First Last

countdown.jpg

This past summer was filled with lasts. It was my last stint as director of our REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates). I ran my last TA (Teaching Assistant) training workshop. The summer was my last summer as a college professor. And today was my last first day of an academic year.

I will be retiring in May 2020. That’s in weight months, fifteen days, thirteen hours, nine minutes, and fourteen (fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…) seconds from now. (But who’s counting?)

I don’t like the term retiring. I don’t feel like I’m retiring. I feel as if I will be going through a gear shift, a new beginning, a switch in focus, from a math professor of close to thirty years to a full time writer.

I have been wanting to make a change of this nature for a few years now. Five? Six? More? Working full time is draining for many of us brain injury survivors. When I first realized that my struggles to maintain a full teaching load was too much for me, I thought of going on partial disability. There is no such thing. And I wasn’t ready to go on full time disability. I didn’t feel disabled. I just felt… exhausted.

I held on, paying a heavy price daily throughout the semester, suffering from neuro-fatigue, bad headaches, and exacerbated neurological deficits. It took at least a month into each break from teaching to recover. As time wore on, the period of recovery increased.

Every year, I wondered how long I could keep it up. Finally, after a full summer of recovery, barely in time for the new academic year, I decided to yield to the demands of the bloody brain. That was the summer of 2018—I decided to quit at the end of the following academic year, in May 2019, shortly after I turned fifty nine.

I went to see the retirement guy in HR (human resources). He suggested that I wait a year, until I turned sixty, when I’d be eligible for retirement benefits. It seemed like a no-brainer. I started thinking of quitting in terns of retirement, but it didn’t sit well with me—this didn’t feel like an ending. It actually felt like a beginning, a rebirth.

I’ll be writing, authoring books, public speaking, and traveling. But I’ll be controlling the pace, accommodating the bloody brain as needed, making my own choices on when and how to prevent debilitating fatigue. I know I’ll be busy, very busy, as I’ve always been—it’s part of who I am. But I also know that when the bloody brain lashes out at me, I’ll be able to give myself time to recover, without being limited by the demands of my job.

I know that the next nine months will be rough—I’ll struggle through it, like I’ve struggled for more than a decade. But now, unlike the past few years, I’ll have May 2020 to look forward to. The anticipation will help me through the rough patches.

I have the countdown app on my phone to sustain me. I’ll be okay. And come May, I’ll be more than okay.

Truer Colors

I had trouble putting my finger on it—something wasn’t right. Something had changed. Certainly not the website, but me—I had changed.

I scrutinized my home page—it was too quiet. Though neurological fatigue continued to plague me, it wasn’t as debilitating as in the earlier days of my recovery. In addition, I was less prone to sensory overload, better able to tolerate more color. But it went deeper than that. Something inside me was more awake, more alive, more… what?

When we first constructed the website, I entitled it “Living with Brilliant Colors,” referring to my life post-injury being in brighter colors than in my past life. The colored print was definitely not brilliant—the blue was dusty and the red subdued. The photos were also in muted colors, mostly light blues and grays. They radiated a much needed calm in the roller coaster that was my life back then, during my first couple of years after the bleeds. But I was now less emotionally volatile, more at ease with my self. My brain injury now was not as restrictive, not as frustrating. Also, the ever present fear, of another bleed, of an additional brain injury, no longer lurked around every corner—it only emerged occasionally.

Yes, I still preferred the quiet, but I didn’t need it quite as much, as frequently, as desperately. I was now better able to open myself up to higher volumes of input, sensory and emotional. More and more color had been nudging their way into my consciousness since I began my journey. The light touches of color here and there in the original website weren’t enough. They didn’t fully portray my growth.

Brendan, a friend and graphic artist agreed. He pointed out that now, especially after the publication of my second book, “Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe,” my range of colors was clearly broader. It didn’t take much to convince me—the side of me that produced the textile book did now include a wide spectrum and its cover versus that of my memoir of recovery from brain injury, echoed that change.

Though I was ready to add bolder colors to my pallet, I still couldn’t manage the garish—I needed them as they appear in nature. My colors were now radiant, rather than brilliant.

