Strokes of Insight

My mom had a stroke on Mother’s Day. Fortunately my sister and her family were there with my father to get her to the hospital and into care with the greatest speed possible. There was injury in the left hemisphere in the cerebellum. While I could skirt around the issue, in fact, a part of her unique and powerful brain ‘died’ that day. However, it is her journey over the past few weeks, and the journey of her circle of influence (which is both broad and deep) that has turned out to be a revelation.

While I’d never wish a stroke on anyone, this experience has been challenging, eye-opening, daunting and enlightening. It has given me a ‘hands-on’ peek into the functioning of the brain, the power of the mind, and the fragility and resilience of humans in general, and my mom in particular.

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s ‘gone’

Every day we make assumptions. We tend to work under the idea that the world we live in and the way we think is ‘normal’, based on our experiences, our personal development and strengths and the habitual processing the subconscious makes to help us move seamlessly throughout our day.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this – if we had to think (consciously) about everything, we’d be exhausted and probably very dysfunctional. At the same time, it can bias the way we see the world, give us personal blind spots to our own actions and beliefs, and colour our way of communicating and interacting with others (and their own ‘normal’).

Most of the time, we shift subtly in the ways we think, feel and act. We develop new habits or stop old ones and shift into different ways of being. Hypnosis certainly eases and speeds up the process, and it tweaks the way we see change at the same time as the change is being made, so it feels natural and straightforward.

But there is a bit of difference between changing your mind, and changing your brain.

When we speak of the mind, and especially the subconscious, it is a bit more ambiguous. It is the feeling, being, deeper part that we connect to our body (visceral reactions, feelings in our ‘gut’) and our mind connections aren’t only connected to the ‘grey matter’ between our ears.

When dealing with the brain, it’s a whole other story. In a VERY not technical and brief summary of many long words and complex concepts I’m heard over the last month, there’s a lot of ‘stuff’ going on in the brain.

Using a metaphor, the neural connections that make up the brain are like billions of telephone wires, connecting messages, both senders and receivers, together. Some send messages to muscles, others to words, and strokes disrupt the links that are normally being developed or reinforced as we live, learn and grow.

When we ‘lose’ a part of our brain, sometimes the simplest adult tasks, like walking or speaking, become challenging or impossible. Meanwhile, other parts of the brain can be operating as usual. This not only has the effect of making aspects of functioning more difficult, but it has the added effect of being frustrating because what was known and automatic, needs to be relearned, redeveloped or an alternative found.

So many different ways to get there

So what do you do when the telephone wires become disconnected? Because of the quantity and complexity of the system, there are often substitute pathways to follow. And because the brain is not static as it was first thought, and can develop and grow through a process called neuroplasticity, we have the capacity to create or rewire our own brains. Not only is this true of stroke survivors, but all of us aiming to learn something new.

If you drive to work, most people take the same route every day. However, if there is construction, dangerous weather or traffic jams, we sometimes have our ‘backup plan’ or need to develop one, so we can get to our destination. This is actually the same for the brain – and the mind.

Our most well-worn paths, or patterns and habits, tend to be the ones we use all the time. Sometimes they are so deeply and thoroughly trodden, that we can get into habitual ‘ruts’, and we can’t imagine any other ways of doing something. Try brushing your teeth with your less dominant hand and you’ll realise first-hand (or second-hand) what this may feel like to suddenly take another ‘way’.

Yet that is the very exciting part of growth, change and adaptation. We CAN shift gears and go off-roading to discover new ways of doing, being and feeling – whether getting to a different destination, or finding a detour to our initially chosen objective. While it might at first feel unnatural, or unfamiliar, there’s often another, or several, alternatives.

So it is with my mom in redeveloping her communications. Her filing cabinet of words and ways of expressing has been tossed completely. The files are still lying around, but the order and system have been fragmented. So her main job now is to refile and rebuild all the lexes that have been misplaced.

Fortunately, in addition to using subconscious tricks of the trade for learning – repetition, association, metaphors and repetition – her billions of neurons and mind maps are being revised to bypass blocked paths and discover sometimes roundabout ways of getting a sentence out. Her experience is interesting as she’s relearning the language she already speaks, yet the mind can do the same for other languages – whether foreign vernacular or a new ‘dialect’ of habits and patterns.

