Vanishing Words

Reflections on a stroke, an abusive relationship, and learning to speak again

When I had my stroke at the age of twenty, everyone wanted to know what it felt like: blood thick and caught where it shouldn’t be, circling through my veins until it ran to my brain. They imagined their grandfathers, malfunctioning limbs, speech that exists outside the mouth in tongues not even the speaker can understand. I told them all that, but I only know what it felt like when something else—someone else—happened to me: at the last bend of the Willamette River, where beer-drunk teenagers leave their inner tubes for shore, there he was, and that was the only thing I wanted to see.

He had a My Chemical Romance shirt and a bust of Lenin on his desk. His hair flopped over his eye like he was in a 90s sitcom. He gave me a collection of books about Tudor England because I had told him about a childhood dream where my head was chopped off like Anne Boleyn’s. When he got a tattoo, I held his hand. He got food poisoning from a fancy restaurant in Portland and, throwing up, he still let me ride shotgun because I hated driving. He didn’t speak with his dad. We wanted to know all the same things: how hot the earth would be someday, who we’d be after graduation, how long the other could hold their breath underwater.

Eugene is wet, like most people assume the rest of Oregon is. Biking to class on 13th Street, my jeans would be soaked dark blue, wet and stuck to my legs for fifty-minute lectures on romantic poets. Every fall, the rain came to me as a surprise. I was from dry, yellow Southern Oregon, only twenty miles north of the California border, where it never rained. “High desert” doesn’t sound like a real place, but it is. Skin so dry it flaked off all year, cold winters, farmers kicking dirt into dust. The sky was always an eye-aching blue. The snow fell only at night. The edges of the algae-filled lake would freeze, and on small inlets, we brought thermoses of hot chocolate and skated on the ice. I was twenty and wanted to fall in love for the first time. I wanted people to find me less weird, less abrasive, less, less, less than they had when I was growing up, but they didn’t. Nothing mattered as much as I needed it to: my classes; my friends; the weed we all smoked, purchased from Jake, a friend’s high school crush, a consistently shirtless man whose door was opened up to us with confusion about what any of us were doing there. My job as a docent at the art museum, where I walked slowly through the galleries watching people watch the art, made me so bored that I counted paintings to stay awake. On my breaks that summer, I laid out in the sun on the quad, sleeping instead of eating lunch. The rumble of my stomach was company until the day ended. I told everyone I wanted to work in publishing, but I didn’t want to live in New York, and I had no idea what it meant to work in publishing, only that it involved books, and that it was a more realistic position than being a plain writer. My friends were on a marathon binge of an Australian show about a teenage dance academy. I hadn’t slept with anyone since the previous fall, when a boy in a fraternity bunk bed had sex with me without my permission. The whole thing felt blasé, like a movie where the girl doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life until the very end, and maybe not even then. And then, like always, there was a boy.

The blood clot, my doctors guessed, was from the birth control pills I’d been taking every day since I first had sex at sixteen. There were three rows of creamy pills and then one row of stark white pills, which signified when I would get my period once a month for four to seven days at a time, as all girls are told they should. The pill was amazing until it wasn’t. Before, my periods were painful, staining the sheets and my underwear; now, they were tame, quiet, controlled. When I see an animal bleed, it looks repulsive. I hate a cat in heat, a dog leaving blood on the floor. “She hit puberty,” I heard a friend say about her cat. The cat—too young, confused, aching. In the wild, animals have to bleed. Seeing them writhe around in houses, on wood floors, is horrible. For me, the pill had been about sex, but it was also a second puberty, on my terms, the end of uncertainty. I didn’t have to wonder what my body would choose to do to me. I wanted to surrender to something else.

The boy had on a bolo tie. The party was called White Trash Bash; it was a birthday celebration for someone I didn’t know. I wore a see-through white tank top, and my hair might have been straight, pressed through metal plates so hot they seared my skin. Maybe I was looking for someone. Maybe I wanted someone to look at me. Maybe I had spent the day reveling in the loss of my teenage years—I had just turned twenty. The house party had a backyard. I didn’t drink beer, but I held one in my hand anyway. We saw each other, and then we were kissing. It can happen that way, if you want it to. I wish I could remember the song that was playing, but I can’t. I know that it was bubbly, loud—reverb over voices that weren’t good enough to hold their own without auto-tune. I didn’t hear anything. He came home with me, and the details of the night are scattered: his matching denim, patience, pink underwear, light in the morning moving from the end of my bed frame to the tips of our hair. He stayed. He said I was perfect, that it was criminal we hadn’t met before. I marveled. And then it was impossible to imagine him leaving again.

A nurse cooed over him asleep next to me in the hospital. It was 5:00 a.m., the sun still hours from rising. “How long have you two been together?” she asked me, her voice a whisper so as not to wake him. Under observation until morning, I was not allowed to sleep. “Just three months,” I told her, shrugging. “Damn,” she said. Before he had fallen asleep, he told me he'd tell this story at our wedding. As he slept, I cried because I felt like I finally understood a secret no one else knew.

My friends—even the one from childhood, from our 1920s houses, blocks apart in Klamath Falls—did not come to the hospital. At night, the elderly patients screamed. During the day they were carted away like meat, the band-aids on their heads peeling and frayed. Finals were days away. My speech was affected so badly that I paused and stumbled over the names of labeled objects. Glovemousechairwindow. Doctors were puzzled. My mother cried. The stench of hospital burnt into my nose and through my skin. The MRI machine ticked all night long. Technicians asked me my favorite book when they heard I liked to read, only for me to realize I couldn’t remember a single book I’d ever read, my brain empty of easy things I was sure I’d know until I was old.

“You have a hole in your heart,” the doctor said days later on the phone. “We didn’t see it before. Sorry.”

