A Different Kind Of Mom – Life After StrokeDelanie Stephenson had to relearn how to speak, swallow and walk after surviving an ischemic stroke at age 33. She also had to accept that she would have to be a different kind of mom to her two young children.
Stephenson was cleaning out her van after work on June 6, 2012, when she suddenly felt a wave of nausea, followed by profuse sweating. Her left side was also starting to feel tingly and numb.
For a week, Stephenson had been experiencing a terrible headache, one so bad that it hurt to turn her head. Now, she was slumped over her steering wheel when her husband, Curtis, returned from work a few minutes later.
Fearing a heart attack, Curtis quickly put Stephenson and the couple’s two kids in the car and drove to the nearest hospital, about 30 minutes away from their home near Richmond, Virginia.
“It felt like an eternity,” Stephenson said. “It felt like my body was shutting down and I thought I was going to die.”
Stephenson was diagnosed with a stroke and given a clot-busting medication called tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), which restored blood flow to the left side of her brain, but also caused bleeding, and additional damage, on the right side, a rare complication.
Getting help quickly is critical for stroke patients because the more quickly treatment is given, the more likely they are to recover without permanent disability.
Stephenson had experienced several common signs of a stroke, which can be easily remembered using the acronym F.A.S.T.: If you spot sudden (F)ace drooping, (A)rm weakness, or (S)peech difficulty, it’s (T)ime to call 911.
For a week following the stroke, Stephenson had sympathetic storms, a stress response as the body tries to recover from a traumatic brain injury, before doctors were able to calm them with medication. She spent 12 weeks in the hospital, both recovering and undergoing intensive therapy.
It took Stephenson 6 weeks to regain her speech, and 12 weeks before she could return home, walking short distances using a walker. She wasn’t able to walk using a cane for another month.
Stephenson continues to recover in small ways, but life has significantly changed She walks with a cane, but lacks the stamina to return to her job as a high school history teacher. She struggles with balance, something that has caused several injuries and sent her back for more therapy. Her speech returned, but she still grapples with aphasia, or a difficulty finding the right words. Stephenson’s short-term memory is also bad, causing her to have a hard time remembering what she did the day before.
“I can do something for about 10 or 15 minutes before I have to rest,” she said. “Just driving to the post office makes me feel like I need a nap.”
Nearly four years into her recovery, Stephenson, now 37, learned a lot about herself, and raising young kids, as a stroke survivor.
Realize that you won’t be the mom that you were.
As difficult as the physical recovery was, overcoming the stroke’s emotional toll was even tougher.
“I wanted get up and fix the kids something to eat or see them off to school, but all I could do was sit there and watch everyone else do the job of mom, and it really hurt,” Stephenson said.
The kids had their own adjustment period. Katie, then 6, became a nursemaid to her mother, fetching things and making sure toys were cleared from the floor so she wouldn’t fall. Alex, 4, developed separation anxiety.
“He’d look at pictures from before the stroke and say, ‘When is the old mommy back, because the new mommy isn’t as much fun,’” Stephenson said. “It was really tough.”
Today, Stephenson can’t run and play in the yard with the kids, now 10 and 8, but she can still play cards and board games with them.
Finding ways to reach acceptance, both from her kids and herself, was crucial to moving forward.
“The fact that they love me anyway helped me get to that place,” Stephenson said.
It’s okay if you can’t get it all done.
Stephenson also had to adjust her own expectations. When she finally returned to her own house four months after her stroke, Stephenson was determined to return to her routines, only to find she didn’t have the stamina.
“I got one sheet off the bed and was exhausted,” she said.
Learning to accept her house wouldn’t be spotless took time, but has tried to put less pressure on herself.
“My house has more clutter these days, and there are dishes in the sink and laundry to put up, but I’m still here, lovin’ on my kids, that’s what’s important,” she said.
Ask for help
Stephenson always prided herself on her independence, but following her stroke, she had no choice but ask for help, starting from the first days when she couldn’t form any words.
Even though driving is exhausting for her, she avoids asking people to give her rides.
“I feel like I’m being an inconvenience,” she said.
Still, she’s made progress. Today, she asks for help cleaning the house, picking up items from the store and watching my kids.
“I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help,” Stephenson said.
It’s okay to stop and smell the roses
The stroke left Stephenson with pseudobulbar effect, or outbursts of uncontrollable laughing or crying, a condition that can be exacerbated by stress. She avoids large crowds or unfamiliar situations to manage her anxiety and has become more introverted to avoid awkward situations.
Stephenson has worked to manage her condition, identifying triggers and avoiding getting overtired. Looking back, Stephenson said her life was high stress, high anxiety before the stroke, as she juggled work and family.
“Today, I try not to sweat the small stuff,” she said. “If I want to take a day to relax and just chill, that’s okay.”
Delanie uses writing as her own version of therapy and has written two books, The Calm before the Storm and Mom Had a Stroke.