It’s April, 2011, and I’m on board the Jubilee, a motor yacht-cum-hospital ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I believe I’m on my way to Australia as part of an international race. We must’ve arrived because I find myself standing on a hillock, somewhere, clutching a rifle. With me are a man and woman I don’t recognise. The man tells me we’re going on a kangaroo hunt!
I’m on my bed enjoying the breeze wafting gently in from an open portal and, as we batter our way through the choppy seas, dishes and pots and pans clink and clatter in the galley. A door bangs shut, closed by the boat’s movement. Nurses and doctors wearing OR scrubs in soothing pastel colours hurry to and from their stations, answering phones and looking at charts. Seeing me sitting up, a nurse comes over and asks if I’m okay.
It’s all very unreal — because it isn’t.
Real, that is.
I’m John (elsewhere, Jon withut the ‘h’) Morgan Newton, a moderately successful freelance writer who died five years ago following complications during open heart surgery.
If it wasn’t for TED talks videos and books by neuroscientists Norman Doidge and VS Ramachandran on neuroplasticity, lively debates on religion featuring the late Christopher Hitchens and professor Richard Dawkins to sharpen my seriously blunted cognitive powers and, finally, to Medical Mary Jane, I’d probably be properly dead by now. And let’s not forget Youtube without which I’d never have met them, figuratively speaking.
Last, but most definitely not least, Liz, my wife and always constant, always on-call personal therapist. She and I still share my, in many ways amazing, ongoing recovery from two open heart operations and a devastating stroke.
In the meanwhile, I’ve just turned 75 and I’m a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t had a drop for well over a quarter of a century. It would’ve been the same for Mary Jane Marijuana, had it not been for the fact around Christmas of 2013, with very significant reservations, I loaded a small pipe with about 1/16th of a gram of finely ground leaf, lit up, and it was good.
But not for the reasons you may think.
I didn’t, and don’t, get euphoric, or even high. But I do get a nebulous lightness of being, which makes my otherwise barely bearable days, manageable. And if that’s stoned, I’ll take it! 🙂
Liz tells it like this: “you were going squirrelly with depression and out of desperation, you tried marijuana. And it worked … for both of us.”
Dining with friends in March, 2011, I had a sudden sharp pain in my left shoulder, but didn’t pay much attention. However, ‘it’ turned out to be ‘them’ — two heart attacks leading to an open heart operation, and to another to combat a sudden potentially deadly infection down the long surgical scar. But it wasn’t the ops which killed me. Not directly, anyway.
The trio comprising Me, Myself, and I were ended by a stroke which struck during the quadruple coronary bypass. But no, I haven’t been reconstituted or resurrected, although you might almost say I’d been, albeit unconsciously and temporarily, in the territory of the undead; in an empty space of artificially induced unconsciousness. But I wasn’t stone cold. Certain elements soldiered on within me despite the fact the existential ‘me’ wasn’t in the picture.
My heart kept on pumping and my lungs kept on breathing; my brain still functioned after a fashion, but there were were long days and even longer nights filled with wild audio and visual hallucinations so clear it was impossible to tell they weren’t real.
For most of my adult life I’ve earned a moderate living wordsmithing, writing for newspapers, magazines, advertising, PR, blogs, and etcetera. But that was before 2011 when I was sentenced to purgatory with no parole.
Pre-stroke, in the 1980s, my ‘Understanding Your Operation’ series ran in the Globe & Mail and Toronto Star and similar stories were also featured in Ontario’s Peterborough Examiner. Most recently, for almost 10 years, I published and edited an ad-supported news and information web page which became a blog. It advocated online freedom of speech and expression, primarily discussing copyrights, online privacy and the Anonymous Movement.
Ironically, one of my first ‘understanding surgery’ items had featured a coronary bypass on an elderly gentleman whose heart attack ended, in every sense, during his coronary bypass: he bled out and died during the surgery.
These kinds of coronary surgeries are now fairly routine and I never dreamt I’d be looking down the barrel at the same operation 30 years later, or that I’d become a victim of the aftermath.
During my quadruple coronary bypass, a calcium deposit lodged in the aorta fragmented, causing a bilateral stroke resulting in, among other injuries, damage to the occipital lobe of my brain, the part responsible for visual processing.
I’m keying this over and through an opaque ovoid filled with a kaleidoscope of tiny, flickering multi-coloured shapes which are permanent parts of my seenery(sic) these days. Visible simultaneously in both eyes, they’re always hovering in my central vision, joined, every now and then by a vivid half-rainbow, the visual aspect of a strange pain-free migraine I’ve had for years. It’s now larger, more complex, and much brighter.
