My Stranger

 

I wrote this several years ago after a major event in my life.  I shared it with friends and family, but never published it.   The recent death of an old friend after years of ever-more debilitating strokes made me pull it out again.  I thought I’d share it with you.

MY STRANGER

By Michael S. Malone

I live now with a stranger.  I’ve only encountered him once, but he threatens to reappear at any time – unbidden, unwanted, and, next time likely lethal.

Strokes are typically described in percussive terms. In that image, the sufferer holds his head as if suffering from a massive headache then drops to the ground — possibly dead, and at the very least, profoundly incapacitated.  Stroke therapists often use the word “earthquake” as a metaphor for what happens to the victim (and his or her family) in its aftermath. It seems analogous to being in a car crash: unexpected, shocking, and potentially life-changing in the weeks and months that follow.

And it’s in that aftermath where most artistic representations of a stroke take place:  Joseph Kennedy in his wheelchair glaring and struggling to enunciate a single word; Queen Anne, the side of her face drooping, slurring her words as she addresses her ministers; the editor trapped in his frozen body unable to communicate in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Indeed, such devastating scenarios – sometimes ending in death – occur often enough, especially among elderly people.  My mother, for example, died from a stroke at ninety, and had likely suffered a series of small strokes in the months before that had increasingly debilitated her after a lifetime of stunningly good health.  But at that great age, such an end looks more like the culminating event in an inevitable decline, than a preventable illness.

That kind of shock belongs rather to those who, much younger, suffer strokes.  In the public eye, we’ve seen over the last few years actors Frankie Munoz, who had the first of a series of more than a dozen mini-strokes at age 26, and Luke Perry, dead at 53 after suffering what was described as a “massive stroke”.

Strokes are, in fact, the fifth leading killer of Americans – and likely the biggest cause of long-term disabilities.  Among these, there are striking and growing number of women and younger people.  Yet, we tend to treat strokes in the same way we do getting hit by a lightning bolt – a bit of unpredictable bad luck that no one saw coming.  We don’t fear strokes the way we do heart attacks or dementia or cancer.

Certainly I didn’t.  I feared a heart attack.  They ran in my family.  My father, a war hero and spy and the toughest man I’ve ever known, had his first cardiac event at 42.  He only lived to be 67.  So, almost from the moment I hit adulthood, I had a vision of my end: clutching my chest in some public setting and dropping to my knees as the lights went out, a crowd of curious strangers forming around me.  That image drove me to endless miles of runs when I was younger and hikes after that – including a 200-mile tramp from sea-to-sea across northern England in my late fifties.  What others thought was the ‘young man in a hurry’ attitude of my early adulthood was in fact my secret fear that I wouldn’t have enough time to live a full life if I didn’t move fast and cram as many experiences possible into my limited years.

But as I entered my Sixties, I was astonished — and more than a little relieved – that every test showed my heart healthy and strong.  I had dodged a bullet. . .or so I thought.

It turned out that the bullet wasn’t aimed at my chest, but the base of my skull.

I had my stroke on September 27th, 2017.  If I had ever taken the time to imagine what it would be like, I would not have guessed the reality.  There was no headache, no bolt from the blue.  In retrospect, had I been looking, I might even have seen in coming.

In the life of a freelance writer, there are two times you fear most:  when you don’t have any work –and when you have too much.  During the former you and your family starve; during the latter you see little of that family, even though they are just down the hall.  After the nightmare of the 2008 crash, when Silicon Valley itself shut down tight and I nearly lost my home, I redoubled my commitment to take every gig I could get.  And that meant, in the Summer of 2017 I was working on three books simultaneously, as well as serving as a co-founder of a start-up company in the midst of raising its Series A round of venture funding.

I figured I could handle the hundreds of thousands of words and the endless VC presentations, the 3 a.m.’s and the junk meals – after all, I’d done so before in the past.  I figured I could get through it and emerge on the other side — even if, as in the past, it subsequently broke my health for a couple of weeks.  What I didn’t know was that, quietly and remorselessly, my blood sugar was climbing to dangerous levels, throwing me into full-blown Diabetes 2. I ignored the growing numbness in my feet, figuring I’d pinched a nerve in my back.  After all, diabetes was unknown in my family history.

On that September morning, a tiny piece of plaque that had attached to one of my blood vessels, broke loose and washed towards my brain.  It lodged into the part of my lower brain known as the Pons, which controls most of the body’s large muscles.

I awoke feeling fine, if a little tired – a common feeling during those long work days.  But as I walked into my library, I was overcome with the oddest feeling. Not nausea, not dizziness – though both hovered on the edges, but a strange dissociation.  I managed to get to the couch.  As I did, I felt as if I was dividing in two – as if part of me, something essential, slid away to sit beside me.

Then it was gone.  I shook it off, unsteadily got to my feet, and headed to my home office for another long day of work.  In so doing, I missed my last chance to escape undamaged from what was coming.

