Seven years ago Alison Shapiro was the picture of a healthy 55 year-old. A happy life, a successful career; no health issues, no weight issues; her blood pressure was normal. She was in the middle of living out a lifelong dream, illustrating her first children’s book. She had three of 17 pictures finished.
Then she had a stroke. Twenty-four hours later, she had another.
You may think you’ve got problems, but probably not like Alison had.
The two strokes struck her brain stem – the most lethal place for a stroke to hit. Fifty percent of brain stem stroke victims die; others suffer from “locked in” syndrome, where they are fully conscious – and fully paralyzed. By the time the strokes were over, Alison’s left side was mostly paralyzed, and her right side was wildly uncoordinated. She couldn’t swallow, she couldn't sit up, her speech was heavily slurred, her eyes wouldn’t focus, she couldn’t walk.
It was the kind of event no one is ever prepared for.
“There I was, in that hospital,” she says. “I was completely stunned. It’s a very sudden event, it’s like a train wreck: one minute your life is fine, the next minute you can’t move. When it happened, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. I had no idea how to face it.”
But don’t feel bad for Alison: she figured out how to face it. And she wants you to know that when you have to face it … or any other adversity … that you can, too.
Today Alison is healthy, active, and engaged with life again: a fully functioning person who has published her children’s book. In fact, she says she feels more empowered than she ever has before.
And this month Alison, the Chair of Saybrook’s Board of Trustees, is seeing the release of a book about her recovery experience.
“The book came about because I realized that there are things that I learned in the process of my recovery that I could teach other people, and it would make a difference,” she says. “You have to be present, you have to make an effort, you have to be engaged. All that stuff that you learn and you hear about, things like showing up and having a positive attitude? They actually work. When push comes to shove, that stuff works. And once you learn it in the embodied way in which I learned, it you never forget it.”
Healing into Possibilities, published by H J Kramer (in a joint venture with New World Library), is the story of Alison’s stroke and recovery, and the lessons that she learned about how people can make it through trauma and tragedy. Telling stories from her own experience and that of other stroke survivors she teaches eight simple principles that can be applied to any adversity.
“Difficult things come into everybody’s life: I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t have troubles,” she says. “What matters is not what happens, what matters is how we deal with what happens. The way we work with the difficulties that come into our lives can transform us, the people around us, and lead us into possibilities we never dreamed of.”
The book almost didn’t happen. Alison’s been an active motivational speaker for some time, and has spent years going to rehabilitation centers and connecting her message of hope with stroke victims and other medical trauma survivors – but the idea of writing a book hadn’t seemed possible to her.
“I had no idea I would actually be able to write anything about it,” she says. “One day, I was asked to do a forward for Elizabeth Bugental’s last book. And something about writing that, and knowing that my words were going to appear in print, unlocked something: and the book took me by the throat, sat me down in front of the computer, and wrote itself. I couldn’t get up to get a cup of tea. I was writing while I brushed my teeth. It wrote itself in a month.”
While the book is focused on how to overcome adversity in general – financial, emotional, medical or miscellaneous – Alison is also releasing a DVD aimed specifically at stroke survivors. She and five other survivors who have made amazing recoveries speak directly, and briefly, about their experiences, sharing the things they wish someone had known to tell them when they were injured.
“There were things that I didn’t know when I had the strokes that profoundly added to my existential despair, and I want to get a message out there to people who are newly injured to help them confront that despair,” she says.
“These are simple things, but they’re things that people don’t say. Lessons like: change is possible, that is to say, you’re not stuck. Each of us is the key to our own recovery, that is to say, you’re not helpless. Change takes time, that is don’t give up. Our lives are happening now, which means that regardless of where you are in the course of your recovery, whether you’ve got your hand back or not, you’re going to make a life.”
She plans to make the DVD available for free on the Internet, and in the meantime to sell the DVDs at cost: the key, she says, is to get the message out there to people going through what she did, that you can recover.
Her message, whether in book, video, or personal presentation, is that there is always a possibility of healing.
To order Healing into Possibility, click here.