Helping Others Through Helping Myself

I think I have been a helper most, if not all, of my life.  That seems like it would be a good thing, but it hasn’t alway been.  I would say that pre-stroke, the way I helped others was more for myself than for them.  I was miserable. I felt hopeless and lost. I didn’t know how to live. I didn’t know how to be happy.  I felt joy through others’ joy, not my own. That was a problem. I had no guidance and didn’t know how to ask for help.  The depression that came along with being that way was crippling. I didn’t know how to fix myself so I tried to fix others - friends mostly; family was more difficult.  It was easier to listen to a stranger most of the time than to my own flesh and blood. I put myself out there for anyone and everyone, any chance I got. I went out of my way to bring joy to others.  I spread myself thin, but those moments of joy I received from helping someone was priceless. That meant everything to me. It was the only joy I felt so it was what I continued to reach for. This was one of the contributing factors to my stroke - I put a lot of pressure on myself to help others, while I was disregarding my own health and happiness.

 

 Now I lean on others for support like my girlfriend, Felice…

Now I lean on others for support like my girlfriend, Felice…

After my stroke, I started going to therapy.  I gained the tools I needed to function as any “normal” adult would.  I gained skills that I missed out on previously in my life like being able to process situations and feelings more effectively.  I never did that before. I would just shove things down and bury them. Once I learned how to process things out, it was like a light switch was turned on in my head.  I had been living life in the dark. I am able to now see a better way. A healthier way. I see the joy in life now. Not just life, but my life.  I’m happy.  I mean, I still get depressed and anxious often.  I am constantly overwhelmed, but I am here to feel all of these things.  I have been depressed and full of anxiety most of my life. Now, it’s different.  Now, I acknowledge and understand my issues. I don’t shove them deep down inside and try to gain my joy through others.  I talk about what I’m feeling to my therapist, to my girlfriend and most importantly to myself; not like a crazy person, but I check-in with myself to see how I’m feeling.

 

 …and others can lean on me because I am in a better place to help. :)

…and others can lean on me because I am in a better place to help. :)

I am at the most mentally healthy place that I have ever been in my life.  I am now happy and comfortable being that way. I can now really help others.  I have helped others before, but not in a healthy way. Before, I was helping others to help me bridge the gap between myself and happiness.  Now, there is no gap to bridge. I’m just happy and healthy. Now, I can help people while knowing that no matter what I am in a good place. I can help because I want to, not because I need to.  No matter what, I can feel some sort of happiness. It all starts with me. It’s taken me almost dying to realize that. Yes, there are reasons for why we are the way we are, but as adults we have the choice to not just accept that.  We have the choice to change the narrative. Bad things happen, yes, but good things happen too. I choose to focus on the good. I can’t ignore the bad, but I also can’t dwell on it. I acknowledge it and move on. I can sit back and complain about how terrible things are, but that’s boring. That’s not how I’m going to grow as a person.  That’s not how I want to live my life. The glass can appear half empty, but I am going to focus on it being half full. That is growth. Changing the way that I think and choosing to reframe things to focus on the positive has been the most helpful thing I have ever done for myself. Life is beautiful. We all want to help others at some point, but we can’t really help anyone if we can’t help ourselves first.  I can now help people; truly help others because I have been able to help myself. I’m a work in progress like the rest of us, but my progress has been massive. I look forward to continuing my journey for myself, as well as with many others, on my way to recovery.

My 2-Year Stroke-iversary Month

 In August 2016 still in the ICU just days after suffering my hemorrhagic stroke.  I don't remember any of this, but the photos remind me that I never want to go back.

In August 2016 still in the ICU just days after suffering my hemorrhagic stroke.  I don't remember any of this, but the photos remind me that I never want to go back.

It’s been two years since my stroke - since I was given a second chance at life.  There really isn’t anything more impactful than almost dying to get you to take a step back and re-evaluate your life.  Two years of re-shaping who I am as a person; re-working the way that I think; the way that I function. After two of the most important years of my life, I feel like I have been re-born.

No longer will I get stuck on things that I have no control over.  Obviously, all of this is so much easier said than done, but I have worked really hard to change.  Not change just for the sake of change, but really change for the sake of living. Who and how I was just wasn’t working. It wasn’t working to the point of a near death experience.  Gone now are the days of me going out of my way and out of my mind to help others who really don’t want my help. I am a helper, a fixer. I have always wanted nothing more than to help people.  No matter what it was, if I could help change things for the better for someone else, I would go out of my way to do so. Therein laid my problem. Not everyone wants to be in a better place. It sounds weird and was such a foreign concept to me, but going to therapy these last few years has helped me understand that some people are just comfortable with chaos.  It is just what they know and no matter how much you want to show them a better way, that’s just not what they want. I have come to the reality that people have to make their own decisions about how they want to live. Whether I agree with them or not, it is their life to live.

 Now I'm living my best life with my trusty service wonder pup, Stella by my side.

Now I'm living my best life with my trusty service wonder pup, Stella by my side.