I needed to change the photos and print in my current website. I needed more.

Clutter

Clean website.jpg

It was so clean, uncluttered, easy to read, to navigate, and it was quiet. It was just right. It was me. I loved it... at first. Actually, I loved it for the first… how long? The first year?

When my second book, “Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe,” was about to be published, my website no longer felt right. The second book, about textiles, was so different from the first, a memoir of recovery from brain injury. Now the website needed to address both the brain injury issues and traditional textiles—it started getting cluttered. I now needed separate information about the upcoming book. I needed a separate blog about textile side of my life.

When the book actually came out, the first didn’t fade out of existence. I had to accommodate events associated with each book as well as events that combined the two. The website needed additional pages, more buttons and links.

I spoke to Judy, my editor, and Bekah, my web warrior (mistress sounds a bit off). Or should it be web ninja? Web chief? web and we reorganized a bit here, added a page there. But it seemed to be getting worse. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t enough, and no matter what Bekah did to keep things under control, I felt as if it was getting out of hand.

It reached a point where I avoided scrolling down on the home page—there was too much information. I got overwhelmed. It must have much worse for brain injury survivors who were new to the site—so many of us have trouble processing high volumes of data.

It was time to rethink the whole website. Perhaps even construct a new one.

Restoring Order

Ganossi  https://pixabay.com/photos/crowd-football-cheer-2140586/

Ganossi https://pixabay.com/photos/crowd-football-cheer-2140586/

My friend Susan pointed her out. “There she is. The woman I told you about. The one with the brain injury.” Susan was pointing at an unremarkable looking woman. A bit on the skinny side, straight brown hair, sitting alone at a table, all her attention on writing in a small notebook.

In my previous life, I would have ignored her. I would have been so focused on rejoining old friends, members of WARP (Weave A Real Peace https://weavearealpeace.org/), mostly women, kindred spirits, many dressed in striking ethnic attire, all with strong personalities, lots of empathy, doers—I probably wouldn’t have noticed her. But now, at the phrase “brain injury,” she had all my attention. I was intrigued. I wanted, needed to hear her story. Since my own brain injury, I’ve felt the need to connect with each brain injury survivor who crossed my path, whether it was Raffi, the Israeli terror survivor who had a bullet shaped dent in his forehead, my student, Mitch, a football player who, after suffering a severe concussion during practice, could no longer play football, or a friend of a friend, who had a benign tumor removed to prevent seizures.

I completely forgot about Susan, who stood by my side, and approached the unremarkable woman, all her attention consumed with writing in a small black notebook, clearly transferring information from her phone. When she sensed my presence, she raised her head. I was struck by the look in her eyes. She looked so timid, anxious, wary, as if she was ready to flee at any moment. After I introduced myself, using my label “brain injury survivor,” she smiled. “Sorry, I have to write these note. Otherwise I’ll forget.”

Her name was Barb. She suffered a severe concussion a year ago—early days into recovery by brain injury survivor standards, the roughest period of recovery. Like I was during my early days, her issues with sensory input were frequent and debilitating. We had a lot to talk about.

We talked about our injuries, about deficits. We laughed about our difficulties with short term memory and short attention span. We lamented our issues with fatigue and our frustrations with our inability to predict levels of functionality, whether we will be able to participate in planned activities. But our main topic of conversation was our difficulties processing high volumes of input.

As I suspected, she was sitting apart from the crowd in order to minimize the quantity of sensory data. Several times I caught her standing very still in the middle of a gaggle of women. She looked like a deer caught in the headlights. I immediately recognized the situation—she was suffering from severe sensory overload. When I saw her in that state, I took action to alleviate her difficulties—I laid my hand on her arm and guided her over to a quieter spot, speaking to her soothingly. “Let’s go over here. I’ll stay with you until you feel better.”

A couple of times, I too felt overwhelmed and my eyes started tearing up, and she provided me with the anchor I needed, engaging me in conversation in her soft voice.

