part Two

Shelley Fillipoff: Where is Emma Fillipoff, Part One of Nine.

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