Updated: Thursday 8th April 2010
I was a teacher, an English teacher in Nottingham in a college with students of 16+. I had been working for 15 years and while I liked students, I wanted to move into university in some way or another. I was 40, and lived on my own in an upstairs flat.
One October, a month after the Twin Towers, New York, had featured so much destruction on the news, I had been working late and went home with a blinding headache. I took some paracetamol, watched TV and then went to bed. About 2 o’clock I woke up with a massive headache - the like I had never had before - and went into the kitchen for some more pills. When I made it to the sink and reached for the paracetamol, suddenly I began to fall forwards onto my right leg, which was collapsing and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I turned and tried to grab the shelves opposite with my left arm but merely pulled the shelves, pots, cups and food down on me. My right arm was frozen as well and I was stuck.
I started to yell as hard as I could in the hope of raising the alarm, either downstairs or next door. I had lost the use of speech and all I could manage was a strange, strangled cry. Quite soon two policeman came to the front door, were let in by the person downstairs and rushed upstairs. They slowly pulled me out of the wreckage and half carried me to the front room. One of them muttered that it must have been my heavy drinking the night before that caused me utter wastage in the early morning. Then the ambulance men came and decided to take me to the hospital.
My friend from downstairs accompanied me to A&E and on the way I suddenly found I could speak perfectly. We waited in the hospital for a doctor to come round and talked and laughed and no doubt we were looking forward to telling other teachers in the staff room all the news later on that day. Suddenly the doctor appeared on the scene and I was about to tell him what had happened to me when I had a stroke - I couldn’t talk and was rapidly falling into darkness, unconsciousness.
I was asleep for three days, two when I tossed and turned, and the third when I slept deeply, as if I had tried to get my right arm and leg back to normal but to no avail. I dreamt vividly that I approached two men and a desk with ‘admin’ stuck on the front, who said that, in my case, I could choose whether to go further into the ethos and dissolve, or whether to go back and re-join the people around me - it was entirely up to me. I chose to go back - and woke up.
10 years ago I had just heard of a stroke but had little idea of what was involved in the recovery process. But I had never heard of aphasia (loss of language). When I awoke after three days, intending to speak I was aghast at not being to saying anything, even the simplest request for a cup of tea, a biscuit , was beyond my grasp. I used to be so good at involving myself in any kind of discussion, lengthy debate or just witty laughter with other people. Now, at first, I had trouble welcoming my closest friends - I knew who they were, but I could not say who they were. In my early days at the hospital, it was if part of my speech called language no longer existed.
But then someone brought me ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone’ and I tried to make sense of it. I failed miserably - I could make little recognition of individual words, let alone make sentences or paragraphs of it, but it still gave me something to latch on to. Then the SALT (Speech and Language Therapeutic) entered the scene and helped me gradually to build back up language - to a degree. I left hospital but still kept working with the SALT team until we both felt that I would manage fairly well on my own.
The six months I spent in hospital were some of the most confusing, perplexing and frustrating times I have felt, having had to start again what I had lost in the course of one night. I felt at times that it was hopeless, that I might as well give it up. But I didn’t give up, perhaps couldn’t. And then gradually I met other people who had experienced a stroke and had aphasia and had a particular story to tell. And each day, month, year my language increased. My confidence grew as well, I could go into shops and tell them what I wanted, even, particularly at first, it was painfully difficult.
When you have had a stroke and aphasia, it makes you feel incapable of starting all over again. But one way or another you always improve, often dramatically.