One of my final tests in outpatient rehabilitation was to walk around town without falling down or getting lost. The day I passed that test was also the first day that I went somewhere in public by myself. It was a Subway and I stood in line, my heart pounding. I stared up at the menu to keep from looking around me, trying to ignore the sensation that everyone was staring at me. I was also desperately trying to remember how to order things, pay for things, and appear normal. In my head, I practiced ordering my sandwich over and over. I felt like if I made even a tiny mistake that everyone would be able to tell how broken I was, like they could somehow see the brain damage. I’ve never forgotten that feeling and for a long time I was afraid to tell people about the stroke, scared they would look at me differently. But really I was the one who looked at myself differently. I saw myself as broken. Like my body had failed me. And for a long time I didn’t trust my body.
Living With Fear
What no one tells you about life after something like a stroke is the ongoing fear. I’m going to be on blood thinners, which increase my risk for bleeding out, for the rest of my life. The first time I cut myself, I thought I might die. Panic overtook me and I started sobbing, a paper towel clutched to my finger, too afraid to look at the damage. When I finally peeked and found it was just a nick, I felt like an idiot. But I still avoid melons and gourds, instead buying my butternut squash pre-cut. Just in case.
The first time I had a cold, I thought my sinus headache might be another stroke. The first time I pulled a muscle, I thought I might have a DVT (deep vein thrombosis). The first time I had an asthma attack, I was scared I had a PE (pulmonary embolism). If I hit my head on something, which I’m prone to given how klutzy I am, I would wonder if I might suffer another stroke. After all, the doctors said that once having suffered a stroke, my risk for another was that much greater. At least 25-35% of stroke victims suffer a second. Recurrent strokes often have a higher rate of death and disability because parts of the brain already injured by the original stroke may not be as resilient.