Ten years ago this month, I was probably in the best shape of my life. I was working out six days a week, had just lost 15 lbs and was eating a lot of vegetables and lean protein.
I was also having a series of small strokes on a regular basis.
I didn’t know they were strokes, but I did notice something was a little off. Sometimes my vision would almost pixelate, once while driving. I assumed my blood sugar was low and would eat some yogurt or peanut butter to compensate.
I had just gotten back together with my now wife (happy 10th anniversary, hon! Or 20th, or 11th, or 7th. It’s complicated) and woke up at her apartment one lazy weekend morning. After hanging on the couch for a bit, I stood up, felt woozy, and promptly ran to her sink to vomit.
I’m not someone who vomits. That summer I threw up during a big night of drinking, but other than that, the last time I puked was in the fourth grade. I assumed I had the flu and drove back to my apartment.
After a day or two of puking, things didn’t seem to be getting better. I drove to my doctor, who informed me that I was suffering from vertigo, and that he was a little alarmed that I was driving. He didn’t seem alarmed enough to consider that vertigo is a symptom and not an illness. He suggested Dramamine and sent me home.
I got home, took a pill, promptly barfed it back up, and got back in bed.
I called in sick to work for the first two days, but by day three I was so out of it that I didn’t bother. I hadn’t really had anything to eat or drink for three days, because nothing would stay down. I hope I was feeding my guinea pig. Poor Carmel.
Berkleigh was visiting me to bring me food, like soup and donut holes. I don’t remember eating much of it, because everything was instantly coming back up as vomit. But if she wasn’t checking on me, I might have just lingered in that bed for days, not reaching out to anyone. I’m pretty sure she saved my life.
That night Berkleigh called me, and apparently I was pretty out of it. I was repeating myself, and she kept telling me to call my mom. I thought she was mad at me for some reason, but I later found out she had been having drinks with friends and didn’t think she should drive to check on me.
I called my mom, and had some kind of oddly circling conversation with her. I kept asking her when we had last talked. I’m not sure why that was so important for me to know, but it concerned her enough that she came over with my brother to check on me.
When they found me, I was glassy-eyed and laying in bed. The state of my pupils made my brother demand that they take me to the hospital. From there, things started to get even hazier.
I remember being asked a lot of questions by the nurses in the emergency room, most of them some variation on “What kind of drugs did you take?” Apparently, if you’re 27, in good shape, but have the eyes of a cartoon character and can’t follow a simple conversation, people assumed you’re whacked out of your mind of goofballs.
I remember telling them I had been in close proximity to some pot at a party that summer, but even in my stroke-addled state I knew that wasn’t a likely cause of my vomiting, dizziness and forgetfulness.
I stabilized over the next day or so, no doubt helped by getting some fluids and calories into me. Stroke tip: Not eating or drinking for a few days is not good for you. That’s true even if you don’t have a stroke.
Once they discovered I wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson, other theories started to be considered before a doctor finally stopped in and told me I had suffered a stroke, or rather what he described as a “shower of strokes.”
I was a little surprised, since I was 27 and not 67. I was young and cool, interviewing rock stars every week for the dopest free weekly in Central Iowa, dawg. I think I asked something like “Aren’t strokes for old people?”
It turns out, strokes are for everyone! But usually not young people. As I later found out, mine were due to a fun thing called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome.
You know those sideshow people who can stretch their skin in crazy ways or contort their body so they can fit through a tennis racket? They have Ehlers-Danlos. At a young age, I figured out I could bend my body in weird ways and put my legs behind my head. I just thought I was extra flexible. It turns out, I was slowly doing a lot of damage to arteries in my neck.
Six martial arts workouts a week weren’t doing my arteries any favors. As the arteries stretched beyond where they should, the areas where they stretched would make little bubble shapes. Blood would get caught in those bubbles, clot, and eventually fire out toward my nearby brain.
I got to go through some fun tests to figure all this out. One of them was a spinal tap. I had a spinal tap when I was younger, but this was my first since I discovered one of my favorite movies of all time.
When the spinal tap guy (I’m pretty sure that’s the technical name) came in, I started shoehorning as many “This is Spinal Tap” references into our conversation as I could. I got no reaction from him. I figured maybe he was just over hearing “These go to 11” too many times, but surely the lines would at least be worth a groan. Then he said:
“I’ve never seen that movie.”
What? That’s insane! How could you have avoided seeing a movie called about a band called “Spinal Tap” if giving spinal taps is what you do for a living? How was he not having the film quoted at him constantly? How was he not wearing all black scrubs with a cucumber shoved down the front? Ten years later, the most perplexing part of my experience having a stroke is that this guy didn’t have an awesome “Shark Sandwich” tattoo.
I ended up going to Iowa City to have a stent placed on my neck, sealing off the damaged artery. Stroke tip: right before surgery, like immediately before, when you’re naked other than a robe and laying on a gurney, they’ll run through all the ways this surgery might really screw up/end your life. I assume they wait until you’re mostly naked so you don’t bolt up and sprint out of the room.
My life has changed in some ways since then. My upper peripheral vision is somewhat limited, and everything looks kind of muted. The world used to look vivid like a Pixar film. Now everything is a bit washed out, like a movie from the 1970s.
I don’t crack my neck anymore, either. I used to crack it constantly, and when a doctor saw me doing it, he said that could be the cause. The martial arts was the more likely cause, though. Either way, I stopped doing both.
My memory also isn’t what it once was. I have horrible handwriting, but I used to also remember everything I wrote down, which made later deciphering easier. Now I’ll look at my handwritten notes and spend forever wondering what I wrote. Pumpernickel Honda? Ponderous Hindu? Pampering Handoff? I’ll figure this out eventually.
I feel a little more robotic in some ways, like I should be conveying more emotions with my face. When something is sad or funny, I’m experiencing it on the inside, but too often look stoic to everyone else. But sometimes random things will get me crying, like catching “Stranger Than Fiction” years later on cable and realizing that I had planned to see that film the day this all kicked off, only to have my plans derailed by constant vomiting. I also had tickets to see Tenacious D in Chicago, but missed out because my doctors didn’t want me driving for a month. Way to ruin my life, doctors!
Four years ago, my mom called me in a panic because my dad was throwing up and acting confused. Berkleigh and I rushed over, and after some coxing managed to get him downstairs and to the hospital. I even offered to carry him, but he was determined to take his time. Had I been that difficult to get into a car? He was airlifted to Iowa City, where they drilled into his skull to relieve the pressure from the blood that was swelling in his brain.
I haven’t had any major issues in the last 10 years. I’m not sure “lack of exercise” is the best stroke-prevention plan, but why mess with what works.
Since my strokes, I’ve gone from being a guy living alone in an apartment to a husband, father and homeowner. I sometimes worry that if not for Berkleigh that I might have just withered away in my bed, waiting to recover from a “flu” that was doing major damage to my brain.
Or maybe I would have choked on my own vomit. That might seem like a dark way to end this, but that’s because much like the clueless guy at the hospital, you didn’t realize that it’s another Spinal Tap reference.
So I guess that’s the end of this blog. Well, I don’t really think that the end can be assessed as of itself as being the end because what does the end feel like? It’s like saying when you try to extrapolate the end of the universe, you say, if the universe is indeed infinite, then how – what does that mean? How far is all the way, and then if it stops, what’s stopping it, and what’s behind what’s stopping it? So, what’s the end, you know, is my question to you.
But hey, enough of my yakkin’. What do you say? Let’s boogie!