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My Reflections On My Stroke

"Somewhere in the future, your older self is watching you through memories. Whether it's with regrets or nostalgia depends on what you do now."

Gurwinder Bhogal

In the rearview mirror of my life, I see a stark and uncomfortable truth. I had once lived as if I were immortal, a toxic human being who revelled in manipulation, exploitation, and the cold, transactional nature of human interactions. I had surrounded myself with like-minded individuals, nurturing my destructive tendencies and giving myself a false sense of permission to continue down this perilous path. I failed to express love, offer apologies for the hurt I knowingly or inadvertently caused, or align my actions with my soul's desires. It was a life devoid of purpose and authenticity.

My awakening came in the form of a health scare—a diagnosis of Graves' Disease. I suffered from ancestry most of my teenage years and upping adult life. This autoimmune condition, wherein my immune system attacked my thyroid and flooded my body with thyroid hormones, manifested as a torrent of symptoms: a racing heart, heat intolerance, panic attacks, insomnia, anxiety, trembling, muscle wasting, and a litany of digestive issues. It was a wake-up call, a stark reminder that if I continued on this destructive trajectory, my life would be cut short, or I would be tethered to synthetic hormones for the rest of my days.

Refusing to accept this grim fate, I embarked on a more holistic journey. While my endocrinologist recommended traditional treatments, I opted for a different path, one that involved a renewed focus on my nutritional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Miraculously, my thyroid condition went into remission with the help of my new lifestyle. Yet, something deeper still nagged at me: persistent anxiety, panic, and insomnia. It is less pronounced and less physical but always in the background.

Traditional therapy was financially out of reach, but my thirst for healthy change led me to the realm of self-help literature. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) caught my attention, and as I delved deeper, I discovered its connection to a philosophy that intrigued me: Stoicism. At first glance, stoicism advocated emotional suppression, a façade of strength devoid of vulnerability. But as I dug deeper, I uncovered its true wisdom.

Stoicism wasn't about eliminating emotions or pretending to be unfeeling. Instead, it was a philosophy that offered profound insights into human nature and resilience. I learned about the dichotomy of control—focusing only on what I could change—and the concept of Amor Fati, the love of fate. Most captivating was the meditation on "Memento Mori," a daily reminder of mortality, which evolved from a morbid fascination into a profound reflection on my legacy.

I began to ask myself, "How did I want to be remembered?" Certainly not as the toxic individual I once was. With a newfound dedication to philosophy, psychology, daily meditation, and regular exercise, I experienced a serious transformation. People noticed the change. I gained confidence, learned to stand my ground on matters that truly mattered, and, perhaps most importantly, began cutting toxic influences out of my life.

My transformation wasn't without its challenges, but I chose not to broadcast my journey to the world. Instead, I focused on living positively: a cleaner diet, voracious reading habits, and a commitment to exercise. This allowed me to cultivate a positive environment and shield myself from negative attention and naysayers.

In the end, my journey from toxicity to transformation wasn't about achieving perfection, nor was it about suppressing emotions or pretending to be something I'm not. It was about embracing my humanity—the strengths and weaknesses, the highs and lows—and striving to be the best version of myself, not just for my sake but for the legacy I leave behind. It's a journey that continues, for being human is hard, and sometimes, we falter. But it's a journey worth taking. Little did I know, all of this training—yes, training. I had been training my body to become stronger, but more importantly, I had been training my mind. I would need it.

I was on a trip with my wife when we discovered she was pregnant. Nine months later, my daughter, my first child, was born. I had never felt this level of love before. I had already learned to be more emotionally vulnerable with my wife after my baby brother died of a rare form of cancer. Another moment in my life that prompted mental fortitude. Still, this little 7-pound baby cracked my emotional armour wide open. I loved this little human, and her existence made me even more dedicated to improving myself.

Six months after her birth, I would be tested to the extreme.

On October 18, 2022, I was in bed with my wife when I felt something was off. Within seconds, my life changed forever. I knew what was happening; I was having a stroke.

