It wasn’t long after the heatstroke, I noticed my left hand became dominate when all my life I’d been right handed. Eating, drinking tea, brushing teeth, hair was now all done with my left hand.
Later I found out, the inflammation had stunned the neurons in the left side of my brain, which controls the right side of the body meaning all the signals to my right side were in shock. I felt awkward using my right hand, arm, leg, I was even chewing everything on the left side of my mouth.
What is happening to me?
I felt confused and a little scared about what was happening, or NOT happening inside my brain. I had a lack of coordination between my hands, picking things up was difficult and I’d drop things, brushing my teeth, blow drying my hair was impossible, coordinating the hair drying and the brush!
How does this happen, when only a month previously I could stroke stroke stroke my arms continuously for a 10k ocean swim without even thinking about it? The left brain is were problem solving and mathematics parts are, I remember telling my mum, I can’t work out how to add up 10 and 15. My brain was blank.
Use it or lose it
Luckily I had read Norman Doidge’s books ten years ago about neuroplasticity and somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered his theory of “use it or lose it”.
Brain injury can cause some neurons to go into shock and stop working. If they aren’t stimulated again, they forget their job and eventually die. As I understand, the injury can become progressive because inactive neurons creates further loss of function.
At this stage I was spending hours and hours in bed, staring a wall, doing nothing. Netflix binging, I watched Downton Abbey for the sixth time and couldn’t remember what I’d watched. (Sidenote: I did enjoy all my favourite shows, it was like watching them for the first time).
My memory wasn’t that great, I had a vague idea, it was more of a gut feeling, that I would need to challenge my brain to wake up the neurons stunned by the heatstroke. I needed to keep stimulating them to keep them alive. I was determined to “use them” and “not lose them” and I was gonna wake them up in the kitchen.
I’ve loved cooking since before I can remember, and I learnt from the best: my Croatian Oma. Loud and bossy, the kitchen was the centre of the household and what seemed like, the universe.
As a child, it was a thrill to step into that world. She would be buzzing around, flavours, smells, textures and then the creation of those ingredients into something new. It amazed me every time. Schnitzels, noodles, salami, apple strudel, shortbread, all homemade, all heavy with butter or lard or both, good solid food.
Sarah, you’re looking so skinny, here eat some more …
Cooking was a great challenge for my brain, particularly the inflamed left side to use it’s problem solving, coordination and planning skills. I was back to basics so I started with a simple salad.
Drag myself out of bed and to kitchen.
Finding where things are in the cupboard was an never ending task.
Where are the knives?
Where’s the chopping board?
Planning out which way to chop the vegetables, long ways, short ways,
Where are the knives?
Looking at recipe was overwhelming, so many words and numbers.
My brain hurt a lot.
Ok, I need a tomato. I’d walk to the fridge, and in that time, forget what I needed in the fridge.
Walk back and look at the recipe again.
Repeat many times over.
Tedious, slow going, I didn’t realise how long it would take and felt like I was a kid learning cooking all over again.
I took me two hours to make my first salad.
I had also managed to burn a wooden spoon black on the hot plate, smash a teapot (while washing up), cut myself so many times on the knives, my hands were a mess from grating skin off on the grater.
Yes I did it. I can still do it. Elation, my brain still works, a little clunky, it works, yahh. I celebrated with a tiny thought, I was too tired for anything else.
Straight back to bed.
I didn’t attempt another salad for another month. The thought of doing anything except lying in bed staring at the wall was tiring enough.
The voice in my head, impersonating Dr Doidge said to me: use it or lose it
Drag myself out bed.
I had to cook in complete silence, using my full concentration to follow the recipe directions.
My lab Delilah was always at my feet begging for treats.
I’d break down each step into smaller steps and take my time, I had all the time in the world. Salad dressing. Add mustard, sit down rest, add a teaspoon of honey, rest, add something else and so on.
I was dizzy and headachey from all the activity in my brain, it was working hard.
I also couldn’t be afraid of making mistakes, as I made many. And had to be super kind to myself for even trying. I left hotplates on for hours and burnt my hands many times because I forgot things are hot when they come out of the oven. I had to be ok with starting all over again.
