“Scarlett O’Hara had a lot of flaws,” I pondered as I watched Gone With the Wind for the sixth time this weekend. She was greedy, envious, selfish, and loved money above all else. But one trait I can’t help but admire, that I wish I could cultivate for myself, is her core of steel. Even when coming home to Tara to find it ransacked and blighted, her mother dead and her father “turned idiot,” she grieved and despaired … but only for moments. She pushed the hopelessness aside and set about doing what she could to improve their fortunes … even if that meant planting cotton and harvesting it herself. She stiffened her spine with absolute resolve and refused — angrily, patently refused — to give up.
I had a bad week last week. Surviving a stroke has impacted every area of my present life, from what I eat to desperately trying to control my stress. Not easy when you have been switched jobs at work against your will, haven’t gotten a raise in nearly seven years, are suffering physical pain, and there’s almost nothing in the house to eat. I plodded through the week until Friday … and then, I just didn’t have any more resolve.
One of the most embarrassing things for a woman in a business setting is to burst into tears at her workplace. At least, I think most women feel this way. I sure do. It undermines your capability and reinforces the awful, stereotypical “emotional female.” Especially if your workplace is 98% strapping men who go about risking their lives, and you don’t feel up to scratch in their presence anyway. The least you can do is be the capable “girl at the desk,” ready to assist in whatever way they need.
The pressures of the week mounted up so much that I twice had to retreat to the bathroom to cry unobserved. The main flaw in this plan is that you emerge red-eyed and clearly Not Okay. I have cried many, many times in bathrooms over the years. I once held in tears for eight hours doing front desk duty. I always lie and tell people it’s allergies. Usually I get away with it. Not this time.
My supervisor asked if I had a minute and to come to his office. I don’t know about you, but no matter how old I get, going into the supervisor’s office always makes me feel like a bad kid going to the principal’s office. (Or what I imagine that’s like — I was a perfect kid and therefore never got sent to the principal’s office).
“I just want to know if you’re okay, and if you need anything.”
God bless him.
There are a lot of things I think I need. There are a lot of things I think I deserve. Life seems to be a tightrope between “reach for your dreams” and “bloom where you’re planted.” When do you stop striving and be content, if you still feel you can better yourself? But, that is complicated — at least in my life — as I get older, by wondering if I have the strength and focus to keep starting over, to adjust to new challenges, to confront my mortality as people die and pieces of my body break.
Nobody told me adulting would be so damn hard.
Friday night I went to bed and slept for about 14 hours. When I opened my eyes the next morning, my first thought was, “As God as my witness, they’re not going to lick me!” I tightened my lips, got out of bed, went to the gym, and did my personal best on the elliptical.
If fighting depression all my life has taught me one thing, it’s that there is a little core of steel inside me. It’s certainly not as pronounced as Scarlett’s, but it is unequivocally there. I know because I have not given up completely. Some days I give up for the day. But I have not given up on hope for the rest of my life. God did not save me from a gruesome death for me to live a miserable life. There are so many factors in life to wear you down and mess up your thinking and focus. Depression — literally — makes you not think straight sometimes. That is a very frightening thing, to not think straight.
“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” That is now the first thing I say to myself every morning.
One good thing about getting older is that the more I go through and survive, the steel increases. I want to be someone everyone in my circles can count on. I don’t want to be dissolved. I wish I could be a tower of strength, but if that never happens, I am happy to have a filament of steel.
Now came recovery. I was wheeled out of OR, giggling like an ass because I could speak again, into the ICU. They take things very seriously in the ICU. They tether your butt to the bed and don’t let you move much, because it’s their Life Mission to Keep An Eye On You. See all the things stuck into me in the picture? There was an IV in each hand, and one in my right elbow. What in the world was getting intravenously pushed into me? I forget. Beneficial fluids, no doubt. Maybe some antibiotics since I had a hole in my groin. I also had monitoring leads stuck all over my chest. So I couldn’t sleep on my side as per usual, because when I turned over, the wires would crimp and set the monitors off. Guuuuuhhhh. I think I got 30 minutes of sleep the first night.
There was also no bathroom, so I became a quick expert at using a bedpan. I’m pleased to say I didn’t piss myself or the bed once. This got real old real fast, however. After one day of it, I was gagging to get onto a regular floor, where I could pee whenever I wanted, alone.
