“I think that little by little I’ll be able to solve my problems and survive.”
― Frida Kahlo
Spring has definitely arrived in our corner of North Western France. The trees are greening up, there are swathes of luminous yellow everywhere, and the ditches and hedgerows are dotted with orchids and bluebells. The dogs are obsessed with rabbits and mice in the garden, and our resident frog, Ferdinand, is singing his head off in our little pond. I love how living in the countryside brings the passing seasons closer, and I was acutely aware of missing my favourite time of year, the autumn, last year, because I spent just about all of it in hospital.
Having a stroke was something that I had dreaded, perhaps because my Dad had a bad one when I was nine (he died soon after), or perhaps because I had seen patients when I was a nurse and feared being left seriously disabled. Either way, it was a recurring fear of mine, not least because I knew I was in an ‘at risk’ group. So when, on a Sunday evening in late September last year, I noticed that my left arm and leg suddenly felt strangely heavy and tingly, naturally my first reaction was to try to pretend that nothing was wrong. But when my face joined the fun, I knew I had to do something, and off we went to hospital.
According to my neurologist, it was a ‘small ischaemic stroke, but in a bad place’. So it could have been much worse. The care I have received since then from the French health system has been impeccable: no surprise there. Weeks in a purpose-built rehabilitation centre got me back on my feet and reasonably self-sufficient. I’m still pretty dependent on my long-suffering partner, of course (he was incredibly patient about driving to and from Nantes every week for three months). My left shoulder and arm are still stiff, painful and weak, although improving, so carrying anything is tricky. But I’m doing more around the house, as that is the best way to improve. Recently, I have been able to manage without the cane indoors, and a steroid injection in my shoulder has reduced the pain enormously, vastly improving my quality of life.
I had considered myself an impatient person before all this, but if being in hospital teaches you anything, it teaches you patience. Waiting is a major feature of life there, whether it be for meals, medications, help with dressing, therapy or whatever. As someone used to a high degree of autonomy, that was a massive adjustment, and I saw others struggling with the same thing. That said, one of the best features of the regime at Le Maubreuil is that as soon as you are able, you’re encouraged to do as much for yourself as possible. It’s all part of the rehabilitation process. Now, back home, my life is a parade of medical appointments, with twice weekly physiotherapy and occasional hospital out-patient consultations, plus the odd extra treat like mammograms and X-rays, blood tests.
But the biggest adjustment has been to my altered state of being. As someone who, at various times throughout my life, has worked with people with disabilities, one of my mantras has always been ‘Any of us can become disabled at any moment’, and here I am, living proof of that. I am, naturally, still reaching an accommodation with this ‘new’ me. My balance – never great – is worse, I have to concentrate when walking, or else I catch my left foot on the floor/step/carpet edge. Never a night owl, I tire easily, and I’m often craving my bed by 10pm. But the hardest thing is the loss of autonomy. I can no longer drive (French law dictates that after a stroke you have to retake your test – not that I feel able to do that anyway), I can’t walk the dogs, I am worn out by a trip to the supermarket.
I’ve talked about my mental health struggles here before, and I can’t deny that I have had some dark moments in these past months. I know that progress is happening, and yet it remains a struggle just to do the everyday things like showering, doing the dishes and climbing the stairs. I sometimes ‘wobble’, an unpleasant sensation of nearly losing my balance, which makes me anxious. I had a fall in November, and slipped in the shower in January, so I’m constantly on edge about it happening again. I hope I will make more progress, but I doubt I will ever be the person I was, physically. My feelings of anxiety are back up, and the vulnerability that inevitably comes with an event like this means that my confidence is all but gone. I miss going out with the dogs, and even going in the garden is an adventure; walking on uneven surfaces is tricky. Rationally, I know that this is all part of the recovery process, and that with time and an improvement in my condition will come better self-esteem, but right now, that seems a long way off. If I have a good day, I’m usually so exhausted by the end of it that it’s hard to feel positive.
On the upside, our project to move the library upstairs has more or less been completed. I had packed most of the books before our trip to Vendée which immediately preceded my stroke. The plan was to get our bedroom downstairs, as the first floor becomes too hot for sleeping comfortably in the summer (something that is only going to get worse in future). It’s all taken longer than we hoped, but I was able to shelve most of the books myself, if very slowly and while taking frequent rests! And our ‘new’ bedroom is coming along very nicely, with more space and two windows for extra ventilation. Once the finishing touches have been made I’ll put some photos up.