I rarely talk about my stroke anymore, I am so determined to put it behind me. But occasionally, I’ll be reminded that I’m not exactly the same person I once was, and it takes me a little while to absorb that fact. Sure, we’re not the same person we were just 24 hours ago, because of all the things that happen to us in a day and all those things change us in tiny ways…but when you are changed by illness, especially at a younger age, there’s a sense that your life was…disrupted, that these changes don’t come about by normal process. Of course, illness is a part of life, but there’s an anger/discouragement attached to that…disruption.
I’ve been back to 99% with a few palpable differences for about a year now. A couple differences: I now like beer (I used to hate it), I have huge empathy with people who have learning disabilities, especially those who don’t have very visible/obvious disabilities.
Also–the stroke damaged my verbal/auditory short term memory the most. I had quite a few tests measuring brain functionality in the months following the stroke, and they all indicated an almost 100% loss of verbal learning. Over time, much of my brain function returned (the things I missed most and were glad to see back: being able to HAVE a short term memory..and my coping skills, so that I wouldn’t break down and cry or fly into a rage at every insult or setback). Apparently, the thalamus helps with coping mechanisms.
But these days, my verbal short term memory is still very nearly absent. I am not an auditory learner. I took a test alongside my students trying to figure out if we’re 1) auditory learners, 2) visual learners, or 3) kinesthetic learners. Many of the students came out in some sort of combination, with no one single learning style dominating. But when we shared our scores, everyone was surprised: I had nearly zero auditory learning capability. What I had suspected was confirmed.
That means–if you introduce yourself to me, and I don’t see your name written down (or quickly figure out a visual mneumonic device like “Robert is wearing a red scarf. R for Robert. R for Red. Robert. Robert. Robert. RED SCARF!….what was his name? Red scarf?”), it is nearly impossible for me to remember you. This was painfully obvious to me at a literary reading the other night when the other writers and I introduced ourselves to each other in a noisy room. I had to ask them several times what their names were, and still struggled. (The next day, when our group picture was published on the web, with our names written down underneath, I learned their names immediately–precisely because it was all visually enabled learning).
Now, some of you may think this is completely normal, and it may still fall within normal range–but for me, this is a CHANGE from who I used to be. I used to remember names like a wizard. (Now that I teach, I take the student roster and read it over and over again and over and over again so that I can memorize student names within 2-3 classes. It’s important to know people’s names).
At the reading, I stuck to the two other writers who were the kindest to me. I have learned that memory can also go through the emotional center/avenue of the brain–even in the day after my stroke when I was most addled, I remembered the name of my wonderful neurologist, and I couldn’t figure out why I remembered him and no one else. Two years later, my thoughtful primary care physician told me that I probably remembered him because he was kind, and his name was processed by the emotional center of the brain, bypassing normal avenues. Ahhh–and so to this day, if you are kind to me, I will probably remember your name even in a crowded room where your name isn’t written down.
Afterwards, a few Stegner Fellows introduced themselves. I asked for their names over and over–I still didn’t remember. Alas, there is no picture of them on the web with their names written underneath, so their names are now lost to me.
I have always favored one on one interaction over group interaction, but these days I avoid group interaction because it reminds me of the ways in which I struggle.
This deficit has helped me as a teacher, because I try to engage all learning styles: I will write things on the board, read what I’ve put on the board, I will pass out handouts, and then read what’s on the handout. I will put students in small groups, and have them act out exercises. When there’s class discussion, I’ll write key words on the board. After small groups, students will write their answers up on the board. I try to incorporate auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning styles in my classroom, and at the same time, tell my students that many other teachers will just lecture and expect them to take notes (and thus I teach them note taking skills). I understand what it’s like when a teacher makes you learn in a way that is impossible to you.
When the school year began, I enrolled in a workshop to learn about all the district’s teaching software. The instructor sat us in front of computers, gave us handouts, and then said, “Do NOT turn on the computers. Do NOT touch the computers! Don’t open the handouts! Just LISTEN TO ME.”
Oh.My.G*d. I wanted to scream. None of what he said was going into my brain. I wanted to take notes, because instinctively, that was a way to visualize what he was saying, but he chided me for writing on the handout that was not to be touched. I put down my pen and gave him a dirty look. I wanted to walk out of the room. I suddenly empathized with students who have behavioral problems, I was so frustrated with the situation and my own helplessness. I was furious. I sighed.
I raised my hand and asked, “I am not an auditory learner. Can you please put something up on the screen? Can I open the handout?”
He said no. I was so mad, I disregarded him from that moment on. I tuned out.
Acceptance. It’s hard. Friends tell me this loss of mental ability/memory is just old age–and it very well could be (is 36 old?), and many times, I do shrug it off. I’m grateful to be in the place I’m in now–to be able to write, to just be myself again, to experience life and all its details. But occasionally, like when I’m at a party and I can’t remember people’s names, and I feel like I’m coming off like an absent minded dork for not remembering when everyone else can…I’m reminded of who I am now.