My Approach to Healthy Healing

One morning in June 2014, I woke up early and went to my computer to go through emails as I always did, but something strange occurred. I found that I was reading the words in a mixture of English and Spanish. In a life full of passions, mastering Spanish had been one of them, and I’d become quite fluent, but the emails were only in English.

I called my wife Sonya, and she noticed immediately that my words—both English and Spanish—were coming out wrong. She called our insurance company, and they told her to rush me to the nearest emergency room, which was nearby in Napa. I would spend the next five days in the ICU. I couldn’t find the words to answer the questions they asked me. I learned that I’d had a hemorrhagic stroke, caused by a blood vessel bursting inside my brain. I was 80 years old.

After three days of physical, speech and occupational therapy, I was sent home. There’s nothing more they could do, they told me. But it became apparent during the months of speech therapy that followed that the stroke had caused aphasia. I have since learned more about this condition than you would ever want to know (unless you or a loved one experiences it!) I will share with you what I’ve learned about coping and thriving after a stroke. But first, I should tell you who I am.

Life Before the Stroke

Growing up in Detroit and Los Angeles, I was always active, playing baseball from grammar school to junior college and football from junior high to college. I played guard and tackle for a Navy football team in San Diego and on a partial scholarship for University of California Santa Barbara. I always tried my best on the field, as well as in the classroom.

The healthy practices that go along with being an athlete — exercise, good nutrition, ample sleep — are cast aside by most college athletes once they graduate. I stuck with them as an adult and even made it my calling to encourage others to follow my example. I suppose that’s why the stroke came as such a surprise — because I’d always assumed I would always be healthy.

After earning my degree in physical education from U.C. Santa Barbara and my master’s in exercise physiology at UCLA, I taught P.E., math and science at a junior high and a high school in Santa Barbara. I was also head football coach at the high school. But the pay wasn’t enough to support my three children. I switched to commercial real estate sales and investment consulting. I was good at it, but it didn’t do much to fulfill my desire to help people live happy, healthy lives.

A turning point in my life was when I found out about Rolfing. (The NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health mentions Rolfing on its webpage Complementary, Alternative or Integrative Health: What’s In a Name?) I was soon studying with Dr. Ida Rolf, the creator of Rolfing, which goes beyond massage and body alignment to freeing up your emotions. The holistic, mind-body-spirit connection intrinsic to Rolfing appealed to me, and I soon swapped the financial world to become a Rolfer. That was my main profession for decades. I also gave workshops on singing, which was odd because I’m no singer. I met my future wife, Sonya, at one of those workshops. The connection with singers then led us to churches and the spiritual world. We spent two years at Unity School of Religious Studies and served as ministers for several years with our own churches in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Napa. So everything I’ve done has been about helping people in some way — physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually — and for only a few years, financially.

Different Strokes — The Healing Begins

Survivor Hal Milton with his wife Sonya

In those initial weeks after the stroke, when I tried to say something, the words I thought were always different from the words that came out or they were sheer gibberish. My thoughts and the act of vocalizing were misaligned. My son, Kenyon, says I called the mailbox the “gangle board,” yet I thought I was saying “mailbox.” Kenyon got a kick out of that. It was about a month before I started making sense.

Reading was also a challenge. Kenyon had me read Dr. Seuss books aloud, and it took days before I could finally get through One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. Even then, it took me an hour to read it. It was as if I were back in the first grade!

Three months of working with a speech pathologist pushed me further. I had to read. I had to write. I had to keep trying to speak as best I could. I had to keep working on listening, understanding and following directions, which were affected by the aphasia. I also took up painting because I was told it could help with the healing of other parts of my brain. It really did! I came to recognize that all of this was essential. I’ve kept at it ever since, and even now I’ll often say or type a word I didn’t mean to say or type. With aphasia, it takes years of moving closer and closer to returning to normal communication before you arrive.

To have aphasia is to experience frequent frustration — with yourself (because of your inability to communicate easily or correctly by using the wrong words or sentence structure) and with the people you encounter who don’t understand your condition. You often fear that other people think you’re stupid, when in fact it’s only that it takes you longer to form sentences while finding the right words.

