Case History

Creative Nonfiction
Marsa Laird


Photo Credit: Kevin Christopher Burke/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It’s a summer evening and we’ve gathered for a casual family dinner. Suddenly I put my wine glass down so hard that some of the wine slops over the rim onto the dining room table. Our son stares at me in surprise and says my mouth is crooked. Everybody looks. He gives me the STR test: S is “smile.” I can. T is “talk,” which means you’re supposed to speak in a coherent sentence: I don’t have any trouble with that. R is “raise both your arms.” I do. I’ve aced the stroke test, but our son says I should consult our doctor anyway. Next morning I show up at his office with my husband. He checks me out, can’t find anything wrong and sends me to a neurologist, who orders an MRI: it shows I’ve suffered a tiny stroke.The neurologist and our doctor agree I need to take meds stat to lower my blood pressure and cholesterol. As it turns out, I don’t have these telltale stroke signs either. It’s a mystery.

I keep asking my husband how my voice sounds. He assures me it’s OK, but in my head it seems slightly off. When I type on our computer keyboard my fingertips feel a little clumsy and I have to look down at the keys, although I don’t have any trouble composing. I complain of a tingling sensation to our doctor, but all I get in response is a shrug, which means he doesn’t know what it is. Finally I develop a symptom he recognizes: agoraphobia. He tells me there are patients who react this way to a stroke, adding that doctors don’t even always know why some people get strokes in the first place. Whatever brought it on, I think my agoraphobia reflects a sudden sense of vulnerability. Suppose it happens again when I’m by myself? I’m afraid to go out. I can’t leave our apartment without my husband. One afternoon I decide to take a nap and ask him to check in on me to make sure I’m not dead.

He urges me to talk to my former psychotherapist. I call her and explain that I don’t want to resume therapy, just  to deal with my new fear of public places. It will have to be on the phone because I can’t even get into a cab by myself to go to her office. She agrees. After a few  weeks she comes up with a plan that helps me. I like her approach of investigating the symptom rather than the cause, because by then I could really be dead. She suggests I sit on a bench near our house with my husband. I pick a place we both know how to walk to and figure out how long the round-trip should take me. My husband remains on the bench. If I don’t show up in the allotted time, he’ll start looking for me. I return sooner than expected feeling shaky, but pleased. We do more practice runs over the weekend to different locations. When he returns to work, it will be up to me to set a daily goal for myself, leave our apartment and carry it out.

I invent errands nearby. Drugstore, market, cleaners. I even get my hair cut, which involves a short bus ride. It’s not easy. I feel as though the whole world is divided in two parts: Everybody else—and me. But by the end of the summer I think I’m ready to rejoin the human race. I decide to document the experience for a writing group I belong to. When I try, I can’t. Fall comes and I’m afraid to even show up for the first meeting. My therapist urges me to go. I go. The others are talking about what they did over the summer when I get there. I mutter something. When it’s my turn to read—an essay I recycled—I’m conscious of the sound of my voice as I move my dry lips. Although it still doesn’t seem quite right to me, nobody else notices a difference.

Eight years have passed since then and I continue to be well. Even my voice sounds OK to me now. But I still haven’t been able to remaster touch-typing.

pencil

After teaching art history for 20 years to undergraduates, Marsa Laird took up memoir writing. Her work has appeared in One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a story collection about the Peace Corps in Africa, and in Toasted Cheese (“Transmutation” and “How I Spent My Summer”). She also published an op-ed in the NY Daily News about starvation in Somalia, the country where she served as a Peace Corps teacher. Email: marsalaird[at]yahoo.com

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