How Coming Out of the Fog is Like Having A Stroke

I was listening to a recent Ted Radio Hour podcast about the brain where Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuro anatomist, was talking about the stroke she’d had about twenty years ago, and the more she talked, the more I thought that as an adoptee, the process of coming out of the fog sounded an awful lot like having a stroke.

Jill Bolte Taylor said that as a result of her stroke, she became a woman trapped inside the body of an infant. That was how I felt when I realized the neurological damage relinquishment had caused my limbic brain. I felt like a crying infant, yet I was a grownup and had to do normal, grownupy things like work and order coffee even though I just wanted to cry much of the time.

She said of her stroke, “Once I awoke, I could not walk, talk, read, write. Jill Bolte Taylor died that day.” Something happened after I wrote You Don’t Look Adopted; something happened when I identified the deep grief in my body and mind as a result of being relinquished. (By the way, did I EVER use the word relinquished in everyday talk before I started writing about adoption? No. Why? Because it’s a super polite and somewhat evasive way of saying gave up.) What happened was that I could not walk, talk, read or write the way I had been able to before I’d come out of the fog of believing I hadn’t been affected in my adoption. What happened was that the Anne Heffron I’d known all my life was gone.

What that looked like was that my body started to shut down in unpredictable ways. I couldn’t do yoga anymore because my muscles ached so badly I felt worse after a class than I did before. I couldn’t ride my bike or do vigorous hikes for the same reason. I hurt. After a lifetime of depending on regular strenuous exercise for mental and physical well-being, this was a shocker. What I could do was walk streets that were level or walk paths that were fairly flat, and I walked for hours. The motion was soothing and I could listen to podcasts that both distracted and fed my rearranging brain.

It became difficult for me to talk to people. It felt as though someone had taken a vacuum cleaner to my brain and sucked out a large percentage of words. This was frustrating and embarrassing. I could use language when I wrote because I could pause and wait for the words to come when they hid, but mostly they came easily when it was just me and the page. I didn’t have to do the thing my brain did when I talked to another person—try to read what the person thought, what they wanted, what I should say to stay in their good graces. I was free to discover who I was and what I thought when it was just me and words and a blank page.

Reading was something I now did in very short spurts. Gone were the days when I’d read more than a book a week. My focus was shot. I’d read a paragraph and then go online and check Facebook or go brush my teeth. It was as if my brain had been so rattled there was too much motion going on for me to be able to set aside the noise/distraction of my own head to fully absorb the writing of another person.

One of the more unsettling things was the considerable deterioration of my handwriting after coming out of the fog. I not only constantly misspelled words, but my handwriting looked like…well, it looked like I’d had a stroke. The lines of writing were all over the page and each letter was larger and messier than normal.

However, just a few weeks ago I noticed something. After a year and a half or scrawl, my handwriting looked normal. Better than normal! The lines of print were straight and each letter was neat and legible. I’m also getting language in conversation back and walking steep hills. I’m even doing short yoga classes online at home and feeling good. Even the reading is slowly coming back to me. I can focus.

I would estimate that coming out of the fog has cost me about $60,000. This accounts for the amount of time I spent grieving instead of working and the amount I spent in desperate measures trying to get pain relief (shopping, acupuncture, travel, food, moving to New York for three months to write a book, etc.). I’m not sure how much Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke cost her. She didn’t mention that.

She did say that if she could go back and either have the stroke or not have the stroke, she’d have if for she was so grateful for the stroke experience.

She described having the stroke like this, “It was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality where I’m the person on the machine having the experience [she was exercising] to some esoteric space where I’m witnessing myself having this experience…I realized that everything in my body has slowed way down…I was just focused on internal systems…I looked down at my arm and I realized I could no longer define the boundaries of my body. Because the atoms and molecules in my arm blended with the atoms and molecules on the wall and all I could detect was this energy, energy, and I’m asking myself, What is wrong with me? What’s going on?”

Writing about my experience of coming out of the fog was just like that. The more I wrote, the more I left the boundaries of my body behind and the more convinced I was that I was going to die, that writing about my feelings was going to kill me. It didn’t feel like survival was an option. It felt like I was taking an eraser and wiping away all that had happened, all that wasn’t really me, and that what would be left would be empty space, death, but what happened was that the emptiness became truth and truth connected me to others and so that became community, and suddenly it was not about me, personally, anymore. It was not about my story. It was about the story of all adopted people. The story of all people. I was the opposite of alone. I was everyone.

It took eight years of rehabilitation until Jill Bolte Taylor felt anything like she’d felt before. Eight years of care and a lot of sleep. And this is the key point I think adopted people and other people recovering from deep grief should focus on: the amount of time needed to really address trauma and healing. I treat healing as a full-time job now. I am still don’t make enough money to house myself, to pay for health care, to buy Christmas presents for all my friends. Luckily, the support I have received in the last two years has kept me warm and housed. It feels like a miracle, this community I have, this support, this love. Just when I felt the most alone, the world rushed in and I felt…I felt…I felt…awe. I didn’t think I would survive. I thought I was alone. And neither of these things ended up being true.

Jill Bolte Taylor said, “For me be able to have this internal experience watching my own brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information and to witness my recovery has given me such insight into the workings of my brain and fortunately into the insight of what does it actually take for a person to recover from a brain trauma. We know now there is neurogenesis, we do grow some new neurons. We know there is neuroplasticity, people are capable of recovering from brain trauma, and that’s a completely different perspective than fifteen years ago.”  I feel this way about relinquishment and adoption and trauma. I went in; I had my stroke of insight and now I can see there is hope. I believe the brain can change, can grow, can heal. We just need more information, more research, more adopted people sharing their experiences.

“It wasn’t terrifying,” Jill Bolte Taylor said of her stroke. “It was remarkable.”

That's how I feel. Even at the worst points, even when I was in fetal position on the ground, sobbing like an infant, I thought the experience was remarkable. I had no idea what was going to come next. I was so alive.

I am so alive. It feels like a miracle.