Wednesday 10 February 2016

`The devil's juice'

I was speaking this week to some members of a business networking group with which I'm involved. I told them my story, talked about how I put my stroke down to work stress and how I now tell friends and former colleagues about the dangers of thinking that there are 28 hours in a day and that most of them should be spent working.

As usually happens, my audience nodded sagely and wrote down key points about what I was saying. And I've no doubt that, as usually happens, everyone forgot what I'd said within ten minutes of leaving the meeting. Working stupid hours and piling on the pressure often comes with the territory in the world of work, especially for the self-employed; fighting against it can often cause problems with employers or, in the case of the business-owner, the customers from whom you make a living.

But there had been a story in the news that morning which gave me another angle of attack - one which I'm sure my audience of parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles hadn't really thought about and which really did cause them to ponder.

I'm talking about the dangers of energy drinks - beloved by so many young people yet incredibly dangerous as a risk factor in causing strokes. The high amounts of caffeine in these drinks mean they can raise the blood pressure to absurd levels very quickly, thus making a stroke much more likely.

One of my very best friends in the strokie world, who had her stroke when she was 14, attributes it entirely to the amount of energy drinks she was consuming at the time. Understandably, she is passionate about making her school and college friends and other young people aware of the risks. In fact, she used the words 'the devil's juice' about energy drinks in a discussion about this story on one of the stroke-survivor websites I use. I wouldn't disagree.

I know many schools now ban energy drinks from the premises but that doesn't stop young people from having them elsewhere (and others, of course - I know successful businessmen who used to exist almost solely on a diet of energy drinks).

My audience at that talk left ready to tell their children, nephews, nieces etc about the risks of energy drinks and perhaps even stop them using them. And if one young person is able to escape a stroke as a result, I'll be happy.

•YOU might recall that I discussed my writing difficulties in last week's post. I'm pleased to say that a solution has been found which will enable me to use my laptop in the exam, rather than have to struggle with pen and paper.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

It's as easy as picking up a pen. Really?

Writing is what I do. It's been my raison d'etre ever since I was at school and even now, 40 years later, it's still what I love.

News stories of 400 words, football match reports of 800 words, 'think-pieces' of anything up to 2,000 words, all flow easily. I have 14,000 words of a book about my recovery sitting on the back-burner somewhere in my computer and I am 8,000 words into a novella which I intend to publish in the spring.

I know it's a wonderful gift and something happened this week which made me realise how fortunate I am to have it and how lucky I am still to be able to use it.

My stroke damaged my left side and although I recovered the use of my left arm and hand (my writing hand, that is) fairly quickly, there is still some residual weakness. Carrying a hot cup of coffee can be inadvisable to the point of foolishness, my left hand sometimes curls up into a ball of its own accord and while I am able to write using a pen or pencil, I would prefer not to - it's too painful.

In the college course I'm undertaking, I use my laptop computer for the purposes of note-taking, typing with one (sometimes two - get me!!) fingers of my right hand. But this week, as part of a mock exam, I had to handwrite for 25 minutes then, after a break of about 15-20 minutes, for another half-hour.

Reader, it was agony. My wrist quickly stiffened up and began to ache; the dull ache transmitted itself up my arm towards my elbow. After 15 minutes, the apparently simple act of gripping a pen was difficult. A few more minutes and my handwriting, never particularly legible at best, was a spidery and child-like scrawl. I could hardly hold the pen, never mind write with it. I couldn't wait to get back to the security of a computer keyboard. And I have only mild left-sided weakness.

I know too many stroke-survivors and other disabled people for whom the apparently simple act of picking up a pen and writing is close to impossible. Those who have to communicate with the world solely by computer keyboard - and who get tired out even doing that. If the stroke or other disability has scrambled their brain sufficiently that even putting the words in the right order is a challenge, it must be Hell.

So I'm lucky to still be able to know what I want to say and to be able to say it coherently, even if it is via computer keyboard. But the realisation this week that something I love doing is still a huge challenge, more than two years post-stroke, was just a little frightening.  

Wednesday 27 January 2016

A wonderful piece of kit - until it goes wrong

Stroke affects people in so many different ways. In some cases, the physical effects can be almost invisible; you could look at The Warrior, for instance and think that there is nothing whatsoever wrong, except for the fact that my walking is a little bit more shaky than before my stroke (and it wasn't great then....)

Yet some people are left paralysed or in wheelchairs for life. It all depends on the severity of the stroke and which part of the brain is affected, of course. I know stroke-survivors who seem perfectly healthy to look at, but have had half their skull replaced by a titanium plate. Yet I know survivors who still need electrical stimulation to make their arms or legs move, more than a decade after their stroke. I know survivors who have lost 60% of their vision and survivors who find it almost impossible to read, because their brains cannot cope with putting the words in the right order. Or, as one person put it on a website I use: "Thankfully, there was minimal lasting physical damage, but the exhaustion, pain and effect on my mind has been profound."

