When people ask how I survived after losing everything—falling off the Harvard ladder as a researcher, becoming completely detached from normal reality and the ability to operate this body—my response is always the same: I didn't die that day.
As a neuroanatomist, what's interesting to me about brain trauma isn't what's lost but what now flourishes. When one system goes off-line, another starts firing. The blood vessel that erupted in the left hemisphere of my brain that day in 1996 shut down my ability to communicate and move, but the right hemisphere opened to new levels of clarity and connectedness. I felt somehow woven into the universal tapestry, and that feeling drove my recovery over the next eight years.
All comebacks basically happen in the brain, so you need to treat your brain right. Number one, make sleep a priority, especially when there's trauma. Brain cells are living matter just like we are, and they need rest. When you don't sleep, you feel foggy because the cells didn't have time to clear the waste out of your head. I cut all screen time three hours before bed just to avoid that energetic buzz. It helps that I live on a boat, which to me is like a giant waterbed. There are nature sounds. I sleep like a catfish at the bottom of a lake.
The Fall: At 37, the Harvard brain scientist had a clot the size of a golf ball that left her unable to speak, read, walk, write or remember. She shelved her academic ambitions for eight years.
The Comeback: At 48, her 18-minute account of her “stroke of insight” was the first TED talk to go viral—with 26 million views and counting—and prompted a New York Times best seller, “Oprah” appearances and, most recently, a choral composition based on regaining her brain.
Watch your nutrition, too. The brain needs water to function properly. It needs fruits and vegetables. Putting sugar in your body only makes it harder for cells to recover. Also, move your body. Movement is everything. Otherwise, more and more wastes build up.
Building yourself back from any setback is literally a mind game. I have what I call a 90-second rule when it comes to reactivity to information coming in through our sensory systems. If I'm holding a grudge against someone from 20 years ago, or I get angry, that adrenaline gets dumped into my bloodstream. It takes over, and I feel it. But I also know those chemicals flush through my system in 90 seconds. After that, any remaining emotional response is me, choosing to stay in that emotional loop. If you have a setback, wait a minute and a half and it goes away.
I lost both my parents in 2015. With my dad, it was somehow OK. He was 96 and had had a good life. But my mom was only 88 and died unexpectedly just five months after being diagnosed with cancer. It broke my heart. She had been this incredible true companion and best friend, on top of being my mom, and she reared me twice—the second time after my stroke. I miss her dearly in physical form, but I now understand that the boundary is very thin between this life and where it ends. I was essentially all but dead during my stroke. In the absence of those brain cells, part of me was gone. But I didn't get totally released, and so now I can feel held in the energy of whatever my mother has transformed into. I see her in the leaves as they wave at me on the trees. I see her every time I see orange anywhere, because she loved orange. I see her in the ripples of the water, which is like a Morse code. This is what resilience looks like on a cellular level.