When us brain injury survivors experience overload, all colors seem garish, blinding, all sounds are harsh, a defeating cacophony, smells noxious. People brushing by sends us reeling. All labels are jumbled up, there’s no way to file, process, and move on to the next piece of information. It feels like there’s utter chaos in our minds, unintelligible partial thoughts darting around in all directions. We can’t make sense of anything. We are alone, terrified, frozen.

The only way to restore order and calm is to find an anchor, something to focus on, a label to cling to, to help us escape the chaos, to a quiet place, where the pace of our environment is slower, where we have time to sort and file. When we re-establish our ability to label, the world comes back into focus, and once again, we can function. The anchor can be a light touch, a hand on a shoulder, a familiar soft voice, a recognizable face that swims into focus from the crowd.

Grocery shopping has always difficult. Making choices is overwhelming: regular hummus or hummus with pine nuts, family size or regular. What flavor yogurt? Plain or blackberry? Perhaps raspberry? Which brand of shampoo? Suave? Herbal Essential? What about the flavor? Apple? Coconut? Then there are all the people pushing past you. And those standing in your way. The fluorescent light, the loud announcements, the music, the colors. It’s all too much. I used to freeze and get stuck, in the middle of the chaos, unable to extricate myself, and start crying—I could only shop with a companion. Now, I slow down, come to a stop, lean against the cart, and wait, until I calm down. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, sometimes more. Unlike during the early days, I only panic briefly—I know I’ll get over it.

Farther along in my recovery, unlike Barb, once I have my anchor, I can usually take over and manage on my own.

But there are still times where don’t have the resources to help myself. Now I know to restrict myself to two or three aisles. I know that otherwise, I will need outside help, that I won’t be able to manage on my own.

Incorrigible

Israel ho!

Israel ho!

Sometimes I forget my limitations. Often I ignore them, on purpose. In particular, when it comes to travel, though I do make some concessions to the bloody brain—I am willing to take my chances.

I knew the trip was was going to be a challenge. I took it anyway.

The flight out of Pittsburgh was uneventful. I arrived in Newark at 2:00 pm on Tuesday. Unfortunately, my overnight flight to Amsterdam didn’t depart until 6:00 pm.

Long stopovers are always problematic. Prolonged exposure to overwhelming sensory input guarantees that the bloody brain will take revenge—inevitable fatigue and predictable headaches with no relief in sight.

The was another long wait before the next flight, to Paris, departed. But Cindy, my travel companion, had the foresight to reserve a pod in the Amsterdam airport’s Yotel for a few hours, where I took a much needed nap, and a refreshing shower.

I always travel light, with carry-on luggage only, to ensure that when necessary, I won’t have to check any of my bags. Because I was up for a journey involving several stop-overs, I kept my bags with me.

The journey from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv involved a (very) short stopover in Paris. Despite my explanation that the chances that my bag making it onto the flight from Paris to Tel Aviv were slim to none, the KLM staff member at the gate in Amsterdam insisted I check it in. Since the onset of the bloody brain, I suffer from anxiety issues—panic set in, preventing me from resting on either flight.

The bag didn’t make it. It was now Friday.

Usually, when I arrive at my destination, I do my best to take a rest to combat the ill effects of the journey and ensure that my visit is not a total nightmare.

After I arrived at my parents’ house in Haifa, instead of having time to rest, as I had originally planned, I had to go shopping for necessities. The bag didn’t arrive until Friday afternoon.

On Saturday afternoon, Cindy and I made our way from Haifa, in northern Israel, down to Eilat, at the southernmost tip of the country—a four and a half hours’ drive. And early the next morning we set off into Jordan, for a day-long tour of the incredible Nabataean city of Petra. We drove back to Haifa the next day, on Monday.

After a lovely five-day stay in Israel, we flew (directly) to Amsterdam, where we spent the next four day. Our time in the Netherlands was wonderful. In addition to consuming delicious food and visiting beautiful sights, we visited several museums and took a couple of canal tours.

I knew I was overdoing it—I was exhausted throughout. Headaches threatened at several points during the trip, both during our stay in Israel and Holland, as well as en route.

