By David Jones
On September 2nd, 2019 I had a migraine, and along with it a small stroke (a Transient Ischemic Attack or TIA) on the left side of my brain.
I lost most of my vocabulary for a few hours which made answering questions in the ambulance and the Emergency Room play out like Korben Dallas asking Leeloo questions in The Fifth Element. At least I didn’t answer every question with “Multi-Pass,” although that wouldn’t have made any difference.
On July 1st-3rd, 2023 I had three days of migraines. On the third day I was playing a video game when my left hand went limp and my left arm fell to my side, as if the power to run them was just switched off.
They instantly went from being functional body parts to decorative accessories. No matter what I tried, they were off the clock and not interested in working anymore. I went and showed my wife, and we discussed going to the Emergency Room. We got me dressed and headed in.
Just like in 2019, the CT scans didn’t see anything, but the MRIs did. This time, three days of migraines netted me 10 small strokes on the right side of my brain. Ten. Was my brain having a BOGO sale? Did I have coupons or something? Some of my friends observed I was being an overachiever. Accurate.
There were big differences between the two episodes though. The first one was dramatic and did a lot of damage which remains today. My speech is a little slow sometimes. My thinking and understanding can still get very muddled, and my emotions can be flakier than a plate of biscuits. Thankfully this second event introduced fewer symptoms.
But in both cases I never had the drooping face, slurred speech, mobility issues or any of the other obvious indicators of stroke. In the first episode they didn’t even treat me as a possible stroke victim for about half a day in the hospital because I didn’t present with the symptoms they were trained to recognize. This time a few sentences from my wife told them ‘probable stroke’ and they got busy.
All this to say my cognitive abilities—comprehension, reasoning, following instructions, short-term memory, etc.—are now impaired. My wife put it perfectly: “You have scars on your brain now, and the ants don’t know how to walk around them yet.” Perfect analogy, and she got bonus points for referencing the movie Antz.
Eleven TIAs, 10 in one episode. “Okay, Mr. Mindfulness Guy, you’re 11 strokes over par now. What’s your game plan?” Simple: I’m sticking with what I know.
Acceptance and patience.
Some things will get better, some may not. But all recovery takes time. I have 11 spots of brain damage with police tape all around them. I recovered my vocabulary in a few hours the first time, and my left arm and hand resumed working within a day. But I must be patient and take my time with the rest as I maneuver around the lane closures in my noggin.
Compassion toward self.
I got mad at myself for all this, you know. I was issuing orders and parts of me just ignored them. As my left arm slowly regained functionality, I habitually put my nighttime medicine in my left hand, and instead of popping them in my mouth the pills were catapulted over my head and vanished in the hospital room (we never found them). I berated my arm for being stupid and useless. I wouldn’t say anything like that to anyone, especially if they’re struggling, but here I was punishing myself because I was embarrassed. So I started to encourage and commend my left arm and hand for their efforts instead. I changed my attitude and felt better.
Meditation and prayer.
I pray to God because God remains a comforter to me, and I don’t take that for granted. I also know that the mind-calibrating benefits of meditation are beneficial now more than ever. Praying and meditating get me through my anxiety and panic, as well as those long dark nights when dire thoughts and feelings come calling.
Balancing limitation with opportunity.
My speech is unreliable; it isn’t slurred or incoherent, but it can become disjointed and meandering if I don’t stay on top of it. Writing, on the other hand, has become easier for me. So on my first day in the hospital I was writing. It’s good mental stimulation and helps keep the psychological wolves at bay.
Letting go of obsolete plans.
It’s time to retire. As my doctor said, “Retirement might be a good idea. You’ve had two strokes (incidents).” I’ve had a 35-year career across two federal agencies, and we were hoping I could make it a few more years so I could retire with three years as a Grade 7. Now that’s not going to happen. Once plans become untenable, letting them go rather than clinging to them frees us to move forward.
Asking for help and accepting it with love and gratitude.
I can’t always do stuff for myself. I mean I can cook food, get dressed, wash myself, sing the wrong lyrics to songs, and tell ridiculous dad jokes just like before, but things like making decisions, understanding instructions, following a conversation, or dealing with changes to plans can put me on the canvas. My wife is my stalwart companion and strong shoulder, and she reminds me often that I’m not a burden to her when I feel I am.
Mindfulness is a tool kit, always available, and it encourages you to find new ways to use it in your life. So I’m going to use it all I can, even though this mindful mind has accumulated dings and scrapes. Survival isn’t an accomplishment, it’s a process I’m committed to.
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