Saturday, February 18, 2006

Anatomy of a Stroke, Part One

WARNING: There is nothing FUN about this post. No hearts and flowers, no daisies, no crumpets, no champagne or dessert. No Happy Ending!

On the day it happened, I remember feeling like my body chemistry was racing, racing really fast and hyper. It was bothering me, I’d never felt anything like that before. It was as if my mind had been pumped full of speed to the breaking point. No matter what I tried, I could not slow my mind down or stop the racing.

I was standing at the foot of the bed when it felt like someone had pulled the handle on a slot machine and sent my mind into such a spinning reel of motion that the external world didn’t exist for many long moments. When the slot machine stopped whirling, I felt my mind set back into itself with a physical thump, as if someone had flipped my brain over like a pancake and slopped it back onto the griddle with a squishy plop. My mouth felt funny; the right side of my body felt tingly and asleep. I remember groping for my mouth and thinking, “Am I having a stroke? Is this what a stroke feels like?” And then I waited to fall down dead, but I didn’t. So I didn’t know what to do next. I wasn’t sure if I should call 911 or perhaps fall down first and then crawl to the phone? This was what I was thinking!

And then I have no clear memory of the passage of time. Somehow, my life went on in a kind of strobe-light world of snap shot impressions, for days and days. My next clear memory is sitting at the kitchen table and being slightly surprised that my head still felt so odd. I thought, “Should I just sit here a while and see if it clears up? I think I’m having a stroke. Should I go to the hospital? How will I get there?”

I remember laying down in bed to sleep in the afternoon at one point, and thinking, “If I fall asleep will I slip into a coma?”

There was no continuum of time, no string of moments all tied together with clear thought like in the normal way of things. I remember thinking I was blind in my right eye. I simply could not see anything out of it but hazy, blurry shadows. Later, I discovered that my right eye worsened by almost two whole powers. I’d been a 7.5 in that eye, and am now a 9.

I knew who I was. I knew where I was. But I had no idea how much time had passed. Was it a day? A few minutes? Or had weeks flown by, with me just standing or sitting or sleeping in suspended animation while the world went on around me, oblivious?

Much later, a neighbor said he had seen me standing outside in the alley by the dumpsters, just standing and swaying. When he told me that, I remembered that I had gone to take out the garbage and had thought the sky looked nice and the night was still, and I just never went back inside again. I don’t know how long I stood out there. I don’t know why my neighbor, normally so damn nosy and intrusive and judgmental, did not come over to investigate why I was swaying and standing at midnight in a darkened alley when normally I don’t even go outside once the sun sets.

My next memory is on a Friday, when my friend Patrick came for tea and told me he was taking me to the hospital. Something seemed very wrong with me, he said. I kept tipping over. I was disoriented. Although I remember talking to him, and him saying I was speaking normally, to me the conversation came out of my mouth in slow motion. Listening to his words took almost unbearable concentration, and all the while there was this growing terror in me that I would lose all touch with comprehension.

And I do mean terror. Something as simple as getting into the shower set me sweating and trembling. I was terrified to think I might get into the shower and it would feel so soothing that I would simply never get out. That all time would run out in the world and I’d still be standing in there, not knowing if I’d soaped up and rinsed already or had just gotten wet moments ago. None of my moments attached to any other moments. I remember standing at the sink and having a feeling of ‘waking up’ and becoming suddenly lucid. It was the strangest feeling. A normal person on any given day feels lucid all the hours he or she is awake. I remember how frightening it felt to realize I had no idea how long I’d been standing with my toothbrush poised in the air. Had I brushed my teeth already or hadn’t I begun? I had to feel the brush, feel the inside of my mouth with my tongue and try to taste toothpaste to see.

My life became a science project, a puzzle needing constant scrutinizing and heroic efforts to grasp reality. I went to work, to care for my Alzheimer client, my regular two hour shift. She looked at me with her penetrating eyes at one point and asked accusingly, “Did you have a stroke?” I remember just looking at her. Looking at her and saying, “I think so. I think so.” And when I left, it took every fiber of energy that I possessed to remember how to stop for a stop sign; how to turn into traffic, how to get home. I knew where I lived, I knew my name, but I could not figure out how I could possibly get home. Sitting at an intersection, I felt nauseous and sticky with sweaty fear. How long had I been sitting at this traffic light? Had I simply ‘gone away’ for hours or had it only been a moment?

And all the time, the deepest pits of terror I had ever known. Any sharp movement sent a heat wave of fierce fright coursing through my bloodstream. Just a gentle breeze stirring the trees gave me the same reaction. Later it was explained to me that when the brain is damaged, and all it’s resources are going for vital repairs, the basic functions like discernment of known objects versus deadly foes do not work. My brain, sensing danger in anything and everything it perceived, sent primal ‘fight or flight’ impulses through my body, just to keep me safe. Home was the only place I could bear to be. The world outside had become, literally one giant Danger-Death-Fear-Flee Zone.

I slept for 18 hours at a time, woke up to eat, shower, move around, and then would go back and sleep for another 12.

Somehow I continued to work, continued to have conversations, buy groceries, put gas in the car. But I don’t remember any of it. I could not remember yesterday and I could not remember 30 seconds ago. Memory was a foggy blank space, filled with potentially poisoned, sharpened sticks and staves that I might fall on or stumble into. Forcing myself to concentrate on something I’d already done was futile and agonizing. So was trying to anticipate the future. Looking at my planner, noting the date or realizing I had to pay a bill or write a check for the rent, also caused a painful harsh sensation in my head. My brains couldn’t handle the stimuli.

There were moments of simple childlike innocence, but they were few. I remember thinking that I had known people, post-stroke, who were sweet when before they had been rude or bitter. Like the slate had been wiped clean, and they were starting out fresh. I never felt fresh. Fear is a rotting thing, a hellish thing. For every moment of quiet blankness in which I could rest, there were thousands of moments of the deepest dread. When I was not engulfed in pounding, survival based terror, I was in a no-man’s land of utter despair.

You don’t want to go through this. Get your cholesterol levels checked. You cannot FEEL cholesterol. The long road back to normalcy is not worth the blissful ignorance of thinking you don’t need to get checked because you feel just fine! So did I.

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