On Wednesday 15 January 2020 I suffered a minor hemorrhagic stroke in the afternoon. It had shown itself earlier at work and, thinking about how I felt over the preceding month, had been trying to warn me of its arrival.
It was a huge shock and it made me realise just how fragile life is and that my priorities were way off from where they should be, despite all the learning I had taken in from self-help books about creating a balanced life and despite what I said was important yet clearly did not honour my words.
The Wrong Life
I said health was my priority, but in reality, I was a workaholic. I woke up, showered, skipped breakfast and then started work (like most people). My day started around 11 am (I own 2 companies which operate 4 restaurants) and I covered the lunch shift doing everything from being the runner to catching up on emails, admin, catering, etc. The shift finished at 3 pm and I would then carry on with the business work through the afternoon until the evening shift started at 6 pm when I would revert to being everything from runner to owner. The afternoon could see me doing anything from reports, finances, legal work, compliance, catering quotes, utilities, and fixing mistakes that suppliers make. It could also see me on errand duty and driving around London to fetch certain supplies which cannot be delivered or to get some provisions that a supplier failed to deliver. Or, I could be off to one of my other restaurant sites for meetings, etc. Some days started earlier if I needed an early meeting, and some days finished well after midnight when it was busy – especially Friday and Saturday evenings or big off-site catering events like weddings and all-day garden parties. And I did this 7-days per week for about 5 years straight, including Christmas and New Year.
And I wanted to learn to do things better, to be better and have a better life (as you can see from the updates on this blog). I read a lot of materials, audiobooks, Kindle books, training videos and even paid for a few courses which I have yet to complete. I like to learn things, it’s always been a passion, but it adds to the pressure and I turn it into ‘work’ and feel obliged to complete it, trying to squeeze it in or stretch my days to do so. I had made a rod for my own back, as the saying goes.
Inside myself, I knew I was exhausted. I had even stopped watching TV and movies which I used to enjoy for a release – partly because I was so tired and partly from peer pressure.
My head was fried and I was not thinking straight. I often had foggy thinking from 6 pm to about 8 pm until the adrenaline kicked in on a busy shift. I ran on the buzz, it was an addiction. But I knew I needed to rest and my team were concerned and told me to take a break. Even regular customers, suppliers and locals who saw me in the restaurant all the time commented at the crazy hours I was doing. It was easily 70+ hours every week.
So, some afternoons I had begun to take it easy. I took a rest and had a snooze for an hour when the restaurant closed, or I took a walk by the river nearby which was therapeutic. But, there was always the spectre of work looming afterwards. 6 pm was coming and it was a wall that could not move. My sense of duty to work (that workaholic streak) overtook the need to actually take a proper break, even though I had been saying that we didn’t need to work 7 days, that we should close 1 day per week, and take actual rest. But each week was just a repeat of the week before and I succumbed to the false (external) story that it’s what you need to do to run a business.
Then I had a stroke and my life changed.
I was very lucky that the actual physical impact was relatively minor – I was mobile and in general circulation again after a couple of weeks (if only sedentary) – but stress knocks me sideways. My tolerance for it is binary now. It either bounces off, or I start bouncing around. The latter is very bad for me.
I also notice that I get fatigued quickly and often unexpectedly. It feels like my blood sugar suddenly drops and I can look pale or sickly and feel dizzy (which is normal, apparently). I need to sit down and rest, and maybe have a bite to eat or drink. I now carry a water bottle (thank you) and always have a healthy snack in my bag.
For some reason, bladder control changes after a stroke. A few other survivors mentioned this – in the early stages of recovery when you have to go, you have to go, and now! It’s like being five again in the back of the car on a long journey. Are we nearly there yet?
If you’re tired – rest. That’s what the medical team said and they emphasised it was essential. It’s not a game and a stroke is a wake-up call. You have to listen to your body and not try to push through like you used to. That’s what earned me the stroke in the first place. As I’m still in the early stages of recovery, mornings are more leisurely. I get up later, have breakfast and shower at my own pace. It’s a good time to reflect on the day (now that I can write, even if it looks like chicken scratchings) which I never used to do, so it’s actually encouraging better practices.
The thing I have been most affected by is sleep. For some reason, I have really struggled with sleep since the stroke. The first three weeks saw me waking up every 1-2 hours. Only once or twice did I manage a good nights sleep. This is slowly improving but it’s rare I get 2 nights proper sleep in a row. One night can be perfect, then the next is disturbed, if only in part, but it slows recovery, makes you more tired in the day and your concentration is off. It’s improving gradually but it’s really annoying. A lot of other stroke survivors talk about needing to sleep more often and take naps.
