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I started writing a diary the day after I thought I had lost my mind. Though I knew it might not make sense to anyone but me, I was dimly aware that it could help show the progression of my illness.
Awareness had dawned when a speech pathologist asked me to give her the opposites of several words. She started with “tell me the opposite of true.” I didn’t know the answer. I knew I should know the answer.
Fear overwhelmed me. What if I could never answer these questions? What if I didn’t recover anything? I did not realize how much, with help, I would eventually recover.
Three days earlier, on May 7, 2013, I had had a stroke. At the age of 70, I had never been in hospital before. Being a bit of a health fanatic, I was shocked by the diagnosis: I had no cholesterol problem. I exercised constantly. What had brought it on? My neurologist tried every test going, but couldn’t find any definitive answers.
He came in one day and asked me some general questions about the weather, my family and movies. My husband Bill promptly answered them. “That’s good, Bill,” the neurologist said. “Now, if I could just get Julie’s response as well?”
The doctor had been so casual in his manner that we hadn’t realized he was testing my cognitive skills and focus.
On Day 6 of my hospital stay, I went to buy a jigsaw puzzle at the gift shop. I asked for a “jumble set.”
“What is it?” the store clerk asked before giving me a tour of the shop. There, on the top shelf was a jigsaw puzzle.
Actually, she said, jumble set was such an appropriate name for a jigsaw puzzle. She said she would start to use it as her daughter always left the puzzle pieces in one big jumble on the floor.
In the outpatient rehabilitation clinic, I was given exercises in both English (words) and math (numbers). In the word section, I was asked to listen to 15-minute TED Talks on various topics. I then had to write a one-sentence summary and break down the contents of the talk.
These and other word games, which started out simple and were quite complex later, were easy for me, but the math-oriented work was another matter. In one, I had to count backward to zero from 125 by subtracting nine and adding four. In order to see how I functioned with distraction, there was a radio playing the entire time. The numerical card games were a joy, too.
Did anyone think about what I was like before I’d had the stroke? Probably just as much of a disaster! I forged weakly ahead.
Five months after the stroke, I had to take a driving test. Bill claims it was a “gender test” as well, since the woman examiner seemed annoyed when she heard him suggest to me that we use the driving school’s dual-control car instead of mine.
She pointedly asked me if I’d like to use her car or mine. We used my car, driving first on the side streets, then the highway. She gave me a pass. I told her she was a brave soul to let me drive my car instead of hers, and she replied that she’d been doing the tests for 19 years and could assess people’s abilities very promptly.
In the beginning, the stroke left me feeling raw, vulnerable and fearful. The ability to understand and communicate our thoughts is the very essence of humanity.
On the day that I did not know the opposite word to true I fully realized the impact of what had happened. I think I could have dealt more easily with a physical injury.
But there is a silver lining. I discovered such love, warmth and caring from my family and friends that I felt blessed, and never alone. My sons, Scott and John, were with me that day in the hospital, one holding my hand and the other rubbing my back and saying, “It’s going to be all right, Mom” as a tear flowed down my face. They and Bill were my rock during the ordeal.
Everyone complains about hospitals, but the one that cared for me was fabulous. There was the odd exception, but most of the nurses, doctors, rehabilitation staff – and yes, even the hospital food – got top marks in my book.
Am I cured? I don’t think so. At times, when I am very tired, I forget the names of people and movies. But generally I am leaps and bounds ahead of the day when I thought I had lost my mind.
My therapist says I will create new pathways in my brain by challenging myself in a variety of ways. I read, I’ve returned to my writing, to painting outdoors in the En Plein Air group, and I’ve started playing Lumosity mind games on my iPad. Twice a week I am teaching myself new pieces on the piano, and getting more social generally.
Last May, I would not have thought that writing this essay was possible.
And as to the diary, I will finish a few paragraphs now and place it on the shelf in my studio.
Later, I will glance at it as a memory of something that happened (hopefully) many years ago.
Julie Beaudoin Pearce lives in Victoria.