And so it begins, I’m kicking off this blog with a personal essay that hopefully ties together two major parts of my life right now, dealing with the aftermath of a stroke and learning to accept myself despite the obstacles; past & present. Also, May is “Stroke Awareness Month”, so I hope to bring attention to this, too. I hope some of this resonates with some of you. And for those who know me, my hope is to give you more details of my journey.
“Let someone love you just the way you are – as flawed as you might be, as unattractive as you sometimes feel, and as unaccomplished as you think you are. To believe that you must hide all the parts of you that are broken, out of fear that someone else is incapable of loving what is less than perfect, is to believe that sunlight is incapable of entering a broken window and illuminating a dark room.”
— Marc Hack
If you asked me, I would tell you that that is exactly how I believe all our relationships ought to function. All of them should; with our parents, siblings, friends and especially our partners.
For almost half of my life I’ve been in a solid, romantically inclined relationship, nearly twenty years with the same person, so I should be an expert [sarcasm]. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but people still ask me, “What’s the secret?”
I wish that I knew so I could share it, but all I do know is that there isn’t one simple answer. I’d say living by the above quote, but it wouldn’t be honest to say that I always do that. Not even close.
Imagine for a minute that we did though. Then we might actually feel comfortable in our own skin. And we might believe that our flaws make us human. And that each of us is unique and precious. Not as platitudes, but as truths.
I know many people benefit from positive affirmations when times are particularly tough because friends actually send me notes to thank me for sharing gems that resonate with me. I appreciate seeing them, too. That’s where the above quote came from; a friend shared it on Facebook.
Yet we still often have difficultly putting what we have read, and so passionately identified with, into practice when we’re feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Case in point, a couple weeks ago I changed my profile picture on my Facebook. It shouldn’t have been a big deal.
I put up one of me and my husband on Easter sitting on the swing that hangs from our favorite tree. We were both happy when it was taken. It was a nice sunny spring day. Then I didn’t upload it onto my laptop until the next day when I went to post it.
We were both smiling, well he was kind of grinning, his version of a smile. Our eyes were not closed. That was good. It happens far too often. We were dressed decently. Sounds like it has profile picture potential, right?
I’d like to think so, and at first I was simply glad; for the smiles, the open eyes, the sunny day. Then, I started second guessing myself about posting it.
Next I shushed myself, and hit the “Open” tab. What the hell, right? It was just a picture, and if anything wouldn’t people enjoy seeing us happy?
Then, after it posted, it hit me like a slap in the face, my ears started burning, panic set in. All I could see were my five-alarm flaws. I was overwhelmed with the urge to take it down.
I mean it overwhelmed me like the urge was a swarm of bees and I was one of those apiarists. The ones that stand there, stock still, literally covered in bees.
I was suddenly horrified; my sleeves were too short, you could see too much of my arms. I’m really not cool with my upper arms. Plus, my left forearm was turned and flattened? It just looked weird. There was more, suffice to say it occurred to me that I’d made an error in judgment.
So while overcome with shame & abject horror, the little voice inside my head piped in, you may also possess this “affliction” it’s so very common, anyway it wanted to remind me what a vain and shallow person I was reacting so predictably pathetically.
At this very moment my husband walked by on his way into our bedroom. I was certain he could see the shame-cloud encompassing me. I was a deer caught in a car’s high beams.
Then he actually did look at me ever-so questioningly on his way back through, so I just threw up some words,
“I don’t think I want to leave this picture up. All I see when I look at it are my _____ and _____!”
I think I had to wipe sweat from my brow at this point (maybe not, I’m possibly prone to exaggeration). He barely broke stride though, over his shoulder as he headed upstairs he just told me,
“Leave it up, it’s a good picture. All I see are my _____ and _____. Everyone immediately sees their own faults. Leave it up.”
He was right of course, but I’d already been trying to downplay my angst by only mentioning two of my horrors. What if he knew my long litany of fears, shames and insecurities?
Reality check, he already does know a lot of them…but not all of them. No one can know all of them; I might be carted off to a sanitarium, or just exiled, maybe to Elba.
When I look at this picture, what I see is my numb face. I’m reminded that it felt numb at the exact moment it was snapped and it feels numb right now, too. It makes me feel panicky because I have difficulty holding a smile now.
I’ve always been a smiler, so this is a really big deal. I tend to get major anxiety while I’m posing, so it makes it even harder to hold than it should be. Kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It makes me think about how I now have trouble enunciating, the word itself is a bit of a speech lesson, when I’m reading something aloud, because I try to speak quickly the same as I have always done. I need to slow myself down. Then my fear that my mouth is now crooked whenever I do talk…or smile.
