Monday, March 10, 2008

Questions on the Brain: An Unforgettable Year

“What were you doing a year ago?”

This is the meme’s first question. A “meme” is a questionnaire that floats from blogger to blogger, teasing out precious personal details to help forge bonds between writers from different generations, continents, and cultures. Last month, I was sent multiple memes to answer. Many of them started with the same query.

“What were you doing a year ago?”

The question is simple. Answering has been difficult.

A year ago today was March 10, 2007. I lived in the same house and had the same friends as I do now. I’d left my demanding lawyer job several years before. After many years of working long hours, I appreciated having time to read, to cook, to go for walks, and to help make a pleasant world for my family. My marriage was strong. Life was good.

A year ago today, I made Pan-Fried Scallops with Celery Root and Bacon for dinner. It was a hit; my calendar gives it multiple stars. I should’ve written down the recipe; I didn’t.

A year ago today, I had a horrible headache.

I’ve had a lifetime of migraines and long ago accepted headaches as an unremarkable fact of life. Modern pharmaceuticals turned my migraines into mere annoyances; pain that could be vanquished with a timely dose of medicine.

A year ago today, I had a headache that wasn’t a migraine. It lasted for days and nothing I did made it go away.

On February 27, I’d been reading when the headache first struck. One second I was laughing at my book; the next it felt as if someone had soundly whacked me in the head with a sledgehammer.

After catching my breath and getting my bearings, I stumbled to the kitchen and took my migraine medicine. When the first dose didn’t work, I took some more. That didn’t work either. I made dinner through a haze of pain.

That night I medicated myself to sleep, and woke up with a headache the next morning. For the next couple weeks, my daily calendar carefully notes the headache, the combination of medications I took to combat it, the headache’s persistence despite everything, and what I made for dinner.

The calendar entries are weirdly incongruous, e.g. “headache intolerable, bad vertigo, imitrex useless, vicodin no impact, Sweet Potato Gnocchi with Swiss Chard and Duck Sauce.” Another day: “woke with headache, progressively worse, spent day in dark room, Squid in Tomato Sauce with Stir-Fried Chinese Broccoli.”

A year ago today, the headache had been going strong for 11 days and my husband went from suggesting I see a doctor, to insisting I do so as soon as possible. My head hurt too much to argue.

The next week was a flurry of medical appointments and tests. By March 21, I was on an operating table in Seattle having my skull sawed open.

A year ago today, I’d been living with a ruptured brain aneurysm.

I’m extraordinarily lucky. I survived the original rupture, an event which has a 50% fatality rate. My surgeon successfully clipped the aneurysm, and screwed and stitched my head back together. I emerged from the surgery mentally intact, an outcome far from certain at the outset. Today I'm healthy and enjoying blue skies and sun reflecting off the snow.

Did I mention I was lucky?

Lucky, yes definitely. But I’m not the same person I was before.

A year ago today, I was myself as I used to be: strong, bossy, confident, and capable. I was articulate and well-read, the result of a lifetime of pouring through multiple books a week. I was very happy and very sad, and everywhere in between, but was mostly able to keep my emotions (except for occasional flashes of temper) to myself.

Now. How now? I look the same and sound the same and try my best to act the same. But now, my emotions are right on the surface and I’ve turned into a weeper. I’m more than a little timid, and have a very low frustration point. Conflict is excruciating. I shy away from social interactions, and need to spend a lot of time alone. Noise and hubbub are unbearable.

Intellectually, I understand all my behavioral changes are related to the brain surgery and are common in brain injury sufferers. Emotionally, it feels like I’ve entered the Twilight Zone and some other, paler and wimpier, version of me is occupying my body. So I wait and hope the behavioral changes will resolve over time, as they often do, and I’ll regain more of my old self.

I can no longer read books. I permanently lost most of the vision in my left eye within hours of the surgery. The vision damage interferes with my ability to focus on a printed page. For a lifetime bookaholic, this has been the most dramatic life changing event of all. I haven’t yet accepted the

Even with this most difficult of challenges, I’m lucky. Although books are beyond me for now, I can easily read a computer screen.

