Stroke of Grace

An Essay by Zach Lebovic

The water wasn’t still anymore, it was as turbulent as my thoughts. When I dove into the pool that morning I felt claustrophobic. The water shocked my system, taking my breath away and I panicked, remembering the nightmare I had last night: I dove in for my race like usual, not realizing that a weight had been tied around my waist. No matter how hard I struggled I couldn’t kick myself back up to the surface. A hand grabbed me from behind but instead of rescuing me, it pinned me to the bottom. 

I warmed up prior to my race like nothing was wrong. But inwardly my thoughts kept closing in on me. The closer it got to race time, the more intrusive they would become. The entire day I felt sluggish, like I was swimming in a pool of molasses. Everything I had learned about racing, every bit of advice I had been told over the years, every technique I had mastered disappeared.

I bombed every race.

During swim meets I began to dissociate from my body, watching helplessly from above as a “different” me took over my brain– suffocated by a floor of negative thoughts.

My mind suddenly became my ultimate enemy. It was as if it were a separate entity, conspiring to keep me from being whole. I wondered what it would be like to be able to quiet my thoughts, to be in charge of what I focused on. Instead, I was constantly assaulted by torrent after torrent of intrusive thoughts. Most days, I felt I was drowning. I was a swimmer who couldn’t breathe–on land or in the pool. Water used to be my sanctuary but now even that felt hostile. I was at a loss to remember a single time when my mind had been free from its own grasp.

Weeks before I began my senior year in college, I fell ill in the middle of the night. Awakened from sleep by a pain that felt like two nails being driven into my temple, I rolled out of bed clutching my head. I fell over instantly. My legs had an uncontrollable tremor that rooted me to the floor. Vomit seeped out of my mouth. I’d lived with migraines my entire life; I saw them as just another mode of attack my brain used against me. It wasn’t until I was admitted to the ER that I would wonder why it took me so long to know something was wrong.

An emergency CT and MRI later, my doctor called. “There’s one of three things wrong with you. You either have meningitis, a brain aneurysm, or a stroke.” Extensive silence. “This is a life threatening emergency.” The weight of her words took hours to land. Later, I would ask my mom, “Which one am I supposed to be hoping for?”

I was admitted to the critical- neurology ward where I learned that I suffered two strokes in my cerebellum. Just like that everything changed; my mind was eerily still.

Nothing about the hospital invokes healing. The ER is crammed with cases ranging from the sick and dying to the drunk and disorderly– it’s mayhem. Amidst the ringing alarms and cries of pain, I found myself panicking. It was as if my mind had been turned inside out, manifesting in the mayhem around me. Because of COVID, my family couldn’t come into the waiting room with me. I sat alone shivering in pain, distracting myself by examining the weirdos around me. Everyone in there– from the lady slumped in a chair vomiting into her hands, to the parents huddled in the corner cradling their baby– seemed more sick than I was. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Even after they transferred me to the critical care neurology ward I couldn’t escape the chaos. The wires the doctors attached to my chest and head beeped unceasingly. Every five minutes or so I was bombarded by people giving me one test or another, the culmination of which came in the form of a spinal tap. Every object, every person served as a constant reminder that I was in a foreign place all alone.

This sense of isolation peaked when my next door neighbor Nelson spent hours maniacally yelling at his nurse because she “wouldn’t end it all fast enough!” I could hear him through the wall we shared, thrashing around in his bed as he fought off every nurse and doctor who tried to reassure him. By the time the police came to quiet Nelson down, I had wondered how anyone could possibly heal here.

It wasn’t until I watched Nelson being transferred to psych that I was struck by how sick I was. My unwavering health was taken away from me so quickly that I hadn’t yet registered my new reality. I was still clinging to my past self, still pretending I was the same 21 year old college athlete who had entered through the hospital doors. Just thinking about how I was missing the first week of my senior year of college, missing moving into a house with my best friends, made my heart explode. The more I ruminated and obsessed about what I was “missing”– the more I complained to my parents and friends about how shitty my situation was– the more my head would throb in pain. Those closest to me tried their best to help, to understand. I was inundated by calls and texts, cards and food. Instead of comforting me, every gesture made me angrier and angrier until finally the anger gave way to hopelessness.

Surprisingly, it was this state that brought me clarity.

There was nothing I could change about the situation. My brain was going to continue to misfire, to cascade anxiety, to clog with thoughts (and the occasional blood clot). I could do nothing. I hadn’t decided to fall ill, I couldn’t beg my body to heal itself faster, and I couldn’t resolve to be healthy again. The way I saw it, I had three options. I could remove myself from the situation (which was impossible since I couldn’t even stand to pee on my own); I could surrender to what is; or I could suffer. And I was sick of suffering.

So I changed my attitude.

Making the decision not to engage in self-inflicting behaviors was the hardest thing I had ever done. My false sense of self was as addicted to complaining as others were to junk food. The more I mentally ran away from the situation, trying to change what already was, the more I would inadvertently cause myself pain. Just deciding that I no longer wanted to cause myself to suffer didn’t change anything for me immediately. My alarming thoughts didn’t float away magically like I expected them to. They still cast a shadow upon my daily life. But for the first time in a long while, I felt like I could take a breath.

Four months after my stroke and one heart procedure later, my doctors still do not have an answer for me. Nor can they give my family and me a clear response when asked if I am at risk of stroke again. Sometimes I feel that not knowing might be the worst part. But instead of floundering in the unknown, I’ve chosen to look at the situation as a blessing, not a curse. I may still struggle to keep my balance, and my memory may not be as sharp as it once was, but at least I’m alive. I still have intrusive thoughts that cry out for my attention and occasionally occupy my time, and that hasn’t changed. But they don’t scare me anymore. Life is short. I don’t want to live in fear of my own mind, wondering if and when I would be bombarded with compulsions and obsessions. Instead, I let those thoughts flow through me. They are no longer the weight around my waist, but the water keeping me afloat.

Zach Lebovic is a senior English major at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.

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  1. Thanks Zac for sharing this very personal journey. This is an inspiration to those of us who have had a stroke and have endured similar struggles. It is good to know we are not alone and having a positive outlook on life makes all the difference in the world.

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