Ten years ago today, I thought I wouldn’t see another day.
It started with me rushing out to a movie. It ended with me in a hospital, scared and confused. In between, I spent 15 minutes on the floor of a movie theater lobby, with popcorn in my hair, begging a little girl for help and convinced I was dying.
It’s not rare for me to see a movie by myself, but it was the rush that first struck me as awkward that Saturday morning. Usually a fairly early riser, I slept in until 11 a.m. I was groggy and a bit out of it, but chalked it up to sleeping too long.
I’d planned to go see a movie that afternoon, and I knew there was an 11:30 showing I wanted to see. When I woke up late, I questioned whether or not I should go see a later show, but I felt compelled to go see the earlier one. Even though I knew it was probably a stupid decision to rush I headed out –if I had been at home two hours later, I would have been alone when my brain went on the fritz.
I didn’t have time to eat before the movie and I was a bit shaky as I drove out to the theater. I ordered myself a Diet Coke and hoped the caffeine would wake me up. I was a little late but figured I wouldn’t miss much and I headed to my theater.
I remember where I sat (middle of the theater, middle row). I remember there were only about five people in there with me. I vividly remember many moments from the movie–(it was One Hour Photo with Robin Williams). During the movie I felt weak and tired, but chalked it up to not having eaten that day. I made a mental note to grab some Subway after the film and, to tide me over, reached in my pocket to grab a breath strip. That should have been my first red flag, as I had difficulty grabbing the treat.
After the movie (of course I stayed to finish it), I headed out to the lobby and that’ s when I knew something was seriously wrong. The entire left side of my body felt like dead weight to me. I couldn’t lift my arm or move my legs the way they needed to go. When I walked, I staggered into the walls. My head was swimming and my thoughts fuzzy. I could feel people glancing at me, probably thinking it was just another drunk 23-year-old.
I stumbled into the men’s room and splashed cold water on my face and my reflection stopped me cold. Even though I could feel the left side of my face drooping, nothing prepared me for that sight, with a downturned lip and a droopy eyelid. It looked like someone had injected Novocaine into my face. I stumbled out into the lobby and found a bench.
I took my glasses off and sat on the bench for a few moments to gather my thoughts. A preview for an upcoming movie caught my eye–I chuckled at it and then recoiled…my laugh sounded so loud, so bizarre. I went to put my glasses back on my face and found I couldn’t coordinate my left arm. I quickly stood up and rushed to the drinking fountain, hoping some calm water would relax me.
And that’s when I fell down, hard, on the lobby floor.
I don’t know how long I lay there. The lobby had emptied quickly after the movie, and no one saw me fall. After a few seconds, a little girl came walking by. I asked her for an usher, but my voice was slurring badly and I couldn’t think of the right words “Lill gurrhl, could you get an usha?” She ran to get her father.
A crowd quickly gathered around and started asking my my name, if I needed help. I was scared, embarassed and confused and tried to slur out that, if only I could get to my feet, I’d be fine to walk out to my car. Thankfully, they kept me on the ground and brought me some water and popcorn, even though I couldn’t bring it to my lips. They asked who they should call–my parents were out of town, my brother at work. My brain fumbled for an answer, searching for words. “Call Papaw…” was all I said, because I couldn’t find the words to say “call my grandfather.”
Someone called an ambulance, and before I knew it I was surrounded by paramedics, checking my vital signs and sticking an oxygen tube up my nose. I still couldn’t move the left side of my body, but it was the slur in my voice and the toddler-ish searching for words that scared me most. Was I dying? Would I have brain damage? Would I even make it to the hospital?
I was taken to an ambulance and rushed to the nearest hospital–which, thankfully, was only a mile and a half away. I was rolled into emergency, given an aspirin and told to wait for my grandfather. He arrived shortly thereafter and, by that time, things had started to right themselves. I could control my left arm and I could stand. My words were still slurred, but I could think coherently.
Long story short, I was admitted to the hospital. The slurring was gone within two days but I remained in there for a week. I underwent nearly every test imaginable–CT Scan, MRI, spinal tap. They did ultrasounds of my heart and legs, stuck a video camera down my throat and placed me in a dark room and shined strobe lights in my eyes. They settled on two possible diagnoses–either MS or a stroke–and sent me on my way.
I was sent home on a Thursday night after a spinal tap and another round in the MRI. I can still remember what it felt like to be wheeled out into fresh air for the first time that week. When I had been taken in, I’d been afraid I was dying–I had even wondered what those first moments on the other side would feel like. Now, I was heading home. I burst into tears several times on the short drive.
Two weeks later, my doctor confirmed that it had been a small stroke, or what’s known as a TIA. A TIA is a warning stroke–most people who have them have a full-blown stroke within a year.
10 years later, I haven’t had a single recurrence.
Not that it’s been a painless victory. Doctors still don’t know why it happened–my cholesterol and blood pressure are fine and I have no clots. I’ve had several MRIs, but nothing has been conclusive. That fear of not knowing why it happened–and of not having an assurance it wouldn’t happen again–was terrifying. I had panic attacks for years afteward when I’d go to the movies–and, sometimes, still get anxious when in certain situations. I was on anti-anxiety meds for several years–even after the panic attacks subsided, because the meds were so difficult to withdraw from.
But in the ensuing 10 years, God has been faithful and good. Not only has he prevented another stroke, but He’s saw fit to radically change so much of my life. At that time, I was at a job that I hated in a call center. Since then, I’ve been able to work as a writer. I’ve met my wife. We have a son. He’s blessed me with very good things.
And it’s these things I try to remember when anxiety strikes. This year, I’ve had different health worries and anxious times. And I can’t say that I always handle them peacefully or run to God as my first (or second, or third) hope and point of refuge. I fight for control, I plead for certainty, I over-analyze everything.
Which is why I’m writing this post–even though I’m sure its length has driven most of you off by now. I write it for me, because I need to remember August 31. I need to remember that God didn’t lead me away from suffering, but through it and has used that greatly in my life. I think about that day every single day, and so much of who I am today is because of the fear instilled in me and the preciousness of life I learned about that day.
But God has also redeemed August 31 for me. Not only am I still here and still (mostly) healthy 10 years on, but he’s given me a wife who I love and who encourages me to be even healthier—and guess what her birthday is.