It happened one Monday morning at work, while I was marking my students’ psychology exams.
I got up from my desk for a few minutes and when I sat down again, wham!
I was instantly hit with extreme nausea, dizziness and light-headedness. I didn’t realise until later – after an MRI scan – but I was having a mild cerebellar stroke.
How does a relatively fit and healthy 39-year-old who doesn’t smoke have a stroke?
It was something I never expected. On that Monday I thought it must simply be a migraine, though I have only ever had a few and initially there wasn’t the usual headache and pain. My stroke came with none of the typical and well-publicised tell-tale signs of stroke. I learned later that the only obvious sign at the time that it could be a stroke in my case, was the suddenness of the onset of my symptoms. Ironically, earlier that morning I had remarked to a colleague that I was feeling really good.
So what brought it on?
Out of the handful of usual risk factors for stroke, the only one that applied to me – though in a big way – was stress.
For five to six years I had supported and cared for my wife as she battled severe depression and anxiety, with initially frequent and sometimes long periods of hospitalisation. We were also raising three young boys. Given the situation, I had high and also quite rigid expectations of myself as a dad and husband, and of what our family life should look like. I know now I cared for and looked after my family to a fault – the fault being that I forgot to properly look after myself as well. I kept up physical exercise more or less, but I allowed friendships and social connections to lapse. I devoted little to no time or energy to activities that would ‘refuel’ me to continue in my carer role and in my role as a father.
Somewhere in there, the combination of significant long-term external stressors and losing myself in my carer role led to predictable psychological consequences. A couple of months prior to my stroke, I was diagnosed with anxiety and began to get help for it. So while I had none of the other risk factors for stroke, I had a great big tick for stress.
I was fortunate that my stroke was mild and my recovery has been fast. For two or three days I couldn’t walk without falling to the right and for a few hours I couldn’t swallow. For about a week my balance continued to be ‘off’. I felt like a car in need of a good wheel alignment, having to correct for a constant pull to the right. I had headaches and tiredness that persisted for the next month.
What if my stroke had been much worse?
What could have been the end of the road was instead a speed bump.
I choose to see this experience as a message from my body that things have to change. I need to slow down, let go of a lot, and learn to enjoy life again. I need to learn to look after myself as well as I look after my wife and sons. I need to not try to do it all on my own. Happily, my wife’s mental health is the best it has been for years and she is determined to be as supportive of me as I have been of her.
The past few years have taken their toll, physically and mentally. But I’m excited and optimistic about the future. I’ve been in a hole and now I’m climbing out the other side.
This year is a year of balance, stillness and peace; a year of looking after me too; a year of growth and health; a year of rediscovering what gives me enjoyment in life. It’s going to be a great year.