Before the trip, I knew I would be overdoing it, even without the various mishaps along the way. But I also knew that it would be worth the price.

And it was, well worth the price.

I arrived back in Pittsburgh suffering from debilitating fatigue, the beginnings of an excruciating headache that ended up restricting me to a darkened room for a couple of days, and a goofy smile on my face.

Spring Writing

I feel lost. I know what I want to write about. I’ve written bits and pieces. But it won’t gel. I’ve tried stepping back to take a break, to gain a better perspective.

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What is this story about?

Normally, all it takes is a shower. I stand under the shower head, water streaming down my body, my thoughts meandering, reviewing aspects of an essay I am writing. And by the time I dry myself, I’ve figure it out. Occasionally, I have to repeat the process the next day.

When I wrote about my daughter’s struggles to pass her driving test, I thought my essay was about just that—a story about Sarah’s first driving test. But though amusing, as I’d meant it to be, it fell flat. It just didn’t quite work, it felt as if there was something missing. It came to me while I was in the shower—the story was about my tumultuous relationship with my teenage daughter. Once dressed, I sat at my computer and the words flowed onto the screen.

Over the past couple of months, my writing has felt off. I couldn’t settle into it. No matter what I wrote about. I’ve tried all the tricks of the trade, backing off for a while and coming back to it, thinking in terms of what I’m not writing about, musing about it in the shower—nothing.

Something was wrong, very wrong. But what? Why? Had something in my circumstances changed?

It was mid semester—I was tired much of the time and headaches frequently plagued me, but that was not unusual. The Spring was always tougher than the Fall semester. But in the past, I’d managed to write under similar circumstance.

Was I even more tired than usual? The semester was winding down, which was always tough. But that never bothered me to this extent. Or was it?

My lousy memory often got in the way of me trying to figure this sort of thing out. When life with the bloody brain gets difficult, a worse headache than usual, crippling fatigue that gets in the way of my daily activities, I frequently have trouble figuring out triggers and trying to compare it to struggles in the past.

Usually, when that happens, I turn to my friends Joyce and Cindy—I speak to them daily. Perhaps they could help.

Cindy’s reacted with an emphatic, “Duh!”

She reminded me of my emergency trip to Israel. It was a real killer. It took me even longer than usual to recover from it.

Joyce scoffed. “You’ve been stressing about your parents’ health, and worrying about your sister’s recovery. Then there’s Cindy—she hasn’t been doing well. And Sarah… And it is the spring semester. Need I say more?”

I mentioned my difficulties to Judy, my writing coach. “My writing is below par.”

She reminded me that my writing always suffered in the spring, and this spring was worse than usual with family issues. She suggested that I step back from writing about the tough stuff, and hold off on the larger projects. She encouraged me to stick with shorter pieces, blog posts. “What about your issues with writing during the spring semester?”

It was better, though still a struggle. I told myself that all would be well at the end of the semester—only two weeks to go.

Today is Wednesday. On Friday I gave my last lecture of the semester. Since then I’ve been experiencing headaches. There have been a few headache-free stretches, but there has not been a single headache-free day. And every day there’s been at least one stretch when I’ve been . From past experience, I know that full recovery from the stress and fatigue of the semester will take at least a couple of more days.

In the meantime, I’ll stick to shorter pieces. Like this one.

Story Strong

A student came to my office, looked around my office. As he crossed the threshold, his step faltered. I turned to see what had caused his reaction—he was staring at my calendar, a Jewish calendar with a big Star of David emblazoned on it. 

Photo by Nick Youngson, http://www.picpedia.org/highway-signs/p/peace.html

Photo by Nick Youngson, http://www.picpedia.org/highway-signs/p/peace.html

Curious, I scrutinized him, searching for a clue that would explain his behavior. He was tall, his hair was dark and curly, he was suntanned—nothing that would normally call attention to him. 

“I just got back from my country”—he emphasized my country—“where I was diagnosed with a health problem. I will need surgery. I may miss the next test.” Listening to his accent, the way he rolled his r’s, the fluidity, the intonation, I suspected he was an Arab.

