My Stroke of Insight – A Book Review

My family and I are learning a lot these days, and it all seems to come back to patience. Peter is back in Atlanta now, getting stronger, but still has a journey of rehabilitation ahead of him. In the midst of this new reality, a family friend recommended Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight.

Insight is a memoir of sorts, but it is also a story of encouragement and enlightenment for stroke sufferers and their families. Taylor, a Harvard brain scientist who suffered a cerebral hemmorhage (much like Peter’s) when she was just 38 years old, tells the story of her stroke and recovery with odd clarity. Her recollections are, in many ways, comforting; they serve as a guide for those of us in the midst of caring for a family member who has suddenly lost skills that once required little effort. Taylor writes with an authoritative voice, not simply because she knows from experience what it is like to lose the ability to read, speak and walk, but because she is a neuroanatomist. With affectionate voice, she explains the power, plasticity and intricacy of the brain. I have never been more in awe of gray matter.

My Stroke of Insight is a reminder to everyone who interacts with stroke patients that the person they love is still in there, but maybe a little quieter, or a little more confused than usual. Taylor tells her readers how to interact with friends and loved ones recovering from a stroke, encouraging them to be positive, speak quietly and slowly, and to remember that they are interacting with someone who has been wounded but is by no means stupid or hard of hearing. Taylor’s book reminds us that life in the “real world” – or at least the world that we with normally functioning brains perceive as real – is terribly harsh; using her own experience as a backdrop, she urges us to be gentler, kinder, more humane. I can think of no better service for a book to provide.

Yellow Bird

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When I was in first grade, my classroom was divided into three groups: yellow birds, blue birds and red birds.  Although no one ever actually said so, it was clear that the yellow birds flew more slowly than the blues, and that the red birds took to the sky most quickly.  This was my teacher’s gentle way of helping young students take to learning at a pace best suited for them.

I was a red bird, but I loved the color yellow – and perfect, chirping yellow birds – and I thought it unfair that I couldn’t sit at the yellow bird table.  Mrs. Hogston, my first grade teacher – a tiny woman with smile lines around her eyes  and a sweet Southern accent – assured me that I should be a happy little red bird, proud of my feathers, and insisted that I stay at the red bird table.  I did so, but begrudgingly, learning how to add and subtract with one eye on the yellow bird table and the other on my text books.

For most of my life, I’ve kept pace with the red birds and I learned to enjoy it.   Yet, now, at a time when I would most like to be dive bombing with a flock of cardinals, I fear my feathers are turning … well … a tinge of yellow.  I’d heard that pregnancy might do this to me, that words would mysteriously slip away; that I might suffer memory loss; that I might – on occasion – make sense only to myself.  But my little red bird brain eschewed such notions as an old wives tale.  It promised to keep processing the material and meaning of life with utmost efficiency; word retrieval problems were for other sorts of pregnant people — not writers, not teachers, not red birds.    

Yet, as I sit composing this blog posting in Starbucks – writing, and then deleting, and then rewriting and rereading the sentences I’ve written – I feel defeated.  My red bird brain has succumbed to the hormones after all.  I find myself staring at my Mac for longer than necessary, the synapses of my brain firing with less enthusiasm than usual.  Staying on topic is difficult; finishing an essay – impossible.  Sometimes, in conversation, my husband has to help me with words.  That thing on the kitchen counter?  Ah, yes – a coffee maker.  The thing we use to walk the dog?  Right.  A leash.

To make myself feel better about this incapacitation I did a little research.  A study published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that 81% of women suffer memory loss and word retrieval problems during pregnancy.  The article called this impairment “significant” – though certainly not permanent – and I rejoiced.  In 1998, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study confirming pregnant women’s memory loss and word retrieval issues would be most significant in the third trimester.  Another study cited “brain overload” and “memory dysfunction.”  Hooray!

It is hard to be a writer; now I know it is even harder to be a pregnant writer.  I wish I’d done this research months ago. I thought I was just losing my edge because I’m no longer in graduate school.  So – as of today I’m cutting myself a little slack; I am preening my feathers at the yellow bird table.  Forgive me if my blog postings don’t make sense, or if you find them boring, or if I write that something is “obvious” rather than “obsequious.” My red bird brain has flown South for the remainder of winter.  Here’s hoping it’ll come back to me this spring.