I hit the floor laughing. It’s hard to say why I was laughing. I knew I was in shock but I also knew something in my brain had gone completely haywire. When my mom arrived I was still laughing hysterically as I told her that my brain broke.
I only remember bits and pieces of that night. What stands out is when a tech nurse came in to look over my MRI results with me and ended up calling the MRI technician to ask if she’d taken a look at them yet. The tone of her voice when she said “oh god, yes” was all I needed to hear to know that something was seriously wrong with me. Before long a neurologist rushed in with a pack of students tailing him and asked me to touch my nose. I punched myself in the face. This may sound funny in hindsight but I assure you that it was not in the least bit funny in the moment. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of your body no longer responding to the signals your brain sends to it. It was horrifying.
I spent the next 16 days in the hospital. I had every test known to man looking for the cause of my 3 strokes, but aside from the restricted blood flow to my brain, they couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary. I was then put through acute rehab for the rest of my stay until I was able to function at an acceptable level to take care of my basic needs at home.
For the first week, my arm and leg were mostly unresponsive. I could no longer get to the bathroom on my own. The first time I managed to hobble in there with a walker, I went to wash my hands and smacked my arm into the ceramic tile of the wall instead. The room was constantly spinning around me. I couldn’t open my right eye without wanting to puke and I could barely make out the words on my phone some days. Lights and sounds were magnified so I could only function in very dim lighting and had to keep the door to my room closed at all times to drown out the chatter in the hallway. Everything hurt, and every time they wheeled me down to rehab I had to battle the simultaneous urge to puke, have a panic attack, and threaten everyone who wanted to get off on a different level of the elevator. (Some days I did not succeed at withholding idle threats.) I had rehab 4 times a day at minimum, and all of that time was spent in excruciating pain as I moved muscles that were begging me to just give up and curl into a ball already.
The last 10 years of suffering from multiple chronic pain disorders had taught me not to flinch. I’m sure I made it look easy some days, but I assure you it was far from easy. I had to put every last bit of energy I had into pushing forward, because I knew full well that if I didn’t, I might never walk again. Might never use my arm again. All the activities I loved would be lost to me and I would become an empty shell if I didn’t push with everything I had.
Two things were made abundantly clear to me by my doctors when it was explained to me that I’d had 3 strokes. The first was the concept of neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to adapt to change and rewire itself. The second was that the more progress I made early on, the better my outlook would be. So the more effort I put into getting better, the more likely I was to walk away from this without as many long-term deficits. I knew I had to push like hell, but I was also painfully aware that whatever mindset I adopted then was how I was wiring my brain moving forward. I considered this a chance at a fresh start, and I took it.
In the hospital I didn’t hesitate to say what was on my mind, mainly because I lost the ability to filter my thoughts. If I liked someone’s hair, I told them. If I enjoyed a conversation with someone, I told them. I didn’t have much to do but observe other people once everything else was stripped away, and I found that genuine compliments brought a smile to people’s faces.
I can only think of one regret I have from my hospital stay. When I was being wheeled down to therapy once I was wheeled past a cancer patient who was telling the person wheeling her that she didn’t like how everyone looked at her like they pitied her. I thought of shouting “I don’t pity you!” I really felt like she needed to hear it from someone, to be reminded that she wasn’t her illness, but I hesitated and by the time I plucked up the courage to say it, she was gone.
From that point forward I decided to live with no regrets. I never missed an opportunity to make someone smile. More often than not, it worked. I had always wanted people to think I was funny, but I didn’t actually find myself funny until I started looking for the humor in everyday situations. When my insecurities told me people were only laughing at my jokes because they felt sorry for me, I didn’t listen. I took the time to truly observe people, and found that both my negative and positive actions had reactions, and while positive reactions generally appear to be more subtle, they can create a lasting effect.