I hate to see people suffer and just be stuck in their misery.  I wanted to be like a superhero and pull them out of it to show them that there is an amazing beautiful world out there.  That’s what I always wanted, but that was just my own desire. What I have learned, post-stroke, is that it doesn’t matter what I want for others.  It has to come from them. I was constantly fighting an uphill battle that just wasn’t helping anyone, especially me. What came with that was stress and resentment.  Always thinking, why can’t they just see how great things can be? They can’t see that because they either just can’t, don’t want to or even just don’t know how to. I would fight and fight to help people, but I was harming myself to help them and the worst part of all, was that it was usually for not.   No matter how hard you try, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. As difficult as it is to see someone drowning, you can’t get dragged down with them. Offer help and if they don’t take it, then move forward with your own life. I have finally been able to do that with mine.

I used to live vicariously through others.  I would be happy and fulfilled if my people were happy and succeeding.  I never focused on my own happiness. I’m not sure why, I just never did.  I now go to therapy weekly to try and figure that shit out. Like everyone else, I am a work in progress.  

Post-stroke, I have learned to take care of me first.  You have to love and take care of yourself before you can do that for others.  The biggest change for me post-stroke, is that now I love and care about myself more than I ever have.  I felt selfish in the beginning, but now I realize that it isn’t selfish to take care of yourself. It is essential.  Maybe it was my Catholic guilt or just how I am wired from my upbringing, but taking care of myself hasn’t come easy. I work very hard to be a better person. For myself yes, but also for others.  That is how I help others now - by helping myself first. Even after being so close to death, I am still a helper. I have realized that I can help so many more people much more effectively if I am the best version of myself. Joe 2.0. no longer harbors anger and stress (well, I try for the most part not to do that).  I lived. I survived. I am here for a reason. I don’t know what that is exactly, but I am certain that it isn’t to be upset and angry all the time or to be stuck. I feel that I am here to grow and learn every day; to surround myself with likeminded people; to create; to love; and most importantly, to live.  

This is my two-year Stroke-iversary. I have grown more in the last two years than I have in the past two decades.  I love to help people and that will never change. What has changed is that I love to help me just as much. Just like Luke Cage, I move forward, always forward.  Not to say that there won’t be hiccups along the way. I am sure there will be. The difference with those hiccups now is that I won’t let them slow down my progress.  I will take them for what they are. Small inconveniences. The Universe doesn’t have it out for me. I’m not cursed. There is no world wide conspiracy trying on to keep me down.  It’s just life. I choose to embrace it, enjoy it, and love it. The positive outweighs the negative every time - it’s not even close. Life is beautiful. I love ‘love’ and I love life.  I am so thankful to be here to live it and to thrive at it. I can’t wait for my next Stroke-iversary so I can reflect on this next year in my new life.

Reflections On Stroke Awareness Month

I was going to release this blog on June 1st, but when I took a look at the photos of myself in the hospital for the first time ever, it was more overwhelming than I expected so I had a to take a few days to reflect on how I felt about not remembering that time in the hospital, how much worse I looked than I thought and how far I've come.  I'm so thankful to be where I am in my stroke recovery.
AF6D3317-FEF9-4596-900A-F9D578769C11.JPG

June 01, 2018

As Stroke Awareness Month comes to an end, I have had time to process and reflect what that means to me.  Being a relatively young and new stroke survivor, this experience is all new to me. To be honest, I didn’t know about Stroke Awareness Month until this year even though I had my stroke almost two years ago.  I wasn’t very coherent for the first year out of the hospital due to the memory loss I suffered from the stroke. I feel better and closer to being myself more than ever since my stroke, which has not only made it easier to help myself through recovery, but to also help others along their recovery.

I have found that recovery has been one of, if not the most, difficult things I have ever had to do in my life.  The most difficult thing has been how lonely it feels. However, I do have a pretty good support system in place.  My girlfriend has been amazing through this process and I know that I would be lost without her. My friends are supportive and my family has done the best that they are capable of.  The loneliness I feel comes from not having anyone who can relate with what I have gone through. Everyone tries, but nobody can really understand unless they have gone through something similar.  

Things started to turn around when I started my podcast, The NeuroNerds, with my co-host, Lauren Manzano.  She suffered a concussion and could really understand the things I was going through.  I don’t know where I would be now if not for The NeuroNerds.  It has helped me in so many ways during my recovery.  I have a co-host the understands so much of what I have been going through and it has given me the opportunity to meet so many other survivors.  Hearing all of their stories has given me a new perspective of my place in the stroke survivors community.

I have been so overwhelmed since my stroke and some days just make me want to give up, but in speaking with other survivors, I know that I am not alone and that I am blessed to have recovered as well as I have so far.  So many others have been dealt such a bad hand in their recovery. I have memory issues and I still have tremors in my right hand, but what am I complaining about? I’ve seen survivors deal with issues like no feeling on their right side and still walk a marathon, paint, create and inspire.  I say inspire because that’s what they have done - inspire me. I have deficits, but there are others who have it much worse and are thriving. I see them and want nothing more than to match their energy and drive to recover. I want to continue moving forward in my recovery, not just for me, but for the other survivors who haven’t had the support that I have.  I want to help anyone I can because I know what it feels like to feel alone and hopeless. I never want anyone to feel that way.

