This story was written in November 2016 but sadly Joan became ill and passed away in March 2017. Her family have given us permission to keep her story on our website to encourage others.
I had a stroke at the beginning of 2014. I was out driving when the car started to stall and crunch the gears. I thought the gearbox must be gone so called the mechanic when I got home and sat down to watch TV, thinking nothing more of it. I drifted off, but when I woke up later, I couldn’t get up out of the chair. I realised something wasn’t right. My left leg was heavy and I couldn’t use my left arm. It was only then that I realised there was nothing wrong with the car, it was me – I’d been having a stroke and not known it.
My left side was badly affected. It felt absent, as if it wasn’t there, and it was like everything on my left side was falling in on me – the walls were falling in, and waving and moving. I thought people would think I’m nuts telling them that, but to me it was real.
The stroke affected me in other ways mentally, as well. Sometimes I don’t have the right words or it feels like they get stuck in my head, but they’re still in there somewhere. I might not be able to talk right, but I’m not stupid – far from it!
When I first had my stroke, I did feel angry. Nothing was going to be the same again. I wondered, why me? I’d suffered with heart trouble, rheumatoid arthritis and COPD already and it seemed unfair. I was so terrified of it happening again that I couldn’t sleep – I thought if I slept, I’d have another stroke. But after a while I began to think of it differently. Why not me? And from then on, nothing has held me back.
For example, my son bought me a mobility scooter because I couldn’t drive anymore and couldn’t get to the shops myself. So off I went to the shops – got to the cash machine, got the bread and the milk, all for myself. I felt great! But that week, the OT was annoyed with me because my route passed by a river and it was dangerous on my own. Well buy me a lifejacket then, I said, because I’m taking back my life and nobody is going to stop me!
I know now she was only worried for me, but I knew what I was doing was right. I didn’t want to be held back. I continued to do my own housework, the vacuuming and mowing the lawn, and I still do. I’ve always found ways to get around my limits. Some people think it’s the end of the world when you have a stroke, but I always say every problem has a solution, you just need to find it!
At first I wasn’t able to look after my beloved dog, Lucy. She was a nine year old Jack Russell and meant the world to me but I simply couldn’t cope with her and had to find her a new home. But as soon as I was able, I got another pup, Cally. Cally has changed my life. I have to get on with life for her. Even on difficult days I have to get out of bed for her to feed her and walk her. She has been a very important part of regaining my life.
My next challenge was getting back to what I loved most. Crafts were always my thing. I loved knitting and crocheting, and that was one of the worst effects of my stroke – I couldn’t knit anymore. It was very upsetting.
But I never gave up. I needed to do familiar things, to remind my brain and to make new pathways and rewire my mind. So I made myself a bracelet with brass bells on it and wore it on my left hand. The noise would remind me that it was there, because since I couldn’t use my hand, my brain kept forgetting about it. The bracelet and the sound told my brain, ‘You still have a left hand, and you can use it!’ After that, I moved onto squeezy stress balls to get my fingers working, and adult colouring books, jigsaws and brain training games to help my mind. All I kept thinking was I need to be able to knit again.
I still couldn’t hold the knitting needle, but that didn’t stop me. I stuck the needle to my left hand using sticky bandage, then propped my left arm up the arm rest – and I could knit! It took ages, and there were times when I was angry and swearing and shouting and throwing the knitting across the room…but I had done it!
The effects of the stroke on my mind also meant I found knitting patterns difficult and complex – my brain couldn’t understand them like I used to. I had to come up with my own method of writing out the patterns in a way that my brain could process. But just like my hand, gradually it got easier and easier – I started off knitting plain pearl stitches, and kept challenging myself to more difficult patterns. Now I can usually read and understand the patterns just as I used to, and I’ve even mastered a new honeycomb pattern on a jumper I made for my dog Cally, which I never did even before my stroke!
My next goal was to make some things for the Christmas Fair held by Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke. I had been referred to NICHS after I got out of hospital, and I wanted to give something back to them. It was good to have a goal, a deadline, and I pushed myself so I wouldn’t let Zoe and Lynn at NICHS down. You need lots of those factors keeping you going. And I proved to myself and to everyone then, too, that I could do anything I put my mind to – I knitted every toy in my book of patterns for the fair!
I believe everything that happens is destiny, and now I get angry when people mope and feel sorry for themselves – I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself, I’m too busy with life. They need a kick up the backside!
The stroke was difficult, and it’s still hard and I still get angry sometimes. It’s like there are two different versions of yourself inside your head. There’s the old Joan who could move mountains, and there’s Joan now who has some limitations. But I have a million and one things left to do. Don’t tell me I can’t – I can and I will!
Find out more about the stroke support that Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke offers.