Wandering Back


“I can’t.”

Carissa Kauwell

Those were the words I kept repeating to hospital staff when I arrived at the emergency department the day after my 40TH birthday in March 2014. They asked me question after question, and all I could say was “I can’t.”

I wasn’t trying to be difficult; I simply couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I wasn’t able to express myself.

It turned out I had an ischemic stroke caused by a carotid artery dissection. My speech was impaired because I had global aphasia immediately after my stroke. That was why I couldn’t communicate at the hospital.

When I first heard the word “stroke,” I wondered how I would ever write again. I was struggling to spell the most basic words. Becoming a travel writer was an idea I had toyed with a long time, and creative writing had always been therapeutic for me. When I woke up in the hospital room, I realized my life had forever changed, and my dreams were shattered. Just a few months previous, I had completed my B.S. in social sciences. After 14 years of being a stay-at-home mom, I had decided to return to work and start a career. I thought I was equipped and ready in every way.

My body had played a cruel joke on me.

Returning home from the hospital, life was different. Instead taking care of my family, I relied on my family to care for me. For three weeks, I had headaches that wouldn’t quit and made it impossible to sit more than a couple minutes at a time. I was unable to recall my three children’s names. It was extremely difficult to verbally express my needs; my ability to write returned sooner than the rest so I always had paper and pen nearby. For months, I would write down what I wanted to order at restaurants, and then someone else would tell the server for me. It took two months before I was able to drive, take myself to speech therapy, and run errands. I was always nervous having to talk to people at the grocery store because trying to understand their questions was the most challenging part of my disability—it still is sometimes.

One of my passions is travel; you could say I’m a wanderer. Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve been drawn to adventure. This led me to move out of state at age 20. The poet Robert W. Service described it perfectly:

“The wanderlust has got me… by the belly-aching fire.” Immediately after my stroke, I wondered how could I travel alone internationally or across the country when I couldn’t even go to the store by myself? I had been planning to visit California for the first time, but now it seemed impossible and daunting. I was devastated.

About a year and a half later, I decided to do it. I booked a plane ticket from Virginia to San Francisco, and never looked back. I rented a car, maneuvered around traffic in the Bay Area and communicated with people while ordering food at restaurants and checking in at hotels. It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I had difficulty understanding other people, but I was able to handle myself and every situation.

How did I get there? From the frightening moment I was told about the stroke, until the day I arrived in California, I was determined to get my life back or at least somewhere close to what it used to be. My internal motivation made me work hard during my early recovery. I immediately started stimulating my brain: talking to others online with my very limited communication skills at the time, listening to audio books and writing reviews on Yelp just one month after my stroke. Don’t get me wrong—I had some dark days, and some depression, which is to be expected after a brain injury. I believe a crucial part of my recovery was the healing effects of nature.

I have always loved nature, being outside in the great outdoors, but I found myself craving it even more after my stroke. Noises are so loud to me now. I never listen to music when I’m driving because my brain seems too sensitive, and it can be challenging when trying to comprehend what someone is saying to me when noises are in the background. Sensory overload is real: It’s like your brain no longer has a filter and all sorts of stimuli come racing at you. When I’ve had a day full of working my brain, talking to people, or sometimes just handling day-to-day life, I need to be alone where it’s quiet and dark.

Nature is another way I deal with sensory overload. I believe that spending time in nature is crucial when recovering from a brain injury. While in California, I spent hours hiking alone, allowing my brain to heal, rest and grow all at the same time.

My global aphasia diminished weeks after my stroke, but I still have mild chronic aphasia, and will have it the rest of my life. I learned to accept the changes in my brain --and how they affect me. I can’t change what happened to me, but I can still follow my dreams. Taking that trip to California helped me wander back to myself, and brought back the confidence I once had. Never again will I say, “I can’t.”

Because I can.

Carissa with her sons (l to r) Owen, Connor and Sullivan ... and Baxter the dog

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