I had to ask, “What is your country?” 

He watched me closely. “I am from Palestine.”

I sat up. “Then we come from the same region, I am Israeli.”

He stiffened.

I smiled. “I knew you were an Arab. I’ve met many Arabs over here, but you’re my first Palestinian.”

“I’ve never met a Jew before and I never thought I’d speak to an Israeli.”

“Where are you from specifically?”

Warily we danced around each other verbally, letting out tidbits of information, piecemeal, watching for each other’s reactions. His family had fled Palestine in 1948, during what we Israelis call the War of Independence and the Arabs refer to as the Catastrophe.They now lived in Jordan. I told him of my brother’s sojourn in Lebanon as a medic during the 1982 Lebanon War.

After that initial cautious encounter, he stopped by my office several times. We were intrigued by each other, interested in each other’s stories. 

We all carry labels. Mine include mother, textile artist, writer, the brain injury survivor, Jew, the Israeli. I am all of those and much, much more. If I want people to get to know me beyond those labels, if I want to let them into my life and be part of their lives, I need to tell my story, and I need to take advantage of every opportunity to do so. 

I started writing shortly after I returned home from hospital, where I’d undergone three brain surgeries. I felt lost, as if I’d been dumped in the middle of an alien landscape without a compass. I pored over many websites and read through several books, but found nothing to help me guide me through this new world. I needed to understand what had happened to me, who I was becoming. I decided to record my journey while I bumbled along, hoping it would help me see the bigger picture and gain a better perspective of where and who I was. In time, wanting to reach a broader audience, I hired a writing coach in order to improve my writing skills. She was a fantastic teacher—she transformed me from a journal type writer to an award winning author.

As my stories took shape, I became aware of the importance of storytelling. They allow us to move past the labels, to build trust, to firm our ties with each other, to sustain our humanity.

My student and I could have easily denied each other’s stories. He did not have to create an opening to tell his story by mentioning “his country” and I did not have to step right through the proffered door. We could have easily let labels and distrust guide us. By opening that door to me, he was showing me the utmost respect, and by crossing that threshold, I too, was treating him as a fellow human being, with all the respect he was due.

In order to have any hope for humanity, for peace, we have an obligation to share our stories. We should feel compelled to take the time to listen, showing our respect to our storytellers, to risk peace.

Hands Up

https://pixabay.com/illustrations/hands-hand-raised-hands-raised-220163/

https://pixabay.com/illustrations/hands-hand-raised-hands-raised-220163/

Shoes off. Coat and hoodie in the bin. Wait. My belt—I whip it off, roll it up, and tuck it under the coat. I check my pockets. Oh yes, liquids—I pull the ziploc bag out of my backpack.

I think I’ve got it all. Oops, the iPad. I sigh as I reach over to get another bin. I pat my pockets again and run through the list in my head—iPad, liquids, shoes, belt... I’ve got it all.

I step up to the machine. The TSA rep motions me to go in. I know the drill—I stand with my feet shoulder width apart and lift my arms up. I feel my pants slide down a tad... and it’s time to step out of the machine.

The rep motions me over to the side. She points at a screen—on the stylized image there’s a patch of yellow. “Do you have anything in your back pocket?”

I shake my head as I pat it, just in case.

“I’ll have to pat you down.”

This isn’t the first time. 

I prefer to travel wearing cargo pants. All those pockets are extremely convenient—when I need to set things aside, they go into my pockets: phone, wallet, passport, boarding pass... But the cargo pants turned out to be inconvenient in another way—a couple of pockets always show up as yellow patches on the monitor. Once I realized the pockets were the problem, reluctant to forgo wearing cargo pants, I bought a pair made of thinner fabric. Alas, the same thing happened. 

I gave up and decided to try jeans. I had a particularly comfortable pair. I convinced myself that I’d manage fine without  all those lovely pockets. And I did—when the need arose, I shoved things into the front pocket of my backpack.

Going through security, the jeans worked like a charm—the image on the monitor was white, no yellow patches in sight. It worked a couple more times. And then this time, there it was, a yellow patch.