I have had a few survivors and caregivers reach out to me to thank me for inspiring them. That is mind-blowing to me.  I inspire people. I had been lost for years before my stroke and now here I am helping others find the strength to move in the right direction.  There was a survivor who reached out to me to say that watching my journey has given them hope. As I type that, it brings tears to my eyes. In that moment, I felt a responsibility to help others on a similar journey.  I fight for my life and recovery, but I also fight for my fellow my survivors. We are survivors and we are bonded by that. I won’t give up and I will continue to fight not just for me, but for all of my fellow survivors.  We can do this. We survived. It’s about damn time that we start to live!

The Boy Who Lived and His Dog

IMG_6561.JPG

So I’m going to be sharing the story about my beautiful service dog, Stella.  After my stroke and an incident at the hospital, I began to suffer from PTSD and one of the side effects I started experiencing was night terrors.  I have had nightmares before, but night terrors are a different beast. Think of it as a real life horror movie. Intense. Having a night terror is bad enough, but I was having them 5-6 nights a week.  Like clockwork, at 3 AM, I would wake up in a panic and my girlfriend, Felice would have to help wake me up and comfort me. It became a big problem so after dealing with this for some time, we looked into getting a service animal for me.  Felice has a friend that volunteered often at a shelter in Los Angeles called Karma Rescue that has a program called Paws For Life. What they do is place rescue dogs with inmates in Lancaster prison and have a trainer come teach the inmates to train the dogs as psychiatric service dogs.  It’s a beautiful program for everyone involved. PTSD sufferers like me get a trained service dog, the prisoners find purpose and a way to give back to society and it gives the rescue dogs a forever home.

So before I get into how I got my beautiful pup, I’ll start with my background with dogs.  When I was a kid living in New York I had a few dogs. The family dog was Mindy. She was a Wire Hair Fox Terrier.  Mindy was such a sweet dog. Loving and smart. She was the family dog, yes, but mostly my mother’s dog. When my mother decided to leave my sperm-donor, we weren’t able to take her with us to California.  Sadly a few months after we left, she passed away. I believe she died of a broken heart. We had other dogs before and during our time with Mindy, but they all paled in comparison to her. There was our German Shepherd named Scooby, but unfortunately, my sperm-donor was abusive and would beat him so eventually Scooby hopped the fence and ran away.  My mother spotted him not long after at a gas station a few miles away. He looked happy and loved so she left him there to live his new life. We had a Chihuahua named Mork who was a little shit that bit me so my mom gave him to my aunt. After that, we had a puffball named Lady. She didn’t last long because my sperm donor accidentally backed over her in the driveway.  That was it for me and dogs for decades.

save-new.JPG

Fast forward to now, Felice’s friend who volunteered with Karma Rescue gave us a heads up that a close to pure breed Golden Retriever named Stella had just come in. We were lucky enough to get the heads up about her availability before the general public.  Felice told me she was a large Golden Retriever. I always wanted a medium smooth haired dog, not a large hairy dog so I was less than thrilled, but she asked me to just go see her anyway. I reluctantly agreed. The entire ride to see her I was saying in my head, “Forget this dog.  I’m just humoring Felice. This is a waste of time. I don’t care how cute she is or how good she’ll be for me. I want a small smooth haired dog. Screw this dog.” That was my mindset at least until I got there and saw her. As soon as they brought her out my eyes teared up and I cried like a little kid.  She was so beautiful and loving. She was majestic and sweet. She was perfect. I said yes, she’s the one. After that, she was sent to Lancaster prison to train in the Paws For Life program. A few months later I was able to bring my pup home.

IMG_7830.JPEG

Stella didn’t go through the year long Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD) training through Paws For Life.  Instead, she went through 3 months of training with them and it was up to me and Felice to continue her service dog training when we brought her home which we did and continue to do so.  When she came home, initially, she was mainly trained to alert me if I was feeling down or crying by jumping up on me to nudge me and snap me out of it. What was amazing is that with a few little adjustments, she fell right into her “work” of alerting and calming me down during night terrors.  When I would have a night terror episode, she would come jump up and hit me in the face with her giant paw and nudge me with her nose until I calmed down. About a month after bringing her home, I was no longer waking Felice up in the middle of the night with my night terrors because Stella would catch them early on.  After a couple of months, my night terrors went down from 5-6 times a week to 2-3 times a week. That was amazing enough, but after the first month or so she did something even more incredible. She started catching my night terrors before they happened. She would wake me up with a paw to the face or a nudge with her nose followed by forcing me to pet her until I calmed down.  At first it was strange waking up to your dog breathing hot breathe in your face at 3 in the morning, but once I realized how amped up I was when she would wake me, I realized that she had stopped my night terror before it really started to happen. I’m happy to say that I’m going on over 8 months of no major night terrors thanks to my super hero pup. And we are continuing to train her on new tasks and work that helps me with some other effects of my PTSD.

