A Stroke of Really Bad Luck

One day, I’m a wife and mom. The next, I’m laying in the street.

Photograph by Getty Images/Flickr RF

It’s apparent when you meet me that something isn’t quite right. I walk with a limp and often hold my right arm too close to my body. I do everything a left-handed person does, but with a little more effort. You won’t immediately know it, but the entire right side of my body was once paralyzed, until I relearned how to walk, as well as to speak clearly.

With absolutely no warning, I experienced what's called an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a clot in a blood vessel blocks the flow of blood to the brain. One day, I’m a wife and mom, carrying on her idyllic life in Marin County, California, hiking with her young daughter. The next, I’m laying in the street.

Recovery became a full-time job. The stroke took me to hospitals and clinics, to the offices of neurologists, psychotherapists, chiropractors, acupuncture practitioners, body workers, and physical and occupational therapists. A hematologist took about 20 samples of my blood and determined that most probably, it was the birth control pill that caused the blood clot.

It was absolutely amazing to me that, here in the middle of my life, I’d have to learn how to move my body and mind again. I was an extremely right-oriented person and now I was suddenly and inexplicably a lefty. It took me a solid year before I became comfortable again eating with a fork in my left hand. Dialing the phone felt odd, as did just about everything I had to do with my left. I had to attach the hooks of my bra first and then slide into it. I found reading a book difficult without a bookstand. When the phone rang, I had to hold it in my left hand and thus couldn’t do anything else. Now, this is fine if your goal is to be mindful, but if you have to write a number down, it becomes somewhat comical. And writing was very difficult.

The most shocking thing, however, was the way I looked at myself. I had ceased to be young, pretty and independent. Instead, I imagined myself as old, infirm and very needy. I didn’t bother to shave my legs and I couldn’t reach my underarms very well. I no longer dressed to impress. I saw myself as I imagined others saw me — slow, imbalanced, leaning on a cane; a young woman suddenly aged.

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When someone suggested that I color my hair to cover the gray that had begun rapidly forming (stress can do that to you), I simply shook my graying head. It took a lot of time before I once again saw myself as attractive. How I looked was tied up intrinsically with how I felt. How I functioned in the world was paramount to my feelings of self-worth.

I continued to get healthier all that first year. My driver’s license had been suspended after I had the stroke and my husband, Eric, had ordered a steering wheel knob from a disability website. As my right leg became pretty responsive, I could begin to drive again.

Eric and my father spent a lot of time teaching me to be responsive and avoid distractions. At first, I drove too slowly. I was so apprehensive, so aware of all the dangers. In time and with practice, I improved. About a year after my stroke, I decided I was ready to take my driving test. I sat in the car with an examiner whose basic assignment was to chatter endlessly about all matter of things while guiding me where to go. She was trying to see if I could pay attention in spite of distractions. Well, stroke or not, I had logged almost four years of driving with my daughter Annabelle, who can chatter with the best of them.

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Because the stroke occurred in the middle of my life, it certainly diverted my life's path. I spent years struggling to recapture my independence and sense of self. It is only now, more than ten years later, that I’ve had the time and presence of mind to reflect on what has happened. I learned a lot and have had to say goodbye to so much.

I’ve become a quieter, more reflective soul. I have a greatly enhanced awareness of the big picture and no longer get upset at trivialities. A traumatic experience like a stroke is what catches up most people who don’t usually take the time to breathe. Mostly, I’ve learned to surrender.

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