Just when my life had settled some, and I'd published the last issue of my newspaper and told my readers I was going to work on my book, I found myself lying on the kitchen floor, numb, unable to move or speak.
I know I was crying, but I couldn't feel the tears run down my cheeks as I watched paramedics attach medical equipment. I closed my eyes and tried to get a perspective of the scene taking place, but nothing would register. Fear washed into my throat as I faded into unconsciousness.
When I woke in the emergency room, doctors told me I'd had a stroke. I looked at them through wide, glassy eyes and shook my head "no."
"You're young, so after physical and speech therapy, you'll be almost as good as new," they said.
It was the "almost" that made me cringe. I couldn't feel my limbs but I could feel the chilling, unadulterated fear that flushed through my body. What was the "almost" that I would be left without?
Those who didn't know me wouldn't notice the slight droop in the left side of my face. The slow, slurred speech and long spans of time between sentences, while I searched for words that wouldn't come, made me sound like a second grader trying to talk with a mouth full of cereal.
By the fourth day I was walking with a limp and a cane, my left arm twitched and went wherever it wanted to go, and my smile faded.
I was scheduled to see physical and speech therapists three times a week for rehabilitation. After one week, I knew there wasn't anything that I was being shown I couldn't do every day at home. I insisted on going home where I could rehabilitate myself to gain those things I desperately needed most. And what I needed most was to write.
In front of my computer, in my home office, I sat staring at the blank screen. No words would come. I glanced up and scanned the diplomas, awards, and pictures of me and Senator John Glenn, Charlie Daniels, and Kenny Rogers.
Then, I cried. Long and hard.
I began my writing career in 1981 as a stringer for two major newspapers and two weeklies in Ohio. Since then, I have crafted and published more than 2,500 articles and two nonfiction regional books. I owned, operated and published my own newspaper. I wrote, copyrighted and taught my "Sell What You Write" course, sponsored writing seminars, spoke at many conferences and writing groups, and won the 1990 Beaver County Times Woman of the Year Award for contributions to the community and excellence in journalism.
Eleven years ago, the reporter who wrote about my winning this award began her story with the sentence, "When there's time she sleeps." She then listed part of my daily routine in one long paragraph, asked the readers if they needed to take a breath yet, then continued, "...she returns to her personal computer where she seizes the late night and early morning hours to do what she enjoys immensely -- write. She is as relentless as the pink Energizer-battery rabbit -- steady, persistent and determined to succeed."
I received the award in October 1990. In December, at age 38, I had a stroke. My writing career died along with a part of me. My ability to remember what I had taken years to learn was destroyed. That award-winning writer no longer existed. I was once again a beginner.
PERSEVERANCE: TO PERSIST IN SPITE OF DIFFICULTIES
Those words are posted in large, bold print and tacked to my bulletin board.
When my feet hit the floor in the morning, I walked into my home office, read those words, turned on my computer, then hobbled to the kitchen to pour a cup of coffee.
I grabbed my writing course notes and my tape recorder and began pacing and reading my notes out loud. None of it sounded the least bit familiar. When I played the tape back it didn't take long to realize I never would be the same person I once was. All that I had learned to earn those diplomas and awards had vanished. Being an avid Stephen King fan, I often referred to it as the "dead zone."
I read magazines, newspapers and books out loud into the tape recorder. All day, every day for the next month, I followed the same routine. I would turn on the tape recorder, read and listen.
By the end of January I began to sound somewhat like myself. But that wasn't good enough. I would pace, cane in hand, in front of the mirror, reciting parts of what I'd memorized and reading parts I'd forgotten. By the end of February, I had gained some coordination, some inflection, some pride.
When the envelope from Slippery Rock came with my spring semester course agreement, my hands shook when I opened it. It was my creative writing course. Every student who had taken the "Sell What You Write" course was on the roster, along with ten new students.
Standing in front of a mirror practicing my teaching skills was one thing, but I wasn't ready to face or speak to a classroom full of people. I set the envelope aside.
It took me six trips from the car, with one hand balancing a box on one hip, and a cane in the other hand, climbing two sets of fifteen stairs each, to get all my course materials into the classroom. I wanted to bolt, but instead I smiled, walked behind the desk and said, "Welcome to my creative writing class." One former student glanced at my cane and said, "It's great to be here, what happened?" I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a second, opened them and said, "I'm here tonight to learn along with you." Those who had taken my other course looked at me questioningly. "Before I begin, I'd like to tell you that if, after you've finished this course you're not satisfied with what you've learned, I will personally refund your money." The student who had asked what happened said, "Yeah, right, as if we wouldn't be satisfied. You're an excellent teacher and speaker. And what do you mean you're here to learn?"
