I am a survivor. Six years ago today, I suffered a stroke.
For a long time, I didn’t tell most people because I was ashamed; I thought of it as a weakness on my part, and that somehow, having a stroke in the first place, was my fault. I am ready to tell my story now because I realize that I have overcome some great obstacles, more than some and far less than others, but the journey is worth telling. And perhaps in some small way, sharing my journey can encourage someone else in his or her journey.
People have asked me what the experience was like….It started when I woke up. I was alone in my house, and I noticed that my entire left side was prickly, like when you have been laying on your hand wrong and it is just starting to fall asleep, only, it was the whole left side of my body. I went outside to let the dog out and fill up his water bowl, and I noticed that my hearing was incredibly acute. I could hear the dog barking 8 blocks away, I heard insects flying near me, only they were across the patio, I could hear the blood going through the veins inside my head; it seemed very surreal. I picked up the water bowl with my right hand and when I wanted to go inside, I remember telling my left hand to open the door, but it wouldn’t move. I used my right hand and told myself to “wake up!”
I should have known something was wrong at this point, but it didn’t occur to me because I was young, I was healthy, and symptoms of a stroke are very serious and only affect older people….little did I know.
When I tried to brush my teeth, I couldn’t swish water around in my mouth, and I realized couldn’t make a smile in the mirror. That’s when I got scared….so I called my parents, only, I couldn’t make the right words come out. I knew what I wanted to say, but the words weren’t there. I finally made my dad understand that I didn’t want an ambulance, but I thought something was wrong…please come. When he got to the house, I was feeling fine again, so I felt bad for getting him out of bed early. Thankfully, he and my mom had the sense to make me go to the ER to get checked out. What I didn’t know is that I was having a series of small TIAs (trans ischemic attacks), sort of like mini-strokes. While I was in the hospital getting checked out, I had an actual stroke where a blood clot hit my right frontal lobe, and I lost movement in my left side, from my cheek bone to about my knee, which lasted for several days.
After I got out of the hospital, I had to learn how to do many things all over again, and it was frustrating. Driving, writing, talking, picking up small things, holding a fork and knife, thinking…. I learned that the best way for a person to heal from a brain injury is to sleep, so I had to sleep 10-12 hours each night. I struggled with missing words and not being able to express myself, I struggled to remember things, I struggled with physical weakness on my left side, I struggled with clumsiness, I struggled with becoming very tired without warning. I often wondered if I would ever get back to “normal” again.
Having had a stroke does not define who I am, but it has certainly changed the way I see and live life. It has changed certain priorities for me, it has challenged me to learn who I am, and honor that in myself. I still have to pay attention to myself when I get very tired. I laugh at myself when I forget things that I know. I have to be more conscientious when I get a bad headache and determine if I am dehydrated, or am I tired, is it just a headache, or is it more serious? I have had to learn how to give myself more grace. And in the midst of all that, I have chosen to live.
I took culinary classes at the Art Institute, and I wore a mesh glove so that I wouldn’t chop my fingers off. I learned how to ski. I started working with a personal trainer, and we spend a lot of time on balance exercises and strengthening my left side. I auditioned for a play and figured out how to memorize all my lines. I competed in a Sprint Triathlon at altitude. I trained for and ran a Half Marathon. I’m currently training for a full marathon. I started writing a blog. I bought a motorcycle. I passed the Level 1 certification towards becoming a sommelier. I decided that the only person that can truly put limits on me, is me. I go on vacation, and take pictures, and make memories, and love the people around me.
Some days, I still struggle with finding the right words, and I get frustrated that it’s not as “easy” as it once was. Sometime I hit the wall and stop functioning, and I’m pretty sure that my left side will always be a little bit weaker than my right side. But I am a survivor.
In six years, I have learned so much about myself, about living, about loving, about not taking things for granted, about courage, about what it means to “show up”. Today, I celebrate life, recovery, hard work, and hope. Today, I celebrate the people that have surrounded me with love and support and encouragement. Today, and every day, I live life a little bit differently….because it can all change in a moment. Take the time to tell the people around you that you love them. Be nice. Take risks. Live out loud. Own your choices. Be courageous. Laugh. Say you’re sorry. Listen. Be present. Celebrate the life you live.