How Having A Stroke At 34 Changed My Life
Updated: Nov 16, 2022
I had been working as a prison officer for a few years. I loved the job. I thrived in the challenging and ever-changing environment.
I was injured badly and although I’m not legally allowed to publish the details surrounding the injury, I can say that it was a long road of recovery, mentally and physically.
My young children were struggling with the nature of my role, aware of the environment I worked in, and saw, more than once, a shirt stained with blood that wasn’t mine, heard, more than once, a story of a dangerous situation I had been involved in.
Not intentionally, nothing was mentioned to them directly. Little ears have a way of hiding in little corners.
With the injury impacting my ability to work as an active officer and the anxiety the role was causing my kids, I decided to explore a new career. I enrolled in TAFE and commenced a course in Electrotechnology in the hopes it would lead to an Apprenticeship as an electrician.
Being a huge maths nerd, I was just loving the course content. I studied diligently, day and night, whenever I could. My books went everywhere with me.
Trying not to miss out on time with the kids too much during the course I’d often study in the lounge while they played or watched TV, stopping every now and then to tickle them, comment on the movie they were watching, share a story or just sit and cuddle.
One evening I was lying on the ground by the couch, propped up on my elbows, scribbling away in a notebook. My little boy, who was 3 at the time, was bouncing along the couch, playing with a dinosaur, and watching TV. He went to jump off, over me, and somehow executed it poorly, falling on me, connecting with my neck and head.
It hurt. I don’t remember the incident in detail, but I remember it hurt. I lay there recovering, making sure nothing was broken, swearing a lot more than I normally do, which was a lot! I could move my neck, I could see, I had a headache but that appeared to be the worst of it. I packed up my books and prepared everyone for bed, took some pain killers and went to sleep.
The next day my head was pounding. I was seeing double and I felt nauseous and dizzy. I took more pain killers and headed off to TAFE. It wasn’t too bad for the rest of that day but in the evening, it overwhelmed me. After a terrible night’s sleep I knew something was wrong. I spent around two days in bed in the foetal position, in as dark a room as possible, crying when I had the energy to but mainly trying not to move or make any noise. My mum and my partner at the time helped me with my kids, with housework and yard work, and we assumed it was a migraine that was just going to pass. It wasn’t until I feinted that I suspected it was more than a migraine and sought medical help. I got down to hospital, but I was waiting for over six hours and couldn’t stay much longer with the kids needing me at home. I also started to feel better, so I convinced myself I was fine.
The next day, maybe the day after, my eldest daughter found me on the floor of the bathroom, unconscious. She called 000. I wasn’t waiting six hours this time, I was seen immediately and given an MRI scan, CT scan and possibly more tests but I don’t recall. One of them showed I had a dissected artery in my neck which had inhibited blood flow and caused a stroke. I was asked if I had been in a car accident recently, seen a chiropractor, experienced any trauma to my neck or head. I couldn’t think properly but my partner answered for me, explaining the incident with my son. I filled in as many gaps as possible, and it was deemed that incident was likely the cause.
I was in the hospital for almost a week. The artery was healing nicely, I luckily didn’t need surgery. My mum, brother and partner made life as easy as possible while I healed. I was able to keep studying in hospital too but found I couldn’t retain information as well as before. I also forgot my partner at one point, who he was, asking why he was there and why my real partner, an ex from years ago, wasn’t there instead.
My balance was off, I found it hard walking in a straight line. I had forgotten most of my children’s childhood, I had forgotten some significant events and people in my life, the extent of which I still don’t know. I was told I would either lose those memories completely and they’d never come back, as well as always struggle to retain new information, or that, over time, I would remember more and more of my past, and retain new information better if I employed certain techniques to do so.
Very luckily the latter happened. I could only recall my past if something triggered a memory. A smell, a word, an experience, or conversation were usually the triggers. I had a lot of gaps filled in by my family and friends. Some of what they said just sounded fake, unreal. I believed that what they were saying was true, but I wasn’t able to associate myself with the story they told me.
My balance improved and I no longer have any issues there.
My memory is still a work in progress. I must file things away slightly differently if I want to remember them. I still get flashes of my past through a trigger. I can sit down with someone and discuss a topic that will bring back a memory, but I often struggle with knowing at what point in time that memory occurred. Even recalling more recent events that happened say 4 weeks ago, I may try and relay that to someone and feel for certain it happened 3 months ago, or two days ago. Very rarely now, and even initially not often, I'd recall what I thought was a memory, but it was fabricated by my mind, not an actual memory. I’d be able to tell if it was real if I ran it past a close friend or my mum, and usually it would feel very wrong, like it was a made-up story not a true to fact event. The last time this happened was earlier this year. A memory played out in my mind, and it felt false to my core.
I am so grateful for the experience, and I have learnt a lot from it. I take more photos now than I ever used to, which is something that helps if ever a new experience gets lost in the fog. I talk about everything I go through with my friends, knowing that they’ll likely remember certain details better than me and can help in the future if I need reminding of something. I discuss even the most mundane of life’s experiences and have often gone back to someone and asked ‘Hey, you know how I told you I drove to Bribie Island last week, do you remember what day that was?’ or ‘That story I told you about the girl at work, do you remember what it was she said to me?’
Everyone I meet I explain what has happened. I don’t have anywhere near the memory issues I once had but I do, still, mix up timelines sometimes, and forget intricate details of conversations I’ve had. Explaining to new people in my life that I have had a stroke helps them to understand I may be a little bit funny with recall and helps to reassure them it isn’t something I can always control and to not take any lapse in memory personally. Facebook has become my best friend recently. I love the ‘Your memories from 1 year ago, 4 years ago’ feature.
Dating is tricky. It’s a great story to tell a prospective partner, an interesting one, but because you’re investing in someone, and they’re seeking to invest in you, there’s potential to really upset someone, or annoy them, because I forgot an important date, or I’m retelling a story they have already heard that I forgot I told. It isn’t always appreciated by new partners that I tell all my close friends about the details of my personal life, my dating experiences, which I absolutely understand. I’m not one to journal or diarise my life. I write these blogs, but I don’t write down everything the way you would in a ‘Dear Diary’. I rely, heavily, on my friend’s recollection of my stories. I don’t forget things as much anymore, but I still fall back on this method of ensuring that important experiences aren’t completely lost.
I have discovered I have an ability to selectively forget things too. If something particularly traumatic happens I can change the way I recall it, even eliminate it completely. It’s always there to be triggered by something though. I had an embarrassing conversation with someone at a pub once. I was drinking, wasn’t really paying attention, and a guy I was speaking to asked me a question that I replied to poorly, misunderstanding what they asked, and made a fool out of myself. I was mortified and just pushed the memory away. A friend remembered, she asked me about it a few days later, but I didn’t know what she was talking about. It was bought back a couple of months ago. I was at the same pub, wearing the same dress and saw the very same guy I had embarrassed myself with and bam, the memory came back in incredible detail.
This probably isn’t healthy, despite it almost seeming like a welcome talent. When mum died, I pushed a lot of her last few days out of my head. I pushed a lot of her out of my head. The pain was intense, and I wasn’t coping very well in the months after her death. I was anxious about people I loved driving and potentially dying in a car wreck, I was projecting my insecurities onto those around me and my children were struggling with their own grief, so I tried to forget as a way to deal with mine. Sadly, it worked, and now I remember very little about her, only what has been triggered by a photo or a story from her friends who I stay in contact with.
It was a crazy experience. I have so much respect for the human brain. It’s an incredible thing.