This thought was brought home to me this week when I attended a workshop at Stroke Association House in London. The workshop was about how survivors can play a bigger part in research into the psychological effects of stroke. It was a very worthwhile, if slightly exhausting, day (The Warrior doesn't normally do 5.45am alarm calls). Apart from three medical professionals who work for the Association, the twenty-plus people in attendance were all strokies or carers. The survivors had all suffered their stroke at various different times of life (one while in the womb) and been left with vastly different degrees or types of disability.

This is why I think research into stroke and into the workings of the brain is so important. We know about some of the risk factors and I talk about them at length in my talks and my writings, but the brain is such a complex piece of kit that much more research needs to be done.

I know a great deal more about it than I ever did before December 16 2013, but I have found that my interest in knowing more has grown rapidly. Hence, I want to recommend a six-part series which began on BBC4 on Thursday January 21 (9pm). The first episode can be seen on the iPlayer and I'd recommend that anyone who wants to know more about the brain starts to follow it.

Like most BBC4 documentaries, you do have to concentrate (it's not something to be half-watched while doing the washing-up) but I found the first episode thoroughly worthwhile.

If you want to know more about how the brain works and why and how it occasionally goes wrong (maybe it's my inquisitive journalistic mind, but having mine go wrong did make me want to find out more) I'd thoroughly recommend it.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Act fast - you could help to save someone's life

What would you do if you saw someone in the street and you thought they were having a stroke? Do you know the signs to look for? Do you know that time is of the essence if the extent of the damage caused to the brain is to be limited?

Those were three subjects that came up during the question-and-answer session after the talk I gave yesterday to a business networking group about my stroke-survivor story and the nude sponsored run I undertook last September.

I was able to look back at my own experience and think that in those vital first few minutes, I was treated in textbook fashion. As I struggled to get off the road where I had collapsed and tried to cling on to a lamppost with my one working hand, I was lucky enough to be spotted by someone I knew from my business networking activities. As it happened, I had been on my way to the shop she owns when I collapsed.

As I recall it, this lady and a colleague dragged me through the doorway of the shop, sat me down and instantly rang 999. A paramedic was on the scene within a few minutes and he was able to do the necessary tests. Had my face drooped on one side? No, thankfully. Could I lift my arms above my head and keep them there? No. That's a bad sign. Was my speech slurred or garbled? Slightly more than normal, lol. Another bad sign.

Two out of three was bad so the paramedic rang instantly for an ambulance. That arrived just minutes later and I'm told that the resulting traffic jam of two ambulances in the street where most of Tamworth's buses stop was so severe that it made that week's edition of the local paper.

The ambulance men carried out some more tests which I don't remember, before lifting me on to a stretcher, rapidly pushing me into the back of their vehicle and blue-lighting me to the local hospital. If you observe the speed limits, that journey takes about 15 minutes. I remember that we did it in eight.

The speed of the whole process was remarkable. Within an hour of collapsing, I was in a hospital bed. Yet I know stroke-survivors who had completely the opposite experience. Where members of the public didn't know what to do, didn't call an ambulance, didn't recognise the signs. There is no doubt that those people had their recovery set back as a result.

So remember the signs. F=Face; A=Arms; S=Speech; T=Time. If you do find yourself in the position of my networking friend, make sure you know the signs to look for and get a paramedic on the scene as soon as possible. You could help to save someone's life. I am convinced that lady's prompt action helped to save mine.  

Wednesday 13 January 2016

So how will you spend YOUR dash?

It became obvious pretty quickly to me post-stroke that there just isn't enough support, advice and help out there for strokies and their carers. Those who are providing it do sterling work, but there should be more.

That there isn't probably partly comes down to what an eminent neurosurgeon once told me. He was talking about funding for stroke research as against funding for research into other serious illnesses and disabilities, but it applies to other things, as well. "Stroke isn't sexy," he said.

It was a rather blunt way of putting it, but you know what he meant.

Hearing those words cemented an idea which was already forming in my mind about re-training to provide counselling for stroke-survivors and carers. After all, there aren't enough qualified counsellors at all, there aren't enough male counsellors and there aren't enough disabled counsellors, those who have walked in the footsteps of stroke-survivors.

So I'm now training to be a counsellor and hope to qualify in two or three years. So far, it's been fascinating, rewarding and challenging. I know it will get considerably more challenging and I do wonder how my strokie-brain will cope, but I won't know unless I try, will I?

Obviously, what goes on in my counselling lessons is confidential, but I can say that during a recent lesson, our tutor introduced us to 'The Dash Poem' by Linda Ellis (find it at It's often read at funerals and it encouraged the class to think about what we do with our lives and how we will be remembered when we're gone.