I spent two days in the ICU. My incredibly awesome nurses were Melanie, Ashley and Jenny. I wrote Mercy a letter telling them how fantastic they were, and that they should all get raises. I still got very little sleep, because someone was coming in every 15-30 minutes … taking temperature, taking blood, the automatic blood pressure cuff affixed to my right arm going off automatically (why do those things have to be SO TIGHT), giving information, asking questions. By the evening, my husband had been by my side for nearly 24 hours. I insisted he go home and get some sleep.
Alone in the ICU at 1:00 in the morning, you have a lot of time with just you and your thoughts. I was still stunned that this had happened. The movement in my right side had come back that day, so for all intents and purposes, I was already fine, one day later. I was hungry, I had no problems speaking or seeing, I could even stand up (yeah, I snuck out of bed; what the nurses didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them). It seemed like the trauma of the night before was only a blip on the otherwise straight and smooth path of lifelong good health.
But it couldn’t have been “just a blip.” It was a huge, huge thing. It was a stroke, for God’s sake. What would this mean for the rest of my life? Could I ever get up onstage again? Or would I flashback to that horrible, paralyzing moment of my last time onstage — where I suddenly couldn’t speak, and the essence of who I was had deserted me? Could I still get on a plane and go on vacations? What if this happened again?
At that moment, my nurse Jenny came in to do a check. After peeing with an audience yet again, I had a little breakdown. I started to cry. Ever since my mom had leukemia, I super hated hospitals, and I especially hated being in one while something so life-altering was happening to me. Jenny sat down and held my hand. I sobbed that I was scared.
“You don’t have anything to be scared about,” Jenny soothed. “You are doing SO GREAT. Seriously. Nobody here has ever seen anyone recover as fast as you, with no lasting deficiencies. You did everything right. You got here in time, and we got that clot out, and you’re young enough to bounce back.”
I choked and cried harder. I did not feel young. I felt very old and very tired. I had already been fighting depression my entire life … the fact that I had survived this far, and went on desperately fighting it every day, every minute of my life, was fight enough. Then I had to grieve my mother, which took years to return to some kind of normalcy, even if it was a subpar New Normal. I didn’t know if I had what it took to fight this, too.
“You can still do everything right,” Jenny continued. “You seem the type to me that’s going to take your medicines every day, right?”
“Yeah,” I sniffed. “I do everything by the book.”
She smiled and squeezed my hand. “Take your medicines, follow your new diet, get your exercise every week, and you will be just fine. I promise. And you really are doing amazing. We had a woman in her forties come in a few months ago with a stroke, and she didn’t recover as well as you. Then I had a guy in his eighties come in here, and he walked out of here on his own, with no cane and a smile. You can do it. I believe in you. You are a very amazing person. You are very, VERY strong.”
Being told I was strong and amazing by a 25-year-old kid who was already an ICU nurse gave me a wry smile, but I appreciated it. I wiped my eyes and sighed tiredly. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep?” Jenny said. I replied that I couldn’t sleep with all this crap hooked up to me, and basically hadn’t slept for two days. “How about I get you a melatonin?” she asked. Yeah, sure, whatever, that’s really gonna hel –
Zzzzzzzzzz. Well. That was a nice four hours of sleep!
In order to get sprung from the ICU, I had to pass speech, physical and occupational therapy. I had to pull my socks on, feed myself, write my name. After not being able to write on Stroke Night (see handwriting image, Part One), it was a gut-wrenching relief to print my name as I always had (followed by a “Yay!!!” and a smiley face). I don’t think I’d experienced that level of chirographic zeal since I’d learned to print my name in the first grade. There was also a fun test where I had to list as many words as I could think of in 60 seconds that started with the letter F. (Do you know how hard I had to restrain myself? Haha.) I think I got about 30.
They also took me on a walk around the halls. It was sobering glancing into the other ICU rooms. I saw people unconscious, their entire heads bandaged, with wires going into every orifice, loved ones sitting by their beds as they did not wake up. I had the weird feeling, again, that my situation couldn’t be as serious as these. I got better too fast. Had it really been so bad?
