Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Full Shawshank Experience

Yes, one of the purposes of this entry is basically to give me an excuse to re-emphasize how good a show Cougar Town  (returning 2/14 on ABC, 8:30E,P/7:30 C) is by linking it with the Shawshank Redemption (one of my favorite films). The other purpose is to bookend the entry I wrote just prior to my first surgery. If that was my last post before surgery, this is the first post of the rest of my life. I admittedly was and am still going through an existential crisis. And I’ve found many parallels between my experience and Shawshank.

One of the things I weighed back then was whether I was getting a second chance at life; I just didn’t know whether that second chance was during the window between my diagnosis and my surgery or following my surgery ( I was assuming at the time that there was going to be a “following my surgery”). That puts me in mind of Red’s probation hearing when he talks about the possibility of going back and talking to his younger self, talking some sense to him. I don’t know what I would go back and tell myself now. In many ways I’d be delivering good news, along with the less positive information about the stroke. But I don’t really have any advice I would retroactively impart. Interestingly, after a little too much Wii Super Mario Brothers, Wyatt recently asked me if the stroke had given me another life. My answer is a definitive yes, though I still haven’t quite figured out what that life is, how it differs from my old life, and whether I would want it to be different. Depending on what criteria you use, I’m probably on my third or fourth life – childhood, pre-fatherhood adulthood, the rest of pre-diagnosis adulthood, post diagnosis-but pre-stroke,convalescence, and the rest (which could be any number of additional lives).

I included in that old blog a call for people to live courageous lives, to make brave choices. In retrospect, I see that request coming out of the innate self-indulgent reflection required when facing one’s mortality. I felt obliged, if not obligated, to make deep, desperate pleas. I remember talking with a friend of mine about that blog, and she said how much it affected her and how impressed she was with how I was handling the stroke and its consequences. I told her I never felt like I had much choice. It’s been survival instinct, like the snowmobile scene in another of my favorite films – Defending Your Life. Choice is an interesting challenge. Once I found out about “radical acceptance” and my propensity for it, I started to consider whether there was another choice I could be making – I  even asked my therapists whether there was such thing as “radical denial” or “radical resistance”. I always felt like my caregivers had my best interests in mind and that it would be downright rude not to follow their recommendations. I think the closest I came to radical resistance was a refusal to get on the auto ambulator one morning. For no particular reason, I had just thrown up my breakfast and decided that the last thing I needed was to be suspended by my crotch for 45 minutes.  While I still lean toward acceptance,it was actually quite liberating to resist. But it did not begin a rash of resistance. I certainly met others at the rehab who followed a more confrontational path or one of blatant denial about their straits. But it never seemed right for me. I suppose I actually missed out on some opportunities to use the aneurysm and my stroke as an excuse for erratic behavior. Apparently, right-side strokes can cause impulsive decision-making, but that is pretty far from my normally-deliberate(i.e. slow) manner.

I remember a nurse once asked me to buzz if I noticed my roommate walking around the room. I agreed but did put it to a Facebook vote. I got some responses suggesting that I should not be put in the role of my roommate’s keeper. I believe my response was something to the effect, “if everyone doesn’t follow the rules, the rehab could devolve into anarchy – slow, shuffling anarchy”. I was an “institutional man” (see the Shawshank clip below). Even once I came home, it was hard for me to just get up and move myself to another location, in large part because I was never granted my “green band” in the hospital, which would’ve allowed me to do so. No, I didn’t ask Jamie, “Bathroom break, boss?” (though she probably would’ve liked that), but I was careful to make sure she knew where I was at all times – it used to freak her out if she would leave me one place and come back to find me in another.I went to visit the rehab a couple of weeks ago, got off the elevator, and realized that it’s really only now that I feel legitimately able to walk the halls.