The rep patted me down. “Widen your stance.”

She found nothing. She swabbed the palms of my hands for gunpowder residue. As we waited for the machine to respond, she suggested, “Next time you go through security, pull your pants up. The machine is sensitive to bunched up fabric.”

My eyebrows shot up—but, but… That didn’t makes sense. I almost said something to the rep but decided not to, probably wisely.

Turning to gather my things, I briefly became distracted, until I noticed the guy behind me going through the same spiel. He too was told to hold his pants up. I caught his eye. We both shook our heads and shrugged.

Once I was clear of security, I put my shoes on, placed my iPad and my bag of liquids back in my backpack, wove the belt through the loops, hitched up my pants, and buckled the belt.

Without a belt and my hands up, as a hipless wonder, there was nothing to prevent my pants from slipping.

I have yet to come up with a way to hitch up my pants while my arms are raised...

CBD

CBD.jpg

Is this it? Have I finally found that elusive magic pain killer?

 

Living a full life comes at a price. Among many other symptoms, I suffer from extreme fatigue and debilitating headaches.

Spending my life hiding a darkened room is not an option. I will not surrender to my damaged brain.

I recently returned from an exhausting and wonderful trip. I landed in the U.S. with a goofy smile and the early signs of an excruciating headache.

Because of the ongoing threat of brain bleeds, I have to stay away from any meds that increase the risk. Pain killers with blood thinning properties such as Advil and Aspirin are off limits, as are those that constrict bloods vessels around the brain. The headaches are horrendous, but the chance of another bleed is unthinkable.

As a brain injury survivor, I am hypersensitive to anything that causes neurological effects. I can’t take any controlled substances, such as morphine and vicodin.

Tylenol, my one remaining choice, doesn’t touch my headaches—I might as well take a placebo.

Since none of the usual pain killers work, I’ve resorted to experimenting with natural remedies.

A friend mentioned her success with ginger. When I complained that neither ginger tea nor capsules helped, she suggested crystallized ginger. It was effective—it took care of even the worst of headaches.

I was sure I found my wonder-drug. But several months later, ginger stopped working, completely, for no apparent reason.

My chiropractor urged me to experiment with turmeric, an anti inflammatory. No, it was no wonder-drug. But it usually took the edge off the pain, allowing me to function at an acceptable level. But like ginger, it too, stopped working after a while.

I continued my search—there had to be something out there.

Taking the advice of a fellow headache sufferer, I am now experimenting with CBD (cannabidiol) hemp oil. Though marijuana and hemp are both forms of the cannabis plant and have similar healing properties, unlike marijuana, hemp does not bring on a high, and is legal in all fifty states.

It worked! Like a charm! Once again, I was headache-free. Not only did it take care of even the worst headaches, it acted swiftly.

About to embark on a trip, I stopped off at the nearby apothecary to replenish my supply, and discovered CBD chewing gum, at 10 mg per tablet. Unlike the oil, it did not taste vile, and would not be at risk of spilling—it would be perfect. It was perfect. Though exhausted during the trip, I was able push on, enjoying myself as I hadn’t in years.

Back home, the CBD continued to be effective.

Until yesterday. I woke up with a headache. I chewed some CBD gum—nothing. I took a dropper full of CBD oil—no effect. And the headache kept worsening. Ever hopeful, I alternated between gum and oil throughout the day. By lunchtime, the pain overwhelmed my entire being. I lay in bed, the blinds lowered, dozing fitfully, occasionally whimpering.

From past experience, I knew I’d be spending the next couple of days in bed until the headache ran its course. But come evening, the pain suddenly switched from all consuming to nothing.

This morning, waking to a slight headache, I popped a piece of gum into my mouth. So far so good.

Have I found an effective treatment after all?

Teach the Children

I paused, took a deep breath, then read through the problem again. It still looked like a tangle of black yarn with no beginning and no end.

calculus.jpg

Okay, okay, I can do this. Line by line. Sentence by sentence.

I read the first sentence: “An island is 2 miles due north of its closest point along a straight shoreline.” Oh God! What the hell does that mean?