I got released from ICU and spent a final day on the Neurology floor. I slept for almost 10 hours and got discharged that afternoon. Only three days, and I was going home, where life was bizarrely normal.
I sat on the couch for days, trying to process things. This was too perfect. No one was going to believe I had a stroke, except the people who saw it. “Surrrrre, you just buggered off work for two weeks, didn’t ya?” Ummm, no, really, I have the discharge papers to prove it.
I thought back to Stroke Night and all the factors that went frighteningly right. I wasn’t alone, or driving a car, or sleeping. (Someone had told me about a friend or relative who had had a stroke while sleeping. By the time they woke up, it was too late to escape permanent, irrevocable damage. Holy shit.) I was surrounded by friends who cared about me. There was a nurse in the audience who realized we needed to call 911, because none of us were thinking of that. I was ten minutes away from one of the best hospitals in the city. I had health insurance. I had a next-of-kin to authorize surgery. I had Jesus holding me in the palm of His hand. Good God. How could everything go so stunningly right?
My best friend Lisa had come to visit me on the Neuro floor, and I had asked her to read me some Bible verses. Just anything nice. She was flowing through Isaiah 40 and suddenly I said, “Wait. Back up and read that again.” The chapter covers almost two pages; she said, which part? “The part about my way being hidden,” I answered.
“Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
My way was not hidden from Him. He not only knew it would happen; He was with me the whole time. And did He renew my strength. In fact … my way has never been hidden from Him, even though I felt mostly alone, always.
I don’t know about you, but even though I’ve been a believer since I was eight years old — most of my life, I felt like my prayers kind of bounced off the ceiling. I never had the close, interpersonal kind of prayers where I felt any direction, or really heard anything. Whenever I asked for something, it was kind of tinged with doubt, like I was asking Santa Claus. Even though the Bible says we can boldly approach the throne of grace, and that we do not have because we do not ask, and that the Father loves to give good things to His children … for some reason, I felt alone. Just one more speck in a sea of seven billion people. Fond of, but ultimately rather insignificant. Maybe that was the depression talking. It does that. That bitch sits on your shoulder and loves to lie to you.
There was one time, just one, that God definitely did speak to me. It was a year ago, at 3:30 in the morning. I had been frustrated because I’ve worked my whole life without accomplishing much by the world’s terms, I was 43 … and I KNEW something bad was going to happen, and soon. My grandmother got bone cancer in her early 80’s. My mom got leukemia in her early 60’s. I was in my early 40’s. I realize now that’s a rather irrational way of thinking, making a pattern of your ages … but it seemed to make a twisted sense to me at the time. It hung over my head like a sword of doom.
I was pissed, and scared, and I was telling God about it. And I heard, as clearly as I ever heard my mother say she loved me:
“You think that you are running out of time. Why do you think that? I never said that you don’t have time. I never said that you don’t have time. That is something you concocted when your mother died in your arms, because you were afraid. You are seeing patterns where there are none. Truly, I tell you, the third act of your life is just beginning. [God knows I think my life has four acts: childhood, young adult, middle age, old age.] You have so much left to do. And you will be strong. Besides your husband and sisters and best friends, your heart is softening for another generation — your nephews, your niece, your grandchild. You have a heart for love as big as the sky. Instead of the easy chair you want, strive for the strength and vigor that Joshua and Caleb had when they were 85. My beloved daughter, I delight in you, I rejoice over you with singing. You have so much left to do. The third act of your life is just beginning.”
I got out of bed and knelt, put my forehead to the floor, covered my head with my hands. It was one of the few times I have wept with pure joy.
My way is not unknown to Him. Nor is yours. It is so planned, so cherished, your days and your times destined for God’s dance with you. He catches all our tears and burns our names on His heart. If there was ever an experience that drove home that I am furiously wanted, that my life has high purpose, how many hundreds of people love me, what an absolute pillar of joy I am in God’s heart … this was it. And it was terrifying, shocking, filled with fear and pleading for my life. It was the worst moment of my life, but its aftermath has brought me joy and clarity … and an unbelievable, hardly-dared-to-pray-for-it release of the black clouds of despair that have hung over me my entire life. How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ!! (Ephesians 3:18) How new are His mercies every morning! How can He love us so much?? I am almost afraid to be loved that way. I almost want to push it away. It is so foreign to us. But that doesn’t make it any less real.
