Friday, July 29, 2011

The Antidote to Self-Pity

As I began to examine my depression post-stroke, I recognized that I was full of self-pity. "I am too young for this." "I took care of myself, it shouldn't have happened." "There is still so much I want to do with my life." Etcetera, ad nausea. These thoughts always led to despair, but I didn't know how to turn them off.

I wondered, what is this instinct for self-pity? As a child, I received pity from adults when I was hurt, and that helped me feel better. Was that what I needed? I imagined sharing my thoughts and seeking comfort from others. But, wouldn't people soon tire of my complaints – as I had tired of them? And what were they supposed to say, anyway?

I turned to a wise girlfriend. "How do I get out of self-pity?" I asked.

"Self-care," she answered. "When the self-pity tape starts playing, do something nice for yourself."

I took baths with muscle-relaxing oils. I lay on my back in bed listening to audio books on my iPod. I scheduled play dates with my niece and nephew. During these brief periods, I did not reprimand myself for not doing my rehabilitation exercises.

After a couple months, I noticed that the self-pity tape was no longer playing as frequently. Now, when it does receive airtime, I know how to change the channel.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Gratitude List

Abby, Aline, Allison, Amy, Andrew, Angie, Annie, Ara, Arbi, Audrey. Barb, Betty, Bianca, Bill, Bob, Bonnie, Bryce. Carrie, Casey, Cathy, Cecelia, Charl, Charlotte, Chelsea, Chonita, Chris, Cindy, Claudia, Colin, Connie, Cynthia. Dad, Dave, David, Dean, Deb, Debbie, Denny, Devin, Dianne, Dick, Didi, Dru. Edie, Elizabeth, Emma, Eric, Erik, Erin, Ernie, Evan.

Faith, Francesca, Freddie. Gary, George, Gloria, Grace, Greg, Gwen. Haley, Hannah, Harmony, Harold, Henry, Holly. Ian, Irene. Jack, Jackie, Jackie, Janet, Jazmin, Jee-Jee, Jeff, Jeff, Jenny, Joanie, Jodi, Joe, Joel, John, Jono, Judith, Julie, Junie. Karen, Karen, Kate, Kathy, Kathy, Kayden, Keely, Ken, Kim, Kirsty, Kit, Kris, Kristen.

Larry, Laura, Leah, Lela, Leslie, Liam, Linda, Linda, Linda, Linda, Liz, Logan, Lorraine, LuAnn, Lyn. Madeline, Maeve, Margaret, Maria, Maria, Marilyn, Marilyn, Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary Beth, Maryann, Matthew, Mel, Melinda, Mia, Michelle, Mickey, Mindy, Mira, Mom. Nanci, Nancy, Nancy, Natalie, Nate. Patti, Paul, Paul-Louis, Penny. Randy, Rebecca, Rebecca, Renee, Rex, Rex, Rhonda, Rich, Richard, Rilla, Rob, Robin, Robin, Roger, Ron, Ruth, Ryan.

Sara, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, Scott, Sean, Serena, Sherrie, Solomon, Sona, Stacey, Steve, Sue, Suki, Susan, Susan, Susan, Susie, Susie, Suzanne, Suzi. Ted, Teresa, Teri, Terry, Thomas, Todd, Tom, Tony, Tracy, Trudy, Twinnie. Val, Vanessa, Vicki, Vodie Ann. Wayne, Wells. Yolande. Zachary.

I used to have things on my gratitude list. Now it’s all about you.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Value of Acceptance

This time last summer I was in a dark place, exercising four hours every day and still not seeing the results I wanted. My imagined life as a disabled person stretched before me unwanted. Two years, I told myself. If, in two years, I can't stand this anymore, I will jump off a bridge. In tears once again when my husband arrived home from work, I followed him into our sunny garden to talk.

"What I've been trying to figure out," I told him, "is why I was willing to work hard at a job for 11 years to make things better, but I am so quick to give up on myself."

"Why do you think that is?"

"Because at my job, there was the promise of something better – a raise, a promotion. But now, I'm working so hard just to get back to where I was."

"It sounds like you haven't accepted what's happened," he said. "You're not trying to get back to where you were. You're trying to move forward from the day you had the stroke."


So long as I focused on what I used to be or what I wanted to be, I could not be happy now. I had to realize that exercising like a maniac was not going to get me "there" any faster. I had to find ways to enjoy my life now and balance that with rehabilitation.

