A burst aneurysm caused bilingual Basia Grzybowska to lose both her English and her Polish. Now she has recovered – partly. She told her story to Gaia Vince.
One morning, 16 years ago, I was brushing my teeth and I got a strange feeling in my head and heard a horrible noise like a bell ringing in my head. I felt weird and I was sick and did a poo. I called my husband and he called an ambulance. They thought it was a migraine, but luckily the hospital wasn’t full so they did an MRI anyway. That scan showed an aneurysm had burst, with bleeding that was causing the horrible noise. The surgeon said it wasn’t safe to do the operation until the bleeding had slowed, so I would have to rest for ten days first. I talked to the surgeon for a while as he explained the situation.
The next day, I woke up and was unable to talk. The whole right side of my body was paralysed and I couldn’t walk. I was told to lie down and not move.
I came to England from Poland when I was nine, so Polish was my mother tongue but I spoke English perfectly. I worked for Westminster Council in human resources, covering personnel policy, tribunal cases, running courses, giving talks… When I lost my language, everything became the present for me – I had no past and no future. I could only live in the present.
Not being able to speak was frustrating. The surgeon didn’t speak to me again – he thought that my aphasia meant I couldn’t understand anything at all. But I could understand what people were saying if they spoke slowly.
Lots of people came to see me before the operation because they thought I would die.
When I went home from the hospital after the operation it really hit me what I had lost when I lost my language. My whole life was over. I had no job. My two children (10 and 11) always went to their father with any problem. I felt I didn’t live there with them all anymore, because most of the time I was not part of the conversation.
I was overwhelmed with lots of different emotions. I was angry and cried all the time. The only time I felt any better was when I left the house to see my language therapist. I went out a lot with my mother. I had no proper thoughts because I didn’t have an inner voice to articulate them, only emotions. I rediscovered poetry really quickly. I couldn’t read normally because I couldn’t follow an argument, but in poetry, words mean everything – it is very precise emotion with no long, complicated narrative. The worst thing about aphasia is you can’t sort out an argument properly. I was a political person, but now – I’m the same person, but now I can’t argue.
My therapist helped me so much and I saw a counsellor at the aphasia charity Connect. It took four months for my reading to come back – I read all the Harry Potter books. But it has taken a lot longer for my speech and I have a terrible short-term memory for names even now. Every day, I’d gain a couple of words and write them down.
Now I am 63. I still don’t have a job. I speak colloquially into my computer and then correct my writing on screen because I can read. But I only had therapy in English, so it’s only my English that has improved – I still can’t speak Polish.