stroke pandemic

The Upside Of Almost
Having A Stroke During A Pandemic

“I think I’m having a stroke.” I stammered to my wife, struggling to get the words out.

We were watching TV when suddenly the vision in my right eye had zig zags running through it. As I gazed around, the room shifted and shimmered like a kaleidoscope.

I thought maybe something was wrong with my contacts. But then the right side of my face started tingling, almost burning. It felt like I had a novocaine shot stabbed into my face.

That same feeling moved down my body. My right arm became a weak, numb piece of meat. My right leg went limp and I couldn’t walk straight.

So when my wife rushed me to the ER, it hit me: my mortality.

It’s a really profound thing to be certain of your own death, or at least permanent damage. I’ve only experienced it once before while my car flew through the air after a high-speed collision.

On the way to the hospital, I thought, “I might die. At the very least, I’m going to be partially brain dead or disfigured.” Funnily enough, a sense of calm then washed over me. I accepted my fate.

Once we got there, my mind was a complete mess. I could barely speak. It took me a long time to respond to simple questions like my name and the current month.

Within 30 minutes, I’d gotten an IV, an EKG, an X-Ray, and a CT scan. As I laid there waiting for the results, I just wanted to hear from the people I loved. I used my left arm to call my parents, my brother, and my wife who had to wait in the car because they didn’t allow visitors during this quarantine.

It was tough to hear my family holding back tears and trying to keep it together. It was even harder to think, “I wonder if this is the last time I’ll recognize their voices.”

A Real Wake-Up Call

A real wakeup call

The doctor walked in. I was preparing myself for the horrific news when she asked, “Do you have migraines? Because your tests all came back negative for stroke. We’re 90% sure you had a hemiplegic migraine.”

I was flooded with relief and confusion — in 32 years I’d never had a migraine like that. My head didn’t even start hurting until an hour later (which then lasted for three excruciating days).

Soon enough, the doctor gave me a referral for a neurologist, handed me my discharge papers, and sent me on my merry way.

Of course, this led to me furiously researching those types of migraines. Turns out, they’re basically identical to experiencing a stroke but don’t usually come with the long-term consequences. Medical professionals can’t even determine whether or not you’re having a stroke without performing the proper tests.

Like a stroke, these migraines can get so severe they lead to full paralysis or even a coma. You also experience after effects for days to weeks.

For me, my mental cognition was scrambled for days afterwards. I was jumbling words in a hazy fog.

Luckily, I spoke to a neurologist. Based on my family history, how I’d never had migraines with any of these symptoms, and my overall health — he told me I’d likely never get another one.

So even though I’ve got a clean bill of health for now — my mortality felt very real and very scary.

And even though it’s cliche, coming close to losing everything gives you immense clarity about what matters most in life. Death purifies your mind; it shows you what’s important while removing every desire for meaningless things. You shed your ego and are left with the raw truth.

These philosophical musings were, of course, compounded by the fact that we were weeks-deep in quarantine.

With more certainty than ever, I knew the answer to the question, “What really fucking matters?”

With Tragedy Comes Clarity

Real human connection

What mattered to me most was human connection.

I wanted to hold my wife in my arms and look in her eyes. I wanted to sit with my dad and listen to his stories of Greece and working for his old company…even if I’d already heard them a dozen times before.

I wanted to go on a hike or have a game night with some friends. I wanted to teach my nephew something new.

And God, did I feel the burning passion to explore the world again. I know everyone says, “traveling teaches you so much”, but for me it really does. I am largely who I am today because of all the incredible people I’ve met through my work and personal journeys.

I couldn’t stop thinking about getting in front of new people to help them transform their own relationships.

Right after the experience, I texted my close friend Jason about doing a documentary series where we’d travel around interviewing people. Then we’d teach them about making stronger connections, developing their sense of self, and finding calm through meditation.

This instinctual urge to reconnect with others made me realize…everyone else in the world must be feeling the same way!

My health scare was a personal wake-up call. What if the pandemic is one big global wake-up call for change?

The Change We All Needed

Our old ways

Deep down, we all know that we’re supposed to be social and invest in our personal relationships. But there’s a difference between knowing something and truly accepting it as essential to your life.

For the last decade, I’ve been plagued by how weak our society’s connections have become.

The research is clear: our lack of meeting and connecting with people is leading to the worst states of mental health. We’re more lonely, isolated, anxious, and drugged up. We’ve got less friends and we’re having less sex. Social media and automation has made it natural for us to be socially distant.

It’s gotten so bad that this has become the new norm. Being socially distant is arguably the largest collective meme on the internet. People post jokes like, “Go out and talk to someone? Nah, I’m watching The Office for the 7th time.”

I’ve been trying for years to teach people that this attitude is no laughing matter.

Sometimes, it felt hopeless. I couldn’t imagine how we’d escape this unstoppable trajectory.

Then this horrific virus happened. It’s a disaster we wish never happened in the first place.

Now that it’s here, though…I can see hope. I can see the possibility of turning this darkness into light.

Because I see people coming together in the most beautiful ways. They’re donating their money and time to strangers. They’re offering emotional support to anyone who needs it. And they are connecting with each other more often than ever before.

I’ve never spoken to my family, friends, and previous clients as much as I have the past few weeks. It’s been deeply meaningful.

I know many of you feel the same way because there are no anti-socializing memes anymore. In fact, all I see is people joking about becoming unwashed cave people without the possibility of human contact, and how they can’t wait to be with society again.

Life After A Pandemic: A New Hope

Renewed clarity

This circles back to my initial point…

Through tragedy comes clarity.

People don’t come to me for help with their relationships when everything’s great. They come after a rejection, a breakup, or a hardship. Those experiences make it more urgent for them to invest in their social connections.

My own traumatic moment ignited a fire within me to reconnect with all kinds of people.

Now the same visceral reaction is hitting us because of COVID-19. Suddenly everyone is facing their own mortality and the mortality of their loved ones. And we’re seeking human support at every turn.

So while no one wants to be in this reality, maybe the lesson we can learn is that we desperately need one another.

No hilarious show will replace the feeling when you’re laughing so hard you cry with your best friend. No end-of-the-night drink will replace the warmth of feeling truly accepted and cared for by someone you love.

Maybe we can learn that awkward interactions with strangers are not to be avoided, but to be embraced. Because through that discomfort, new relationships emerge that profoundly change our lives.

Maybe from now on, instead of indulging in our next vice, we can spend five minutes to actually call someone. Instead of making jokes about being anti-social, we can remember how shitty it was to be socially distant when all we wanted was to be socially close.

So hold on to that overwhelming desire you now feel to be with people. Please don’t forget it when things go back to “normal”. Don’t go back to taking your relationships, big and small, for granted.

Let’s use this situation as a global reset button to commit to a more connected way of living.