Fourteen months ago I suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. Unlike the more common type of stroke, ischemic, which is often caused by a blood clot, mine was more of a brain aneurysm, a bleed right in the basal ganglia region of my right hemisphere. This is so understated, but thankfully I didn’t suffer any known cognitive damage.
I did however awaken in the night with total left-side paralysis. When one side of the brain is damaged, usually it’s the other side of the body that is affected. The basal ganglia are deep in the inner brain in a very busy area that is responsible for starting and functioning movement.
My paralysis was temporary; to get technical it became hemiparesis, which means weakness on one side of the body. But as is typical, my leg got stronger a lot faster than my arm.
Doctors predict that if there is any recovery from a stroke, most if not all will occur in the first eighteen months, and that it’s in the first three to six month window where you will likely see the most improvement.
Can you say pressure? But this is up from the former standard prediction of a twelve month recovery time.
As expected, I required intense physical and occupational therapy for the first six plus months. At some point my insurance capped my allotted appointments.
Thankfully, my Occupational Therapist deemed me doing well, having worked hard at in-patient and later at out-patient rehab, so that I was able to get the equipment to do fairly substantial therapy on my own at home.
All these have me asking myself, how do I not feel broken when doctor after doctor tells me that there’s no way to know if I’ll fully recover, or even how much, or when. Brain injuries “heal” for the rest of your life. Does that mean I’ll never be better?
It sounds like it. But what is better? What is normal? It’s like asking what is perfection? Isn’t it all relative, and especially subjective?
So now my husband and I talk about the “new-normal”. Sometimes it’s a tough concept for me. My “new-normal” consists of a plethora of issues with the left side of my body. Some are with my facial muscles, as in the difficulties smiling, also whistling, and even talking. I’m very self-conscious eating in front of people. There’s both numbness and tightness.
Then there’s my weakened left arm, and a hand with a definite loss of dexterity. That’s really hard for me, and not just from the standpoint of a mom and wife, affecting day to day living, but for a person who is creative with her hands. We really take for granted how often we need both of our hands.
It also consists of some problems with my left foot, my second and third toes specifically, they clench up a lot, making walking any distance, especially if hurrying, at best kind of awkward, and at worst it’s eventually painful. Plus my balance has been affected.
So that’s the face, the arm/hand and the foot, all the things that were affected by the paresis. But hey, I can use all three of them to some extent now, and for that I am grateful.
Most everything is related to “Upper Motor Neuron Syndrome”, the technical name for muscles that have altered performance. For me, my biggest battle is spasticity, also known as tone. It’s akin to the rigidity of Parkinson’s.
As far as I’ve learned it’s directly related to the damage in the basal ganglia and my voluntary movement. It manifests as stiffness or tightness, as well as some spasms, in the affected muscles.
Mine is comparatively mild, but worsens in the cold temperatures and upon waking. So there are plenty of “new-normal” frustrations, throughout every single day.
But the list of possible impairments as a result of a stroke is vast, affecting survivors physically, mentally, emotionally, or most likely a combination of all three. While still being lengthy and life-altering, my own list is comparatively short, probably due largely to my age, much of my previous lifestyle, my level of in-patient/out-patient care and my strong desire to recover.
Not to mention my amazing support system; the tremendous and endless love and care from my family and friends, and their absolute refusals to give up on me.
Oh, and the flowers; all the lovely flowers that I received; in the hospital, the rehab center and at home…they helped immensely. Oh, oh, and the cards, they were amazingly touching and gave such boosts to my spirit.
The time people took out of their lives; to write, call or visit. Just every little bit of support, it kept me going some days. It still does now.
Which brings me back to the concept of letting someone love you just the way you are — flawed, unattractive, unaccomplished, broken, what have you.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable can be really hard. Trusting someone with your heart, your feelings, your happiness, feels risky. Even when you’ve been together twenty years; even when you have every reason to trust and believe and accept it; even if you’re in love.
So when it comes to photos, a lot of us zero right in on our flaws, right? I admit that I do it every time. I feel exposed, like I’m naked, which is kind of true.
Not naked, devoid of clothing, but unless you’re under a hair dresser’s cape, you’re all out there on display waiting to be examined and scrutinized and judged.
You and I are not alone in this thinking. We both know we shouldn’t even care about what anyone else thinks, but we have both cared, right? I know I have.
And I’m not suggesting your friends and family, or mine are judgy, scrutinizing mean girls, or guys. It most often has nothing to do with them at all but instead everything to do with us.
