March 26th 2018 may not mean much to you, but it’s the day my life changed in many ways. It started like any other ordinary day, with me working in my studio. By the end of the afternoon I was rushed into a rumbling helicopter that flew me to the ER.
As I was airlifted, the surgeon waiting for me called my wife to prepare her for three possible outcomes. These were the options: if there were to be enough time, they would remove the blood clot from my brain that had caused a stroke, and I would recover. To what extent, he couldn’t say. If not, there was a good chance the brain damage would leave me greatly impaired and dependent for the rest of my life. Option three was least attractive: me reaching my expiration date.
By the way, what happened to me was nothing special. On average, every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a stroke. Stroke is now the third leading cause of death (behind heart disease and cancer) and a major cause of disability.
I lucked out. As you can tell, I’m still very much alive, and I plan to remain in that fascinating state for as long as I can. This gives me the opportunity to share some of my post-stroke observations with you. Perhaps it’s not what you expect from a blog about the world of voice-overs and freelancing. I get that. But please bear with me. One day, you or a loved one might have to deal with a similar situation. I feel it is part of my mission to tell my story. It’s one of the reasons I’m still alive.
SYMPATHY & SUPPORT
Once the news of my stroke broke, I experienced an incredible outpouring of sympathy and support, particularly on social media. The well wishes came from all over the planet. It was heartwarming and uplifting! If you ever want to find out how much people care, make sure you nearly die and tell the world about it! It will do wonders for your self-esteem!
The two things people told me over and over again were both very sweet and totally unrealistic:
Get Well Soon!
We know a lot about the workings of the body and the mind, and there’s probably just as much that we don’t know. Good doctors have no problem admitting that. The not so good ones think they know it all. No doctor can predict how soon you will recover, or how much you will recover. In the case of strokes it greatly depends on which part of the brain is affected, and to what extent. The faster you find treatment, the better your chances.
Recovery from a stroke is more a matter of Getting Well S l o w l y. The first year is crucial, but recovery continues long after that thanks to the amazing plasticity of the brain. That’s the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells.
Especially during the first six months after I was out of the hospital, I could feel my grey matter making new connections, and boy did it tire me out! Saying I felt tired doesn’t do it justice. I felt utterly fatigued. What’s the difference? Simply put, fatigue is extreme exhaustion that surpasses feeling tired. It’s a total lack of motivation and energy. I spent most of my time in bed, sleeping the day away while my brain was reconnecting.
It took me a few months to be okay with my state of slumber. At first I felt terribly guilty that I wasn’t able to help out and be productive. I’ve always been such a go-getter, and now my biggest accomplishment of the day was a smooth bowel movement. Kicking and screaming, I learned to accept that I could not jumpstart myself into getting well again, and that it was okay and imperative to ask for help.
A NEW JOB
The next thing I discovered was this: recovery is not some passive process. It’s a day job. Apart from getting enough rest, my post-stroke life was (and still is) dominated by frequent doctor’s visits and therapy appointments. I had speech therapy, vision therapy, sessions with a neuro-psychologist, and lots of homework to be ready for even more sessions. I’ve been back to the ER four times now, and spent some time in the hospital over Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day (and I just missed Valentine’s Day another time!).
I’m not bringing this up so you’ll feel sorry for me. I just want to give you a glimpse of my life so you’ll understand why I went undercover for so long. As I’ve described in another blog post, after my stroke I lost the ability to emote and enunciate, which is kind of a problem for a voice actor like myself. My delivery was as flat as a pancake. On top of that, a tremor on one of my vocal folds made my voice hoarse and tired in no time. Forget long-form narration!
DEALING WITH LOSS
So, not only was I reevaluating my physical and psychological state, I also had to take a hard look at my career in voice-overs. My psychologist described it as a state of mourning. I was mourning the loss of my health, my sanity, and possibly my way of making a living. I had to do all of that with a damaged brain that was readjusting and prone to stimulus overload.
I clearly remember going into one of the many hospital waiting rooms, unable to deal with all the noise. Around me, people were making phone calls, kids were playing loud games on their tablets, and patients were comparing notes about doctors and treatments. At the reception desk calls were answered and people were signed in. A big tv hanging from the ceiling was informing us about the father who brutally murdered his beautiful wife and two adorable children. Trump was touting his wall. This cacophony sent my brain into overload and made me nauseous.
Even though I have been generally impressed with the extraordinary level of care I received, hospitals and doctors’ offices do very little to create an environment conducive to stress reduction, well-being, and healing. I’d prefer a spa-like atmosphere with soothing colors, greenery, soft lighting, essential oils, and meditative music. A sanctuary away from the constant distractions and hubbub of our 24/7 society.
FOCUS & RESPONSE
Now, for those who are dealing with the effects of a stroke, it is easy to get despondent and depressed, making a bad situation even worse. I must admit that I’ve not always been able to keep it together, but a few things helped me not to wallow in my fate. One of them is the belief that human beings are free to choose what we focus on, and how to respond to what is happening to us.
Instead of bemoaning all the things I had lost, I chose to be thankful for the many things that were unaffected. I started reading about people in similar situations who had made remarkable recoveries that could not always be explained by traditional medicine. What did they do to get there? What were they thinking, eating, and drinking?
I came across stories of self care and self love, stories of patience, and picking new priorities. I decided to give myself time to heal, and to spend it on things that made me happy. I began writing my blog again as a way to have a voice. I purposely stayed away from petty problems and draining interactions with people who thrive on negativity. Gradually, my level of energy and my vision improved, and I was able to express myself with more emotion.
To be honest: I never could have done this on my own. I have a whole team of doctors, nurses, technicians, and therapists to thank. Colleagues came by and friends stepped in making meals and driving me to appointments. But by far my best bedside advocate, designated driver, medication manager, cheerleader, and personal chef is my wife Pam. She is my solid rock, and the soft shoulder I lean on every single day.
When I’m forgetful, she remembers. When I am anxious, she calms me down. When I need to rest, she makes sure I’m not disturbed. She fills out the many forms, deals with my health insurance, and talks to my doctors. For my trip to VO Atlanta, she’s set up a support system to make sure I won’t overdo it. In short: she’s my guardian angel, and I’m so lucky we’re together in health and in sickness.
On Thursday I’ll be leaving for VO Atlanta. 800 participants are coming together to immerse themselves in all things voice-over. If you’re going, I can’t wait to meet you! You’re invited to attend my X-Session “Six Steps To Turning Your Business Around,” on Friday from 1:30 PM to 4:30 PM, and my Breakout Session about “Winning Mindsets” aka the Stinky Sock Session on Saturday from 4:45 to 5:45 PM.
See you soon!
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice
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