You Don't Know the Weight you Carry

It's been three years since the stroke. It has been a long journey up to this point. While I suffered no long term physical effects, I was not as lucky when it came to the emotional and cognitive aspects of everyday life.  It has taken three years of "data" as I call it. Perspective is probably the more appropriate term. 

For a paddling perspective, I don't have that anxiety, or nervous energy prior to going out to play or teach in challenging/active conditions. I am indifferent to the unknown we are facing and I am unsure how to process that at times. Maybe the experience I have been accumulating for the last ten years as an instructor has finally sunk in and I have trust in it. Maybe staring death in the face makes everything else seem like no big deal. I am just going to embrace the change and use it to my advantage on the water. 

The personal, non paddling side has been the challenging part. The care I received in the hospital and the three years since has been excellent from a physical stand point. The incidence of PTSD, Depression and Anxiety disorders is very high in stroke survivors. The Cardiologists and Neurologists are not equipped to deal with it and thus the system sweeps it under the rug and the patient is left to navigate it on their own. This is a clear failure in the medical system, and I found myself in the middle of it with no real path to follow. 

I am very much a fighter to the core. That tough fight response could have killed me because when the stroke happened, I shrugged it off and attempted to tough it out. Driving home from the shop and then NOT seeking immediate attention was clearly something I would rethink and do over. The stroke was diagnosed two days after it happened because of my refusal to accept that it was more than a migraine. It took two years to reconcile that there was something wrong emotionally. After pushing my doctors to dive deeper, I was diagnosed with PTSD. It was then that things started to come into focus. I thought that I was in a state of "Fight", when in reality I was in "Flight" all along. Lesley stated several times that I was not the same. She was right even though I denied it all along. 

The two year anniversary brought a lot of this to the forefront. I went deep into a "funk" that I couldn't seem to shake. About the same time, the paddling community and I lost a friend and mentor, Russel Farrow, to a brainstem stroke. It hit me hard and I did not understand why. Why was I so lucky and Russel was not? At first I thought it was survivors guilt, but then I came across a term called the "anniversary effect". It is the subconscious remembering the event and the emotional effects mimic the original trauma. I went through it the previous year, again I shrugged it off . This year it hit me like truck. Russell's passing unlocked things that had been lurking under the surface. Answers were hard to find and I had to push to get them. In a state of perpetual anxiety, it is really hard to articulate what is happening inside. Especially on a bad day when the vocabulary to do so is there, but I simply couldn't recall it. My speech and vocabulary seem to be affected by the severity of the anxiety at that time. Crowds, loud noises and emotional high pressure situations would only exacerbate the inability to recall words. I was always looking for the "exit door". I might have had a smile on my face, but the turmoil that lurked underneath was a constant companion. After pushing my doctor to dive deeper, the diagnosis of a medical trauma induced PTSD was diagnosed. Now I had a path, finally.

I am a highly creative type that is always looking for opportunities to challenge myself and the "establishment" If you've ever been in a kayaking class that I was instructing, you know I dislike using words like "can't, won't or don't". The NT words, I call them. They set a student and teacher up for failure, rather than a breakthrough or success. During the diagnosis of the stroke, an aneurism on my carotid artery near my brainstem was discovered. Suddenly my world of openness was now filled with the words I avoid. My Neurologist used Don't and Can't repeatedly in telling me the things I should avoid. Shouldn't was a nicer way of saying I was at risk and used consistently in the conversations. Getting a Chiropractic adjustment, high impact activities or even straining where I would hold my breath during the activity was cautioned as a high risk activity. My world was now ruled by the NT words. I am convinced that those conversations also exacerbated the constant state of flight. 

After the first year of observation, I was given an option to treat the aneurism. The issue at that time was that I would be back on blood thinners and having two upcoming surgeries on my hip, these two things do not go together. I was not a fan of the procedure for a couple of reasons. It meant six months of being careful while on the anti-coagulants and the first adverse side effect listed with the procedure is death. If they had listed it as the fourth or fifth side effect, it would have been easier to reconcile. It was Russell's passing that convinced me to go forward. If the aneurism ruptured, my fate would likely have been the same. The big picture became more clear and my selfishness was revealed. I experienced the grief along with his friends and family. I did not want to put my family through that and to not have the procedure would have put me at a higher risk of the same outcome. So, once the hip was replaced, it was time to go forward. 

You never know the weight you carry until it is removed. That is the lesson in this story. I have been asked how I felt about the procedure and I did not have an answer. I did not know how I would react after it was done. Now that it has been a week, I do have the answer and it is an overwhelming state of relief. I was unaware of how much the ticking time bomb in my head was affecting every interaction, every decision. Now that is gone and perspective comes easier. Hindsight is better than 20/20 in this instance. My relationships and the business suffered over the past three years. I made bad decisions, mistakes and was generally only a shadow of who I was prior to the event. I had no joy in my work, the passion was gone. I was risk averse and that affected my ability to create the very craft that I was known for. The quality I was after in the boats I built was elusive. I was chasing something that I would have never been able to achieve because I was over focused on the opportunities to be and do better, to the point of paralysis. No matter who was heaping praise on me or the company, I had this undertone of negativity and felt that the praise was not deserved. Failures were abundant in the shop and that increased the anxiety to a level that I was barely functional. It nearly drove the business into the ground. The fight in me did take over because the thought of failure would affect so many of my customers. That I could not live with and the fight vs flight battle was a constant tug of war on a professional level. I fought hard, because it was the right thing to do, but it did have a cost to bear. 

In the days that followed the procedure, it started to sink in that the one thing driving the flight response and anxiety was gone. I feel free again. I have a list of don't(s) and shouldn't(s), but it is shorter and they have an expiration date of January of '24. You never know the weight you carry until it is gone. Although the PTSD is still present, the driver of it isn't. I feel like I have certain aspects of my life back now. The passion for building the worlds best built kayaks is back. I can be present in conversations and my work again. The future is bright for me and the company will make it's comeback as a result. 

What is in the future? Well there is a lot of ground to cover. I am able to help deal with the PTSD through diet and I'll be trying a relatively new therapy called "Brain Spotting". My day to day focus is to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead. Physically, the hip is no longer a hinderance. I'll be getting back to the gym and looking to exceed the level I was before this all happened with the help of one of the best trainers in the world. I have restarted practicing Yoga with Lesley which is good for our relationship too. She is pretty accomplished in her practice which means I have to endure some more advanced classes. It is humbling but motivating at the same time. In the kayak, I have to go back to the basics. I will relearn my roll and work on the fundamental skills while I am waiting to get back out in the rough stuff. I will not be teaching much this year so that I can be a student again. It will make me a better instructor in the end. To reinvent oneself, sometimes tearing it all down and accepting it is the way forward. I would have liked the choice in the matter, but I accept that I didn't.  I move forward humble yet hungry again.


  1. Wow! That is so powerful. I had no idea this is what you’ve been dealing with. I knew about the stroke and hips, but you didn’t share the really deep stuff. You seem to be at a point where you understand yourself very well. All that deep digging gave you a lot to share with us. I’m sure your sharing will be very helpful to someone you don’t even know is sinking. Thank you. ❤️ Libby

  2. Joe thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience with us. Your an inspiration to many. Happy for you that things are getting back to some what normal. I'm sure with your determination bigger and better things will follow. Thanks for taking the time on the phone making me aware of this.


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