Many times, I would be looking for one utensil/bowl/saucepan, I’d have to look through every cupboard to find everything, like moving into a new house and getting oriented in the kitchen. To get around this, I would leave all pantry items out on the bench. I had to be able to see everything because as soon as something as put away in the cupboards, I forgot where it was or that it even existed. It was a cluttered bench top for a long time!
Sometimes, I’d ask my right hand to do something but my left hand would do it. It was frustrating, slow and sometimes comical, not so funny when you’re holding boiling liquid or a sharp knife.
These experiences were humbling and challenged my sense of self, my intelligence, my skills were on holidays, and were they gonna come back?
Sarah, even though you can’t remember where anything is and every thought gives you a headache, you can do this. One step at a time.
It took me two months to build up cognitive stamina to make a salad every night of the week, excluding Friday nights which is homemade pizza night and my dad makes this amazing thin spelt base.
I help him with those nights with the toppings because he’s a bit inclined, like my Oma, towards the heavy, oily flavours, the olives, anchovies smoked salmon, multiple cheeses.
Eating those salads for dinner were so satisfying beyond anything I’d done that day even though half the time I had no appetite or felt nausea from all the inflammation processing in my gut.
I’d think yes I’m still alive, I made something, I do exist because the next day I’d forget what I made yesterday and think I’d lost all those new found skills again. Mum said she’s never eaten better and Dad said my salads were as good as ANY restaurant, he’s never eating out again, no pressure.
Sometimes I had to adapt my cooking to work around new symptoms that emerged.
Over the months, as the swelling in my brain ebbed and flowed, memory and coordination would improve, then the vertigo would get worse and I’d need to sit down more or hold onto the bench.
I found the trickiest symptom to manage during my cooking challenges was the low blood pressure and edema (fluid retention aka cankles) in my legs. I found it very hard to stand for more than a minute at a time, before my heart rate would shoot up to 140 BPM and make my head spin with too much blood and not enough oxygen.
So I improvised, I cooked sitting down.
Thump, thump I feel the blood pumping back up my legs to my heart. Cooking sitting down lasted for a couple of weeks until mysteriously my blood pressure stabilised again.
Baking was the new frontier I hadn’t attempted yet. In my previous blog, I wrote about memory loss and losing all sense of time which makes baking a challenge because it involves timers, things can burn easily and there’s an added danger of heat.
I started with simple black bean chocolate cookies, and then onto cupcakes and simple almond bread.
Some days, I failed.
Headache, cognitive fatigue, couldn’t even get out of bed, for the entire day. I wanted to make a batch blueberry muffin batch, sometimes had to wait a day or two until I had enough brain power.
After many burnt fingers and some soggy batches muffins, I found my baking groove.
I baked and baked and baked until the cupboards were full and Dad had to start putting the baked goodies in the freezer, then the freezer was full.
And Dad said, who by the way is enjoying the sweet treats with his morning coffee, says I can’t keep up with the sweets. So beyond buying another freezer, I slowed down the baking or gave the cakes away to my sister and her boyfriend.
Five months into my cooking therapy, I make significant progress: I remember there are things in the pantry. Things that I might need for cooking. I still couldn’t remember what these things are. But it was a joy to know things exist on the shelf’s behind the pantry door and I all I have to do is open the door, voila, things, many things.
The experience of regaining memory and brain function is unique, fun and like learning things as a kid all over again. The simple things can be so surprising, amazing and mind blowing.
Since I can now remember what’s in the pantry and getting a brain map of where things are kept in cupboards, I believe I’m now ready for next frontier – multitasking. Two salads.
And with this slight increase in brain power, vague idea that the kitchen is map in my mind, I attempt two salads which really test my multi tasking skills.
Two salads, oh boy, information overload! Persistence. Stubbornness.
Headache, rest time.
Afterwards, I was so tired, I couldn’t talk to anyone at dinner table but I sat there admiring my creation feeling a pride for something I couldn’t even contemplate a few months ago.
When I cooked, I felt my soul was alive and the neurons in my brain dancing, awkwardly most of the time but at least they weren’t dead.
With each recipe, I was giving my brain a LIVE message: wake up, I need you.
It is amazing what the brain can do, change, grow, learn, adapt, relearn – if you ask, it will respond in many wonderful, creative ways.
Thanks for listening