Writing has always been my passion, from a very young age, but it is also one of the most challenging things I could ask of myself. That’s what keeps it interesting.
Like most writers, I’ve wanted to be a writer for most of my life. There’s not much unique in that. At eight years old, my first book was about a toy unicorn, complete with illustrations. I spent countless hours of my childhood reading the dictionary, broadening my vocabulary and understanding of language. At nine, I bought a secondhand grammar book and taught myself the mechanics of sentence structure and punctuation. These are not particularly unique things among people who want to write.
Then something happened.
I can’t say if it was an acute event or a gradual progression over time because huge swaths of memory just… disappeared. There were things I know happened: I wrote about them in journals or talked about them with friends or family. The memories are gone, though. A few things remain, but in flash memory fragments. Some of that loss is a blessing.
Around the same time, I developed a stutter. Most people don’t acquire a stutter in their late teens. I started having painful lightning-bolt headaches that made it hard to concentrate. I had trouble recognizing faces and often times had to identify people based on their voices or clothing. There were a few instances of visual and auditory hallucinations, before any drug use. All those things I could live with. But most damaging was the aphasia.
Aphasia is a language disorder that can affect a person’s ability to comprehend and/or formulate words. For me, it meant I could no longer remember even simple nouns, like cup, table, curtains or spoon. I had to talk around concepts, describing things until my brain remembered the words, if it did at all. I had to act out verbs before I could recall them. The vocabulary I had so painstakingly learned over the years vanished.
I lost my proficiency in both English and Spanish, and my confidence in talking at all. Stress made things exponentially worse.
Eventually, I taught myself workarounds. I practiced conversations in my head so that when I eventually talked to someone, I could have a set of answers available to me that I had memorized beforehand. I wrote down flash cards of common answers to work-related questions and studied them before my shifts. I relearned my Spanish vocabulary and went back to reading the dictionary and thesaurus. If I had a scheduled meet-up with a friend, I imagined us chatting and prepared topics to discuss beforehand. The aphasia is partially to blame for my dropping out of college the first time and waiting until I was in my early thirties to get my degree finally.
It’s not hard to imagine what a tremendous hit to my self-esteem this was. I’d always identified as being someone skilled with language. A writer. The smart kid. I was creative and talented, according to some of my teachers. And then suddenly, I wasn’t. I couldn’t hold a normal, unrehearsed conversation; it took me so long to formulate even simple sentences that I frustrated the other person and was frequently talked over.
I was so ashamed that it took me more than fifteen years to mention the aphasia to a doctor.
Writing became almost impossible. Despite my workarounds, it could take me hours to finish just one paragraph. I made lists of synonyms to common words that I could keep handy while I fought through something I had once done effortlessly. I visualized scenes as if I was watching a movie so that I could pretend I was simply transcribing them. I set up a treadmill desk because the exercise helped me to focus. I learned to give my mind breaks when it got tired and to switch to another creative endeavor when it got bored. I forgave my brain when it failed and let myself feel proud when it succeeded. Mostly, I struggled. Then I struggled some more. And then I struggled even more.
Some people would give up writing. Why spend hours on a difficult, fruitless task? There are certainly better ways to spend a weekend. But I continued to write out of stubbornness. Eventually, it got easier. I realized that writing gave me a better way to communicate with the world.
The computer never cares how long it takes me to finish a sentence or counts my pauses. I can search through synonyms, antonyms and the wealth of information on the internet to find the word that represents the concept in my head. I can rewrite my thoughts as many times as I need.
Writing will never be as painless and natural as it was before. I may never be as good as I once was. I may never have a big, revolutionary idea ensconced in beautiful poetry and subtext. I keep going anyway. The challenge is what keeps it interesting and worth doing.
Because I’ve had to fight harder to keep going, my love of writing has grown. I’m addicted now.