The short and sweet answer is, "Of course not." Our identities should not be tied to a single set of events any more than they should be tied to a particular role we play in our lives: child, parent, spouse, resident, patient, victim, employee (I learned early on from game shows that Americans too often tie "Who are you?" to "What do you do?" (e.g. "Let's give a big Card Sharks welcome to Todd, a marketing analyst from Modesto."). If we allow ourselves to be pigeon-holed, we leave no room for growth.
I've also obviously placed a lot of emphasis on comparing life BS (Before Stroke) to ASS (After Suffering Stroke); but, in truth, this before and after may be no more significant an experience than the B&A transition from child to adult, bachelor to husband, childfreeman to parent, renter to home owner, etc., etc. We play many parts as we strut and fret our hour upon the stage, all of which shape who we ultimately are.
I have gone to great lengths to get to know myself over the years (is self awareness the same as being self conscious?). So much so that waking after my stroke and feeling like "me" was a huge relief for me and my friends and family. That said, it's a dis-service to think that who I was needs to be who I am and always will be. I was lucky to retain my sense of self (I've met other TBI survivalists who did not have the same good fortune and have consequently spent far more precious energy on reinvention than I've needed to), but I don't want to hold me back either.
Just as I've contemplated a sense of loss, I've also trolled the depths of identity with the question of whether it's for me to determine alone. Just as works of art tread a fine line between intention and interpretation, identity exists somewhere between how we see ourselves, how we try to comport ourselves, and how others see us.
This idea brings me to today's exercise. I've asked a number of friends and family members to provide their impressions regarding who I was pre-stroke, compared to who I am now. This was admittedly a somewhat unreasonable and self-indulgent request, amounting to reading my own eulogies. But my hope was to hear insights I am too close to see myself.
I will begin with my own, straight-foward, bulleted list, move through a variety of Ken Shapiro, This Is Your Life voices (with some editorial commentary [in brackets], and close with some rebuttal (because I always have to get the last word).
My nuts and bolts comparison (in no particular order):
- I'm slower and more deliberate, which translates into more mental processing, additional time to get ready in the morning, and more time generally to move from point A to point B.
- I get cold more easily, though -- Polar Vortex not withstanding -- that's improved a bit.
- I'm more easily tired and take more naps (I've fallen asleep during an MRI (though that was pre stroke, at the barber (also pre), and in a variety of therapeutic settings: massage, acupuncture, Feldenkrais, Reiki, craniosacral ). Sleep is healing.
- I'm less "regular" and a little less hygienic (given the extra time required to get ready in the morning, I have to alternate between toileting and showering).
- I'm more intolerant of reflexive complaints, intolerance, and extremism (not really a development of the last three years and completely inconducive to parenting).
- Along the lines of the above point, I cannot stand the words, "always," "never, "need" (as in, "I need you to..."), or "should" (as in, "You know what you really should do?"). There is no need, only want ("There is no Dana, only Zuul." Anyone?)
- I'm not keen on long-term planning (5-years is way too far out to contemplate, never mind retirement). We're looking to visit my family in New Jersey in April, and that's about as far ahead as I'm willing to speculate. Otherwise, I am open to the universe.
- Interestingly, I think this experience has made me more optimistic about and less fearful of life.
- Along those lines, I just give less of a damn.
- I have a better Work-Life Balance (which hopefully just means better perspective on where to best direct my energy).
- My left arm shakes when I yawn, sneeze, rub my eye, or try to consciously move my hand.
- I walk with a leg brace and cane most of the time.
- Getting down on the floor and up again requires planning, preparation, and purpose.
- I have to more intentionally focus on how I express emotions (so as not to often appear angry or sullen), as well as how I interpret other people's tones and mannerisms (I may get false impressions/over-reactions).
- I'm more sensitive to having to raise my voice to be heard or of being yelled to (also not conducive to my house).
- It takes two cosmos to get me tipsy, whereas a glass of wine used to do the trick (though that could just be the extra weight of my soul, absorbing the alcohol).
- I have permanent bedhead (head, not hair).
- I can only independently raise my right eyebrow for emphasis (though I can raise them both at the same time).
- I can't curl my tongue or whistle well anymore.
- It isn't all bad, though: I get good parking, am whisked through airport security in a wheelchair, ride the elevator and use handicapped bathroom stalls without guilt.
[The first voice from my past is my own, circa 1976. When exactly do you become You? My parents recently delivered a load of my old journals, including a book entitled, This Is My Book, which I completed at Age 6]:
[On a page called, "Different Things About Me," I was asked to underline my defining traits. I chose]:
- "I cry."
- "I make noise."
- "I get angry."
- "I help around the house."
- "I'm never on time."
- "I'm a good friend."
- "I talk a lot."
- "I finish the food on my plate" [though the underline trailed out].
- "I make jokes."
