I was surprised when I talked to stroke survivors last Thursday. Being a Toastmaster, I had a 40 minute speech prepared, rehearsed, and ready to go. Something kept bugging me, though. The more I thought of giving my prepared speech, the less comfortable I became.
It is a miracle that I can speak to stroke survivors at all. You see, I have aphasia, a speech disorder that I got when my stroke occurred.
The National Aphasia Association says that if you are not over aphasia in three months, you will probably have it for life. You can, however, continue to improve over time. I hoped that would be the case when I joined Toastmasters in 2016. Speaking in front of a crowd would build my confidence and I would get better at speaking--right?
Not exactly. I actually went seven months before doing my first speech. A dear friend finally told me it was time to stand up and do it, or at least try.
I was really nervous and practiced my speech every day for a week. It was too long and I wound up cutting a large portion from the speech. I also included slides in case I couldn’t speak.
The day came and I practiced my speech on the way to Toastmasters. I continued practicing as I sat in the room. When I was called up to speak, I still didn’t know if I would utter a word. The first sentence came out perfectly that day. “Whew!” I thought. “I am going to breeze through this.” My second sentence I went silent halfway through it. I managed to squeeze the sentence out on my sixth try. I uttered the rest of the speech and sat down. I felt ecstatic! Not because my speech was so good, because it wasn’t. But, I had finished it.
I Spoke about Nitty-gritty Tools that Helped Me through the Tough Times
So what do all of my Toastmasters experiences have to do with my speech to stroke survivors? Why did I feel uncomfortable? I realized that my speech looked at the wrong things. You have to know your audience. This one was different. Hurt. Confused. Looking for hope.
Stroke survivors are pared back to their core. These people are worried about whether they will walk again, eat solid food again, and speak again. Looking through refreshed eyes, I picked up things around the house. These items helped me after my stroke, maybe the would help others. They included:
The belt that the Occupational Therapist had used to hold me up as I “walked” around the nurses station.
The T.E.N.S. unit I still use on my muscles that spasm.
A heating pad that helped me get through a couple of years of agonizing pain. (Yes, I still use the heating pad.)
Having props helped. Sitting through a 40 minutes presentation has challenges unless the speaker has something interesting to say. Some of the stroke survivors are new and might have a short attention span. Others who have been coming back for years to show support and encouragement might be bored by what I had to say. How do you keep these people engaged?
Acceptance and Compassion
I admit to being nervous when I arrived at the rehab hospital. I entered the day room. It was 15 minutes early and a couple of people were waiting. They wanted to talk because they had specific questions. While the clock ticked forward I tried my best to answer them. I still didn’t know what I was going to talk about. Finally, I just asked the crowd what they wanted to hear.
I wound up blending the two forms of speech and interspersing questions I got from the audience. Then, I did something unexpected. I started telling them stories that weren’t in my book. Personal stories that I really hadn't thought about sharing with anyone. The reason behind telling stroke survivors about the nitty-gritty is to give them hope. That means that I have to tell it all whether it is embarrassing or not.
What did I learn last Thursday? Acceptance. Compassion. Stroke survivors laughed with me, not at me. They are all going through some of the same stuff I did. I hope they got as much as they gave me that day.
I wrote Stroke Forward: How to Become Your Own Healthcare Advocate . . . One Step at a Time because I want stroke survivors and advocates to know they are not in this alone. A whole host of people are there for you as long as you reach out to them.
So . . . how did I get over my aphasia? I promise it is coming in another blog.