My only other resistance may have come in the context of medical self advocacy, When I went back to Boston for my cranioplasty, one of the surgeons asked me the night prior whether I had any concerns. I said, matter-of-factly, “I’d like to not have another heart attack or stroke”. That led to a strong push by me and my family to get a chemical stress test on my heart prior to the surgery. Looking back, I’m very glad we took a hard line on that. Also the night before that surgery, another doctor asked me to confirm that this surgery was “elective”. I think I said, somewhat sarcastically, “I was never given the sense that I had a choice.” And that was true – no one had suggested that wearing a helmet for the rest of my life or simply walking around with three quarters of my skull was a reasonable alternative. I still don’t know if that’s just a standard release question, something health insurance requires is asked for any surgery containing the word “plasty,” or whether he was just being cruel. I’m thinking one of the former.

My friend to whom I told I didn’t feel like I had a choice except to weather the storm, suggested the alternative, “You could’ve wallowed.” Believe me, I have had my “woe is me” moments and days. There’ve been nights when I’ve  gone to sleep desperately hoping to wake in the morning and discover it’s all been a bad dream. I have very real dreams in which I am running, typing, or picking up the kids and from which I wake with some hope and expectation that I will be miraculously healed. My lowest point may have been when I found myself watching “Ghost Rider” and subsequently reflected on whether I would make a deal with the devil or Peter Fonda to go back to my “old self”. I have not been offered that Faustian bargain and I’m  not sure what I would do if I were.

Get busy livin' or get busy dyin'

So that takes me back to the idea of living courageously. Carpe diem is too easy to say; too hard to do. Much of it is circumstantial. And I’m not just talking about stroke kind of circumstances. our lives are an accumulation of circumstances, some chosen, some thrust upon us. We can’t just do whatever we want without consideration of consequences for ourselves and others, not to mention limitations coupled with our circumstances.

Thinking about making brave choices, I landed on Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” – as performed, of course, by Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.Though raging and railing, while they sound dynamic, are not always practical or even useful solutions.That’s not to say acceptance is easy or the be-all, end-all. Sometimes accepting one thing on top of another feels downright oppressive. Sometimes, like most people, we’re just sick of our lives.

Kurt Vonnegut once told me – and by that I mean I heard him speak when I was in college – that you should not live your life like it’s a story. Twentysomething me thought, “What do you mean, old man from Back to School? Of course you should live your life like a story.” Now I think I get what he meant: everyone’s life is a story, but you can’t force it. If you try to live your life to make for an interesting tale, you're bound to fail. Life has a warped sense of humor all its own; it doesn't need a script doctor.

I don't know what courageous choices I can make going forward; this blog has felt like my way of carving, “Ken was here,” on the wall, but I haven't figured out anything more, yet. I’m trying; at least I have a chance to do that. Maybe soon I’ll find a sewer pipe through which I can crawl, all the way to Zihuatanejo.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Perspectives on Prospective Resolutions

Many years ago – I'm guessing early 2006 -- I intended to start a blog entry with, “I need a treadmill.” I'm guessing on the time frame just because I know I was a stay-at-home father with a then-infant Wyatt at the time and because this is the time of year when we make often-empty promises to ourselves, right? Cynically, I'd say it's all a marketing ploy to sell more gym memberships, Nicorette, Shake Weights, and Nutrisystem. At the time, I did mean an actual treadmill but also a metaphorical one – I was looking for a conveyor belt to wellness and motivation. While being at home with my young son was very satisfying in many ways, I was also eager to find other opportunities to contribute to my family – whether in the form of a healthier, happier me; my bedtime story for new parents: Please Don't Let Me Break Him; or my parenting handbook: "Got Your Nose" and Other Practical Jokes to Play on Children. Needless to say, I didn't complete that blog post or any of those projects. As for my health, I can't say anything would be different today if I'd bought a treadmill then. For whatever reason, I was not particularly driven toward any of those pursuits. In retrospect it's all very quaint. I think we all create our own treadmills in many ways – a series of Sisyphean steps we must take or else be thrown backwards. The new year is a perfect time to make these promises  to be ostensibly better people if only we could “make the time to…” I do have a real treadmill now, and I do intend to use it and improve my pace, stamina and walking form. I just have to make the time to (and, yes, I am  hoping the Large Hadron Collider  discovers a particle which makes time production possible or at least discovers the pocket watch from The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything; or that soon telepresence robots will truly enable people to be two places at once, without the need for divided attention). My treadmill will serve a somewhat unusual resolution to work more this year (how often does one set out to do that?). I'm already working full-time from home but plan to return to full-time in the office by the summer. Along with that goal comes the effort to regain my driver's license, though it doesn't seem practical to do so until spring. Fortunately, I'm already on a good course to achieve that ambition; and despite a common result of right-side strokes being a lack of motivation and problems with “initiation,” I am feeling driven.