“Closest point along…” What? There’s no way I can figure this out.

I felt my heart pounding in my chest. C’mon, breathe.

What if I draw a picture?

“An island...” I could do that.

“2 miles due north of its closest…” Another deep breath. Perhaps if I skip ahead.

“a straight shoreline.” I could draw a straight shoreline.

I reread the first part of the sentence. Oh, the island is north of the shoreline. I adjusted the drawing—shoreline on the bottom, island above it. Oh, 2 miles above it.

Bit by bit, I managed to make sense of the problem, every so often having to inhale deeply to prevent myself from panicking. Once I completed the picture, I figured out how to translate it into variables and equations. Solving it was a piece of cake, I’d already mastered implicit differentiation.

Before the brain surgeries, I would have flown through the problem, thinking it through as I read it, sketching the picture quickly while incorporating the variables into the picture, then writing the equations without any hesitation.

The filters responsible for processing input were damaged by my brain surgeries—pieces of information often carry the same value. My brain had trouble sorting through large volumes of data. I now thought more slowly, much more slowly. Seeing the bigger picture was more of a challenge—I had to think through each piece of the puzzle before I was able to understand how it fit it into the puzzle as a whole. I had to take one step at a time. There were no shortcuts.

My neuropsychologist explained that I’d lost facility but not capacity: my ability to access data and my processing speed had decreased, but my brain power was in tact.

In order to reclaim my role as a teacher, I had to relearn mathematics, from multiplications tables and adding fractions, to college algebra, calculus, and beyond. The main issue I had to contend with was my poor memory. I looked up how to add fractions when I couldn’t help my daughter with her algebra homework. I needed to relearn the quadratic formula in order to solve an example in my college algebra book. Once I got the nudge I needed, I was off and running.

My difficulties taught me that struggling students did not necessarily lack in capacity as I used to believe, that in fact, it was more a matter of facility. I realized that most of my students had issues remembering notation and terminology. Once I reminded them of the relevant information, they had little difficulty solving the problem.

Now, when I teach, I remind them of earlier material, earlier terminology, as I move onto the new, making connections, helping them tie various bits of the material together, showing them that the techniques they have learned throughout the years apply to the new material. I teach them to address the issue of being overwhelmed by the material, by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable, chunks. I show them that though they may not believe in their own ability, they do in fact have the tools, it is a matter of accessing them.

The brain surgeries also damaged my ability to think sequentially, linearly. In the pre-bleed days, I only recognized linear patterns. I was skeptical of other, nonlinear thinking styles. I saw them as fuzzy, lumping them with hazy “woo-woo” terms like intuition and instinct. If a person couldn’t explain how they arrived at a solution, whether correct or incorrect, I regarded them as illogical, as less. It didn’t occur to me that there were other ways to recognize patterns. But now, having had to work my way around the faulty wiring in my brain, I was better able to appreciate different thinking styles.

In the past, when people found out I was a mathematician and responded along the lines of “You must be really smart,” I used to respond with an insincere deprecating remark, “Math is just a different way of thinking.” I still respond with the same remark, but now I’m sincere about it. I no longer regard instinct and intuition as woo-woo. To me, these are “legitimate” terms to describe the hard to explain, nonlinear thinking.

I now work to address the variety of thinking styles I come across in the classroom. When I have trouble understanding students’ difficulties recognizing linear patterns, I work with the class as a whole to figure them out and adjust my explanations accordingly.

My disability also taught me to better bond with people. Having been fiercely independent and socially awkward, learning to ask for help did not come easily to me. But I had no choice—I couldn’t manage on my own. I was reluctant to expose my vulnerabilities, but as I learned to let my guard down, I discovered that by opening myself up to others, they opened up to me. I also learned to make stronger connections. From the shy introvert that I used to be, I grew into a socially adept extrovert.

As a result I was now able to connect with my students, which in turn improved the atmosphere in the classroom and created a better teaching and learning environment.

My teaching skills improved dramatically. And where in the past I enjoyed teaching, I am now passionate about it, loving the challenges and reveling in my interactions with my students.