IMG_5724.jpeg

Stella has meant so much to me. She has given me an important part of my life back.  I no longer fear sleep. She’s with me 90% of my day. Her bed is right next to me and she is always a few feet away during my waking hours.  Our daily walks give me the routine I need post stroke and her loving comfort means the world to me. She’s really so sweet and calm (unless you’re a squirrel).  I am now a Golden Retriever guy. I love my dog so very much. She has been an amazing teammate through this difficult journey to recovery. My girlfriend, my occupational therapist, and my dog are a dream team for me.  Recovery has been the most difficult thing I have had to go through. I can’t put into words how frustrating and lonely recovery can be. My girlfriend has been the most important figure in my recovery. She is here with me day in and day out fighting for me.  My occupational therapist goes above and beyond for me and now my dog has filled the gaps in for my day to days. My pup loves me unconditionally and I love her right back. I will always be in her debt for what she has done for me and brought to my life. This is the story of the boy who lived and his dog!

IMG_7701.JPG

My Doctor Strange Moment & The Occupational Therapist Who Helped Fix Me

IMG_3944.jpg

If anyone knows me, they know that I am a huge nerd.  Not like a nerd nerd, but a super cool awesome nerd. I’m a Star Wars junkie and a big superhero guy.  Comic book movies don’t normally make you think emotional movie that will bring tears to your eyes, but I was overcome with emotion when I watched Marvel’s Doctor Strange.  Not because the movie was sad or overly touching, but because one scene in the movie was so uncomfortably relatable to me that it brought me to tears.  

The scene I’m referring to was when Dr. Strange was trying to write his name after the car accident that ruined his hands.  He wrote it again and again and it was worse each time. He was frustrated and angry. I felt that scene more than any scene in any movie I have ever watched.  Along with the memory issues I have been suffering post-stroke, I also suffer tremors in my right hand. I was never a neat writer by any means, but the simple task of signing my name was just chaos after my stroke.  Not sloppy, but pure chaos. I have papers full, top to bottom with my signature just like that scene in Doctor Strange.  That was real life for me.

I was never a big writer, but post-stroke it became a large part of my recovery.  As I began to enjoy writing, I found that I was unable to write longer than a few words before my hand cramped, locked up and would just get exhausted.  That’s when I turned to my computer. Just hitting buttons should have been easier, you would think. Same issue. After a few, very short minutes, my hand would lock, cramp and fatigue.  I was at a loss. I had in-home occupational therapy, post hospitalization, to help with my memory and my tremors. A few months in, I had improved some, but once I graduated to outpatient therapy, things really kicked into high gear. Not that my original in-home therapist wasn’t good. She was.  I was just ready for the next step in my recovery.

Around a year ago, I started outpatient occupational therapy and met my current therapist, Kaley Meister.  She was sweet, kind and caring and didn’t flinch when my idiot sense of humor kicked in. She even laughed at the hashtag I used for her after some of my sessions - #kaleyhaschippednails.  She’s super particular about her nails so obviously I had to joke about it.

Before I get into what she did for my hand, I’ll start with the memory.  Pre-stroke, I could listen to a song once and memorize every note, lyric and ad-lib.  Post-stroke, I could barely remember to take my meds. When I started therapy with Kaley, she had me attempt to memorize a song a week.  We would listen to it piece by piece during our session while I wrote down the words and then the next time we met I would try to write down the lyrics by memory.  It was so strange to me because it always came so natural for me learn songs fast. It was almost embarrassing. I felt like I was broken. I trusted her and listened to what she said and worked on a different song each week from Glass Animals to Alt-J.  I listened and focused hard. Some weeks were good and some not so good, but throughout the process, Kaley was always understanding and there for me without judgment.

On top of all of the memory stuff, she was also helping me with my right hand tremors.  She helped me strengthen the little muscles in my hand by having me do several different exercises and games like pinching dense putty, resistance finger stretching exercises with special rubber bands, braiding strings and more.  She thought it would benefit me to get a wrist guard to sleep with to protect it from being put in strange positions. And she was right as she usually is.

I’m happy to say that my memory is significantly better now. It’s the closest to normal that I have felt since my stroke.  My hand has improved drastically as well. I can now type most of the day as long as I have the will to keep going. And I now sign my name more confidently.  My signature is sloppy, but that’s mostly because of me and not the tremors. Kaley has been so important to my recovery. The best thing about her is that she keeps on going.  She helped me with my memory and tremors over the past year and now like the true rockstar that she is, she’s going above and beyond in working with me to combat my overstimulation/hypersensitivity issues which are a result of my PTSD.  She could have just phoned it in from the very beginning or she could’ve just been satisfied with the progress I’ve made so far and stop there, but she chose to make sure and research any and everything possible to help me towards my goal of fully recovering.  She started to refer me to a few resources that could help with my constant dissociative episodes and continues to find new tools for me to use.  She even recruited a couple of colleagues to help me on my road to recovery. Sim and Sofia have been just as caring and awesome as Kaley. They all work so well together and have contributed mightily to my recovery.  They could have just gone about their business and let Kaley continue her course of treatment for me, but they saw an opportunity to help enhance my recovery and I have benefited greatly from their combined knowledge and support.  Plus, most importantly, they are also able to tolerate my idiocy.