As a strokie, perhaps I can't do as much these days as I'd like to but I can still try to be the best I can, given my circumstances. That's why I write this blog, that's why I'm currently working on a short novel, that's why I do talks about stroke-education and it's why I want to be a counsellor. If that's what I can do given my situation, I might as well be as good as I can at it.

*Speaking of talks, if you run your own business and are into business networking or would like to try it, I'm speaking at a couple of meetings in the Midlands over the next week or so. I'll be talking about my recent fundraising run for the Different Strokes charity at 4Networking's Birmingham Lunch event on Tuesday January 19 (details at and the Lichfield Breakfast meeting on Thursday January 21 (details at I'd love to see you at one or preferably both of these!

Wednesday 6 January 2016

The importance of getting together and talking about spaghetti on toast

"Yay, I just ate spaghetti on toast with a knife and fork, b****y thrilled."

"It's finally nice to read something and know I can relate and that others may be able to relate with me. Finally a good feeling"

I've taken those words (with permission, of course) from a couple of posts today on Different Strokes, one of the several stroke-survivor Facebook groups, internet forums and websites I use and contribute to. I've chosen them because they sum up the importance to strokies of feeling that they are not alone. 

Like, I'm sure, lots of disabled people, stroke-survivors can be prone to bouts of low mood and even depression. Heck, The Warrior even gets it occasionally. It's the 'why did it happen to me?' syndrome.

The fact is, of course, that it was just as likely to happen to you as anyone else and now that it has, you can't stuff the genie back in the bottle. So it's important to keep your spirits up, to feel that you're not alone, to feel supported in as many ways as possible by your fellow strokies, wherever they may be. 

Last week, a lady stopped me in a shop in Tamworth and introduced herself. I'd never met her in person but we feel like old friends because of the relationship we've built up online as stroke-survivors. Through the internet, we encourage each other (the lady with the spaghetti on toast has had 38 messages of encouragement as I write; today spaghetti on toast, tomorrow, who knows?); we give each other advice about how to deal with the minefield which is the Department of Work and Pensions; we tell each other that no, you're not the first person ever to have had that symptom, it's perfectly common and there's no need to worry about it. 

And our carers also find support in this way. There is next to no help available in the UK for carers of strokies; for the people who didn't sign up for this but who now find themselves living with a totally different person, both mentally and physically, to the one they first met. That's not fair, it shouldn't happen, so the more help and support we can give each other, the better. 

My support network of these groups stretches right around the UK and across the Atlantic to the West Coast of the USA. It's vital to me and it helps me if I can feel I am supporting other people, whether strokies or carers. 

Many strokies are stuck at home all day and night, staring at four walls, because of their mobility problems. Anything which can help them get over the loneliness should be supported and encouraged. I hope that by drawing attention to groups like these, I can do my bit. 

Wednesday 30 December 2015

Thank you, Lemmy, for the soundtrack of my life

This week's post is not, for once, about you-know-what. In fact, I'm not even going to mention it in passing.

Rather, my subject is my lifelong love of rock music; in particular, the loud, fast, aggressive form of rock known as heavy metal. It began in my early teens, when I discovered there was a great deal more to West Midlands favourites Slade than that Christmas song and I began exploring the back catalogue of such bands as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

By the time I was ready for sixth form, I was regularly going to rock gigs at the old Birmingham Odeon and had a record collection which took up much of two cabinets in the living room of our house.

It was then that I first came into contact with Motorhead, through their 1979 album 'Bomber'. As loud, fast, aggressive as they come and thoroughly hated by my parents, it was the epitome of heavy metal.

But it was outdone by the 1980 album 'Ace of Spades', still one of the finest metal albums ever made, in my view. And even that was outclassed by the 1981 live production, 'No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith'. I remember a magazine review at the time saying that 'No Sleep..' was heavy metal at its finest. Thirty-five years later, I still don't think there has been a better example of the genre.

All this, of course, is by way of acknowledgement of the death this week at the age of 70 of Motorhead's frontman and bass player, Lemmy. Tales of his off-stage exploits are, of course, legendary; of how his prodigious capacity for drugs and alcohol meant he should have been dead years ago.

But I'm not interested in that here. I'm interested in how he and his band sold millions of records by almost single-handedly creating a style which you either loved or hated. No-one sang like Lemmy; no-one played bass guitar like Lemmy; bands which today are considered rock legends in their own right, such as Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer acknowledge that they were inspired by Lemmy and Motorhead.

He once said "If I died tomorrow, I couldn't complain. It's been good." Which is a pretty good way to look at life and one which plenty of survivors of that thing I'm not mentioning this week might aspire to as they survey their life.

In the official announcement of his death, his band-mates urged fans to play his music LOUD in his memory. I have and I will continue to do so. And I'll remember all the good memories that music brought me over the years.

Seek out 'No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith.' You might love it, you might hate it, but you certainly can't ignore it. And we all want to be remembered in some way when we're gone, don't we?