by Peter Wagner
photo caption: After having a stroke in his van (home) Peter Wagner’s profound frustration at his inability to function physically are identical to the powerlessness he feels in a system that is built by and for those who do not lack structural housing.
I was driving alone in my van when I had my first stroke so none of my friends knew what was going on with me or where I was. I’ve lived in my van here in Humboldt for the past ten years and, for safety reasons, have learned not to advertise where I park at night.
It was mid-July 2007 while I was on my way to the tire place in Arcata. There was a minor accident as my van hopped a curb, hit a chain-link fence and stalled. That was about a month after the last thing I can recall. The few months previous to that are still spotty.
According to the paperwork, I was admitted by ambulance to Mad River and released the same day with a diagnosis of post concussive syndrome. A copy of the discharge handout said I should go home and get plenty of rest. No record of a CT scan.
I turned up 18 days later at Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City in a coma. They flew me to Roseburg, Ore. My van (house), everything I owned (clothes, phone, photos), everyone who knew me (friends, adversaries, sweethearts) were still in Arcata but wiped from my memory.
I was in that hospital for six weeks before I developed enough self-awareness to recognize basic emotions. It would be another three months before I became aware I existed prior to waking up.
In my sleep-state I swam shark-like, never stopping and perhaps sophomorically aware that if I did stop moving, I would lose ground and drift back toward that dark state where everything is still. I tended to favor this sleep-state over my perception of ‘waking state’ – which consisted of random acts of incomprehensible hospital life where everything seemed to move except that which was me, and no external stimuli that might have suggested to me this was not normal.
Then within hours a storm of confusion would wash through me and rob me of whatever conquest I had held. Cruelly allowing me to remember I had it but not allowing me to remember what it was I had. This cruel periodic storm of confusion was corrosive. It was stealing whatever I had gained for the moment.
Today, I recognize this frustrating process as rumination followed by waves of profound frustration brought on by this inability to function. Yes, unable to form a conclusion for lack of an essential status or piece of information. This state was aggravated by the fact I was unaware I lacked anything. To this day, I clearly remember the frustration I experienced. It is identical to the powerlessness we feel when we exist in a system that is built by and for those who do not lack structural housing.
There were people in my daily routine. There were the day people and the night people. All were kind and I’m sure some even talked to me, maybe telling me I’m “going to feel a little prick,” or, “This’ll be cold now,” or, “See, that wasn’t too bad.” I had no concept to answer them or ask them anything. I don’t think it occurred to me I once had the capacity for speech.
With the exception of the evening illumination of the ward lights and the nightly change to the passive lighting, I don’t recall much in the way of external visual stimuli.
I believe my eyes were closed until the very end. No thing or event really had a shape or mass. I was intubated with an n/g feeding tube so I don’t think the sensation of hunger or the concept of eating occurred to me.
Today, I can describe the passive/receptive state I was in was like hearing several TVs on at the same time, but the chatter was indecipherable. It took tremendous effort to separate different sounds and try to link them with events. Sometimes the effort evoked a raw emotion of need, sometimes frustration. Always fatigue.
Early in my recovery, the ability to announce my needs didn’t surface. Probably because my basic needs were met. In the next issue of The Humboldt Edge I will tell you what happened when I developed the incredibly overpowering desire to move. It is a very familiar emotion that we will all recognize in ourselves.