Keys to a Healthy Life
The medical team from the NHS who have been looking after me have been brilliant and their recommendations to avoid a repeat incidence (which could be much worse or even fatal) are to:
- Manage stress
- Aim to keep blood pressure below 130/80
- Watch your salt intake as this puts up blood pressure
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat a healthy well-balanced diet such as high fibre and low saturated fats
- Avoid smoking (not that I ever have)
- Drink alcohol only in moderation (if at all)
- Exercise for 30 minutes a day
- Get plenty of rest
Aside from reducing the risk of (another) stroke, there are two key lifestyle benefits here which are good for everybody:
- Improving your diet and exercising more will help you control your weight. It is particularly important to control your belly fat that contains the most dangerous type of fat that increases the risk of stroke.
- All these choices can be seen as part of a lifestyle that reduces blood pressure and cholesterol, helps to control blood sugars, puts less stress on your joints and improves our mood and can give you more energy.
Interestingly, their main focus was on stress. Try to avoid it where possible. It’s not going to go away and life will throw things at you, but you don’t need to put yourself in situations that you know will stress you that can be avoided. Given my ‘lifestyle’ they said I needed to cut my hours, do less each day, potentially rethink my career choice, avoid the busy shifts, take time off, take holidays or short breaks, in addition to the health plan above.
Stress is known to be linked to all sorts of diseases and health defects, so it’s no surprise that it’s also linked to something as life-threatening as a stroke. And given my almost hair-trigger response to random things now, I need to take a break and change the cycle.
Abs – A Surprising Side-Effect
One side-effect of healthy eating is that I now have abs. They say they are made in the kitchen and it’s true. I never ate unhealthily before but always had a little covering over my abs. I quite like the new look so I don’t plan on changing my new three-meals-a-day system which starts the day with a bowl of fruit, yoghurt and muesli (as recommended by the stroke team), and lunch and dinner consisting of meat or fish with vegetables and potatoes. Sometimes I switch out the lunch or dinner options but it’s still based on vegetables, meats or fish. I actually miss the simplicity of a balanced plate if I’m treated to an alternative, and I generally avoid things like lasagne, creamy dishes or heavy sauces now. High-fat content food is discouraged (cheese, dairy, etc) and I’ve never been a fan at the best of times.
It’s going to be tough at first. Having been discharged from physio, during which I had regular (often daily) visits to make sure I was doing all sorts of exercises from strength to balance to dexterity to speech therapy, I am now left to my own devices. It’s been a few weeks since the stroke, so my daily routine has already changed as I can’t work like before (though this is improving day by day). But I need to make sure I don’t slip back into the old ways.
I now go to the restaurant every day, if only to eat, but work creeps in and I lost the plot today when UBER failed to turn up to collect a customer order, the restaurant shift ended and we had to hang around trying to resolve it for an hour. In the end, we had to deliver the food ourselves as UBER cancelled the pick-up after they eventually appointed a courier. Even writing about it now makes my head spin.
As the medical team said – take a break from the routine. I have a team at the restaurant so I can leave them some days to get on with it. And I started to do that last weekend – I went shopping, or at least to a different town where I spent a while in coffee shops as I was tired and spent a little time browsing. It’s a start but it’s a change of scenery, change of pace and breaks the cycle. I plan to increase these activities and will head off into the country as I used to years ago for an all-important reset, even if it’s only for a day or two in the beginning. I could take the train, or drive once I build up my stamina and confidence for longer journies. And once they clear me to fly I can think about going farther afield.
Building a Better Day
But the real change has to come in how I approach each day. I have to have breakfast. I have to do some exercise. I have to manage stress. These were the big three that I was missing before my stroke so I need to plan the exercise in. I need to distil the physio exercises and make sure I do them regularly, as well as (for example) go swimming, start running (very slowly), do yoga, or a mixture of all of them. But do them I must.
I have already started taking time to meditate more often and try to read most days as this is a form of relaxation. I still listen to audiobooks, but sitting down and actually reading has more benefits. I try to limit device use before bed but have started to watch comedy quiz shows on TV to dull the brain. Not sure that’s the best option but it seems to help, plus laughter is always beneficial and an antidote to stress.
Interestingly, this has put me on the path to structure a day as many of the top coaches recommend. Breakfast. Exercise. Reflection. Reading. Key Tasks. Etc. At least there’s a benefit to come out of this, and maybe it’s the universe putting me on the right path.