Book Review: “How To Survive After A Stroke” by Wolfgang Wolf

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I introduced you to Wolfgang Wolf, The Stroke Mentor on an earlier post on this blog. I wanted folks to have a chance to dig into his blog and website. And now it’s time to look at his book, “How To Survive After A Stroke”. Before I review it, I want to remind you that it had a different title when it first came out. That title is pretty snappy: “I’m Not Stupid, Just Disabled: Some serious chitchat about life after stroke.” Right to the point. Because I read the original book, that’s the one I’ll review. The differences between the two versions are only small editorial changes.

The book was originally published in 1997, seven years after a hugely debilitating stroke when Wolfgang was 39 years old. Doctors told him all sorts of things that he wouldn’t be able to do anymore. So he did them, but without an idea of what might be around each next corner. Wolfgang offers this book not as a guide or rule book, but to provide a sense of ease. You know that ease when you come to, “Oh, I’m not alone in this experience” or “It’s normal to feel that way or act that way,” or “Gosh, there’s really nothing scary about talking to someone with aphasia or a wheelchair user.” Because the truth is, no matter how much I wish people didn’t feel these things, they do. We do. Mentorship from someone who’s been there–or nearby–is invaluable.

Let me start with part of a comment left by a very pleased customer on the Kindle book’s Amazon page: “This is a must read book if you or a family member has experienced a stroke….My mom recently had a stroke…and was having difficulty communicating with others….’How to Survive [After] a Stroke’ will help me treat others how they want to be treated when they are suffering from a stroke.” When you read even just the introduction to the book and then you read this online comment, well, what more is there to say? He nailed it.

The target audience is folks new to experiences around stroke. For that reason, Wolfgang frequently addresses how many people are truly frightened and uncomfortable around disability. It’s all well and good to ask people to focus on a silver lining, positive aspect, or larger spiritual reason something happened, and to point all work toward accepting “the new you.” But that’s not how people operate when they’re scared. And because it’s common in so many societies to keep disabled people separate from non-disabled community, well, many non-disabled people don’t face their fears about disability until or unless disability becomes part of their personal or family experience.

Wolfgang’s approach is patient. In the book, he admits to his own fear when he first met someone who’d had a stroke before he experienced his own. He owns it and writes this book keeping in mind that many, if not most, of his readers are also likely to be in that state of awkward, confused fear.

The book has a lovely blend of Wolfgang’s own personal narrative during recovery, stories he collected from other people who’ve had strokes, and his reflections now that he feels might be supportive for people new to stroke. This combination really makes the storytelling unique and dynamic. It also reminds us that no matter how intriguing one person’s story is, we are in community. And it’s a loss of feeling involved in community that’s sometimes the most painful outcome of something like a stroke. So he collects others’ stories in his unofficial survey and is not shy about sharing with the reader how much he learned from other stroke survivors as he reveals the wisdom of these other storytellers. Sharing the stage in this way is great so that you don’t get stuck in, “Well, I get that he did it this way, but I’m not like him.” Keep reading. Someone else who might be more like you is likely to show up.

What you won’t find in “How To Survive After a Stroke” are rehabilitation techniques and medical advice. Rather, you get invaluable support by reading stories around isolation, loneliness, stigma, fear, disability, and pain and how different people have found ways to address, and often, move past some of these things. And his writing style is fairly hilarious, something I always enjoy in a disability-related memoir.