I will never forget that awful Saturday morning of March 26, 2011 when a blood clot shot into the speech center of my brain, blocking blood flow and damaging brain tissue. In other words, I had a classic ischemic stroke.
“What?” Tom asked desperately. “What can I get you?”
I really, really wanted to tell my husband Tom about this weird sensation of having SO MANY THOUGHTS in my head, but I couldn’t get them out. I grabbed his arm and tried to say something, anything. I stared in his eyes, willing him to read my mind. I’M A PRISONER, I was screaming in my head. MY WORDS ARE TRAPPED. HELP ME. UNDERSTAND ME. But all that would come out was a helpless, “I need the thing.”
Tom called EMS, and the next few days were a blur of tests and scans. One of the few clear moments was when my doctor said, “The damage done to the brain tissue is permanent, but we can stop more damage from happening.”
Brain damage. Permanent.
After a brief hospital stay, I was teamed with Julie Huffman, a speech pathologist at Rex Hospital. As Julie explained, the best way to get your words back is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. The brain, she explained, can actually regrow neurons to replace the ones killed off by my stroke. In other words, the harder you search for the right word, the easier it is to remember it the next time.
I am very fortunate. My aphasia symptoms are pretty mild compared to other people. But I completely understand the frustration of stuttering, of searching for the right word, of having very complex ideas trapped in your brain looking for a way out. Even when talking with friends and family, aphasia is TIRING. It’s HARD. It’s DISCOURAGING. I saw how quickly even an EXTREME extrovert like me could so easily start avoiding crowds or even one-on-one conversations with close friends and family. But then Julie introduced me to TAP.
Going to my first meeting was like going to a family reunion for the family I had never met before. It was a comforting, inspiring, and safe place. No one judged me. No one finished my sentences (wrongly) for me. I never felt pressured to “hurry up and get it out!” It was a place where people patiently waited for me to locate, process, and execute the necessary movements to say the right word. And because I was in such a place of understanding, the stress of “getting it right” was gone. I was able to “get it right” more and more often. I was able to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, and take that confidence home with me.
I continually thank Maura, Julie, Jenny, and everyone at TAP who comes together for groups, book clubs, writing groups, challenge groups, and my personal favorite, TAProots (the garden group). You all are helping folks like me find ways to communicate and stay active with friends, family, and community.