Three hours later, I was out helping pick up leaves and loading a garbage can.  It was then that the plaque fully attached itself . . .and my brain began to die.

Researchers estimate that during a stroke, two million brain cells are lost every minute.  I only knew that something was frustratingly wrong.  Despite my every effort, I just couldn’t keep my balance.  I tried to ask for help, but the words came out unintelligible.  I had to be helped into the house.  Within minutes, I was fine again.  Foolishly, and out of pride, I insisted I was all right. My wife knew better.

I walked under my own power into the hospital.  I told the admitting nurse that I might have had a stroke, but I really didn’t want to believe it.  I now felt fine; that other me had reconverged.  But within a few hours, my new existence had fully asserted itself: all strength was gone on my right side, the corner of my mouth drooped.  I had become a puppet with half of its strings cut.

Looking back, I was lucky.  As with any life-threatening event, you immediately become a citizen of another community: those who share, or have shared, your predicament.  I didn’t think I knew anyone who had suffered a stroke.  I was astonished to learn how many of my neighbors and work associates – some much younger than me – had preceded me down this path . . . and survived.  Many had been in far worse shape than me: fully paralyzed, unable to speak, ventilated. Some took years to recover.

My recovery took a long and frustrating six months. Typing, with one hand working at 60 words per minute, while the other was reduced to ham-fistedly banging one key at a time; relearning to pronounce words during mouth exercises, taking a hundred glacial walks up and down the driveway with my wife and one of my grown sons helping to hold me up, stabbing myself twice each day to test my blood.  And most of all, the ever-present fear, the dread that returned every night and awoke me from my sleep, that another stroke was crouched beside me, waiting to strike.  I would lie there in the dark, trying to sense if half of me was gone again, that the stranger had returned.  I would wiggle the fingers of my right hand before I could return to sleep.

It was the wife of one of my business associates, a woman who had worked with stroke patients for thirty years, who gave me hope.  She looked into my eyes and said, “I think you’ll be one of those who make it all the way back.”  I clung to those words like a lifeline.

It has now been seven years since my stroke.  I’m forty pounds lighter, my blood sugar is under control, and I walk each day.  If my work load hasn’t let up, I at least try to pace myself better.  To all the world, I look fully recovered.

But I know different.  Something profound has changed.  I am no longer entirely comfortable in my own skin.  I’m no longer sure of who I am.  When I consciously stand or walk or climb a set of stairs, I become unsteady and unbalanced.  I reach for the nearest wall or cling to the closest railing.  It is only when my thoughts are elsewhere that I find that have moved as confidently as I once did.

It is through these moments that I have come to the realization that the stranger who sat beside me that day on the couch was the true me.  That he left behind the damaged husk in which I now reside, the one that goes through the motions of daily life while secretly fearful of the next attack. And that I am the stranger.  And, as the other, better, me trots along ahead, I, broken, stumble along, falling further and further behind. . .

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There are 7 comments.

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  1. EODmom Coolidge
    EODmom
    @EODmom

    I am very glad you are recovered and vigilant. I’m also grateful for such a clean and intimate explanation of stroke. They have been randomly experienced (by the pretty elderly) in our family, but are not unknown and by me one of the feared events of aging. Thank you for your careful reporting of a very personal event. I’m glad you’re recovered. 

    • #1
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m so impressed with how you fought your way back, Michael. I hope at some point you are able to live with less dis-ease from your experience. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • #2
  3. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Excellent (although frightening) post, Michael.

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A moving post that everyone should read, not just the elderly!  And give some thought to.

    On Ricochet, @therightnurse has given us sobering wake-up calls along the lines of, never been in the hospital? Lucky you. Chances are you will be someday. Here’s what you need to know going in, so it won’t all be a complete shock. 

    Stroke is terrible for anyone and everyone, but I have to admit that it’s more of a shock when it happens to someone like Michael Malone, rather well known for using his brain, and it’s a warning: whoever you are, brainiac or not, it can happen to any of us. 

    • #4
  5. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite
    @PostmodernHoplite

    Thank you for posting this. It takes real commitment and courage to publish such a memoir. It is hard, very hard for a man to admit openly that he is weak in any way that is important to him.

    Even now. 

    • #5
  6. Michael S. Malone Member
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    Thanks for the comments everyone.  I did hesitate publishing this piece — and I’m not sure I would have had I not fully recovered (well, except for some neuropathy in my feet).  I think the best cure was getting mad — and starting therapy even while I was in the hospital.  I didn’t give my muscles (thankfully my brain wasn’t affected) any time to atrophy.

    • #6
  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Michael S. Malone (View Comment):
    well, except for some neuropathy in my feet).  

    I have neuropathy in my feet; annoying but it doesn’t slow me down. 

    • #7
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