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My Year off: Recovering Life after a Stroke

by Robert McCrum and Tracy Behar (Editor)

EXCERPT

Wo aber Gefahr, wacht das Rettende auch.
(Where danger waits, salvation also lies.)
--Friedrich Hölderlin

When I was just forty-two I suffered a severe stroke. Paralysed on my left side and unable to walk, I was confined to a hospital for three months, then spent about a year recovering, slowly getting myself back into the world.

When I was seriously ill in hospital, I longed to read a book that would tell me what I might expect in convalescence and also give me something to think about. There are many books about strokes in old age, but I was young and had been vigorous and there was nothing that spoke to me in my distress.

I have written this book to help those who have suffered as I did, and indeed for anyone recovering from what doctors call "an insult to the brain". I've also written it for families and loved ones who, sucked into the vortex of catastrophic illness, find themselves searching for words of encouragement and explanation. People express every kind of sympathy for stroke-sufferers, but the care givers are often the forgotten ones. To all concerned, this book is meant to send a ghostly signal across the dark universe of ill-health that says, "You are not alone." It's also intended to show those of us who are well what it can be like when our bodies shut down in the midst of the lives we take for granted. Some will say that it's a memento mori, and that's undeniable, but I hope that it will also be heartening, especially to those who have given up all hope of recovery. I don't mean to offer false or cheap optimism, but I am saying that, if my example is to be trusted, the brain seems to be an astonishingly resilient organ, and one capable, in certain circumstances, of remarkable recovery.

The other audience for this book is, of course, myself. The consequences of my stroke were simply too colossal to be ignored or shut away in some mental pigeon-hole. Writing the book has been a way to make sense of an extraordinary personal upheaval, whose consequences will be with me until I die. Besides, I am a writer. Communicating experience is what I do, and quite soon after I realized that I was going to survive the initial crisis I also realized that I had been given a story that made most of what I'd written previously pale and uninteresting by comparison.

Whatever you, the reader, take away from it, there's no escaping that it is a personal book, my version of an event that changed my life. The philosopher Wittgenstein writes, "How small a thought it takes to make a life." Throughout my period of recovery I was often alone with my thoughts. When, finally, I came to record these, this book became the mirror of an enforced season of solitude in the midst of a crowded life. I've called it My Year Off because, despite the overall grimness of the experience, there were, at every stage, moments of acute irony and, even, of the purest comedy to brighten the prevailing gloom and chase away the clouds of melancholy. P.G. Wodehouse, one of my favorite writers, once said that "There are two ways of writing ... [One is ....] a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn." There is, I'm afraid, not much musical comedy about having a stroke.

At times, my year off was one of all-pervading slowness, of weeks lived one day, even one hour, at a time, and of life circumscribed by exasperating new restrictions and limitations. The poet Coleridge observed that it is the convalescent who sees the world in its true colors, and, as a convalescent, I have been forced into a renewed acquaintanceship with my body and into the painful realization that I am, like it or not, imprisoned in it. I have learned, in short, that I am not immortal (the fantasy of youth) and yet, strangely, in the process I have been renewed in my understanding of family and, finally, of the one thing that really matters: love.

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