Outside of vague poetry I’ve ignored the stroke. I want to pretend it never happened as if, maybe, that will undo the brain damage and emotional trauma that comes with going toe-to-toe with Death. I’ve spent a lot of years flirting with Her and I guess Death finally decided to flirt back.
For those of you who aren’t aware: back in January of this year I had a stroke. A venous infarct in the left transverse sinus of my medial-temporal lobe, to be specific. I was 23 years old– chubby and healthy as a horse when it comes to my heart, circulation, respiration, everything– and my brain up and decided it needed to explode. My coworkers, being journalists, being deprived of knowing what had gone so catastrophically wrong with me that resulted in me being out of work for nearly a month, being unable to contain their curiosity, suggested I write about it, that someone interview me, that I make something of this miserable chapter of my life.
This is what I get for working among journalists.
I thought I had a sinus infection. Throughout November and December 2016 I had a near-constant sinus headache that slowly increased in severity but was not accompanied with any other symptoms until mid-January when the congestion finally began. At that point I found myself in such profound pain that I could get no relief for the headache unless I turned the shower hot enough to scald and put my face under it. I could tolerate nothing touching my face or head. Blinking was agonizing.
At the ER I was barely examined before being sent home with yet more antibiotics. My CT scan was, apparently, clear– more on that later. When I had the stroke and subsequent seizures the response from our local EMT’s was underwhelming at best. Over the course of four ambulance rides they dropped me twice. They implied to my mother that I was faking in order to get drugs. One stroke and four grand mal seizures later I was admitted by skeptics and then a nurse finally, finally saw the tail end of a post-ictal phase where my heart rate was over 150 BPM and she told my mother, “You can’t fake that.” As if my mother needed to be convinced that I was genuinely dying.
It’s worth saying that I remember none of this. This time period is a black hole in my memory that occasionally spits out implicit sensations and pieces of episodic flashbacks that barely make sense. I don’t remember Christmas or Thanksgiving 2016 except those things I took pictures of– and I don’t remember taking the pictures.
I do remember waking up with my head wrapped in many, many layers of bandages that helped secure electrodes to my scalp. I remember going shrill when the nurse told me I’d had a stroke. Demanding, What? I’m 23. How could this happen to me? I remember having so much blood drawn six times a day that my veins blew all over both arms and the nurses became annoyed that I was anemic. I remember my neurologist coming in and showing me my initial CT scan on his iPhone and pointed at the bright white areas of the screen, telling him, “Oh wow look at that damage in the left hemisphere those neurons are really fucked up.” I remember how he stared at me with a flattering species of awe because, apparently, this is not the reaction most people have to seeing CT scans.
It was the same CT that had been taken in the ER. In my drugged up, brain damaged state with little more than two undergraduate biopsychology classes under my belt I recognized brain damage and edema that the ER professionals failed to catch. I could wax poetic about my outrage but this is supposed to be about the softer, more difficult emotions, so I’ll leave it at that.
The next two weeks is a blur of my mother’s anxiety, horrific back pain (seizures, man), and a creeping feeling of uselessness. I slept around the clock. I lost something in the neighborhood of 30 pounds because I couldn’t be bothered to eat. The only foods I wanted, delicious dark leafy greens, I wasn’t allowed to have because of the blood thinners they gave me.
I went back to work well before I should have not because I didn’t have FMLA yet and had run out of sick leave (I didn’t have FMLA yet, I had run out of sick leave and vacation time) but because I was going to lose my goddamn mind if I sat around the house doing nothing any longer.
Of course going back to work meant I was confronted in wholly new ways with the results of my brain damage. Aphasia, chronic pain, short-term memory loss, poor impulse control– these things had me learning my entire job from scratch. The severity of them changed from day-to-day, seemingly with some mysterious force like the alignment of foreign stars, and resulted in more frustration than productivity. I couldn’t articulate myself or ask simple questions thanks to the aphasia. I couldn’t walk more than ten paces without having to stop for breath because of the horrific pain in my back. I would ask questions upwards of a half dozen times in a row, not remembering the answer just given to me. I got into fights with people at Starbucks because I disliked the tone they took with baristas. I got into fights with my family because I couldn’t perspective take or step back from a point of petty disagreement. I went on innumerable crying jags for reasons I couldn’t articulate– there is nothing worse for a writer than to be incapable of using language.
I became convinced that I had no control over my life any more and that I would likely never regain it because recovery from traumatic brain injuries is unpredictable at best and the seizures were almost guaranteed to be a facet of my life for the rest of my life.
My depression reared its ugly, familiar head. I had panic attacks on a weekly basis. I was told by my closest friends and trusted confidants that I had no right to be miserable because I was alive and my brain damage was relatively minor. That I especially had no right to tell them I felt miserable because it was a burden. All I wanted was some kind of permission to feel as if I had nearly died, I couldn’t give it to myself, and no one wanted to give it to me, either. God forbid we acknowledge that near-death experiences inspire fear and hopelessness.
No one likes a disabled person who isn’t relentlessly optimistic.
I went through a five month period of figuring out how to kill myself with any object in my field of view as a pastime; this is easier than you might think. My internal monologue was an argument: I should kill myself and finish what the stroke started I’m taking rat poison after all no one would notice an overdose but dying at my desk is tacky isn’t it? I felt like I was listening to someone scream 24/7. I heard the screaming so vividly that sometimes I couldn’t hear myself speaking over it. This may or may not have been an auditory hallucination. Who knows? Brain damage is weird that way.
I would like to say that this turmoil resolved through some kind of identifiable process but recovery is rarely straightforward. I suppose the most concise factor in my emotional wellness was acquiring an apartment. I moved out of my mother’s house over the course of a single weekend because of that notorious lack of impulse control and it turned out to be a Good Life Decision (unlike starting fights in Starbucks). Seizing control over my environment was essential for my feeling whole and useful (even if it was poorly-planned and foolish). After all living alone requires all those skills that had atrophied during my convalescence: long-term budgeting, meal planning, not spending my entire paycheck on video games and dresses, intentionally setting aside time for hobbies and friends, going to work on time…
I wish I could say that I’m better now but linear progress is the antithesis of life.
I have improved, that much is certain, and where I haven’t improved I’ve grown accustomed to living with my shortcomings. I’m in constant pain as a remnant of the muscle damage caused by the seizures and atrophy from bedrest. I lose time and memory like water through a sieve and there are whole scenes for novels in my notebooks that I can’t for the life of me recall writing– at least they’re good quality, though. It can take me the better part of a minute to summon up a synonym to the ideal word in any given sentence because the word I want is gone, vanished from existence. Some words still don’t look real, as if someone is pulling a joke on me, telling me that “minute” (or “cancel” or “continue”) is a word in the English language that is commonly used when really it’s gibberish.
There is no neat ending to stick onto this chapter of my life. There is no inspirational platitude or epiphany that you can carry with you as a reward for making it to the end of this blog post. There is only the fact that I am not dead yet.