Compared to the arguably spectacular accident that happened to me almost seven years ago, most of its daily consequences are hard to spot for outsiders. However, brain injury changes everything. Read on for a blow by blow account full of invisible flaws, love and even a secret super power.
Apart from my passion for startups and technology, I am obsessed with sports. For example, last year, I competed again in both the European and World Championships of OCR - that’s short for Obstacle Course Racing. Maybe, famous races like Spartan Race or Strong Viking ring a bell. My dedication to martial arts predates this hobby by decades, though.
Kung fu, kickboxing, Savate, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, boxing - it’s all wonderful. Combine them and you will get Mixed Martial Arts. MMA is a no holds barred style of fighting, currently promoted by organizations like UFC and Bellator. After years of training at a famous gym in Amsterdam, I found out the hard way that the sport is not entirely without risk.
During a sparring session, a chokehold gone awry damaged an artery in my neck. It led to a carotid dissection stroke that permanently destroyed almost a third of my brain - including some really useful sections that were meant to manage language and several other critical features. Two years of recovery ensued, while juggling to keep my first startup Peecho up and running.
On the rebound, I wrote a ridiculously popular blog post that describes the whole ordeal. It’s basically my survivor story. Besides appealing to my friends and the occasional disaster tourist, it resonated quite well with people suffering from similar conditions. They often request a follow-up. Well, here we go.
In 2015, I left Peecho in the capable hands of my co-founder, and started working for digital health startup MyTomorrows as their CTO. For patients with unmet medical needs, the company tries to facilitate access to medication that is still in development. While trying to help others is awesome, the pharma world is not where I belong. So, I moved on after two years.
By that time, a side project catapulted out of hand. It resulted in the start of yet another company, called Unless. Built together with long-term friend Marcel Panse, our startup aims to improve the attention span of people on the internet. It’s a magical technology fest with a small, but awesome team of super heroes.
And how is my brain holding up? There are a few obvious glitches. For example, I hardly feel anything on the right side of my body. You could put a needle in my neck and I wouldn’t even feel it. My face is continuously tingling, my lip is numb, and vision on my right side is limited. When I get tired, speaking becomes a bit difficult.
To be honest, these are all just minor inconveniences to me. But I have a confession to make.
If we recently met, I will not remember you next time we meet. Even after we met a few times, I will still not know your name. Also, I will probably forget all further arrangements, unless you remind me in due time.
Because of several clever tactics, you may not even notice.
So, please don’t feel offended if I don’t seem to recognize you. I apologize - it’s not you, it’s me.
According to science, people normally make decisions by comparing a new situation to some reference pattern they recognise from before. With many of my memories gone, there are not that many patterns to choose from. I improvise a lot as a result. Sadly, it also introduces other problems.
For example, it’s particularly painful that I hardly remember any of the holidays I spent with my girlfriend. Both unfortunate and unnerving, this lack of “autobiographical memory” affects how I see myself. As a human, you need personal history to maintain a mental representation of yourself - of who you are - in the present and across time. In short, my frayed memory made me partly forget who I am.
To others, this impaired sense of self shows when I appear to be a bit distant. If anybody asks me how I feel, I simply don’t know the answer. A smile is rare, and I never laugh out loud when I am by myself (although inexplicable exceptions occur, like when I watched the video of The Legend of Fedor’s Glorious Sweater of Absolute Victory a few years ago and rolled off of the couch, all alone).
But… The big anomaly seems to be love. I am very capable of feeling strong affection, whether it is for my girlfriend, my friends, my team or my fabulously slow pet snail. Apparently, the capacity for experiencing love occupies a well-guarded area in someone’s brain. For that, I am super grateful. Besides not dying, this is probably the best thing that could happen to anyone when having a stroke.
In general, I find comfort in consistency - like a rigid training schedule (with an honorable mention for “Monday Date Night”, when my girlfriend and I work out together at our Crossfit gym), recurring jokes, or the shared language between people who are very close. On top of that, certain life hacks help me cope even better.
To try to recover lost memories, I introduced an additional training regimen. The idea is simply to re-enter historical data over and over again.
You will understand why Snapchat or Instagram stories are of no value to me. Automatically disappearing posts cannot be used as memory anchors. I don’t regret this - if anything, this saves me some time. And then there are other perks, too.
Without the past to worry about, it’s much easier to “live in the moment”. Combined with my inability to connect with my emotions quickly, I turned into some sort of a Zen monk - unfazed and adaptive, no matter what. This secret super power is very useful to stay cool under normally stressful circumstances, although I have to be careful not to overdo it.
Detachment can be dangerous, you know. As part of standard stroke recovery procedures, I was once advised a Mindfulness course. They teach you how to focus on the present moment, without emotional judgement. While practicing, I observed an incoming tram without emotion. It missed me by an inch or two. I decided to ditch Mindfulness and stick to safer tactics instead.
Now, I am keeping it simple. My new year’s resolution for 2019 is to start documenting my daily life in a diary, so I will have something to hold on to. Also, I will leverage my Zen monk’s brain to make Unless a huge success, continue teaching my Kung Fu class and ground fight sessions, and see if I can qualify for some championships once again.
Above all, there is going to be love. Lots of it.