This week marks one year since the 3 strokes that landed me in the hospital at the age of 30 — confused, jolted, and unable to function the way I could the week before.
It’s funny how time slows when you’re unable to process it. A year passes and you wake up one morning and realize that time slowing was just an illusion, a trick of your shattered mind.
“Even my identity ceased to be a sacred thing to me.”
When your well-being is at stake, everything else just fades into the background. How you made a living ceases to matter anymore (I was a caregiver, as I repeatedly told the people who cared for me that first week). Where you lived doesn’t matter, especially if you lived in a 3rd story apartment by yourself. Your possessions certainly don’t matter, as they’ve all been put in boxes by someone else’s hands.
Not only did the past year feel like a lifetime — it felt like my lifetime, all over again. I had to relearn how to walk, how to dress and feed myself, when to speak and when to bite my tongue (if I could manage to fight the impulse to speak first, which wasn’t likely). I had to discover what I liked and didn’t like, since my brain had changed and so had some of my interests. I found I hated things I’d once loved and loved things I’d once hated; it became apparent to me that brains control everything about us, including our sense of self. Even my identity ceased to be a sacred thing to me. In a way, it’s cathartic to come to the realization that everything that ever plagued you was just a distraction. What’s truly important becomes all too apparent when you don’t have enough energy for trivialities. For me, it was my loved ones.
With the exception of my immediate family and a few of my closest friends, the world missed out on the messy parts of my recovery. No one sees you on days when you’re too dizzy to stand, too anxious to leave your bedroom, too overwhelmed to talk to anyone. The world is too noisy, too fast, too busy to accommodate you. You begin to distance yourself from humanity more and more as time goes on and you realize that you can’t ask the world to slow down. It feels like the world is constantly spinning around you and you keep hoping you’ll learn to move with it, but it just keeps spinning faster and faster as you try to take it in. Every so often you manage to reach out and touch it for a moment, and then the moment’s gone.
Friendships slip away during months you only speak when spoken to. The world has its own troubles. Life goes on without you.
As your physical deficits improve, it becomes less obvious that anything happened to you, and you become another face in the crowd — no longer the hero of the story. You peek out of your cave and begin to act more like a human being and the world forgets that you’re damaged. One of your closest friends finds out you’re moving closer to him and talks excitedly about all the places you could go together — places you can’t go anymore — places someone else will end up going with him. Other friends ask you to play games you’ll never be able to play again. Even your best friend seems shocked by the things that continue to overwhelm you.
“I discovered that denial hides behind a mask of motivation. Anger hides behind a mask of humor. Bargaining hides behind a mask of gratitude. Depression hides behind a mask of positivity.”
People love to hear tales of overcoming adversity and regaining what was stolen from you. Everyone loves a hero and everyone wants a happy ending. When times get hard, we want assurance that those hardships won’t last. The truth is, sometimes there is no mystical light waiting for you at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes you have to stumble around in the dark, gathering up materials and rubbing them together until you learn how to make fire.
My previous stroke recovery article highlighted all the progress that I’d made, how I’d discovered myself through a situation that no one should ever have to face. What it failed to highlight is that in order to understand myself, I had to stare in the mirror until I accepted every raw emotion that had been exposed when my own brain turned against me. I found myself by digging frantically through the ashes of who I used to be.
I discovered that denial hides behind a mask of motivation. Anger hides behind a mask of humor. Bargaining hides behind a mask of gratitude. Depression hides behind a mask of positivity. Acceptance means coming to terms with the fact that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, that you’re not the hero of the story, that no prince charming can rescue you from your woes.
We tend to think of acceptance as the stage of grief when everything comes together, but it isn’t. It’s the stage when everything falls apart all over again — the moment when all the masks fall off and you’re left to pick up the pieces of what was left behind.
I’ve come to accept that some things that were lost will never be regained. Some friendships will fade away forever, and new ones will take their place. Some games will never be played again. Some trips will never be taken. I may not sing like I did before, but I’m learning to dance, once step at a time.
Sometimes a plant gets uprooted, and a new sprout begins to grow in its place.