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Maria Ross was 35. Her life was insanely busy. Unknown to her there was a small bulge in a blood vessel, known as an aneurysm growing in her brain. On August 4th, 2008 it ruptured. Here is a bit of her story.
Where were you when your aneurysm ruptured?
The month prior to it happening I was getting frequent headaches. The doctor thought it was due to stress in my life and high blood pressure. He said that we needed to monitor my blood pressure and try to get it down. The day my aneurysm ruptured I was very fortunate because my husband came home from work early to take care of me because I was not feeling well. I collapsed on the floor unconscious and he immediately called for an ambulance.
After collapse, what is the next thing you remember?
I don’t remember any of August 2008, except for a few random fragments. My memory does not pick up until about Labor Day weekend of that year. I was in the hospital for six weeks.
What happened during these 6 weeks?
I was in the ICU. I had brain damage and short term memory problems. I couldn’t remember things from one moment to the next. My mind was playing tricks on me. I couldn’t see due to complications in my eyes as a result of the initial hemorrhage. Because of my brain injury, heavy medications and a condition dubbed ICU psychosis, I was having some normal conversations with people, but I was also confused. I kept thinking I was late for things that didn’t exist, like a babysitting appointment or a charity event. I’ve heard that this is very common when in the ICU. You basically exhibit the neurological signs of someone with a mental illness. You are anxious, you are panicked and you are paranoid as you try to make sense of your surroundings. I was coming up with conspiracy theories due to paranoia. I was confusing dreams with memories and with conversations I had heard. In one case, I was convinced the hospital was a front for Gossip Girl and I thought the hospital staff was texting the show’s writers!
I have a totally different appreciation for mental illness now. It is such an awful feeling to really in your gut believe something to be true and no one believes you. This was common behavior based on my injury, the ICU and the medication I was on.
When this happened did they think you would recover?
When this first happened and they did the emergency surgery that first night they told my husband that they could try to save my life, but that was all they could do. They did not know what brain damage I had suffered. They did not know how my motor skills would be or mentally or cognitively how I would be. It was sort of a wait and see.
What was the cognitive damage?
My hemorrhage was in the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe controls ‘executive skills’ like organization, prioritization,
planning and initiation. When I started group therapy, I learned what I was dealing with and how to overcome it. I had to redefine how I work and how I function. My book, Rebooting My Brain, How A Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life, is about coming to terms with and letting go of what I used to be good at and adapting to the new me.
What do you miss the most about the old you?
I have been forced to focus on one thing at a time and I can’t handle too much information or stimuli at once. I used to be able to just whip off things quickly that I can’t now. My husband jokes that I used to be a ridiculously good multitasker and now I am just like everyone else. Things take longer. I used to write the perfect email in 10 minutes and maybe now it takes a half hour.
Was your life pretty hectic before this?
It was for a few years prior. I was kind of in the rat race. I was working all the time. I was involved in 900 activities at once. It was so frenetic. We moved. I started my own business. We bought our first house. I was always pretty resilient to change, but I remember a friend of mine saying, ‘I think you have hit your change limit. Even with you, your cup is running over.’ Even if you work out, even if you eat healthy the pace of your life can actually impact your health.
Do you think your hectic lifestyle attributed to your brain aneurysm rupturing?
Heredity and genetics gave me weak blood vessels and high blood pressure, but I think my lifestyle kind of exacerbated it. They have done studies with people that have so much ‘bad stress’ in their lives that they are in a constant state of fight or flight. The fight or flight human reflex was not meant to be on 100% of the time. It was only meant to engage when you face danger and I feel like with our hectic lives we are putting ourselves into fight or flight mode 24/7.
How do people learn to say, ‘No’?
I used to hear all the time, ‘You need to learn to say no.’ but always in terms of saying no to things you don’twant to
do. Nobody talks about saying no to the things you do enjoy. I was taking on too many of things I did want to do. Sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to the things you enjoy and prioritize so you can truly savor the things you are already doing.
What advice do you have for people on how they select what is most important in their lives?
It is different for everybody. For me it was getting over the fear that if I did not do everything at the same time, right now, that I would never do any of them. That is simply not true.
Living your best life should not mean killing yourself to fit it all in. I think we have convinced ourselves that we need to do everything and we have to do it all right now or we are not living our best life. When you don’t accomplish everything on your bucket list then you feel like a failure. Pick a few things based on what you have going on, or where you are in your life and just enjoy them. There are things that are naturally going to be better from a timing perspective. If you have ten things you need to do before you are 40 and you think you need to do them now – you actually don’t. You need to prioritize them so you can enjoy your life.
