How I learned to thrive — not just survive — after a brain aneurysm
Here, a contributor shares her experience of surviving a brain aneurysm.
It is a pain I will have to ascribe a number to every few hours. A pain I will live with for months after I leave this place. A pain ameliorated by morphine for the time being. When I’m lucid, not being tested or prodded, I stare out the window of my hospital room. The days are mostly gray, punctuated with rays of sunlight.
It is easier to turn my head to the right, towards the window.
If I fall asleep, it is with my head towards the window. The doctors coax me to change positions, to lay on my back. That makes the nightly blood draws easier, which I’ve come to think of as midnight blood-lettings. Apparently, I’m a hard stick. Another moniker to add to my collection.
But through the window, I only see trees and sky. To my left, I see the IV and other medical apparati, along with a bag of pink fluid coming from the tube in my brain. The output of this fluid will be discussed by the various neurologists, neurosurgeons, nurses, and residents to determine whether or not to put a permanent device in my cranium.
Once they do, I will spend more time staring out into the graying sky. There is a TV in the room, but that requires too much concentration. The window doesn’t require any effort. It is as passive as I’d like to be, as passive as I am until the catheter is removed and I have to buzz for help to get a bed pan or use the mobile toilet.
They tell me there is a park on the other side of that window.
One that used to see a lot of violence. Things are more tranquil now, like that gray sky. I will leave this room after two weeks. Until then, I will never see that park, but I continue to sleep mainly to the right.
(I think of my stay here whenever there is a stretch of gray days.)
The pain remained once I left the hospital. I still wanted to be passive, to give into the pain, physical and mental — but I couldn’t.
Between the anxiety attacks and the insomnia, I knew that surviving an aneurysm wasn’t enough — I had to thrive.
I am the one who called 911 to save my own life — I had to garner that same strength, and do it all over again.
At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. I just knew that I was overweight, bald (my head had been shaved before the surgeries), and anxious all of the time. Prior to all of this, I’d dabbled in meditation — but I never made it a serious practice. This time, I started using meditation as a way to fall asleep. I had tried sleeping pills, but that made me feel more anxious in the mornings.
I turned to a meditation group that focused on emotional pain. Though I was still in a lot of physical pain from the surgeries, I was a mess emotionally. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be any more.
People kept telling me I was so strong and that I was a survivor. Yet, when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see a strong survivor.
I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror — and realized that it had been a long time since I looked myself in the eye, and smiled.
What I saw — when I could look myself in the eye — was a sad, lonely woman who was overweight, underemployed, and bald (the bald part really bothered me). I felt this disconnect between who I thought I was, how I was perceived by others, and who I really was.
I needed to take back control.
The problem solving part of my brain knew that diet and exercise would help solve some parts of this equation. I started off with a 22 Day plant-based detox. It was hard and not always tasty (I’m sorry — roasted cauliflower and grapes are not a meal), but I lost 11 pounds. That little bit of success spurred on more healthy eating and fitness challenges. I even joined Weight Watchers for a few months, and working out became more of a habit.
But there was still more to be done, and it was the harder part — I needed to work on my emotional health.
To deal with the anxiety I had post-aneurysm, I started seeing a therapist.
And I started meditating, daily. This combination of therapy and meditation really changed things for me. I started sleeping better. I learned not to fall into anxiety. I started to think about spirituality and what that looked like for me.
Approaching the two year mark, I see a shift beyond the weight loss and newly formed biceps.
I listen to my body now.
I confront the messy parts of life head on — finances, relationships, career, et al. It’s hard, but once you’ve survived the ICU, what can’t you do? This is the challenge I present to myself daily. I don’t always want to, but I do it anyway.
What do I have to show for this change in perspective? REGULAR SLEEP (bless up! *DJ Khaled voice*). Seriously, if nothing else, regularly getting 7-8 hours of sleep has radically changed my approach to life. I meditate regularly. I dance naked in the mirror.
I’m a work in progress, and I can look myself in the eye, and smile.