Healthy Habits, Healthy Healing

The health professionals I’ve worked with say my improvements, although they sometimes feel glacial to me, are much speedier than for most survivors. I think the main reason for that may be my healthy lifestyle — before and after the stroke.

Regular exercise and good nutrition habits that provide all the vitamins and minerals that the body needs are critical. Even when I was an investment advisor, I would play touch football with friends at lunch. Later, I swam and hit the gym for cardio exercise. I got into yoga, Pilates, tai chi and qigong, which also address the mind and spirit. And I learned enough about nutrition over the years that a few years ago, I did some work as a nutrition consultant after completing two years of nutrition course work. Besides, exercise and healthy foods make me feel good!

Then there’s mental and emotional health, which is equally important. For most of my life I’ve tried to learn new things. I’ve meditated and taught meditation classes. I’ve benefited from Rolfing. I’ve immersed myself in the teachings of the Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, and spiritual teachers Bob Hoffman and Prasanna Seth. I’ve surrounded myself with motivated, spiritual people and groups. Rest, even when it isn’t sleep, is so important, too. Just allowing yourself 20 or 30 minutes of quiet time each day, especially when you’re healing from something as traumatic as stroke, does wonders.

Acceptance (and other tactics)

The main thing I’ve learned is to simply accept things as they are. I adopted this philosophy: It is what it is and you can only do the best you can do.

There are some practical things you can do that make a big difference. For me it’s talking and writing all that I can. When I’m not talking or writing, I’m walking around the house or the neighborhood while working on my cognitive abilities. I’ll walk through the kitchen and identify objects by saying them aloud: “Table…stove… bread.” I’ll walk outside and say: “House…tree…truck.” Just saying the objects’ names is helpful.

What I’m doing is re-educating my mind, moving it forward. Like the body, the mind can always recover if you work on it. It’s just like a muscle: If you push the muscle, it’s going to get bigger and stronger. I know this from my Rolfing and bodywork practice. The body and mind are always trying to be happy and full.

Stroke survivors should take advantage of as many resources as possible. Besides the speech therapist, I’ve been helped by the Aphasia Center of California in Oakland and other health professionals. I have books about the condition that I haven’t even read yet. I’ve pushed beyond what most aphasia patients learn and practice and do. Some patients I’ve met become too passive. They get depressed, adopting a “poor me” attitude. I understand the temptation to do that, but it’s not productive. You can avoid falling into that trap as long as you don’t expect improvements to be rapid.

In the Red Zone

If you’re an NFL fan, you know the “red zone” is the term for the zone inside the 20-yard line, where you’re close to scoring. I feel I’m there, even though a touchdown is not yet assured. I think I’m 70 percent to 80 percent healed now. I can speak coherently most of the time. Some words still go missing, but if they don’t come, I wait or I go to a synonym. I accept that it may take me years to get to 100 percent — a touchdown. I’ve heard that improving 10 percent per year is a good goal, so maybe I’ll get there in two or three years.

For now, the frustration is that words are still coming slowly. I find myself being left out of the conversation because I prefer it that way. I keep my mouth shut because, although I know people will be kind and listen, they won’t truly be listening because they’re impatient. This must be similar to what a stutterer experiences. As an introvert, it was always hard enough for me to be part of conversations before the stroke. Now it’s even more difficult.

Even Sonya, as generous as she’s been in helping me, gets frustrated with my speaking. I understand. I do the best I can and she does the best she can as a listener. I don’t let it beat me up emotionally. In fact, I think that I’ve become calmer and nicer because I’m forced to go at a slower pace now.

The Secret of Life

I don’t pretend to know the secret of life, but I think that my recovery from this stroke has led me to one realization that might not have come otherwise. It’s simply this: Life is. Period. This takes God and religion and gurus and teachers and family and friends and ego and winning and losing out of the equation. Everything just is. Everything that is going to happen will happen, although of course, the things you do influence what happens. What’s most important is what’s happening now. In my case, the stroke happened and I’m dealing with it. And I think it’s enhanced my sense of being in the now.

I’m 83 and I feel good and I hope to go another 10 or 20 years. I want to be free within myself and so I am going to do the things I need to do for that freedom. Part of that is helping my family and my friends. I hope to do that and so much more. But I also hope I’ve helped you understand the reality that people face who, like me, are taking one step at a time as they recover from a stroke.

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