For some it’s the month of office parties, end of the year bonuses, and family visits. It’s the month of togetherness, opening presents, and chestnuts roasting over an open fire.
As a minister’s son, I quickly learned that December had another side. I barely saw my father who was off to lead a million services, feed the hungry, and comfort the sick.
My mom was always in the kitchen baking for the congregation, nursing homes, and homeless shelters. She collected coats for those in need, and knitted shawls for the elderly.
To the community, my mom and dad were practically saints with an ideal marriage. My sister and I missed seeing them in the holiday season, and we hated the heated arguments of two people with too much on their plates.
Growing up, I quickly Iearned that, in spite of what Hallmark tells you, many people are dreading December.
While the rest of the world is exchanging expensive gifts, some people are figuring out how to get to the end of the month on a minimum wage.
Will there be money left to buy the kids some presents at the Dollar Tree? Is there enough gas in the tank to drive to work? What happens when the water heater finally gives up?
Being poor is expensive and stressful. Add to that the judgment of ignorant folks who blame you for being on food stamps as a single parent working two jobs while raising children.
Some people have enough money in the bank, but they have other problems. As everyone gathers around the Christmas tree, they feel the loss of a loved one. The tragic unfairness of life is that the older you get, the more people you’ll lose.
After my stroke, I mourned the loss of part of myself. In the beginning, I felt I was living in a permanent state of brain fog where I couldn’t remember words, let alone form cogent thoughts. And when the thoughts finally came back, my mouth had trouble expressing them.
I asked myself: “Is this normal?” “Will I ever get back to the Paul I used to be?” “Will I be able to start working again?”
Emotionally, I was all over the place. As someone who was used to being proactive and independent, I had to learn to lean on people and ask for help. I still can’t get over the fact that it’s not safe for me to drive a car. I can’t drive to the supermarket to pick up groceries. I can’t pick up my daughter from school, and I can’t even drive my wife to the hospital in case of an emergency.
Frustration, anger, and disappointment are emotions I’ve become very familiar with. When triggered, I can go from zero to eleven in a heartbeat. When that happens, I’m like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. My blood begins to boil, my heart starts racing, raising the risk of another stroke.
Now, add to that my newly acquired misophonia (an extreme sensitivity to certain sounds), and you’ve got yourself a recipe for trouble. Some doctors would have started prescribing anti-depressants, but I’ve never been a proponent of numbing symptoms while ignoring the cause. Instead of pills, I opted to see a psychologist. A neuropsychologist, to be exact.
My bi-weekly meetings began in May of 2018, and have continued ever since. My therapist is a sounding board as I struggle, rebel, and grasp to make sense of my situation. He never tells me what to think or what to do, but he helps me come up with coping strategies. Implicitly, he encourages me to be the source of my solutions. Talking to him, I identify my pitfalls and I own my progress, one step at a time.
I’ve now come to a point where those who don’t know me can’t tell I’ve had a stroke. That’s pretty amazing considering the fact that the stroke team waiting for me in the ER had plenty of reason to fear for my life. But just because you can’t notice anything on the surface, doesn’t mean all is well. I am still in recovery, and I have to remind myself of that, time and again.
I believe there’s a reason why I’m still around. It’s one of the things that keeps me going. I feel I’ve been given an opportunity to show the world that you can overcome adversity and lead a purposeful life. My wake up call came in the form of a stroke. For you it might be cancer, the onset of a chronic disease, the loss of a job, or the loss of someone you loved.
Life is fragile, and tragedy can be a teacher, albeit a cruel one.
In the end, what happens to you is not always something you can control, but how you respond to it is critical. So, if this December turns out to be particularly challenging for you, please do not isolate yourself. Don’t wait until someone knocks on your door.
Reach out. Seek help. You are not alone.
Look around you. This is the time of year where we celebrate that light overcame darkness. Hope triumphed over despair.
If you happen to be in a dark place, closing all the curtains and withdrawing from the world isn’t going to help. You may not feel like it, but stepping out of your bubble to find ways to be there for others, is a proven way to get out of a funk.
Call an animal shelter and see if you can help. Read to people in nursing homes. Hospitals always need volunteers around the holidays. Help prepare meals for the homeless. Be nice to your elderly neighbors. Bake them some cookies and shovel their snow. It beats sitting in front of the TV, feeling sorry for yourself.
It comes down to this:
Be the light you wish to see, and make this a December to remember!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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Steve Krumlauf says
Very timely, Paul! Well done! Once again, very insightful and always compelling. Thank you again for sharing your story with your VO friends being so transparent. (I just finished watching Tom Hanks in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and in that way, you remind me, Paul, a lot of Fred Rogers. Seriously.)
Paul Strikwerda says
That is a huge compliment, Steve! Fred Rogers is one of my heroes. My wife lived in his neighborhood (literally), and as a fellow-pianist she shared many moment with him, talking about the joys of music and teaching children.
If you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to put on my cardigan!
Michael Kerns says
Thank you for taking the time to write this. Beautifully expressed my friend!
Paul Strikwerda says
You’re very welcome, Michael. I just came back from another therapy session and I feel very thankful for all the help I am getting. It is a shame that mental health care seems to be regarded (by some) as a luxury and not as a necessity. At this point in my life I don’t know what I would do without it.
Jinny Martin says
Thank so much Paul, you’re always inspiring.
Ditto the comments of Michael K and Steve K below.
Warmest wishes to all.
Paul Strikwerda says
Hey Jinny, thanks for reading my story. Warm wishes to you and yours!
Susan Hadash says
This is truly inspiring, Paul. I needed to read it at the end of a year in which I’ve had way too many problems with my vocal cords. Not that I’m comparing my problems with a life-threatening stroke, of course, but I understand the feeling of wondering if things will ever go back to what they were, and the ensuing identity crisis (“Who am I if I don’t have my voice?”). I am so glad that you are still with us, sharing your gifts and your amazing attitude! Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Paul Strikwerda says
Our vocal cords (or folds, as some like to say) are like the legs of a soccer player. If they don’t function properly, we’re limited in what we can do. I have had to take a couple of weeks of total vocal rest, which was one of the most challenging things I have ever attempted. I say attempted, because I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut. So much for self-control… I also discovered that silent acid reflux can be a cord killer, so you may want to look into that as well. Wishing you a holidays season filled with love and light!
Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt says
I am so sorry you have had to overcome the aftermath of a major life glitch.
Thirty years ago I was a research physicist at Princeton, until ME/CFS cut my professional life short.
I had always planned to write in retirement, but started earlier because I have never gotten well. Whatever the ‘reason,’ if there is one, the fiction that has come out of the struggle has been extraordinarily satisfying – even if the pace at which it comes out is snail-paced.
We all go through life but once (I hope); we have to do our very best with what we have. The resonances in the fiction are (almost) worth it, not that we get a choice. I USE what I have.
I am glad you have been able to do so much – and I won’t say ‘in spite of’ your struggles or even because of them – but because of who you are and how you achieve your goals. I’m hoping to keep working at my new career – as long as I possibly can.