As the stroke symptoms unfolded, a wave of concern swept over me, extending beyond my situation. I found myself deeply worried about my wife and daughter, who means the world to me. Financial security became a pressing concern as I realized that my life insurance might not be enough to provide for their needs. But it wasn't just about money. I also feared that my daughter would grow up without tangible memories of our time together, missing out on the guidance and love of a present father. I longed for her to experience those significant moments in life, like walking down the aisle on her wedding day. At the same time, I hoped that my wife would find another good man who would cherish and care for her and our daughter, embodying my love for them. As difficult as this thought was, it made sense to prioritize the happiness and well-being of my family, even if it meant someone else stepping into my role as the sole provider and protector.

The stroke experience also heightened my concern for my parents, who had already suffered the devastating loss of my brother to cancer. Witnessing the toll it took on my mother's spirit and the strain it placed on my father, I couldn't help but worry about them enduring that pain once again. The stroke forcefully reminded me of how fragile life is and the potential for another devastating blow to shatter their world, compounding the grief they had already experienced.

Amidst the relentless assault of the stroke, every breath felt laboured, whether it was from the physical effects of the stroke or the rush of anxiety coursing through my veins. The air felt sharp and harsh in my throat, mirroring the turmoil within me. My mind was inundated with worries and concerns, like an unstoppable flood overwhelming my senses. In this chaotic and overwhelming time, the principles of stoicism resonated with unprecedented strength, calling out to me and urging me to accept the things I couldn't change. Stoicism became my guiding principle, providing solace and acting as a beacon of calm amidst the storm within and around me.

One of my immediate concerns was protecting my infant daughter from witnessing the trauma of my potential demise. I requested that she be moved out of the room. I understood the importance of minimizing stress not just for myself but also for those around me. I tried calming my breathing and that of my family members around me as they breathed heavily. I didn't want my loved ones to have a cardiac event alongside me. I calmly took deep breaths and attempted to instruct them to follow suit. I tried to inject some humour and lightheartedness into our interactions, despite my impaired speech due to the stroke, to lighten the heavy atmosphere. My speech was impeded by the blood collecting on the right hemisphere in my basal ganglia, which controls the left side of my body, including my tongue and lips. I found it slightly amusing that I couldn't speak, as my entire life was a series of me using my voice to sell, convince, and teach. My loved ones didn't see the humour. Maybe it wasn't humorous, but in the moment, my brain was not operating fully. It's strange how our minds work, even when death's icy breath is on the nape of my neck. I was still worried about making others feel better. Even during the ambulance ride to the hospital, I was joking around, a defence mechanism to distract me from my situation.

My hospital stay lasted a week, during which I received a sobering education on just how close I had come to the brink. I became a fascinating case for the medical staff—a young, fit male suffering an event usually reserved for the elderly or the sick. The staff helped me learn to speak and walk again. I was swiftly humbled when, in a cocky attempt to defy the nurse's orders, I tried to walk to the bathroom unassisted. My left side was slightly impaired, and my core strength couldn't support me in bed. I swung my legs over the side, attempted to stand as I had done countless times before, and promptly ended up on my face. Luckily, only my pride suffered a further injury. The nurse came to my aid and guided me to the bathroom. It became evident that I needed to accept help; in mere moments, I had transitioned from a fiercely independent man to a disabled one.

Throughout my hospitalization, my wife remained a constant presence. She spent every day by my side and FaceTimed with me at night, as much for her own sake as mine.

My determination to recover was borderline obsessive. I set ambitious goals, such as walking within a week, and achieved them. My walk wasn't perfect, but I could manage with my walker. By the time I left the ICU, I was walking unassisted, having re-mastered the art of walking in just one week.

Physical therapy was similarly intense, and I diligently followed my regimen in the office and at home. I caught my four-month-old daughter watching my left arm hang limply at my side or stiffly across my chest. She would stare at it, and any signs of movement would excite her. This boosted my drive to continue working, as I couldn't pick her up from her crib when she was upset, which killed me inside. My motivation was further kicked into overdrive by the desire to regain the use of my arm so I could play with her on the floor and stand up without falling over. My fingers still betrayed me, and I was losing hope in their recovery.