The PTSD I suffer from is severe and debilitating.  It’s difficult to get through my days, but I push through.  I have to. I didn’t survive to just give up. I survived to be the best version of myself and I won’t stop moving forward.  I am so happy that I have someone like Kaley fighting for me. I can’t put into words what she has given back to me. With my hand and memory, Kaley has helped me regain the most important thing to me - hope.  Hope that I will get past this. Hope that I can get through a day without freaking out because of a door slamming or a car horn. Hope that I can live a comfortable safe life. Hope that my new normal will just feel normal. I owe Kaley so much and I don’t have the words to show how much she has meant to me in my journey.  I am so grateful to Kaley for caring so much and being the best occupational therapist anyone could have. I struggle at times with the kindness of others. Maybe it’s the recovering Catholic in me or the survivors guilt. With Kaley, it is different because to me, she is much more then just my occupational therapist. She’s my occupational hero and more importantly, my friend.

What I Gained from Loss

 Killin it with the J.J. Abrams lens flare in Pattaya, Thailand.

Killin it with the J.J. Abrams lens flare in Pattaya, Thailand.

I’m going to take some time to talk about loss.  Loss means so many different things to so many different people.  Someone can lose a cellphone and it may be the end of the world to them while someone else can lose a loved one and move on as if not much has changed.  For me, loss has just been part of life. I don’t really have a very large family so I haven’t had to deal with that type of loss, thank goodness, but many things have been lost in my life.  Losing the house I grew up in was a lot for me as a child.  We didn’t lose it so much as we left it, but really there was no choice.  After all of the moving and surviving being my soul focus, I lost almost all of my childhood.  Don’t get me wrong, my mother did her very best to keep things as normal as she could, and damn if she didn’t do a great job, but some things just can’t be replaced. Losing my possessions was very hard to handle, but for me, the most difficult thing to lose was time.  Moving to a new place and changing schools was very difficult.  Adjusting to a new settings, a new place to stay, new teachers, a new routine and new kids was always so hard and I just couldn’t do it well.  I did my best, but never felt comfortable.  Meeting new kids and making friends was the most difficult thing for me because these kids grew up together and I just showed up.  Then, just when I would make some traction and start building some friendships, we would move. I think it stunted me socially.  I just didn’t know how to get to know people because after awhile I would just stop trying.  I would just get through the day. Junior high was much of the same. Kids spent years getting to know one another and here I came strolling in, awkward and goofy - two traits that didn’t help me much.  Everyone had what I didn’t have, but wanted which was a sense of belonging.  I could never crack that wall because I never had enough time. Always just a little late to the party.  I say all of this so it is understood that I have lived with a certain amount of loss throughout my childhood which spilled over into adulthood.

With my stroke came more loss. Loss of memory, loss of full function in my right hand for over a year, loss of normal sleep, loss of peace of mind due to PTSD and most impactful was the loss of pre-stroke Joe.  So post-stroke, I needed to change everything.  Shift my life from where it was to where I want it to be, not where I think it has to be. Mentally, I have always been a bit of a basket case, so I started seeing a therapist. It was really strange and difficult because I was still super strokey when I started therapy.  My brain was still healing and my memory was terrible.  It was so bad that Felice had to be with me during my first few sessions.  Once I improved some and started doing my sessions alone, I hated it.  I didn’t like my therapist and dreaded my appointment days.  I wasn’t really getting anything out of my sessions so it was time to move on.  Felice did her research and found me another therapist.  I could not be more thankful.  Now came the difficult part for me.  I had to break up with my first therapist.  Now, I’m not the biggest fan of confrontation, especially post-stroke. It gives me a tremendous amount of anxiety and stresses me the fuck out.  I just wanted to move on and not say anything, but I put together my exit email.  We were not close so an email was appropriate. It really felt like a breakup. I was all, “it’s not you, it’s me” and “you deserve a client that will give you what you need”.  I am of course joking for the most part, but it was uncomfortable.  She responded back with disappointment and well wishes so that was nice.  I started up with my new therapist the next week and after meeting her and speaking for just a few short minutes, I knew I found the right therapist for me. She had such a soft scratchy comforting tone to her voice and her eye contact was one of concern and caring.  I was immediately comfortable and opened up like I was not able to with my previous therapist. I looked forward to my session days instead of dreading them. She helped me process through so many issues that I have left unchecked over the years. She helped me with so many things.  She helped me understand the things I was experiencing and why they were happening.  She gave me the tools I needed to improve my mental health.  She helped me with boundaries and most importantly helped me process things.  You know, if I had these tools earlier in life, I’m pretty sure I could have avoided my stroke.  I can’t do anything about that now, but there is no time like the present to make a change. Over a few months, I built a tremendous amount of trust with my therapist. I mean, if she asked me to run into a brick wall I would have because she had taken such good care of my mental health.  Things were really good and coming together and then the bottom dropped out.

I got a voicemail from the doctor who runs the mental health practice I go to, asking me to give her a call.  After about 10 minutes of trying to figure out what it could pertain to, I nervously returned her call.  She greeted me and informed me that my session was cancelled because my therapist was no longer with them.  She explained, without going into detail, why she left and that this was not a normal circumstance. There usually is a protocol in place for clients when a therapist leaves. She apologized profusely and offered several options for moving forward.  She even offered to take me on as her client if I liked.  I was shell shocked.  Completely devastated.  I sat down and meditated and did my best to process what had just happened.  I shared what happened with Felice and did what most people would do - cried a lot. I took a day or so to let them know what my plan was.  I thought long and hard because I really didn’t know what to do.  I spoke with Felice about it.  I got the male perspective from my friend, Sleep, and my fellow NeuroNerd, Lauren, but still didn’t really know what to do. The problem was that I had come too far to quit, but too far to start over.  I was at a crossroads. After processing everything to the best of my ability, I decided to move forward with the new therapist that had been put in place for me.