Three IV’s later, I’d been injected with some clot-busting drug and was wheeled out of the ER … but I didn’t know it hadn’t worked. I thought perhaps I was going somewhere for more tests, or perhaps even a room …
Hu hu hu. Noooooooope.
Lying prone on the gurney, I saw bright white operating room lights float into my field of vision. There were nurses, an anethesiologist, and a surgeon, all dressed in OR surgical gear. Still, I didn’t quite get what was going on until they started pulling off my clothes and wielding a razor to shave my nether regions. This was extra confusing because I was fairly damn sure the problem was in my head.
“Something is odd here. Eerrrrmmmm …”
My husband, as next of kin, had authorized a thrombectomy, since the clot-busting drug didn’t work. This would have been quite a helpful piece of information to know. In his defense, he said there wasn’t time to explain it to me and he wanted me in surgery as fast as possible. (The window for stroke treatment is a mere three to four hours after the occurrence.) Well … knowing probably would’ve freaked me out more. I just wanted someone to fix me at this point. If they HAD drilled a hole my head, I probably would’ve been ok with it.
As it was, they were shaving my nether regions because they were going in through a groin vein to snake up and remove the clot. Said clot was 3/4 of an inch long. Get out a measuring tape and see how big that is. That is a fucking big chunk of obstruction to be clogging your delicate bloody pathways. I still didn’t know this. All I knew was they were trying to fix me. The nurse stroked my hair. “Don’t you worry, honey. We’re going to take good care of you.”
My eyes slid around. To my left were a field of huge monitors. I saw images of my brain. I saw the dye lighting up my veins; I saw the clot that was trying to kill me.
I had not stopped crying since the stroke happened. I was no longer sobbing, but tears leaked out steadily. I cannot, absolutely cannot, adequately describe the level of fear I was feeling. Now that I knew they were doing something to my brain, I was lying there, ordered to be still, wondering if I was going to come out of this intact. I was absolutely petrified of being brain damaged. What if I had to stop working, go on disability, be a burden on my husband who’d have to take care of me?
I am a woman of great faith. Even when my mother died of leukemia at 62, and I was angry and confused, I never stopped knowing that God was a good God. That is a fact, no matter what you go through. But lying stiff and terrified on that table, I did not know what to pray. I fought against talons of horror that were sinking, piercing, deep into my heart, clutching viciously all my senses. I began to say the Lord’s Prayer over and over. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done …” Then I choked back a truly terrorizing, smothering choke of panic.
“Lord … if I am going to be brain damaged, you just bring me home right now. I cannot live like that. Save me. Save me completely or bring me home. If I have to die … it’s all right.”
I was awake for the entire procedure. They like to be able to evaluate you quickly when they’ve been messing about with your brain. They had given me a local in my groin, so I didn’t feel the probe go in. Then it hit my brain.
Holy shit, did I feel that.
It was like a wrenching ache; a knife stab. A probing, stinging pressure. I moaned in pain and fear, and was ordered again to keep still. God gave me the strength to not move, but I couldn’t keep quiet. Fresh tears poured down my face. But I kept still. It seemed to go on forever. I felt them attacking the clot at least three times. It was the closest I would probably come to being immobilized and tortured. I felt like I was in Hell.
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
Then, dimly, through the haze of this crushing experience, I heard the surgeon say something like, “Boo-ya, got that sucker!”
That was the first time I felt hope.
“What’s your name, young lady?” the surgeon asked.
“Laura Singleton,” I replied, my mouth not having to work quite so hard to say it. And smiled.
Then my gaze returned to those huge monitors, those images of my brain; the most awesome and intricate creation of a benevolent God who, He had just proved, fiercely loved and cared for me and never left my side. Always with me, never leaving or forsaking me, with me even in the depths, as He promised. I stared at the veins, the brain tissue, the pathways, the neurons that I couldn’t see. I thought about how God formed me in His image and made every organ in the human body and connection in the spirit that makes us what we are; all the wonderful, confusing, glorious things that make humanity. Then I saw a photo they had taken of the clot.
“That’s fucked up,” I said.
They all burst into laughter. “Get here out of here,” they chuckled. “She’s fine.”
