Reflections of a Survivor

By Brian Kahlbaugh



Corkscrew, Part 1

A Glimpse of the Ride


Valley Fair is an amusement park in Shakopee, Minnesota, a suburb of Metro-Minneapolis. The park has eight roller-coaster rides. One of the roller-coasters has the distinction of having been dubbed the name, “Corkscrew.” When you ride this coaster, you find it is fast.


It has high points that you are pulled up to, very fast drop-offs which have you screaming as you careen down to low points, and you will find yourself disoriented several times as the coaster forces you into full, 360 degree loops. If you take this coaster ride at a time when you do not feel well to begin with, you will find at several points during the ride, that you wish it would at least slow down, or stop for a while, to give you a break.


           No such luck, however.

                         Once you start the ride,

                                        regardless of how you feel,

                                                       you have no choice

                                                                        but to finish it.



On the day we encountered stroke, we did not know it, but we had just found our way onto a roller-coaster. We had been on many other coasters at different times in our lives. Some of them were difficult rides; some of them were exhilarating rides which, when we had finished, we wished we could ride once more!


The post-stroke roller-coaster though…..hmmmm…..there’s something about it. It is totally unique and quite unlike any other ride. I have contemplated many times, trying to answer the question of why is this ride so different than others I have taken in my life.


I have found distinctions in terms of physical consequences involved with each different ride, emotional and cognitive consequences, relational consequences, as well as spiritual consequences, and also differences with regard to future risk. Each coaster ride I have taken has had a somewhat different combination of outcomes regarding these elements. The coaster ride following stroke is unique in these regards also.


There is one element, however, which changes everything for me when I consider what makes the post-stroke coaster ride unique from all others I have known. This element is the realization and internalization of one’s own mortality.


There have been a couple of points in my life where I have been close to facing the possibility of my own death. But somehow at those times there was still a very thin thread of impossibility to the matter of my own mortality. Perhaps due to some delusion about my own ability to control when and how it would come about, or at the very least a reluctance to fully accept the limitations of my own being….the finite aspect of being human.


And then stroke….and the coaster ride to follow. After the strokes, the concept of my utter powerlessness and inability to dictate the final circumstances of my humanity became very real…I could no longer presume to know or control the elements which would be involved in its final realization. This infused a reality to my consciousness which affected the new coaster ride I found myself on. It made the coaster ride more difficult. I saw for the first time that when “IT” happened, I would be powerless over it.


No longer could I presume control, or presume to NOT CONSIDER (ignore) that my life here on earth, was indeed limited….and would, in fact, come to an end and that I did not know when, or how that would come to be. To put in simple metaphor form: When stroke knocked on the door, I did not know if it’s entrance into my home through that door was going to be the one where it was coming to take my life. Stroke showed me that the possibility of death as something beyond my power was very real. This internalized understanding was profound, humbling, scary, and also freeing (bend your mind on that one for a minute).


The profundity of it:

There is a huge chasm between the mere speaking of, and

intellectualizing of one’s own mortality….and actually being

confronted by it.  When the latter happens….the chasm is closed.

This is a huge change in the sense of one’s own power.


The humility of it:

One sees in their soul that as a human being they are finite, and

limited as to their human form, and that they are not as big or

as powerful (in terms of influence) when considered in relationship

to all of life, all of space, and all of time.



The fear of it:

A point becomes clear of the gift of one’s own life….and the loss of

that gift is a frightening consideration.


The freedom of it:

One realizes that they neither can, nor are required to, be in control of things, people, environments, and situations which they previously either thought required their control, or deluded themselves into thinking they had some control over.


For me this new understanding following my strokes was sudden and affected me greatly. What it meant in practice was that I was now required to learn how to live differently. Not a choice I consciously made…one which was handed to me by stroke. WHY?


Because stroke has an impact on the human being that includes, but extends beyond the scope of arteries, organs, and bodily tissue…it extends to the soul. The survivor of stroke is thrust onto a roller-coaster ride by consequence, not by choice.


The nature of the ride itself, all other things being equal, becomes different. We see, feel, and perceive the ride differently now because we see our own finite place in life. The ride is full of difficulty. But it is not without its moments of joy, gratitude, and camaraderie.     



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