There has been a lot of stuff written about the myth of balance. The work life balance does not exist. You cannot do everything equally. It is a matter of what can you do now and what you can let go of and come back to later. Sometimes it could mean for a particular project your work does come before your family. Maybe there is a time when your kids need you more than your spouse does. It is not about making everything 11.3% across the board. It is about prioritization of things and knowing that life is going to ebb and flow. Things are going to go up and down the prioritization scale and when you realize this fact, it is like having a weight taken off your shoulders. That is what I realized. I don’t have to do everything all at once.
What is the spectrum of emotion in this?
Some of it is thankfulness and gratitude for being here, for my family, friends, for the people who rallied around me. I was speechless from the outpouring of support we got. There was a little survivor’s guilt. When I went to group therapy there were people who were a lot worse off than me. There was a lot of emotion with my husband and me. He saved my life. Literally. We went from husband and wife to caregiver and patient. To have to transition in and out of that is very challenging. There was a lot of frustration, tears, anger. Then on top of all this, my brain injury impacted my emotions, some of my impulse control and decision making.
How did you deal with the knowledge that you were blind?
I had a hemorrhage in my retinas and I couldn’t see. I describe it as looking through a really, really dirty glass. I couldn’t read. That was more frustrating than anything else. I was bored out of my mind. I would watch Law & Order and it is actually the perfect show to watch because they describe everything, ‘What is that?’ ‘That is the knife.’ ‘Where did you find it?’ ‘I found it….’ I watched endless episodes.
I knew they were going to do a surgery to make one of my eyes better and the other one they were just going to let heal naturally. I just clung to that. They tried to bring in this guy to talk to me about resources for the blind and I didn’t want to listen. My husband had to ask him to leave. I always kept it in my mind that I would see again.
How do you cope with the initial shock of being blind?
The shock was more when I had the surgery in the one eye. I came home and after the swelling went down I looked in the mirror and saw my condition for the first time. I had not seen myself during any of this. I had lost 20 pounds. My hair was chopped off. I looked like Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta. My whole physical appearance was the shocking part. I looked awful. I looked at myself and thought, ‘I have so long to go.’ I had been so optimistic because I could not see myself and I could not read about my condition. I think in some ways not being able to see was a blessing.
What did you learn about non-verbal cues when you were not able to see?
It was interesting to feel the energy off people. You can feel the energy people bring in the room.
Was there a learning curve when you re-gained your sight?
No, but I had to learn how to operate with one-eyed vision until the other eye healed which really screws with your depth perception. Plus, I have a lot more night blindness than I used to.
How long was it until you settled into the new normal?
It is funny because I still kind of deal with it every day. There were milestones along the way. Really after the first two years I was getting back up to speed.
What was the hardest thing to come to terms with?
I was trying to get back to the old me, but I was never going to get back to the old me. It was about accepting that there was a new way to do things and adapting to that. I wanted everything to be exactly how it used to be. But I had to learn to adapt and be patient with my recovery. I always equated patience to being lazy. You are not going to go from 0 to 60 overnight. The sooner I accepted that – the easier the recovery got.
Is there any single thing that you attribute more to your healing process than anything else?
I think it comes down to patience and acceptance. Stop trying to fight how things are but spend the energy learning how to adapt around them. Also there is a huge value to humor. We were even joking about stuff right after it happened. If I forgot to do something my husband would say something like, ‘Oh don’t pull that brain injury card on me.’ Humor can get you through so much pain.
Do you have any advice for anyone else this has happened to?
Part of the book is to make people aware and give them resources and places to go. People need to do their homework on the emotional and cognitive effects of brain injury. I would encourage people to take part in any groups they can. You think you are ok, but you are not.
Is there any sense in you that this needed to happen?
Nobody has asked me that before, but I have thought about that question a lot and I think it did. The pace of my life was ridiculous. I think it took this to get me to reframe and look at things differently. I can say that because I am ok now, but if I couldn’t talk to you or I was in a wheelchair I don’t know if I would feel that way.
You have inspired people, like Betsy & Warren Talbot, to change their entire approach to life and as such they are inspiring others. How does that feel?
That feels really good. I’m glad good can come out of crisis. I think people think when something like this happens it makes you chase your dreams. That happened more to the people around me than it did to me. I just wanted to get back to normal. I just wanted to walk my dog. The people around me got this wake up call. It is kind of interesting how that happens. I just wanted to keep things simple and sweet.
You can learn more about Maria and her book at: www.rebootingmybrain.com.
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