So here I was, starting over.  It was not like starting for the first time because I had already grown so much, but it was still awkward and weird.  Same office.  Same couch.  Same window, but different therapist.  I decided to be brutally honest.  I immediately told her that I didn’t want to be there and that she seemed nice, but that she was not my “real” therapist. I sat through the session almost in spite. I just wanted to get through it.  When it was over, it went over well enough that I agreed to see her again.  Therapy is so much like dating, it’s crazy.  I saw her a few more times and thought she was great, but she still wasn’t my therapist yet.  I missed the bond I had forged with my previous (second) therapist and the comfort we had built. I told my new (third) therapist that I felt that way during each of our initial sessions.  I kinda felt bad. It must have sounded like “you’re good, but my ex was so much better.”  The more time I spent with my new therapist, the more I realized that she wasn’t just a stand-in for my old therapist.  She had become my “real” therapist.  When I struggled early on with the transition, it was made much easier with a conversation I had with my NeuroNerd partner,  Lauren.  She pointed out that just like Luke Skywalker was sad and upset about losing his Jedi master, Obi Wan Kenobi, he needed to lose his first master to gain a new Jedi master in Yoda.  She said that maybe it was time for me to find my Yoda.  Now, I don’t know if my new therapist is my Yoda, but I’m open and ready to find out.

I guess what I have realized about loss, at least for me, is that you can dwell and focus on it, but that is only going to leave you bitter, angry and stuck.  I prefer to do the best I can to learn from loss. Grow from it.  Overcome and become better from it.  I’m moving forward in my life and I choose to focus on the positive. Yes, there are negative things in the world and things aren’t always great and easy, but that being said, we live in a beautiful world.  I used to focus on negativity for the majority of my life and that didn’t get me anywhere.  I take that back, it almost put me in an early grave.  Choosing to stay aligned with how great things are and to focus on how things are always working out and to be thankful for the gift of each breath, helps me continue to grow as a person and keep moving forward in life, love and my pursuit of happiness.

Joe Takes Flight!

So it has finally happened.  After 40 years on this earth I have finally traveled outside of the States.  I mean I’ve been to Mexico a few times, but I’ve never really traveled.  To be honest, I never thought I would ever make it out of my home country, but now here I am in Thailand.  

 Pondering the mysteries of the Universe or where to get second breakfast at The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.

Pondering the mysteries of the Universe or where to get second breakfast at The Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand.

Exploring the world was never on my radar. Needless to say, I didn’t do any traveling growing up. Processing my life out with my therapist has helped me understand that since I have been in survival mode since I was 7 years old, there wasn’t any room to think about travel or vacation.  Like most people, I've had vacation time and been to a few local places, but never voyaged that far from home.  Back in the day, I would build up my vacation days and use them one or two days at a time to extend out a weekend or take a few days to go somewhere with friends or my significant other.  Vegas was my favorite getaway.  I would go there every other weekend back in the day. Yosemite was another place I frequented.  A weekend out in the wilderness was and always will be a nice quick trip, but still “real travel”, it is not. Catalina Island, near LA, was my version of a getaway. I mean you have to take a boat to get there, so I considered that “real travel”.  Nothing could have prepared me for the feeling that I have right now, as I sit here, writing this blog over 8000 miles away from home. It’s sheer joy.  I feel like a giddy kid going to Disneyland for the first time. 

So I have two versions of myself now: pre-stroke Joe and post-stroke Joe.  Pre-stroke Joe was stuck.  Lost.  He was only looking to survive the day and looking for comfort of some kind in any place he could find it.  Post-stroke Joe has grown tremendously. I now take chances and do things I would never have even considered before.  I mean, I am blogging now.  Never before in my life would I have even considered talking about how I feel, let alone share my intimate thoughts and experiences.  I’m starting up my first podcast called NeuroNerds with my awesome co-host Lauren and we are now having discussions about doing some episodes abroad. I've emceed a few events and plan on doing more in 2018.  Again, all of these new experiences wouldn’t have been a blip on my radar pre-stroke and now they have wet my appetite for even more. 

I knew that I wanted to travel, but I didn’t really put much thought into it past that.  The first step was to get a passport.  I did that a few months back (and thank goodness I took a good picture).  Getting a passport was a big deal for me.  I never thought I would need one, let alone use it.  I remember speaking in passing to several people about where I would go first.  It was a simple question that I had no answer to.  I was also asked what place I had always wanted to travel to. Again, I had no answer. I always liked Canada, I guess.  I had no real reason why I wanted to go there.  I just kind of wanted to go.  The motherland to me is Puerto Rico, but it might be a while before I could visit considering that so many people still don’t have power there yet.  Ireland, maybe?  I do love beer.  I felt bad not really having a place that I wanted to travel to, but that feeling didn’t last long.  I realized that the destination didn’t really matter to me as much as the act of travel itself and for the first time, traveling was within my grasp.  I couldn’t stop thinking about the process of traveling - the planning, the packing, the plane ride, the new people, culture, sights, sounds, food and customs.  I was mentally prepared and just waiting for an opportunity.  That opportunity came much sooner than expected. 