Sometimes I did lash out. When the stimuli got to be too much or I was placed in a situation I didn’t want to be in, I found it hard to pull myself back at times. Post-stroke anxiety can be incredibly overwhelming and on top of that I had to learn how to deal with humanity again. But even on my worst days, I always found a reason to smile. Some days it was harder than others. One day I spilled ice water on myself, twice. Another day a friend brought me a smoothie I was really looking forward to, and I knocked it over with my good hand. Mostly my bad days involved spilling things, I guess. One day I managed to spill the entire food pyramid on myself before I broke down crying. It was in that moment that I realized I wasn’t actually crying because I’d gotten cheese all over my shirt. I was crying because I could never go back to my old life. I had worked so hard for independence, only to have it ripped away from me in an instant. I couldn’t go back to my third story apartment. I couldn’t provide for myself. I couldn’t even play video games anymore. More than anything, I realized that the people who’d heard the news and hadn’t contacted me by now were gone from my life forever. That sobering realization hit me like a thousand knives.
From that experience I remembered that sometimes you have to break down to build yourself back up again. It’s important to be able to recognize when you’re hurting and address that feeling to move forward. But I do believe that even at your lowest point you can still find a reason to be grateful for every day. Yes, the world is cruel. Sometimes the unthinkable will happen. Sometimes it will be difficult, or nearly impossible, to find a reason to carry on. But life goes on regardless of how we choose to live it. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that at any moment something unexpected could happen that will change your life forever. How you let that moment affect you, however, is up to you.
I’ve chosen to live a life with no regrets. It’s not always easy. Since my strokes I’ve put myself out there in ways that put me at risk of failure, but I also know that in order to attain anything worth having in life, you have to accept the possibility that you could fall flat on your face.
I made friends, and I was betrayed by a couple of them, but the ones who stuck by me were worth the heartache of losing the ones who didn’t. The people who were worth having around made it clear to me the lengths they would go to for me, and I learned what true love looks and feels like. I fell in love with one of them, too. He is remarkably human, and I fell for him because he wasn’t afraid to show it. He stuck his neck out for me when everyone else was too afraid to and I love him even more for that. It definitely hurt the day he closed the door on the possibility of romance, but I knew if I didn’t take the chance of knocking, I would always regret it.
The harder lesson to learn has been which doors to reopen and which doors should remain closed. I managed to get to a point where I was depressed enough to reach out to someone I’d left behind and had to muster up the strength to leave him all over again. He ended up twisting a proverbial knife in my side in his anguish when he had to relive the experience of losing me, but in the process I was reminded that sometimes love isn’t enough. How another person processes their pain is entirely up to them. At the end of the day, everyone’s experience is largely shaped by their attitude, and even though some things are out of our control, we still have the power to decide how we deal with it.
I feel like life is a series of shifting tides. The tides move regardless of what we do and we can either move with them or work against them. When a high tide comes in, if we struggle against it we can easily get dragged beneath the current. Sometimes surrender is the best option. Giving up and giving in are two immensely different things. You can accept what you can’t change and still refuse to allow it to break you.
I’m now 3.5 months post-stroke and physically, I’m almost back to baseline. My fingers get confused and hit the wrong keys on the keyboard sometimes, but it makes things interesting in video games if I randomly drop a bomb on myself every now and then. I wear glasses now and I still get anxious when I leave the house, but it’s something I’m working through. On the upside, colors and textures are more vibrant now and the sheer beauty of the world never ceases to amaze me. My chronic pain is much better than it was before since I’ve started working out every day and being more conscious of what I eat. I still haven’t learned how to lie, but I’m not sure I really want to and it’s probably hilarious to watch me try. I’m now living more confidently, more fully, and more vivaciously than ever before.
As difficult as this entire situation has been, I can now say that I’m immensely grateful for it. As humans we can allow our experiences to soften us, harden us, or shape us. I love the person I’ve become. I don’t care that I lost my job, my money, certain so-called friends, or the ability to function or filter my thoughts the way I used to. I found something much more valuable in the process, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I found myself.