My most important resolution for the year is to fulfill a wish I had just prior to my original surgery: I spoke of wanting to retain proper perspective on my life, based on the  scenic viewpoint granted by my brush with a somewhat imminent health threat (though I didn't know then just how high a view I would have). The crux of this argument was, “don't sweat the small stuff.” I remember talking to my brother about that premise, just after my diagnosis, and he recalled a motivational speaker, Richard Carlson, he'd seen talk about that very topic. It also brought to mind the comedian Robert Schimmel, who wrote a book about how humor got him through his battle with cancer. Sadly, both Schimmel and  Carlson died suddenly and unexpectedly. We'll never know whether their balanced view on life better prepared them for death. I can only hope that what I'm trying to gain from this experience is not merely a prologue to a premature final act (my original title for this entry was, “Perspective Can Kill You”). My quest for perspective actually began during my junior year of college, during which I decided I was not likely to retain much additional information from any of my classes. I therefore determined simply to take courses which would offer me unique perspectives on the world. This led me to enroll in the likes of: “Magic, Science, and Religion” (for which I wrote my final paper on the history and science of werewolves), “Environmental Chemistry” (introductory chemistry taught from the viewpoint of the molecular interactions causing atmospheric ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect),  and “International Bestsellers”. I can certainly say my course selection process garnered me a diversity of world views, solidified me as part of the intellectual, liberal, East Coast, liberal elite, while also feeding into my belief at the time that my over-privileged Ivy League education was also making me an honorary member of the disenfranchised (so glamorous as it is). Now what I am often left pondering is how I take my survival of the past years' events and translate them into a richer living experience – it's one thing to survive; it's another thing to live. But that's for my next blog entry. The other side of that coin is the perspective granted me by losing my life without actually dying. This has left me feeling “ghostly” at times – rattling chains for attention (or, perhaps that's just the general experience of being the parent of two young boys). Yes, after seeing The King's Speech, I did once melodramatically cry out, “I have a voice!”. The heartbreaking side of that perspective has been in periodically feeling like I've left my wife the single mother of two children (and, with me in the mix, that makes three), as well as leaving my children fatherless, much as I strive to be present for them all.

The positive side of this perspective is that last February I had the unique privilege of attending my own Irish wake (And, really, who's more Irish than I?).

So, as much as retaining proper perspective is my big resolution for the year and beyond, it's also been expressed to me in both comments here and in person that my experience is providing beneficial perspective to others' lives. I'm very glad to provide that service – I say, better me than you – though I also know my family and I hardly hold a monopoly on suffering. While I appreciate everyone's good wishes and the fact that you've been able to brush aside what might be considered more trivial concerns with the thought, “ at least we don't have it as bad as them,” I don't want anyone to truly believe their pains are any less meaningful than ours. Yes, we've experienced a lot of loss, but that hardly negates anyone else's. As I said, I only hope our ongoing struggle can act as some sort of tonic against so many other struggles going on simultaneously. That's a somewhat positive spin on vicarious trauma. But, remember, everyone has their own valid trials and treadmills.