On the computer, I discovered, explored, investigated, and entered the world of food blogging, all of which has greatly enriched my life. I enjoy the regular glimpses into lives of fellow bloggers, many of whose warmth and kindness have unknowingly helped me navigate the challenges of my new life.

Without books to read, I have time to focus on writing, something I’ve long wanted to do. It's the second best thing to have come out of my experiences during the last year.

The best thing? The best thing is the love and support I’ve received from my husband, sister and brother-in-law, parents, brother and sister-in-law, far-away sister, in-laws in this country and Greece, and friends. Without all of them, I couldn’t have managed and doubt I would've survived. I’m forever grateful to a degree that is impossible to express in writing.

A year ago today, I took my happy life for granted. Today, I remember that everything can change in a minute.

So for
Susan, Gretchen, Núria, Shayne, and Ivy, all of whom sent me memes, thank you for thinking of me. I hope you’ll agree that answering the meme’s first question was fully enough.

Readers don’t worry. For my next post, I’ll be back to writing about food.


Anonymous said...

Laurie...welcome back! Can I just say I admire your courage for sharing this very personal piece of yourself in the blogging community. It's interesting how certain things occur in life that lead to the discovery of other things. A truly inspiring post and gain thanks for sharing.

Kalyn Denny said...

You have written so beautifully about what must have been (and still is) a very difficult time in your life. I really admire your openness. I had a friend once who had a serious brain injury and saw her go through it, although as you said, she did recover nearly completely with time. I hope you will regain some of the things you miss and keep the new insights you've discovered.

Maria Verivaki said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam Sotiropoulos said...

Wow... a powerfully candid outpouring. I am glad you are still around to tell us about your experience and to remind us just how precious and fleeting life really is...

Be Well,

Sam Sotiropoulos

Ivy said...

Laurie, we are all so glad to have you back. I have been coming back and forth from your blog for days now hoping to read your so interesting posts but at the beginning I was reluctant to e-mail you and see what was happening.
I am sorry if with the memes we brought back all those horrible memories of what you went through last year. Please know that we are all here for you with out love and support.

Laurie Constantino said...

Thanks Peter G. I spent many years actively working to keep personal information about myself off the web. Now I no longer care, so courage doesn't really enter into it. Glad you liked it.

Kalyn, thanks for the kind thoughts. It's been a challenging year, but relatively minor compared to what others have gone through in this troubled world of ours.

Yes, Maria, you are so right.

Sam, I'm also glad to still be around!

Ivy, it wasn't the memes that brought it all up, it's the anniversary. Thank you so much for your support; I appreciate it.

Mike of Mike's Table said...

Welcome back!

I never knew and it definitely sounds traumatic and life changing. Glad to still have you with us!

Gretchen Noelle said...

Laurie, I had been wondering why I hadn't seen many posts from you and you come back with this...what a heart wrenching post! Thank you for being so real. I have struggled with migraines for about 10 years but have never had to face what you have when things got more serious. I am sorry for your losses and for the new challenges you face daily. Although you may not feel like the same person in so many ways, you are becoming. I am thankful to have found your blog and always look forward to your posts.

Cheryl said...

I'm so glad that you're back, Laurie! Thank you for taking the time to share something so personal. This was so beautifully written and I'm sure that it wasn't easy. I just want you to know that you've always inspired me and you do even moreso now. We're all very lucky to have you!

Susan said...

I'm flabbergasted. The things we just don't know about other people's lives. Laurie, I never would have guessed that you suffered such trauma. Your writing is among the best out there, and your posting frequency is amazing. Thanks for sharing a very deeply personal part of your life.

Anonymous said...

I knew you were a very special person!
Lucky? Yes. Blessed? Definitely :)

Lisa Turner said...


Thank you very much for taking the time to share such personal details with your readers. I enjoy your writing and culinary creations very much and appreciate your efforts. All the best to you in the future.

