Life After Stroke
A Journey to Reclaim Joy, Find Strength Hindered by Prejudice
BY JERRY HUFFMAN
“You’re going to do what?”
The look of pure shock on my friend’s face was so vivid you would have thought I’d confided a plan to rob a bank. Instead, I was making the decision to go public with the fact I’d survived a stroke.
“But if you talk about it people are going to know what happened to you!”
To tell you the truth, that was fine by me. Three years ago a small blood clot came loose and careened through my vascular system like a pinball and lodged in my brain stem. I didn’t know it at the time but I was having a stroke.
55-year old desk jockeys, in the midst of a profound health crisis, usually grab their chest, cuss a little bit, and fall over. I didn’t feel a thing. No pain. No warning signs. One moment I’m hanging out with our dog and the next I’m flirting with the permanent fade to black. I thought I had the flu. Luckily for me, my much smarter wife, Carol, knew better.
The Stroke, and the Recovery
Thankfully, the clot lodged in my brain stem instead of going into my brain. The stroke left me clutching a walker but with lots of support from Carol, a fair amount of motivation, and a great physical therapist, I dumped the walker and then the cane within a few months. If the clot had made it to my brain, the effects would have likely been much more devastating if not fatal.
In addition to learning how to walk again, I also mastered giving myself blood thinner shots, and learned to cope with bouts of uncontrolled crying. A common challenge for most stroke survivors is overcoming the occasionally comical ability to weep openly–often for only a few seconds–for no apparent reason. The tears were especially frustrating because I could weep as easily for an inspiring sunrise as I would when if I burned the toast.
Like a lot of stroke survivors I count a psychologist as part of my medical team. There are a stunning amount of emotions to work through and bless the lovely one (a.k.a. Carol) for insisting I, and sometimes we, go.
My biggest memory of the months after the stroke was craving a sense of normalcy. I was struggling with some physical issues (like tiring easily, and a haunting sense that the words, “STROKE GUY” were tattooed on my forehead.) I wanted my old life back and I wasn’t ready to accept that the life I knew was gone.
Back to the Cold, Cruel World
I kidded myself into thinking that once I got to “feeling better” everything would be okay. The word “wrong” doesn’t do justice to the depths of my wrong-ness on that bit of delusional thinking. The fact that there are still people who treat a stroke like a character flaw instead of a health issue floored me.
My former employer insisted I produce an affidavit from my neurologist that I wasn’t a “threat” to my colleagues before I could come return to work. I worked my butt off to get back in 100 days and their reaction was I needed a note from my doctor that I would play nice with others? Really?
When I returned to work, if anything, my work became better as I found a sense of professional and personal focus in my post-stroke life that I never had before. Part of it is pure gratitude for the fact I’m not dead. The rest is the thrill of getting a second chance to be a better person.
But I had people talk to me like I’d forgotten how to speak English, and others who went out of their way to be cruel. One day I heard my supervisor telling others I was probably brain damaged. Incorrect. And an evil thing to say. Sure, I was walking half a step slower in those first months, but my speech was clear, the neurons were firing, and I just wanted to work. And yes, my “brain” is just fine.
Of course, there were also the friends and family who stood tall to celebrate our victories and keep us sane on the bad days, but I will never understand the undercurrent from others who acted like I was contagious–and by extension–Carol. We both lost friends once word got out about the stroke.
Telling My Truth
With more than a quarter century of journalism and broadcasting experience under my belt, I’ve always been good at getting people to tell me their stories. I worked in two different war zones, covered a blur of political wannabes, and knew the pure joy of spending a day as Bill Murray’s golf caddy–all in the name of doing a story.
But this time it was my story to tell. This health scare shredded my reality and changed Carol’s world forever as well. I may have had the stroke, but both of us had to recover from it. To not talk about it would have been buying into the shame so many people tried to force upon us.
A radio essay for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin National Public Radio station gave me the chance to thank Carol in a very public forum, bless my medical team, and open up. I wanted to tell other stroke survivors to not give up. The stroke only wins when we stop trying. I wanted to stand up to the ignorant people who thought I was dangerous, to the cowards who turned their backs on Carol, and to the jackasses who went out of their way to be nasty.
My “Coming Out” Gains Momentum
Last fall, I wrote a magazine profile about a fellow broadcaster on his one-year stroke anniversary. Mitch Henck is a classy, old school radio talker. He invited me to the studio to compare notes and catch up. What I didn’t expect to do was have the talk on live radio.
For close to an hour, Mitch and I swapped stories–about learning to walk again, talk again, and tie our own shoes. Listeners phoned in and at one point I noticed the producer wiping tears from her eyes. “You guys are so brave,” she said, hugging both of us.
Brave? Hardly. We’d both survived a horrible assault from our own bodies and we were alive to talk about it. What we are is wonderfully blessed.
That first radio essay got re-posted a fair amount, which surprised me. If that essay made life easier, even for an hour, for a fellow survivor or their loved ones, I’m more proud of that than anything I ever put on television.
Harry Chapin May Have Summed it Up Best
OK, I’m dating myself by referring to my favorite college-era folk singer, but one of Chapin’s best is a song called “All My Life’s A Circle.” There’s a line he wrote, and sings, that has resonated with me for 40 years: “All my roads have bends. There’s no clear-cut beginnings. And so far no dead-ends.”
One of the questions I’ve struggled with in the last three years is what am I supposed to learn from the stroke. Then one day it hit me. I was happy. I wasn’t dead. My wife still loved me. My weight was dropping, I was getting healthier, and I could still beat most of my contemporaries at golf. After an initial reluctance to take the plunge, I found a niche as a public relations freelancer. The money was coming in again. Holy crap, a stroke had come within a few millimeters of killing me and I ended up happy. Go figure.
In fact, these days, with the exception of an occasional balance problem (especially in dark movie theaters), I’m pretty much back to my old self. Mentioning the stroke still makes some people flinch, and it took a long time before I understood the flinch is about them and not me. I refuse to be embarrassed by it, and will never be defined by it. It was a wake-up call that gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I’m stronger than I knew, and I’m still on the good side of the dirt.
A few weeks ago I went golfing with the friend, the one I mentioned above, who wasn’t crazy about the idea of me going public with my stroke story. I sank a putt so long that both of us started laughing when it dropped.
“Nice stroke,” he told me, without a hint of irony. We both laughed even harder when it dawned on him what he’d said.
It was a good stroke. In ways I’m just starting to understand.
Jerry Huffman can be reached at G2GCommunications@hotmail.com
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