My buddy, Sleep, had spoken in passing about taking a trip to Thailand in early 2018 and how it would be cool if Felice and I could join him. We discussed it and thought it would be a good idea. Sleep and Felice would be able to work on music for her album and I could get my podcast in order for release and travel for the first time with an experienced international man of mystery.  We were in.  We bought our tickets and it was official - I was going to Thailand.  In the days leading up to the trip, I wasn’t nervous.  I was oddly calm.  Even on the day we left, I was excited, but not really nervous.  I just couldn’t wait to get going.  It was the longest plane ride of my life.  We had one pit stop in Nanjing, China and for some reason they kept our passports before our connecting flight.  It’s a long weird story for another time, but it ends with us avoiding an international incident, getting our passports back and making our flight to Thailand. That was just over a week ago, but for me it seems like so much more time has passed.  The whole experience is still very much a blur, but it has all been full of joy and excitement.  After a 20+ hour flight and a 2-hour taxi drive from Bangkok to our Airbnb in Pattaya, I was exhausted. I did my best to take it all in.  Once I was settled in, I went to the restroom to splash water on my face and shed a tear.  I made it.  I traveled halfway across the world.  Nothing like almost dying to open your eyes to a better way of living.  In so many ways, I am a brand new person.  I have a second chance.  I’m not just a survivor.  I have always been that. I am a new and better version of myself on my way to being the best version of myself. Most importantly, I am alive. For the first time in my life I am truly alive!

The Birth Of The NeuroNerds

FullSizeRender 23.jpg

Post stroke, I've struggled with much of my normal day to days. Support is needed and having someone to talk to that understands what I am going through is very important.  Up until this summer, I struggled to find anyone who had gone through an experience similar to me that was remotely close to my age. Young stroke survivors in LA have been few and far between. I reached out to so many people and organizations. I found a lot of different people, but the youngest I could find were usually around 55-60 years old. It was a hard and lonely path.

Everything changed after going to a friend's get together where I met and discussed my stroke and neurological issues with a fellow brain injury survivor at the party named Lauren. She didn't suffer from a hemorrhagic stroke, but she did sustain a brain injury from a car accident and as a result, she's been suffering from post concussion syndrome. We talked and talked about the little things like the difficulty to recall certain words, the struggle to feel safe in our own minds and most challenging of all, the way people react to our new deficits. It was one of the most important conversations I have had since recovering from my stroke. It meant the world to me to connect with someone who truly understands what I am going through.

I met up for coffee with Lauren and after a few visits we got a chance to really connect through our mutual experiences with brain trauma. We decided to become our own support system and do something that was not only fun and helpful for both of us, but maybe even helpful to others out there recovering from brain trauma.  As a result, we decided to start a Podcast/Blog/YouTube Vlog called The NeuroNerds.  The whole concept is to discuss everything in nerd culture with other awesome, cool nerds who just so happen to have suffered from neurological issues. We recorded a test run of our podcast this past week and I'm excited to say that it turned out awesome. We are going to be covering a wide range of topics from stroke/brain injury recovery to much nerdier topics such as Star Wars, super heroes from Marvel to DC, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and much more in the world of all things nerd. I am so happy to be able to continue to share my journey along with my nerdom. And I'm even happier to be able to do all of this with my fellow NeuroNerd Lauren. We'll be announcing when our first NeuroNerd episode goes live very soon.  I hope you guys will join us on our journey of healing through everything nerd.  

Acceptance Is My Key To Healing

 Average level of idiocy during my physical rehab sessions.

Average level of idiocy during my physical rehab sessions.

The subject of acceptance isn’t the easiest thing for me, but my therapist suggested that I write about it and she’s been spot on so far with all of her suggestions so here we go.  I have had to flash accept a lot in my life. By flash acceptance I am referring to experiences in my life where everything has changed in an instant and I have had to accept it in order to survive.  One example of this was when I was a child living in a house with a pool; a sand box with monkey bars and a swing; a flower and vegetable garden; my room full of toys; and then the next day we were living in a basement sleeping in one bed with my sisters and mother. (I honestly can’t remember if both of my older sisters were living with us or just one. Damn brain injury). I had to accept my new reality. After that, it took me a very long time to accept who I was as a person. I was lost. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my place in life. Growing up poor was difficult enough to accept, but the struggle to stay fed and clothed is much more difficult when all of your friends are well off and only have the struggles of school to worry about. It made me very bitter and angry. I never had the tools needed to process and move forward.  I just kind of shoved it down and forged ahead. It worked for me or at least I thought it did. I think back and wonder if I had had the tools to accept, process and move forward, could I have avoided my stroke altogether? I do understand that thinking this way isn’t the most helpful and tends to keep people stuck so I accept that there isn’t anything that I can do about the past.  All I can change is the present to create a better future.  