I used to equate acceptance with giving up. Now I see it as a gateway to happiness.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Stolen Identity

Years ago when I worked as editor of a fitness magazine, I published an article about staying motivated on an exercise routine. It delineated the types of motivation:

Negative Consequence Motivators: If I don't exercise I'll get fat, my husband will leave me, I’ll die of a heart attack, etc.

Positive Consequence Motivators: If I exercise I'll feel better, I can buy myself new clothes, etc.

Identity motivators: I exercise because that's part of who I am.

They can all work. But the most effective is the last one because, psychologically, it's hard to give up a piece of our identity.

Coming to terms with changes in my identity as a result of the stroke has been the most challenging part of my recovery so far. After I began to realize the impact of my physical limitations, I cried a lot. I thought I was depressed, but a psychotherapist told me I was grieving. I grieved the auntie who got down on the floor and played with the kids. I grieved the domestic superwoman who took care of house, husband and garden. I grieved the yoga student with an almost-perfect triangle pose.

Now, stroke survivor is part of my story. I'm looking forward to a time when it is no longer my headline … when I can look back at the experience and see how it led me someplace amazing I wouldn't otherwise have gone. And then I can say, "No, I wouldn’t give up this piece of who I am."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Battling the Dragon

I am learning to adapt my writing process from typing to dictating through Dragon Naturally Speaking software. Dragon is very helpful but ...

I say "My sister mothered me," and it types "My sister bothered me." I say "enunciation" and it types "NCAA sin." I say "air kisses with super loud" and it types "Eric kisses with sick birds allowed."

I am not make you dish it out. Correction: I’m not making this shit up.

I check the settings on my microphone and wonder if people are lying to me when they say my NCAA sin sounds normal again.

I found the mistakes so distracting at first, I had to go back and correct them right away. But then I lost my flow. So I tried writing with my eyes closed. By the time I opened them again, I had no way of reconstructing what I'd said.

Eyes open, I have learned not to swear out loud at these errors. Or I get something that looks like this: Eric kisses with sick birds allowed God dammit!

I have learned to pause and turn off the microphone before responding to my husband’s knock on my office door, or I get bizarre renditions of one-sided conversations.

The soft hiss of my breathing against the microphone often appears as "him him him him … ."

I have learned to speak punctuation and capital letters as a natural part of my dictation: open quote I close quote often becomes open quote cap A close quote period. Translation: "I" often becomes "A".

Forget playing the PNO, forget breeding my niece’s hair! A just want to type!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Painful Beauty

My brother's daughter has gorgeous hair – long, thick, silky honey. The weekend before my stroke, I French-braided a headband across the top of her head. She was only four, but she sat still with her head tilted sideways while I worked. At one point, she said, "Ow! Auntie, that hurts!"

"Beauty is pain," I told her.

My sister-in-law doesn't French braid. Shortly after I got out of the hospital, I bought her a "how-to braid" book. I studied it twice before wrapping it. The French Rope Braid was so intriguing, I found myself thinking about it during nights when I'd awake uncomfortable and unable to sleep. I would imagine rope-braiding my niece's hair – my nimble fingers sectioning and coiling the golden strands.

I have come to accept that braiding is another skill I won't relearn. The conditions that allowed me to develop it in the first place – two years on the cheerleading squad and my own long hair – are gone. I have stopped thinking during sleepless nights about braiding and turned my thoughts in other directions. But I still get a bittersweet pang of wistfulness when I look at my beautiful niece and run my hand over her glorious hair.

Abigail, 3-27-10
(Hair by Auntie Marcelle)

Friday, July 1, 2011


Click below to listen to "Maple Leaf Rag."

There was a piano at a party I attended recently. I asked my hostess if she played. "No, but I always wanted to play ragtime," she said. Pre-stroke, I would have sat down right then and pounded out the "Maple Leaf Rag."

The "Maple Leaf Rag" by Scott Joplin was my signature piece. I've been playing it for 30 years. It includes a hand-over-hand run all the way up the keyboard. In my talent show version, my hands kept running until I fell off the piano bench. A comedy routine – my dad's idea.

I didn't even need a piano to play the "Rag." I'd tap it out on my thigh during dull classes or meetings. In the hospital post-stroke, I reviewed the fingering in my mind. The brain doesn't know the difference between imagining and doing, and I hoped that this mental exercise would spur my fingers toward movement.

I have been told that any skill I want to recover will require hours of practice and repetition. I will not take the time to learn to play the piano again. It's a loss, but not a devastating one. I was neither a gifted musician nor an avid one. In fact, I can't remember the last time I played. What I do remember is during my dad's last visit before my stroke, he said, "How about a little Scott Joplin?"

And I said, "Not now."