Damage to the parietal-temporal-occipital area can as well cause word blindness and writing impairments, both of which plague me as I write. Trying to find and position the cursor is a lot like playing a computer game you never win.
Other damage to my brain took away my ability to string complex ideas in a chain, a distinct impediment to a writer; and, this awful depression has robbed me of impetus, motivation and confidence, all qualities which contributed to my success as a journalist.
I was a working writer up until the day I had the stroke and ever since, I’ve been struggling to finish any writing, or indeed, any project of any kind, although I’ve finally reacquired the ability to type and to play my guitar! 🙂
To keep my brain functioning, I used TED, Youtube, Top Documentaries and other sites to find interesting things think about. I also spend way too much time on Netflix.
Thanks to our friend Erin Anderson, I discovered Canadian neuropsychologist Norman Doidge and later, VS Ramachandran, and I’m particularly grateful for their work on neuroplasticity because it meant my previous view of brain damage being a death sentence was no longer my death sentence.
However, in the nearly six years since my stroke struck, I and my wife have found that unless you can afford private treatment, when it comes to dealing with stroke-related depression, you’re pretty much left to your own devices. In this, as with most kinds of continuing therapy, money rules
“What does depression feel like? – asked Tim Lott in his The Guardian feature answering himself: ”Trust me – you really don’t want to know.”
Nor do you.
Depression, he wrote, can produce symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s, continuing: “forgetfulness, confusion, and disorientation,” when “making even the smallest decisions, not to mention frequent verbal transgressions. It can strike not just the mind, but also the body,” and, he goes on, “I start to stumble when I walk, or become unable to walk in a straight line. I am more clumsy and accident-prone. In depression you become, in your head, two-dimensional – like a drawing rather than a living, breathing creature. “You cannot conjure your actual personality, which you can remember only vaguely, in a theoretical sense.”
So very true.
I no longer know who I am.
After my open-heart operation, whoever I once was turned into an conglomeration of ids, to coin a phrase, each bent on doing his/her own thing whether ‘I’ like it or not.
These personages warp freely in and out of mind spaces I’d always believed were exclusively ‘mine’.
I used to be a writer, the bread-earner in a nuclear family of three with my daughter and I enjoying a particularly strong bond based on shared humour and a liking for watching movies and TV shows in the evenings.
But that stopped. And another aspect of my brain damage is the rages which explode without rhyme or reason, and without apparent cause. My daughter, Emma, who bore the worst of my verbal attacks, had to watch the father she’d once adored disintegrate into someone she could barely recognize.
There went fatherhood.
Nearly two years after leaving hospital, I was at such a low point that I talked of self-determination, aka suicide., and the only thing keeping me going was the nearly daily talks I had with Liz, which never really resolved my issues but they brought me around enough to go on for another day.
Tere’salso this to be considered: Cognitive Impairment After Heart Bypass Surgery.
At the time we lived in a small community where several of the older people used medical marijuana for various ailments and on a particularly bleak day in December, 2013, I asked one of them for a small amount to smoke.
I didn’t get high but I did get relief from the squirrels incessantly running around in the wheels of my brain. It was certainly good enough to make me want more, and it so happened that soon after I saw a psychiatrist who. after proposing more pharmaceuticals, was willing to give me a note enabling me to use marijuana medically.
So, since late 2013, I’ve beeen going steady with MaryJane which I both smoke and eat as cannabis-laced cookies made by Liz and from the Vancouver Island Compassion Society.
I can’t say my life suddenly became rosy, far from it, but marijuana has allowed me to feel almost normal and I no longer explode with constant rages, which is bringing our family life back from hell, and I’ve again become able to appreciate and generate humour.
Mary Jane also freed my mind from the rabid squirrels sufficiently to allow me to resume playing guitar, which I’d completely forgotten how to do.
But I still don’t know who I am because when ‘I’ died on the operating table, whoever I once was became psychically disassembled and the game now is to work my way through all the pieces, mixing and matching what remains through the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, the weird and wonderful process describing how a broken brain can, and does, fix itself.
Does that make today the first day in the rest of this life?
Or will that be tomorrow?
For now, I hope you’ve found this interesting if not helpful. If you’d like to use this anywhere, in full or in part, feel free BUT please let me know at p2p [at] shaw dot ca.
Huge thanks also to Cliff Haerden, my ever-parient and unpaid Belgian internet host, here and elsewhere, from Day One.
And remember Fank Zappa’s thought: minds are like parachutes; they work best when open, as Cliff always reminds me.
If you’re a Canadian medical marijuana user, I’d really like to hear from you. In the next little while while I’m going try and organise a survey of Canadian users to get at idea of the extent. Cheers! And all the best, Jon Newton, February 18, 2017.