After the stroke everything changed for me, both physically and mentally. Acceptance even after that experience wasn't easy. It took a hot minute to accept that I needed physical therapy to help me learn to walk.  This was hard mainly because I was learning to walk with a cane. Old man Joe. I hated it. I fought so hard to be “normal" again. I didn’t want to accept that I needed a cane to walk. It was depressing. I fought so hard to get better so I could toss that damn thing and walk like I once did. Cane free! It did end up working out for me. I only had to use a cane for a month or so and now I’m walking normally, but I wonder if I could’ve avoided the suffering through that experience if I had accepted things sooner. 

Mentally, it has been much more difficult. I have huge chunks of this last year that I just have no recollection of. I knew short term memory was going to be an issue for me, but even more frightening is that I have some old memories that are now fuzzy or just gone. I haven’t been able to accept that this is my new normal and I assume that this is why I'm having a difficult time with coping. I recently came to the realization, during one of my therapy sessions, that I haven’t accepted my current situation and that I can’t move forward until I do. I guess my fear is that I will accept it and then that’s it. This will just be who I am now. I don’t want to be like this. I want to be who I was. The truth is, I will never be that person again. 

I have a new normal. I don't want to be who I was or do what I did in the past because the only thing that behavior got me was a stroke and a hole in my head. Literally. It's time to move forward. Accept things for what they are and move forward. I can now accept that I am different. I’m different in a good way. I do have deficits, but other then that I am a better version of myself. I'm more open than ever and ready to continue my journey through this thing called life with a more positive outlook. Thanks to my amazing therapist, I have realized that without acceptance, there can be no true growth. Multi-tasking was always a huge strength for me, but now I have to do only one thing at a time. I don't remember things in great detail like I once did and almost everything I do is overwhelming. I accept all of those things as normal now. That’s how it is today. Tomorrow, I will be significantly better than today and even better the next day and the day after. My new normal is continuing to fight the good fight on my way to the mountain top. On the top of that mountain is Joe 2.0 and it all starts with acceptance.

The Stroke That Saved My Life

    My name is Joseph Borges, but my friends call me Joe. Today I turn 40 years old and in the last year of my 30s, I survived a stroke. August 4, 2016, I suffered a high blood pressure induced hemorrhagic stroke. My blood pressure was so high it caused a vessel in my brain to burst. I remember the exact moment I had the stroke. I was on my way to watch my girlfriend (the incredible singer/songwriter, Felice LaZae) perform like I have so many times before. I had a migraine leading up to the show. That wasn’t uncommon. I’ve suffered from terrible migraines most of my adult life. There didn’t seem to be anything different or special about this one until it happened - I had a fucking stroke.  It felt like an electric shock. I once put a key into a wall socket as a child and the shock I felt thru my hand and down my arm during that incident is what I felt thru my entire body the moment I had my stroke. Every muscle in my body turned to jelly. I don’t remember very much after that.  I just tried to go about things like I would normally which was to pretend that I was ok even though I was in a lot of pain. I do remember struggling to walk. I felt like I was learning to walk. It was almost like a baby deer taking its first steps. I remember watching the show and having a beer and then after that I have zero recollection of the next few weeks. 

I don’t even remember waking up. I just hear stories of what happened the days that followed - stories of how difficult it was to get me to go to the hospital. By the time, I gave in to my family’s pleas for me to get checked out, I had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. The emergency room is where my family found out the terrible news that this wasn’t just a regular migraine or what they thought was possibly dehydration from food poisoning. I can’t for the life of me remember any of it. To be honest, I only started to become completely coherent 3 months ago. I have some memory of the months before that, but for the most part I’ve only been more “me” again for the last few months. Let me rephrase that. I’ve been a better version of me for the last few months. 

So how did I get here? I’ll start by saying that I was raised Catholic. That might speak volumes to some, but for others, let me explain. Being raised Catholic by a Puerto Rican mother is to be raised to keep all of your issues and stresses to yourself. If you have a problem with a friend or family member, you’re taught to not talk to them about it, but to just bury it deep inside. My mother was raised to fear God. That fear turned into anxiety and that was passed onto me. I never knew what to do with my feelings except to hide them deep down and move forward. I never knew how to handle things correctly and how to process my feelings and thoughts. I never knew how to deal with the physical and mental abuse I endured as a child from my sperm donor or the abuse I saw my mother take from him. I was never taught how to process the everyday struggles we went through after she finally broke away from that abusive man. All I knew was that I shouldn’t burden others with my issues. That didn’t change when I became an adult. It went on like that until the stress and pain erupted and and had to be drained out of my brain. 

So here I am now, changed by this whole experience of surviving a stroke. Changed for the better.  I’m ready to live.  I don’t want to just survive, I want to thrive.  I would like to share my story to inspire those who have suffered a similar experience.  And I’d like to start sharing my overall thoughts, voice and perspective with the world.  I will be talking a lot about my journey to good physical and mental health, but I’m also going to be talking about and sharing my opinions on the things I’m passionate about like video games, movies, sports, music and everything nerdom in between.  I always say 90% of what I say is for my own entertainment (which it is!), but if I can make one person laugh or help someone get through their day to day struggles by sharing what I’ve learned about living life and living it well, then I’m one step closer to paying it forward with this gift of life that I’ve been granted and that sounds like a pretty good way to kick off this new decade and chapter of my life.