[I did not underline]:
- "I'm always on time."
- "I am always wise."
[I'm not gathering a lot of insight from those choices, other than acknowledging I was a work in progress (not "always wise").]
[Sticking with Before voices, here's Me again, in 1987, just shy of my 17th birthday. What strikes me most about this teenage voice is my YOLO Certainty about the way the world works. I suppose you could call it "innocence," and it most definitely has been lost.]:
From [my journal] Life V: February 15, 1987
Now that I am more mature [remember, that's all of 17], I can see how immature I was back at that time, when I thought I was so much better off than everyone else, maturity wise. I can also see that I still have a great deal of growing up to do. Maturity, in many ways, means becoming more serious: [For instance], I used to love Scooby Doo. Now I watch it and get annoyed with the stupidity the program portrays. I also find Buck Rogers [happy 71st birthday, Gil Gerard] a little inane. Maturation has allowed me to recognize The Flintstones and Batman [Gotta love Adam West's staying power] as the clever satires they always have been. I just could never see it before. So there's a lot to say for maturity. I enjoy logic and being able to make sense of a mess instead of playing in it. [But] there's also a great need and importance for proper childishness. You can never and never should let go of the past. There's always something to be said for it, no matter how terrible it seemed at the time.
When I was at my age of moral superiority, I only felt inferior sexually. I was fourteen years old, witnessing so many other boys my age who had girlfriends, let alone an active interest in women. I was interested, but there was no way I would ever flirt with a person of the opposite sex. At summer camp the older boys and girls mingled. I was a Counselor In Training with little if no confidence where girls were concerned. All the other boys seemed so adept in their follies, like it was the most natural thing in the world. I would simply watch and comfort myself with various thoughts: Someday I would kiss a girl; someday I would have sex (most likely when I married); someday I would have the most wonderful girl, someone drawn to my sense of righteousness and caring. If I only knew then what I know now: I do have a wonderful girlfriend. I've kissed her a lot . I haven't had sex yet, but I've come pretty damn close. I don't know what drew her to me. I'm still righteous and caring, but I'm also a lot more outraged and stoic and hardened than I used to be. I'm not 14 anymore, although I often try to convince myself I am.
[Now to my parents, who have known me longest (I guess I'm going in order of relationship length]:
Mom [who I asked to tone down the gushing]:
The night before his surgery, we went with Ken and Jamie to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a quirky movie that he chose and I was sure I wouldn’t like. But it was a great choice, offbeat and funny. Sort of like Kenny. Heading back to the car, he showed off his racewalking prowess, a skill I had never known he had. He slipped in a remark about whether he’d be able to do that after the surgery, but we tried not to think about his comment.
Julie [college friend]:
Donelle [co-worker, friend, coach, and cheerleader]:
Before, Ken would take a lot of time to explain an idea or answer a question. I'm not sure if he was formulating the answer as he went or was trying hard to educate the rest of us who didn't understand the details of his technical world. Before and after, his responses are often well thought through, insightful, and result in a refreshingly different view – it just takes a little while to get there and to ensure that you both understand the point he is trying to make. Before or after Ken appears to enjoy “tinkering,” finding ways to figure the smallest of details out – I perceive that this has changed some - it can take so much of his energy just to get up and drive in that he may have focused his energies more on the “must dos” versus the “nice to dos”. I also see him trying to teach others the things only he knows to give them the tools instead of him doing it all. This seemed like it was a hard thing for him before, maybe it is still a hard thing for him now but he seems to be doing it more – this is a good thing. One thing that is the same both before and after - He has always seemed like a loving and caring father and husband. I think it is that love that has given him the inner strength to learn to walk, to talk, to eat, to dress, to drive again and still be able to work full time. I think it is that love that also makes it a hard thing too because I know it is hard for him to not be able to do and be more and yet he still continues to find the ways he can be the parent he wants to be; he looks for ways to still have a normal – a new normal. I think I see more of a determined person now. His humor both before, during, and after is dry and creative – I don’t think any medical event can change that. Lastly, Ken has a caring heart – perhaps maybe opened a bit wider with the cardiac event but always present. Many may look at him and see what the medical events have done and see on the outside some physical challenges or weaknesses…not me, I see a stronger and more resilient man, never willing to give up or give in.
Marc [friend, co-worker, car pooler, jack of all trades, a godsend to our family, and unique in that he's only known the After Me]:
I’ve only known Ken since August of 2012; I never knew him before his brain injury. Frankly, my first impression of Ken Shapiro was a guy to whom I wanted to politely say “no”. Ken reached out because six years ago, something possessed me to put my name on the company rideshare listing. Ken proposed we commute together because he didn't currently have a license and our houses in Cumberland are only two miles apart.
2014 Ken again.
And, remember, this blog is a conversation. So if you've got something to say about me -- good or bad -- now's your chance. Feel free to comment below.