I thanked him, smiled, and began to tell them what had happened since we had last met in this classroom. I told them that I had almost canceled the course because I didn't feel that I had a right to teach it, since I had just begun to learn what I would be teaching. After I told my story, I assured them that it wouldn't hurt my feelings if they chose to leave.
Not one of the students left the classroom. I paced in front of them, leaning on the cane, repeating everything I had memorized over the past three months. I used the gestures and inflections I had practiced. I tripped over the cane a few times. When they'd all jerked in their seats anticipating my fall, I smiled and said, "Just wanted to make sure you are paying attention." I was thankful that my sense of humor hadn't slipped into the "dead zone." Then, after four hours of speaking, joking and tripping, I passed out handouts, gave the assignment for the next class, and closed my briefcase.
As I began to pack my boxes to go home, I heard chairs sliding, papers jostling and a loud thundering noise. When I looked up, each and every student was standing beside his desk, clapping and smiling at me. It wasn't until that moment that I felt success. My vision blurred from tears that I wouldn't let drop, but I didn't need clear vision to see that the months of pacing, reciting and learning had paid off.
Unfortunately, the story doesn't end here and neither did my diversions from writing.
Between 1991 and 1992 I had four TIA's (mini-strokes), and went through a divorce. Minor aches, pains, swelling and a few other physical problems that I'd ignored for years were now becoming more noticeable. I'd been tested for everything from lyme disease to lupus. In 1994, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.
For nearly two years, unemployed and at home, I tried to implement mind over matter. I ignored the pain.
After my stroke in 1990, and after the diagnosis in 1994, I continued ignoring the pain, loss of memory and side effects of the drugs, and kept convincing myself and everyone else that I was fine. I continued that daily routine I had started when I left the hospital. The more I tried, the more disillusioned and weaker I became.
My seventy-four-year-old mother drove me downtown for a hearing before a judge, who would determine if I would receive Social Security. My attorney told me just to be myself. I began to wonder what and who 'myself' was.
My attorney told the judge I was unable to remember and accomplish even simple chores around the house and prescribed medication limited my ability to drive. She stated that the many ailments and side effects of the drugs forced me to quit my job, but had I not quit, I would have been let go. I listened to her expose all the personal aspects of my life. I knew that I had endured much, but, for me, the humiliation I felt at that very moment was more crippling than any disease.
The judge said he had read my forty-page report but he wanted to hear me tell him my story.
I stood for a few seconds, looked straight at the judge and fell apart.
It's said that your whole life flashes before you just before you die. Bits and pieces of my life began to flood my brain. My body tensed, my muscles jolted with pain, my legs trembled, my heart pounded against my chest and I felt as if I could die.
I reiterated what had been in my report.
With tears running down my face I said, "I've worked since I was fifteen years old. I don't know what it's like not to work, and work hard. Since I had my stroke in 1990, I've continually told myself I'll be okay. I have convinced myself all these years that I was okay. I've just quit a job that I truly loved and I would have kept had I been able to supply my boss with the skills I once had. My seventy-four-year-old mother drove me here today." Humiliation struck once more and between sobs I gained enough control only to add, "Sir, how can I convince you that I can't work, when I've been trying to convince myself for years that I can?" Several months later I received a letter informing me I'd been approved for SSD.
I use my cane every day now and keep telling myself I'm okay. The pictures, awards, degrees and all the published articles still carry a lot of meaning to me, but hold no validity now. I shake my head in awe of that person's ability to write and remind myself every day that I am a beginner.
Learning to write had never been easy. Even established writers need to be open to new ideas and learn by practicing. My experience taught me that regardless of the detours my life had taken, I need to continue to set my goals and diligently work toward them. I follow the road to the goal I've always had. That goal is -- and always will be -- to be the best writer I can be.
To be a writer you must have determination and perseverance. Perseverance is to persist in spite of difficulties. It does pay off. Just recently, ByLine Magazine accepted an article I wrote. It will be the first article I've had published in eleven years.
I love to write. Writing is all I ever wanted to do. I'm still here. I'm still okay. I'm still writing. I'm still learning. And I will persevere.
Bio: Joanne D. Stanko has published more than 2,500 articles. She was the recipient of the 1990 Woman of the Year award for Beaver County, Pennsylvania, for her accomplishments and excellence in journalism. She is on the staff of Slippery Rock University teaching creative and freelance writing, and she has appeared on television and radio. Her most recent articles were published in ByLine Magazine and Absolute Write ezine. She and Steve, her husband of five years, live in Sewickley, Pennsylvania.
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