Suzana said...

Laurie, that was both a strong and moving testimony. Thank you for sharing such a difficult time of your life. Best wishes in the future - I'm sure you'll move all the barriers that still stand. :)

Laurie Constantino said...

Thanks Mike!

Gretchen, sorry to hear about your migraines! The truth is, we all struggle every day and that is what helps us grow and develop our humanity. Even though I miss my old self, I know there's no looking back so mostly try to stay positive. Thanks for the positive comments about my blog, which I very much enjoy writing.

Cheryl, it's funny you say that because I find what you are doing to be inspiring. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to change cultures, and I love that you are doing it with such good humor.

Susan, what you say is so true - there are blogs (like yours) that I consistently read and I find myself making up life stories for the authors to try and fill in the blanks. It's hard to find the correct balance between too personal and too reserved (although I may have veered into the too personal category with this one!). Thank you for the kind words.

DEFINITELY blessed, Maryann.

Lisa, you are most welcome. I'm happy to hear you liked it!

Suzana, thank you for the good wishes and for your confidence that I'll knock down all barriers!

Suganya said...

Laurie, You were, are, and will be, strong. Keep fighting. This life is worth living. Welcome back :)

Thistlemoon said...

Wow Laurie, I am shcoked to read this - I can't believe I missed it when you posted it. Thank you for sharing such a painful period in your life. So glad you are part of the blogging community - your posts and recipes are inspired! You will get back to yourself.

Cakelaw said...

Laurie, congratulations for coming through such a traumatic episode in your life with flying colours. You are inspirational.

desie said...

thanks for sharing the gift of your experience and insight. what you've gone thru could not have been easy for anyone but you should be proud of how strongly you've come out of it. your story is inspiring, your blog is inspiring....

the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

Thanks for this, and thank heavens for your recovery!

Laurie Constantino said...

Thank you Suganya; it feels good to be writing again.

Jenn, I so hope you're right!

Gaye, thank you for your generosity of spirit.

Maybahay, what I like best about food bloggers is that I find so many to be inspirational. I'm glad I got on the bandwagon.

Thanks, Chocolate Lady!

pam said...

Wow! What an amazing story. I am so touched by it. Your story is so inspiring and full of strength.

Anonymous said...

Siderenia - a traditional Greek wish for health of steel usually for those who are recovering from illnesses that have hospitalised them.

Thanks, Laurie, for a very moving and personal description of what you went through. Thanks for sharing it with us and thank God you listened to your husband and went to the doctor!


Laurie Constantino said...

Pam, I'm so glad you liked it.

Sophia, well, it did take him a while to convince me to go, but I'm sure glad he did. Thanks for the siderenia (and for stopping by my blog).

Núria said...

A BIG HUGE HUG FOR YOU!!!!!! That is something you never think of unless one day you face it... All my support is flying over to Alaska to youuuuuuu, Laurie.
You are a fighter and that is always a big help. Keep it up, darling♥
Much love and good energy from Spain.

Katie Zeller said...

Wow! So much to overcome... and so wonderful top have the chance to do it!
I'd be hearbroken without the books - but I can see the chance fo writing as a new direction that can be very fulfilling.
We just never know what life is going to throw at us, do we?
Hugs and good wishes for continued healing!

Laurie Constantino said...

Thanks Nuria!! You are so sweet!!

Katie, the book thing is really hard - I mostly try not to think about it. But we all have challenges to face, and you are right, I'm glad to have the opportunity to face them.

Anonymous said...

What a poignant story, with its own 'happy' if unexpected ending.

Anna (Morsels and Musings) said...

wow. i am really stunned.
i can't imagine what you went through.
my mother had a brain tumour which caused an aneurysm and then had brain surgery which produced a slightly changed person.
your own story helped me put my mother's sudden emotional torrents into more context.
your story also highlights the importance of seeking medical advice, something i never, ever do.
thank you for sharing. it's helped me understand in more ways than you know.