THE RECENT news of singer Bret Michaels' brain hemorrhage and relapse, and Beau Biden's stroke, has brought me face-to-face again with my own experiences.
At 21, I had a brain hemorrhage that left me with weakness in the left side of my body. I consider myself a bit of an authority on stroke, not only because I had one, but also because for the last 12 years I have been helping to rehabilitate individuals who have also had strokes. As an occupational therapist, I have come across many young stroke survivors, as well as individuals who've had brain hemorrhages that resulted in varying degrees of disability.
In my experience, people are always surprised to hear of strokes occurring in young people. Ischemic strokes, caused by clots, are often associated with older individuals and people who may have uncontrolled high blood pressure or diabetes.
But a hemorrhagic stroke is the result of blood that escapes into the brain. In my case, it was caused by malformed blood vessels present at birth. Over time, these vessels can weaken and a leak may occur; the severity of the bleed determines effects that can range from nothing notable to death.
At the time of my stroke, I thought my hand had just fallen asleep. Then the "pins and needles" sensation migrated up my arm, and it got my attention. As I waited to see if it would stop, it quickly moved like a wave overtaking the left side of my body.
This odd sensation migrated up to my face, then down my torso and left leg. You could have painted a line straight down the middle of me. My entire body on the left side was tingling, and not in a good way. While I knew something was wrong, I certainly wasn't thinking stroke. They happen to old people, right?
I was able to get myself to the front porch to wait for the ambulance, but as I sat down on one of the steps, life as I had known it came to an abrupt end.
My body collapsed into the railing, and, in my struggle to pull myself upright, I realized that my left arm and leg weren't moving. In fact, if not for the familiar clothing, I almost wouldn't have recognized them as my own.
There was no feeling, no sense of connection - and no movement. I was paralyzed, and scared out of my mind.
In fact, it was just too much for me to really comprehend, so from that point, I just waited for it to all go away. Some of it did. Within a short time, I could move my knee, which gave me the false assurance that things would be back to normal in a short time.
I was in denial for quite some time, but for me denial served its purpose. It bought me time to adjust, before I had to accept the whole ugly package. I didn't accept it for a long time, but in retrospect I can see that my denial kept me fighting for the full life I had been planning on.
It actually took seven years before I accepted what had happened to me. I know, what took me so long, right? What can I say, I'm a stubborn Italian.
I wanted it my way, a complete recovery, I wanted to be "normal" again. But no matter how hard I exercised, no matter how much therapy I had, I couldn't seem to shake the limp.
Finally, in a last-ditch effort to walk normally, I decided to have "muscle-balancing" surgery on my left leg. After the procedure, my life was unexpectedly transformed, but not for the reason I expected. It was the post-operative cast on my leg that transformed me, opening my eyes to how my own perceptions were keeping me down.
One of my biggest gripes after the stroke was that people would stare at the way I walked. It made me feel really insecure. When I had the cast on my leg, people stared just the same. I realized they were simply noticing something out of the ordinary, just as I would do.
That was my lightbulb moment. The cast finally gave me insight into the significance of "attitude." I realized I was creating problems for myself through my own thoughts and judgments.
Attaining happiness despite my adversity involved making a decision, but I fought it tooth and nail. The decision was to be humble enough to accept myself as I was, whether I walked perfectly or not. I decided to be grateful for all I had been able to accomplish despite the challenges I faced. The decision was to choose to be happy, limp and all.
EVERYONE copes differently with adversity. But as someone who's been there and has also helped rehabilitate other people with all kinds of illnesses and disabilities, I've come to understand that the best outcome is one in which you're empowered by self-acceptance.
You don't have to "accept" a limited life, but I realize now that I could have relearned to walk, returned to school and become a therapist . . . with a smile.