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How I Rescued My Brain

In July 2009, early one morning, I was wandering around the house fully dressed when I asked my wife (she later told me): "What am I supposed to be doing today?" "You're meant to be taking the kids to their holiday camp," she said. Soon after I asked the same question again, and did so repeatedly.

She rushed me to hospital. I was experiencing severe amnesia and confusion. It took three weeks, and a side trip to a psychiatric hospital due to a misdiagnosis, before a brain MRI diagnosed a stroke caused by a blood clot in my left cerebral artery. I was a 'walk and talk' stroke, still able to converse and with no obvious motor loss. I was sent home.

An ophthalmologist found I'd lost a quarter of my visual field. She suggested gentle walks along the beach. My physician organised blood tests and scans, and upon obtaining the results, declared there was no medical reason for me to have had the stroke: my arteries and other vitals were all fine. The physician said take it easy and not to read anything harder than the newspaper. Within six months, he thought, I'd be much improved.

But I was having trouble. Previously, I'd been super fit; now I felt like an old man when walking. I became dizzy with stacking and unloading the dishwasher, after which, I needed to lie down. In fact, I was lying down a lot during the day with fatigue and exhaustion, but from what?

The children's noises, telephone calls and household commotion were a barrage of overstimulation. I'd forgotten the names of familiar people. And facts, like book and song titles, the names of author and movie actors, the sort of information you pull out of nowhere in general conversation, were gone. I got lost driving to familiar places. I got lost in conversation. I could no longer understand complex ideas.

What I did understand was that I needed to work out my own rehabilitation plan.

It took me 15 months to get clear on the things I could and couldn't do. I had to try out everything, as if for the first time. My difficulty with conversation, concentration and verbal memory troubled me the most - all symptoms, I worked out, of a malfunctioning auditory processing system in my brain.

I began brain training with Posit Science's Brain Fitness program (now called Brain HQ) and after six weeks noticed a big improvement in memory and conversation. I played and sang music to increase brain activation. I resumed swimming, Pilates and walking; gradually increasing the intensity. Exercise helps to cement neuroplastic changes in the brain.

I was practising mindfulness meditation to manage the symptoms of trauma I'd suffered previously as a result of my work as a clinical and forensic psychologist; now it was improving my concentration and easing my sense of failure and depression. I gave myself permission to sleep as much as my body needed. I ate antioxidant rich foods like blueberries, drank green tea and took vitamin B and fish oil supplements. I used St John's wort as another way of increasing serotonin in the hippocampus - the brain's memory manager - thus aiding neurogenesis and lifting mood.

At the 15 month mark it was clear that my deficits - mental fatigue, visual field loss, memory loss, difficulty with conceptual thinking, conversation and decision-making - were not going to go away quickly. I began using the word 'disability' waving it like a big stick so others would take notice; I had an invisible disability.

Thankfully, more than five years after my stroke, I am back to full physical fitness and function with a restored visual field. My memory is not as sharp as before but I can think again, be in noisy environments for far longer and my mental fatigue is much less. The unexpected gain is that I like the type of person I am now, more than the one I was before. Others describe me as calm, compassionate and inspiring. That's a good disability to have.

Bio: David Roland is a psychologist and the author of How I Rescued My Brain, published by Scribe.