[I hope you enjoyed last week’s post inspired by The Myth of Sisyphus, and were not disappointed, like the reader who misread it as The Myth of Syphilis (or, The World’s Most Absurde Excuse for not Wearing a Condom). I have a vision, now, of a rakish intellectual lounging on la rive gauche, writing such a treatise. Maybe la rive gauche de la Gowanus….]
I remember, as a younger man, or, more, likely, a teenager — because teenagers are given to Deep Thoughts — hearing friends tell of how their outlook on, or approach to, life had radically changed at a particular age. I, on the other hand, had an idea that, while the, say, 15-year old Ricky was clearly very different to the 10-year old Ricky, if you could graph or plot their personalities, you would see a straight line illustrating gradual development, rather than a serious of broken lines showing periods of stagnation interrupted by massive changes. I felt like the same person, basically, over a long period of time. And, as demonstrated by this blog, I’m still at least 30% teenage Smiths fan another 23 years later, despite Morrissey’s best efforts to turn me away. However, I’ve felt the need to revisit this pet theory in the wake of my stroke. Doesn’t a catastrophic event have a massive impact? Well, yes, of course. A friend remarked recently on how my personality seemed more “stripped down”, now; apparently, I project less of a need to be the life and soul of the party. On the other hand, another friend was reminded of his early visits to see me in hospital: while his first visit, to a stroke-devastated me, was upsetting, during a second visit, I made some dismissive crack about a celebrity, and he was encouraged that he could recognize his old friend amid the wreckage.
In any event, in the wake of a physically and psychologically life-changing event like a massive stroke, one can’t expect to remain unchanged. “Is there a fact sheet about this, Stroke Bloke?” “You bet!” In fact, this fact sheet from RESCUE describes a number of common personality or behavioral changes observed in stroke patients. They include (1) “emotional liability“, or the emergence of “strong emotions” that are “close to the surface and difficult to control”, whereby the stroke survivor becomes upset or cries more easily, (2) “self-centered attitudes”, (3) apathy, (4) depression, and (5) a collection of behaviors involving impulsiveness, frustration, anger and aggression. It’s enough to make anyone upset, depressed and angry!
I recognize the emotional liability, the risk of depression, and the impulsiveness and anger, even though the last two, in particular, have largely subsided. Many of the others haven’t noticeably arised, perhaps due to the self-imposed behaviour of describing myself as feeling “upbeat” in the hospitals. “If you say it often enough….” I used to crack that “the examined life isn’t worth living”, given the depressive output of the average black-clad existentialist, but I am curious to know if I am much changed since September. Marxist theory might suggest that I am defined by my field of work. Certainly, then, I can no longer define myself as an attorney, whether by choice or necessity. I even filled in my occupation as “unemployed” during my recent intake at the eye doctors’.
On the other hand, I can certainly define myself as a stroke survivor. My closest thing to a commute now is the regular trip up to the Rusk Institute at the Ambulatory Care Center in midtown, for rehab, medical appointments and support meetings. And, “Did you hear Ricky had a stroke?” has even become an item of humorous rhetoric when Beth and I are talking with friends who could not be more aware of the fact. We have to be aware, I suppose, that the stroke will be one of the biggest things in our lives for a little while longer, until replaced by something bigger and better. One’s identity is fluid, I suppose.
Having said all that, in preparation for this post, I asked Beth — as the person who has to put up with me the most — if she had noted any changes in my personality, other than the emotional liability, and she answered in the negative. And that’s decent news, though I am hopeful that I’ll come out of the other side of this with a better outlook and approach to life. Certainly, while three or four months ago, I could have cynically signed off on Hobbes’ assertion that life has a natural tendency to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” I can now clearly see that life is beautiful, precious and (all too) short. Once one has recognized this, it is but a small step to making mindfulness (in more of a modern, western sense, for our purposes, rather than a strictly Buddhist sense, although, that too), a central part of one’s life. That is to say, in the wake of a near-death experience, the value of maintenance of attention and an ensuing orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance [and kindliness] seems self-evident. Hopefully, it is something that, by its nature, is not transient, but can be maintained. And a useful defense against strokey rage and frustration. Hmmm. I sense a new tattoo may be on the way….