What I mean is that we often imagine this is what they’re thinking. We imagine; they might be horrified if our bra strap is showing, if we have a hint of double chin or our smiles are too gummy, that deep-seeded fear that we might be an embarrassment to the observer.
This of course is highly offensive to them, that we’d be of so little faith, but really it’s ourselves who are horrified by these thoughts. Not to say that the general public doesn’t judge us, but I’m talking about the people who love us, the ones we care about.
It’s more likely some of the blame falls with the messages we’re bombarded with each day by the media; the ones that tell us to strive to be better; to look better, to smell better, to feel better. Always better, which can too often translate into feeling “not good enough” in general.
Marketing campaigns will often shame us into believing we need their products. It’s their job to; sell, sell, sell! It’s tough to ignore the ads, or to not try the newest “miracle” item on the market, and then feel even more deflated when no miracle occurs.
It can also stem from life experiences, too. A word, or a sentence or two can plague us for all eternity. When I was a teenager, the guy I was dating divulged to me that his mother, whom I’d just met, had commented about the size of my breasts! I didn’t want to believe him, but I did because he direct quoted her using the word bosoms.
I thought I could just die right then and there. I was mortified, I was scarred by it. I was not mature enough to deal with this kind of sexualization of my body parts. Let alone that it was by someone I’d just met – a boy’s mother. Can you imagine how uncomfortable I felt around her after I knew this?
I’ve spent most of my life trying to cover up my breasts, to hide them. I’ve been ashamed of them. In my young mind his mother’s observation suggested I was doing something indecent just by having them. This thinking stayed with me.
And it directly tied in with something that a female classmate had said to me a few years earlier back in junior high. She’d accused me of using my “boobs” to get attention from all the boys. Today she’d probably be called a “frenemy”.
Again, I had been absolutely mortified.
These are two of those comments that have stayed with me ever since I first heard them, and have impacted who I became. It was my first thought when I looked at the photo; to me my breasts were all I saw, and I was that mortified teenage girl all over again.
One of my next thoughts was that someone might think I’m showing them off, when I’m actually always trying to hide them. I wanted to go back and rearrange my dress in the photo. These utterances have stayed with me on a short list of internalized remarks that I unknowingly let affect my self-esteem.
I say unknowingly because we’re all impressionable, and at varying times in our lives we’re all different degrees of vulnerable. Someone’s’ words can have lasting effects because it was how they had communicated their perceptions to us. At the time, I didn’t understand the possible motives for accusing me of this.
Once we internalize something that someone else has perceived as true then we are more likely to be able to perceive it as true too, even if it is about our own selves; especially if it is and we’re young and impressionable or if we already have low self-esteem and are feeling badly about ourselves.
I say let affect me because I want to take ownership of my feelings. That way I can hopefully, and please know that I’m writing this at forty-one, but hopefully I can learn how to give up those old stories that I’ve told myself, or someone else’s stories that I’ve believed.
So that perhaps someday I can let myself really love this body I’ve been given; the same body that brought two amazing people into the world, the same body that has survived a stroke.
Bringing me back to that photo, I just want to be able to look at it and smile. Be happy to be alive, and not unhappy with whom I see when I look at it. Is that realistic? I’m not sure, but I can try.
And maybe I’m not graceful anymore, but I can stumble a bit sometimes and be okay with that. I may not be able to cut the fingernails on my right hand to save my life, but I’ve begun to open airtight-sealed and Ziploc bags with two hands. That’s progress.
Unfortunately I still cannot put my hair up into a ponytail…this in particular has brought on several crying jags, believe me…it will soon be summer in Virginia after all. It sucks! Typing with my left hand is pretty torturous too, but I’m working at it. It’s all that I can do. We all have our struggles.
We obviously can’t always control what happens with our bodies, such as with illness or genetics. We can try to do good things for ourselves. Like we can look for ways to decrease the stress in our lives, or at least find ways to relax and unwind.
And laughter, we could all benefit from more laughing. Spend time connecting with friends and family. Have adventures. Look for happiness, and welcome it into our lives.
And maybe the most important thing that we can do for our own well-being is accepting and loving who we are and this vessel that’s been provided to us, so we can really live our one chance at a life.
Part of that is accepting that others can love us just the way we are, and that there’s no such thing as perfection, it’s all relative, and it’s most definitely subjective.
Let the sunlight in. Let it illuminate your dark room.
― Raina K Morton, May 13 2014
So here we are…
Thanks for reading.