Fortunately my mother is a mental beefcake – she regularly takes classes and played mental games on her computer. So her neural networks, while they have taken a ‘hit’ from the stroke, are lithe and pumped for renewal and rewiring.

It’s just a number…

With the ‘incident’, my mom’s body had taken a hit; her ability to express herself was extremely limited, and days in the emergency ward, wired up and sharing her space with strangers in crisis had a tiring and depleting effect on her. When I flew in to be with her I was slightly shocked by the dimming of the ‘fire’ that was signature in this small but powerful woman.

My cousin had fortunately prepped the hospital staff in the right way. She had painted the picture of a woman who was a pillar in her community, who served as a loving matriarch to an extended family and was vibrant, generous and caring to her peer group. It was important for others to realise that while she was not operating at peak (or anywhere near peak), she was usually highly functioning and needed to return to that level, or similar level, if only for the sake of the many lives she touched.

78 may be an age for ‘little old ladies’ in some people’s minds, but it was merely a number that gave my mother time to develop extensive skills, a network of friends, and a jam-packed schedule that would make younger heads spin! And so one of the family’s important roles as she was introduced to new supporters in the healthcare arena, was to capture her essence when she wasn’t able to.

How does this apply to us? Whenever we find ourselves placing limits because of stereotypes, it might be wise to look around for extraordinary examples of those who have overcome those limitations and are models and proof that ‘reality’ is often flexible. That we don’t have to play small even when others believe we should.

When we are (or feel) diminished – whether physically, emotionally or mentally – we may also wish to find others around us who can remind us of our stronger side. There is no disgrace in asking for a boost, in whatever way you may need, to help render a more genuine picture of your best self. Sometimes we may have to become our own advocates as well. And while it may be at the times when we feel least able to do so, we all possess powerful ‘heroes’ within, that during times of challenge, can display or discover our greatest strengths.

Usually a combination works best – keeping a healthy number of examples of ‘wins’ we can produce during times of loss, as well as advocates/supporters who know and can mirror back your best reflection. As my family has discovered, it takes a ‘village’ – people with different perspectives, approaches, gifts – to support someone with a stroke (a child / the people we love and care about…)

Keeping the Faith

I met a man at the stroke rehab institute that had suffered a massive stroke 14 years earlier. He couldn’t walk, talk, understand… do much at all. He is now volunteering two days a week as a walking, talking billboard of how resilient humans can be. He is there for both survivors and their caregivers, because the road to recovery (or change) is sometimes dotted with setbacks, plateaus and delays.

He’s the best example I can use for my mom and those who want so badly for her to get better NOW, that while she may not be able to access or express a word or phrase, it’s that she can’t right now, rather than she can’t (ever).

As we learn, grow and change, we sometimes lose sight of our progress because it’s not going as quickly or seamlessly as we’ve predetermined it’s supposed to go. We sometimes become attached to our moment-by-moment performance, following an emotional rollercoaster of success and ‘failure’.

However, just like stock prices and other statistics that seem scattered and vacillating, a step back (and a ruler) can usually find a trend. Sometimes we forget how much we can and have done in the past, as we worry about our low points and disregard our peaks.

Even if there has been either a quick (like a stroke) or a more subtle, slow decline in aspects of your life, humans are amazingly powerful beings who have the capacity to turn things around.

Understand that your powerful brain and subconscious mind are massively adept at rewiring and reprogramming. Find an advocate or a village (informally or of a professional nature), to redirect a downward ‘trend’ in a way that is more supportive and restorative for you. I’ve seen thousands of people turn their lives around with their own internal, mental resources and a little help. If there’s anything I can do, please let me know – I’d love to be part of your transformation ‘team’.

And today my mom told me to get out of the hospital so I didn’t miss my flight home. I’ve never been so grateful and happy to hear someone tell me to leave…

To your mental, physical and emotional health,

PS – yes, my mom is using hypnosis and therapeutic metaphors to support the wonderful medical, speech, physical and occupational therapy she’s receiving… we call it our ‘secret weapon’. I always like loading the deck for positive change. 😉

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