Aftershocks

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Me, in the hospital, the day after my stroke.

Most people reading this know that in March, at 34 years old, I had a stroke. On social media, most of our friends’ life events, whether happy or sad or scary or joyous, exist in a vacuum. We read about them. We comment on them. And then we mostly forget them.

But of course social media is not real life and nothing happens in a vacuum. And when it comes to trauma, nothing gets tied up neatly with a bow.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, particularly since I finally mustered the courage to return to the gym, which is where my stroke happened. And I keep coming back to the word aftershock.

For me, the days and weeks and first few months following my stroke were the aftermath. My health and my condition served as a constant reminder of what had happened to me. There was no escape and no chance to forget even for a moment.

Now, though, life is mostly back to normal — except for when it’s not. And those are the aftershocks. Sometimes I see them coming and sometimes they blindside me.

Recently I was at the hospital where I spent six days following my stroke. I went there to deliver a donation of care pouches that my friends and family had sponsored after my stroke. I filled them with small things that I wished I’d had during my hospital stay, and the hospital wanted to do a news story on it. I was rushing that day, trying to get to the hospital on time after dropping my daughter at school, and I hadn’t spent any time thinking about how the morning might make me feel. I had been back there in the months since my stroke, but I hadn’t been on the stroke unit since I’d been discharged.

When the elevator doors opened my heart skipped. The smell overwhelmed me. Flashes of my time there came at me. I saw a nurse I remembered. My palms started sweating. My chest felt tight. But I took some deep breaths and kept going.

That time the aftershock blindsided me. I got through the interviews, but the rest of the day I felt completely drained. I’ve learned the aftershocks exhaust you.

The gym was an aftershock I saw coming. For months, even the idea of going back made my stomach flip. I told myself I would wait until I knew the tear in my vertebral artery, which is what caused my stroke, had healed. I got that news at a followup with my neurologist in July. But I wasn’t ready for the gym. I told myself I’d go back when my kids went back to school. Life got in the way of that and suddenly it was November. I knew I had to walk head on into this aftershock or the anxiety surrounding it would get too big to overcome.

So last week I called the gym and asked if I could try a class before I restarted my membership, which had been on hold since March. I booked one and put it on my calendar. The night before I had trouble sleeping. My mind wouldn’t quiet. When I was getting ready the next morning my 7-year-old could tell something was bothering me. I explained I was nervous and that sometimes we have to do things that make us nervous. He hugged me hard and told me I would be great.

And so I went. I told the coach (I go to Orangetheory) that I hadn’t been to the gym in 7.5 months and that the last time I was there I’d had a stroke. She asked me if I was scared. I told her I was terrified and bent down to tie my shoe to avoid crying.

The workout was hard but aside from my pathetic cardiovascular condition, I was ok. My balance during the floor work was an issue, but I knew that would be the case. I did the entire hour-long workout and thought I would feel proud. I felt relieved.

Afterward I got in my car and cried. I thought I’d done it — faced my biggest fear and come out the other side. Here it was, this one thing at least, wrapped up with a neat little bow. Perfect for a social media post.

And then on the drive home the right side of my head and neck – the same side as the artery tear that had caused my stroke – started throbbing. I felt sick and lightheaded and worried. I went home and sat down and ate breakfast and tried to convince myself I felt miserable because I am out of shape and nothing more. I took my daily baby aspirin, which I forgot before I went to the gym. I thought about texting my doctor.

Eventually I started to feel better, and the next day the only health issues I had were very sore muscles.

I was incredibly lucky with my stroke. It was in my cerebellum, and so mostly disrupted my balance. I had no paralysis, no speech impediments. I went home with a walker and a cane and a cache of pills but also with a positive prognosis.

Still, I had a stroke. At 34 years old.

I have a habit of minimizing things that happen to me, and I do it with my stroke as well. But I’ve learned that the aftershocks come no matter how often you tell yourself that what happened to you wasn’t that bad. I’ve learned they are scary and they are consuming and they are real. And I’ve learned that to make them go away, I have to let myself feel them.

Trauma lingers. It sneaks up on you, and sometimes it squeezes you so tight you think you can’t move. But you do. You put one foot in front of the other — off the elevator, into the hall, through the doors of the gym, onto the treadmill.

You keep going.

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