Against my doctor's orders, I delved into callisthenics, recognizing the need to discipline my core and strengthen my grip. My stubborn attitude teetered on the edge of either driving me to success or potentially pushing me into overtraining.

Learning to use my hand again was the hardest physical part of my recovery. It took far longer to get any natural movement in my fingers. I did everything the therapists suggested, but my progress was painfully slow. In the months following my stroke, I made strides in recovering my core strength and shoulder mobility, but the pain of moving my stiff joints was unpleasant at best. Nonetheless, I relished the movement.

One day, I was playing with my daughter, and she was frustrated that she couldn't pick something up. I saw her trying to manipulate the world around her, but she was just learning to move her body through space. Her fingers were just as clumsy and seemingly stiff as mine. I decided to approach my hand recovery by mimicking her through play, with a beginner's mind. I threw out all my old thoughts on how my hand should work and just manipulated the world like my infant was. This moment was like lightning to my brain, and I made more recovery in that week than I did in months of traditional hand therapy. I read about the perils of depression among stroke survivors. In therapy, I observed my fellow survivors, many of whom were merely going through the motions. While their bodies persisted, their eyes told a different story—they seemed hollow as if they had given up.

The stroke experience granted me a new perspective on life and mortality. It made me realize the fleeting nature of our existence and the importance of cherishing each precious moment. Stoicism taught me to appreciate the present, even amid adversity. It enabled me to find gratitude amidst the chaos and treasure my family's love and support. Now, I pay more attention to simple things and genuinely appreciate them. I used to want to be monetarily successful, but now I strive towards self-mastery through always learning and improving.

During the moments when I wasn't physically training or sleeping (which I did a lot of as my brain navigated around the damage), I immersed myself in the works of Viktor Frankl and Friedrich Nietzsche, religious texts such as the Tao Te Ching and the Bible, and Buddhist holy books. I listened to near-death experiences, monks teaching on the subject of death and acceptance, and meditation. I was reaching into the esoteric to find solace in my existence.

This is when I rediscovered an Instagram page full of great artwork and philosophical essays in the form of Instagram posts. I had followed David's Instagram for months but didn't follow closely until I was in my hospital bed scrolling through Instagram. When I read that there was a private community of "my people," I felt compelled to join.

It's been a year since I survived my stroke. I didn't hit all of my goals, but I hit many more than my doctors had thought I would at that time. I'm not 100 per cent back to normal, and I'm not sure I will ever be my old self again, physically or mentally. But that's okay. Mentally, I'm far stronger than I was. Physically, I notice some weakness, but I strive for more strength while accepting the possibility of always being far weaker than I was. My semi-unique life story and obsession with learning and self-improvement have driven me to write. I write about my experiences with mindset and overcoming adversity, at first a few short Facebook posts and Instagram stories. After a while, I started receiving messages from followers about how inspiring the posts were. People who lived "normal" lives were now pressing themselves to improve and overcome adversity. There is no need to have something as large as a stroke to overcome. We all have areas we could improve in. So, I decided to further my writing. I converted my website into a blog. I write a weekly blog on my story and different forms of productivity, not just in modern productivity but also becoming more productive in spirituality, reading, philosophy, physical training, and sometimes random topics. I have no desire to be a guru or influence anyone. 

I am passionate about my journey and want to share what I find exciting. I'm now looking forward. It's been one year since my stroke. I set goals for myself to aim for and overcome. I didn't achieve every one of them, but I did exceed the doctor's predictions for my recovery. I'm at peace with the event and its outcome. It has made me much stronger than I ever thought I could be. I still have moments when I slip into old habits, experience anxiety and stress, and worry at times. I also still get angry about some things, which is human. We aren't designed to be completely stoic without the whole gambit of emotions – what would life be? These are moments of adversity that I get to practice overcoming.

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