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I was 28 when I lost my mind. Four years ago, somewhere in between sleep and awake, my left-brain, which houses the language center, wilted entirely. In less than eight hours I had lost my ability to speak, write and read. I had suffered a massive stroke, rendering me useless -- or so I thought.
The night before my stroke, my friends and I had ventured out of the city and arrived in a small town tucked away in Vermont. It was the dawn of spring and we were there to celebrate my good friend’s bachelorette party, and in typical celebratory fashion (for us) we drank some and did some drugs. While my friends were climbing into the hot tub out back, I lumbered up the stairs and went to sleep; the warm sound of their laughter breezed through my open window.
I woke up to the smell of brewed coffee, and picked myself up from the deflated air mattress I’d slept on. In the bathroom, I loaded my toothbrush with paste, leaned over the sink, and it was then that I realized the right side of my face couldn’t move. It was frozen. With a mouth full of foaming toothpaste I called to my girlfriend, but nothing came out. I could think, but I couldn’t speak.
I hurried to the master bedroom and grabbed my friend and motioned that I couldn’t talk. We quickly decided that I was suffering from some allergy, and piled into the car, bound for the hospital. I never cried. I never panicked.
Six hours later I woke up in a hospital room where my parents were watching over me. I felt a hint of sadness when my dad asked me to write him a note about what happened and I realized I couldn’t write, and I didn't want him to think I was dumb. Then we got the news: I might never speak again -- and reading and writing? There was no telling if those skills would ever return.
At the time, I was employed as a writer and in the middle of a deadline, due the following Monday. I had clothes at the cleaners, and was in a fight with my best friend, who happened to be my roommate. My last words to him had been, “MAYBE YOU SHOULD MOVE OUT, THEN!” -- with him slamming our front door in response. We were raging over something trivial, maybe dishes or something, and now an apology seemed impossible.
But to be honest, it's no wonder my body gave up. I was tired. I had suffered from a stinging depression for years, which I had tried escaping through an occasional cocaine habit, weed to wake up and go to sleep, and an over-paid and ineffective therapist. In many ways, I wanted to leave that life behind, but had no idea how to abandon the mess I had spent so long curating.
I was attached to a heart monitor that was stuck to my chest, and a Coumadin drip dug deep into my veins in order to thin my blood, making even a visit to the bathroom an embarrassing group activity. My caretaker would dislodge me from the machines, grab my hand and together we would slowly make it to the bathroom, where she would join me.
It took only a few days to crave words again –- to be able to set boundaries for my new handlers, to ask to go outside and sit in the sun. At that point language became a necessity and the long road ahead began to give me anxiety. I needed a break from me and my mind, the strangers caring for me and even my loving family, who took turns sitting with me. Privacy wasn’t an option at all. Left with little options, I began to meditate as a way of escape.
Armed with little knowledge of how to actually sustain a quiet mind, I would close my eyes when I first woke up and try to settle myself into that slight margin of active awareness but total rest. It took about a week to catch on, but once it did, I was more able to participate in my own thought process, to catch a painful memory before it terrorized me, and let it wander by gently, as a way of calm exploration.
I was a rebellious terror for many years of my life. Perhaps it was symptomatic of my depression, but I was callous just the same. I used to wake up sad, wishing for the night -– but now, oddly enough, after just a few weeks of meditation, I found myself more able to face the day, despite the fact that my morning pee was attended by an audience of one rambling nurse.
After I was discharged from the hospital, I could say three words. I left the hospital with the heart monitor still plastered to my chest, a supply of Lovenox shots to thin my blood (which my mom administered), and a bottle of Coumadin pills. At times, my blood became so thin I couldn’t even lift my head from a pillow. I decided to look for another way to further heal myself naturally: food.
My plan was to un-poison myself from years of tawdry behavior and ingesting the following three food groups: caffeine, alcohol and menthol. I started with an obvious trend -- juicing. I had read about two centenarians, who claimed to sustain their health through whole foods, so, hey -- why shouldn’t I give that a go?
I thought about what foods could strengthen my blood and stimulate my circulation: beets (filled with iron, which would strengthen my blood) and some ginger (great for blood circulation). I added an apple for taste (which is rich with quercetin, an anti-inflammatory), and drank this tincture every morning, eating a high-fat diet the rest of the day to help insulate the myelin sheath encasing the brain, which is 70 percent fat. By my first trip back to my neurologist I could say a handful of words.
“HELLO, ELIZABETH,” my neurologist said slowly, allowing his mouth to round around his teeth so I could follow his words. “Hi... How... are... you?” I said, as the words broke mechanically from my mouth. He seemed awestruck at my ability to speak, but had one puzzling concern: my blood levels were off.
My blood was thicker than it should be since I was dousing my blood in thinners. It was the beet juice that was getting in the way. Oddly, it was gifting me language, but I was told to stop juicing immediately.
The doctors then gave me a diet of white starches, devoid of anything green (many vegetables are coagulants, which means they thicken the blood), but my speech pattern slowed, and I began to stutter. My blood became so thin I was rushed to the emergency room several times. So, I went back to my morning juice. The beet juice was having such an impact on the weight of my blood, my brain’s ability to think and speak and my energy level -- and I realized at once the healing power of unassuming foods.
I went on to heal my body with the aid of food, and as my voice (and its fluidity) came back, I started to rehabilitate my capacity to write and read. Within a year, I was accepted to graduate school (I dictated most of the application to my mother, who typed it out), and awarded a partial scholarship. I learned more about the science of food as medicine and earned an accompanying certification in nutrition. I was featured on talk shows for the speed of my recovery and am now writing again full-time (which is still an arduous process, but one I love).
I learned several things on this journey, which I still focus on today: You can start to recover at any point in your life. You don’t have to wait for a medical emergency. Change is always possible, and learning to be grateful for the process is what life is about. Don’t suffer waiting on an end goal. Start living and pushing yourself now -- you never really know how long you have in this body.