The Washington Post

When words won’t come. This is my life with aphasia.


Imagine that you’re trying to talk, but you can’t get the words out — and then, if you finally do, no one understand­s what you’re saying. And you don’t understand what others are saying to you. That’s what it’s like to live with aphasia.

Aphasia results from damage to the brain that affects speech and language comprehens­ion. Frequently, aphasia follows a stroke, but it can also result from a traumatic brain injury; in my case, I suffered a “coup contrecoup injury with diffuse axonal shearing of the brain” — and, consequent­ly, aphasia — when a drunk driver plowed into a parked car that I was sitting in one Tuesday morning in 2006.

I’m sharing my story not because I think it is exceptiona­l, but because I know it is not. If anything, it’s the telling that makes it unusual because so few of us with aphasia can speak about the challenges we face.

At least 180,000 Americans are diagnosed with aphasia every year, and it’s estimated that some 2 million Americans have it; it’s more prevalent than Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s disease combined. Yet the condition remains largely in the shadows, maybe in

part because so few of us with it can tell others about the challenges we face. Actor Bruce Willis and former congresswo­man Gabrielle Giffords are perhaps the most famous people to have publicly acknowledg­ed their aphasia. ( Willis’s diagnosis, it was recently announced, has progressed to frontotemp­oral dementia.)

In research from the National Institutes of Health, aphasia had the largest negative impact on quality of life of any of 60 measured conditions, more than cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

I’m sharing my experience to give hope to others with aphasia and to their families.

A brain stuck on static

Within days of my injury, I could unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth and create an odd sound every now and then, but I couldn’t communicat­e in any traditiona­l sense. I felt like a human radio pumping out static — with sporadic bursts of clarity.

When I was asked to point to a picture of a teapot, an apple, an elephant, my adrenaline kicked in, my breathing got faster, my heart rate got faster, and I started to sweat. Sometimes I just pointed to my head. The odds of a sinkhole opening within me were approximat­ely equal to the odds that I’d find the right word at the right time, something I’d done with ease before the accident as a profession­al freelance writer.

I couldn’t navigate the smallest space or the smallest thing. None of the tools I had used before made any sense. Not words or places or names or directions or signs on bathroom doors. It’s hard to navigate when you can’t decipher anything on your desktop or phone and can’t tell anyone that you can’t.

I pointed to a chair because I couldn’t say “chair.” I mimed drinking from a bottle because I couldn’t find the word “bottle” or “water” or “thirsty” or “drink.” I spoke, if I spoke at all, with an urgency bordering on panic. In the first year after the accident, once I began to put words together, I said things like “white stuff sky,” which meant snow, or “cow thing pants,” which meant belt.

My condition still interferes with my life, although not the way it did in those early days. But it flares up when I have to be somewhere I can’t find or do something I can’t do or say something I can’t say.

More than 16 years after the accident, I can have one conversati­on every two or three days. Then I wilt. I still want to hide my mind, or at least the damaged part.

Recovery and coping

Most of my recovery grew from my own self-devised therapies.

About a year after the accident, I began listening to audiobooks, one sentence at a time. I would pause, replay, pause, replay and try to repeat the words. Although I’m no longer doing that, I can still only “read” audiobooks. I also long ago began writing anything I could recall on any surface I could find. I stuffed scraps in brown paper shopping bags, then began to build a book.

People living with aphasia are the real experts on this often overlooked condition, but we rarely hear their voices. It’s hard to speak up when you can’t speak.


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