At home in my parents’ house for winter break, the blood thinners I was on made me feel fragile and light. My mom spent her days staring at me and then at the computer screen, where she researched the differences between Atrial Septal Defects and Patent Foramen Ovales and open-heart surgery and warning signs and consequences and death and funerals. I spent my break complaining about missing the boy, calling him on the phone, sending him increasingly creative nude photographs of myself, and making plans for the future: our future home, our children’s names, law school for him, a small-press publishing job for me. My mom said I should make a Facebook post updating all the people who were worried about my stroke and letting them know I was going to be alright, so I wrote one that said, “had a stroke but i’m fine haha.”

He came to stay with us for a few days and became the first boy allowed to sleep over in my childhood bed. The bed was so squeaky that we had to have sex on the floor, covering our mouths so as to not make any noise. My spine was branded from rubbing against the rug over and over. When he was gone and I was alone, everything was real again—the emails from my professors, the upcoming surgery, my memory loss, the finals never taken, the little squeezes of my right hand to make sure it could still move. I said his name and then mine out loud over and over. It snowed. When I bled, I marveled at the volume. No one asked me questions about the future. Everyone was kind to me. When visitors came, they touched me like a dying person. School began again, and I went back against the wishes of my parents and the doctors. I told everyone that nothing was different—that they were stupid to think it was.

Classes started, and I realized I had underestimated the aphasia. I felt slow and stupid. I did speech therapy in a run-down building full of mostly elderly people, and the speech therapist held up pictures and asked me to identify them: harmonicastreet lightboottrain. We both found it humiliating when I didn't know an answer. She wanted me to practice at home, saying five, then ten words that started with the same letter.



That term I got a B- in comparative literature and held my phone in my hand all the time, worried I’d need to call the ambulance to take me back and empty my brain onto a table. I bled, too. The birth control options without estrogen didn’t work, and I had my period for months at a time.

I was in pain, and I wanted to be in love. We got takeout and watched movies. He took me to my appointments, and at work, as I watched the art, he did his homework and watched me. We made promises, held hands in the car, let everyone tell us we were so perfect together. I bled and bled and bled. Boringbountifulbiologicalbeastbenign. He changed: his politics shifted; my queerness became fake to him; he said if I got pregnant it would be wrong to have an abortion; he said I was unclean, my body a cadaver, unsexy and bloody; I realized he couldn’t love me if I wasn’t fertile, If I didn’t have a home ready and warm for his future baby: my begging for touch disgusting, needy: sperm in my mouth only: constant bleeding not worthy of his cum: photos sent of me, his penis in my mouth, to his friends: an object and a tool: bound to him by the bed he had made for me after the hospital: sheets clean, and tucked in. Cared for, held like something precious until I was dirty. He’d never had a cavity. He let his teeth skin my cheek but did not bite down. The before period lasted a long time, until I was standing naked in front of the mirror, the reflection vacant. I found I only knew myself through him, through the sculpture of me he had formed out of saltwater.

I thought if the doctors just put me back on the pill, then it would be like before. I thought if I could stop bleeding then he would put back on the My Chemical Romance shirt and grow out his hair. I thought if I was less pretentious, he’d be kind to me like before, protective and gentle. I spent months in doctors’ offices, crying on the first note of speech, telling them my life was being ruined by my own blood.

There was no special reckoning for a long time. We broke up but kept seeing each other. I kept bleeding. Blood clots stayed away from the hole in my heart, now filled with metal, and away from my brain. I moved to Portland after graduating, stranded by my own decision in an apartment in the Northwest, far from my college friends who lived on the east side, their friendships suddenly vacant to me in the way he always insisted they were. I wish I could say it was easy to recognize the value in myself, in the way it was me who had lived through it all, and not him, but it didn’t feel like that. I felt like I owed him my life in the way a cult member sees her leader, resentful but desperate, worse off than before but somehow by choice. On the phone one night, he told me that he’d never found me funny, and still I kept him on the line, afraid of who I would be if he hung up. I remember feeling like I wasn’t a real person anymore. I began replaying scenes of my life to remember I was real: climbing up the yellow hills in the high desert, jumping into Crater Lake until my fingers were as blue as the water, all the books I had read, all the names of people who insisted they loved me still. I lay awake at 3:00 a.m., counting out five words: losslimberlockedlocatelate.

Finally, they were able to insert an IUD into my hard-to-navigate cervix. The blood slowed, then stopped completely. I stopped crying all the time. It all seemed suddenly like it had never even happened. He’d moved to Bend to get a real job, and eventually I stopped driving down from Portland to see him. His hands felt increasingly cold on my body. The snow there wasn’t soft like I wanted it to be. “I’m leaving,” I said. “That’s very stupid,” he told me. “You are going to ruin your life.”

It’s hard to explain my experience of word loss. It’s almost like the feeling of reaching out at night for a glass of water, only to find that the glass is too far away. The medical appointments felt incessant, never-ending. And then suddenly I was only going once a month, once a year, once every five. At the movies every Sunday I get buttered popcorn and sit alone in the velvet seats, my phone silent and hidden in my bag. As the movie ends, I dig out shells and kernels from my teeth with my tongue, the last remnants of my two hours alone before my walk back home. The credits end, and the lights go up. People gather their coats and hats, talking softly to each other about the film, if they loved it or hated it. I make phone calls after—to my mom, to my friends. I squeeze my right hand. I bite my tongue softly. I name words out of habit.


Health, Language, Abuse


1 comments have been posted.

Heartbreaking and beautiful, your words have touch me. As a speech language pathologist who has worked with other young patients who also had a stroke related to PFOs , it's so insightful to hear the perspective of a patient who also has so much more going on in their life beside their CVA. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

Maddie | September 2023 |

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