On Christmas Eve 2015 there were unusually high stressors in my life. I was doing hard physical work dragging around 10 trees in very large heavy, terra cotta garden pots, my family expected tomorrow from interstate, cramming into a tiny house, cooking preparation and garden furniture dragging around, last-minute fussing for toddler safety. I was then a 68-year-old, suffering exam stress about having a poor memory, very high blood pressure, too busy to exercise. Overweight. I was a disaster waiting to happen. It did, a Stroke.
The stroke was a big one, effecting the entire right side of the body. It struck as a blood clot in the Pons area of the brain, or brainstem at base of the head. Could stress cause stroke? Yes. Stress can aggravate other risk factors for stroke such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, artery disease, heart disease, and smoking. I ticked six out of seven of these boxes, without knowing it at the time.
A stroke involving the Pons ,a major structure in the upper part of the brainstem, can be caused by either a blood clot (ischemic stroke) or a bleed (haemorrhagic stroke). My ischemic stroke occurred when a blood clot formed, blocking the blood flow through an artery to a certain region in the brain.
The Pons plays several highly important roles related to autonomic, motor, and sensory functions regulating several functions including hearing, equilibrium, taste and facial sensations and movements
The Pons is also a bridge between various parts of the nervous system, including the Cerebellum (playing a role in motor control and movement including balance, subtle movement, and equilibrium) and Cerebrum, both parts of the brain. The Cerebellum is involved in the control of breathing, communication between different parts of the brain, and sensations such as hearing, taste, and balance. These brain facts explain why I couldn’t do what I couldn’t do: move almost everything that moved on the right side of the body.
Luck or instinct popped into my head. In the first week in hospital, I designed,( my partner writing as I spoke), a Hypnotherapy program for myself as though I were a Hypno patient, using a visual image of a bridge, like the Pons, where a part of the brain directs traffic across a bridge so another part of the brain takes over and runs the non-functioning parts of the body.
I imagined a bridge on the island Burano, Venice where we’d once walked into a wedding party as they sang and danced across the bridge, celebrating their new life. A new life! I grabbed at that image ……There was me, walking, across the bridge where my body worked again, as I wrote, sang, talked properly, cooked, ate with cutlery, body walking and dancing into my future.
It’s funny what the brain remembers. On my first hospital morning waking up from being put to bed in a cot with the sides up so I wouldn’t fall out, I remembered that my yoga teacher Eva Jelleny had said “Do you know Suzy, every day you’re in bed sick if you lie down … that’s worth a week of recovering that your muscles have to do“. I knew I was in for a long bedridden stay, so instead, I propped up in a visitor’s chair every day, forcing movement. Trying to move a finger, a toe, an arm, a hand, a foot. Anything. Determined to move, before I understood why.
On day seven, I started to think like a Hypnotherapist having a client who presented with these deficits, rather than a patient suffering them. It turned the situation on its head as I began thinking strategically about my situation. In fact, I started using my head, as I shifted from passive to active.
Had I been my own therapist, I would have needed to know the client’s history and what sort of a person she was. And what were her personal characteristics and strengths that I could utilise? The most useful attributes were: Determined, Never-give-upapproach, Bloody-minded, Fiercely Independent and a Problem solver.
Meanwhile back at the hospital, I was moved out of Emergency Acute Care after two weeks. HURRAY! Onward and upward into a shared room in the Rehab ward! But, no, a dingy room, with an old lady sitting in a wheelchair in the dark, all lights off, bent over, a silhouette against the window, looking at the floor. When I saw this picture, framed by the window, I thought “This is the pits! I’ve got to get out of here!”
I did walk out of there one month later on crutches as the Physio said “You’re too young to go home on a walking frame Suzy”.
That determination and bloody-mindedness were critical, because these fuelled a desire to change.
So, push through, and the other side of the brain is doing it. To allow hope in. To change my current broken picture of myself, to a belief that a future life could exist, a belief that I could regain the life I’d left behind a month ago.
I wrote the following…20 days after stroke
“January 13, 2016, Practicing writing a bit at a time. I’ve learned that the principle is to use the effected muscle as soon as possible. Even though it feels like it’s impossible to lift a 50-pound sandbag with the little finger. Paradoxically, trying to do what you can’t do, enables the doing of it. So lift the hand to lift a cup; which I can’t do. Then do it a bit more, repeating five or six times and hey presto, like magic, there it is……… and I’m doing it. So, push through, and the other side of the brain is doing it.”
So, ingredients to my stoke recovery were:
- Determined mindset, hope and attitude.
- Physical exercises with plenty of repetitions, so a different, new part of the brain could learn to do the old tasks previously controlled by the now-dead parts of the brain.
- Belief in Neuroplasticity. Understanding the brain loves to learn new stuff. Re-wiring the brain to function again.
- A good Exercise Physiologist
- Time and commitment
- A psychologist for when the going got too tough and I lost sight of my prized goal
- Hypnotherapy to bring it all together
A few weeks later whilst still in hospital, a fellow Hypno practitioner friend, sent me a tape recording of a commercially available Hypno CD on stroke. I listened to that for 3 years almost daily. By listen I mean I mostly dozed through it in a hypnotic trance. Just perfect for embedding commitment, belief in a new future, motivation to exercise, conviction that I would do it. Rewiring the brain.
Fast forward to the present day, in my Hypno room, whenever a Hypnotherapy client says after sessions ”My life is better”, I think to myself …. I’m glad I can utilise what happened to me to help you. And today, I am carrying on, carrying on. Using the evidence of my own experiences to give me insights into helping other people change. Today I help others change their chronic pain, weight gain, exercise motivation, smoking, fear, physical ailments and unhelpful beliefs and behaviors with Hypnotherapy. It’s very satisfying.