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A Survival Strategy for Trauma: Laugh

by Brenda Mahler about a year ago in humor

Laughter Makes the Tough Times Tolerable

Photo taken by author, Brenda Mahler

When Kari first suffered a stroke, we held our breath. Watching our daughter in a hospital bed unable to move her right side, powerless to care for herself, supported by tubes and cords performing bodily functions, made the air in the room thin.

A week into the occurrence, we began to exhale and take shallow breaths.

Kari’s eyes recognized family; my fingers felt a pulse, and the numbers on the machines offered reassurance. I synchronized my breaths as her chest rose when her lungs filled and fell as air expelled.

After a couple of weeks, a rhythm emerged suggesting normalcy — no a routine. We acknowledged a new normal, accepted life would be different but appreciated that Kari survived.

It wasn’t until Kari smiled — with lips curved and eyes bright — that we acknowledged life was going to be OK.

We did not care that her smile was lopsided; her beam illuminated our universe. Her witty, fun-loving, sarcastic, personality prompted deep, relieved breaths. When life delivered trials in the past, our family laughed; humor became a survival technique. Laughter always made the tough times tolerable. In its absence, we floundered. So, following her first smile, we allowed intermittent, measured humor.

We learned to laugh with Kari sometimes at an event, and sometimes at her disabilities. Often when she talked the wrong words emerged and when she heard the blunders, a befuddled look appeared on her face; we laughed. We all knew that we laughed together — not at her but with her as it began with her giggle. Once, Kari said, “When you come up next time bring me a life jacket,” followed by another puzzled look. By the time we finished laughing, she forgot what she wanted. Needless to say, on the next visit her dad wore a life jacket.

When Kari didn’t eat enough lunch, the dietitian announced the feeding tube would be reconnected from 2–9 pm. Well from 2–3 she actively participated in physical therapy. Then an outside adventure called to her. Linda, Kari, and I sat outside and enjoyed the sun for an hour and got back to our room after 4. When the nurse came in to reconnect the feeding tube, Kari announced she suddenly needed a shower. By the time that was all done, it was 6. She got away with only 3 hours on the tube. She achieved her unstated goal!

From that point on, she understood the urgency of eating every bite on her plate.

She never ate in abundance and NEVER liked someone giving orders. So, whenever a meal was served, she rolled her eyes, once coupled the process with the statement, “This is insane!” When Kari finally accepted the fact that empty plates provided the path to the feeding tube removal, food started disappearing. Most of it she ate, some disappeared (into the trash), and once in a while an unaware visitor ate an offered morsel. When her sneakiness proved successful more giggles ensued. We laughed.

The food wasn’t terrible but if it was calories they wanted, someone should have given her a warm loaf of crusty French bread; she would have devoured the entire thing in one sitting. I’ve seen her do it. Don’t tell the nurses, but her sister did smuggle bread. I figured that made up for some of the food she hid away.

Kari is a kindergarten teacher and meets the stereotypes attached to the role. She dresses conservatively, talks respectfully, drinks only one glass of wine, models appropriate behavior and swears — NEVER — in front of the children, seldom otherwise.

That all changed. I never determined if her brain worked differently, if it became the only thing she could control, or if she enjoyed the look of shock on our faces, but swear words slithered out. Maybe a more accurate description is to say they burst forth.

When the extended family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner, I warned everybody present to not be surprised at anything she said. I secretly wondered if Tourettes Syndrome resulted after a stroke. When I finally worked up the nerve to ask the hospital staff, they grinned and one therapist shared a story about an refined, elderly lady who (as far as her kids knew had never said a swear word in her life) infused dirty words throughout conversations after her stroke. The therapist winked and said, “Her kids never heard her swear but she definitely thought them.”

Word of warning: Be prepared to accept the unexpected when a loved one has a stroke. And I will add, it will be the least of your worries.

Once when Kari and I were practicing sentence completion, I said, “When the children came into the classroom after recess the teacher said, (pause)” It was her job to complete the statement. She said, “Shut the f — — up you little brats. Get in your damn seats and start working.” When I stopped choking, we agreed she probably wasn’t ready to go back to work, yet.

The icing on the cake for inappropriate behavior was the day her Aunt Debbi brought her a pair of socks.

Phone taken by author, Brenda Mahler

At first, I wanted to disassociate myself from my own child. But when the therapist laughed, and pointed her footwear out to others, I knew they understood. Humor through sarcasm can be a mechanism of support and survival. In our family, sarcasm (especially from Kari) was always an avenue of communication. We understood it; we appreciated it. These socks spoke volumes.

From that point on I became obsessed with sassy t-shirts. Part of my mission was to make Kari smile. But a positive outcome was when she wore her new attire, it prompted conversation, and interactions with others became a form of therapy that pushed Kari to interact outside the space inside her own head and practice speaking. The more natural the dialogue the better a stroke victim can communicate. Many t-shirt slogans triggered entertainment.

  • Nope! No! Nah! No! Not Today!
  • I’m awake but that doesn’t mean I’m listening.
  • I’m not anti-social I’m selectively social.
  • Queen of sarcasm.

All mothers recognize that a mother/daughter relationship is unique. A fact that is true in our family. Through the years, all roles applied at one time or another: best friend, teacher, coach, counselor, and sometimes punching bag.

Each role served a purpose, and all proved necessary. As a participant and observer, I noticed a conflict between the job description of the different parts I played in our relationship. At one moment, my daughter shared her deepest fear and in the next she professed the inability to trust me. Mothers know nothing is further from the truth, but children often find independence through rebellion.

Thus, I am reminded when at the hospital I asked my daughter to brush her teeth, a behavior essential more often than usual to ward off infection.

Kari responded, “No.”

I waited a moment before asking, “Why did you say no?”

With a knowing smile, she explained, “Because you asked me to.” With most choices limited, empowerment came from rebellion. And it was fine with me. We giggled.

Each day focused on one task, therapy. Therapy occupied many forms ranging from talking, exercising, thinking, listening, reading . . . Every undertaking once performed subconsciously required purposeful retraining through practice.

Thus, each and every movement developed into a form of therapy. Saying the alphabet, singing children’s songs, reading simple words written on a whiteboard filled minutes that turned into hours. At one point, Kari and I counted. When we reached twenty, she started again at one and by herself counted in Spanish. Astonished, I listened and when she reached twenty, pride washed over her face. “Where did that come from?” I asked.

Kari giggled. A simple accomplishment allowed her to return to her ordinary behavior— if only momentarily.

Life throws good and bad balls our way. We make choices. If we run away or turn our back, the ball becomes controlled by somebody else. If we allow it to hit us, pain presides; thus, leaving us at the mercy of the next pitch. If we catch what comes our way, we are suddenly in control of the game, allowing us to adjust the rules, decide on the course of action, and design future plays.

The highest score does not automatically define a winner. Life is not a win or lose proposition. Success happens when a person looks at their life and smiles. Happiness materializes when we experience life and laugh.


Brenda Mahler

Stories about life that inspire emotions - mostly humor.

Lessons about writing based on my textbook, Strategies for Teaching Writing.

Poetry and essays about the of art of being human.

I write therefore, I am.

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Brenda Mahler
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