I’ve known actors who have cut themselves on the scenery while performing, but kept going until they could get stitches after the show. I’ve known actors who have forgotten their lines, missed an entrance, fallen off the furniture in a passionate embrace, fallen down the back steps and broken a wrist mid-performance, and fallen OFF THE STAGE into the orchestra pit. I had a stroke.
It was a normal Saturday night. I had on my sparkly blue shoes and detective badge, ready to lead the audience through a fun-filled dinner/murder mystery. (You should come see us, really. I hardly ever have strokes onstage. This was a one-off. www.thedinnerdetective.com)
I never saw it coming. And it came fast.
I felt PERFECTLY NORMAL beforehand. Let’s get that right. Nothing was amiss at all. I am a 44-year-old white female with no family history of strokes who happens to be 30-40 pounds overweight. (Or, I’m just too short for my weight.) I try to eat healthy, do crosswords, and read about 50 books a year to keep my brain active.
We were three lines away from the end of the first act. I had been speaking, pacing, bantering with my co-star. It was my turn to speak.
And suddenly I couldn’t.
I opened my mouth, and a small grunt came out. The only sensation in my head was an extraordinary dizziness and confusion. You know that feeling when you stand up too fast? Multiply that by about 50. It only lasted maybe 10 or 15 seconds. That was the only time during the entire experience that I could not think. My mind was a spinning blur. Then it cleared, and I could think again. I knew I was supposed to ask the audience a question. I sort of staggered, and tried to say my line again. Only a small sound came out.
My co-star, bless him, thought I’d merely bitten my tongue and couldn’t speak (good thing he didn’t go into the medical field, HAHAHAHAHAHA). He finished the rest of the lines, and I walked back to the greenroom. I could still walk. I could think perfectly clearly. But my speech was gone, and I couldn’t move my right arm. I sat down, and my lovely brain, my gorgeous brain that had gotten me through college with a magna cum laude and watched hours of ER and read hundreds of books and was given life by a pharmacist father and an RN mother told me:
This is a stroke.
I’M TOO YOUNG FOR THAT, I frantically thought back.
By now the inability to speak had me completely terrified. All I could do was drawl. I was weeping hysterically. But when you can barely open your mouth, the sobs take on a sub-human quality. I sounded, at least to myself, like the keening of some lunatic chained to the wall of an asylum in the 18th century. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know what to do. I tried to write “stroke” on a nearby pad of paper for my two friends who were trying to calm me down and figure out what was wrong. The writing barely looked human. It leaned and jerked; it fell down the page, like blood dripping down a wall. I couldn’t communicate. My humanity was being stolen, second by precious second.
I have never been so scared in my entire damn life.
I grabbed onto his arm like the literal life preserver he was at that moment. He shined a light in my eyes and had me try to squeeze his hands. I was still making the most unnerving sounds, panting with distress, wanting to scream hysterically but trying to be calm. He told my friend Christy to call 911. It might’ve been — I don’t even know — how long before one of us had thought to do that. He helped save my life. I will thank God for him every time he crosses my mind.
The EMTs showed up in minutes, strapped me to a gurney, and rolled me into the ambulance. I’d never been in an ambulance before. Now I was alone with these people trying to help me, still playing this farcical game of them asking me questions as simple as my name, and me being unable to respond. All I could get out was “Aaaaauuuaa.”
You can’t imagine the frustration and fear and powerlessness and hopelessness of not even being able to say your own name. You are trapped.
I arrived at the hospital within minutes and was rolled into the ER. I was still wearing my costume, including my blue sparkly shoes. They stared up at me mockingly from the end of the gurney. My fake handcuffs were still stuffed in my pants pocket. (I can’t imagine what the nurses thought.) I suddenly felt quite stupid. Blood pressure, blood draws, questions asked, tears still rolling down my face. I did not stop crying for three hours.
I liked when the neurologist asked me yes-or-no questions, because I could answer with a nod or a shake of the head. My friend Christy, who had also materialized, put her arm around my shoulders, prayed with me, talked to me … as I clung to her, desperate for anyone to assure me that I was not slowly dying. (She’s moving to the Czech Republic to be a missionary. I’d say she’s damn qualified.)
This is where — if possible — shit got even more real.