This is the first in a series of articles about people who have survived life challenges that they never anticipated. For each of them, the unexpected brought lessons and skills that have helped them to move from victim to survivor to thriver.
Albert Borris is a 58-year-old man who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Moorestown, New Jersey. For three decades, he worked as a Student Assistance Counselor in a high school setting, guiding young people who were facing psychological and addiction oriented challenges. According to his colleagues and those whose lives he touched — likely thousands over the years — he was superb at his job. He is the father of three children; two young sons and a daughter who is following in her father’s footsteps professionally, now in graduate school earning her Masters of Social Work.
He is also the author of the young adult novel, called Crash Into Me which focuses on four troubled teens who make a suicide pact as they take it on the road, visiting the gravesites of celebrities who ended their lives. The characters were composites of students he had worked with and the book; like the man himself, had a stunning positive impact on many. A long-time athlete and adventure traveler, Borris had a physically active life that included rollerblading, bicycling, hiking and running. In his 20’s he attended an Outward Bound training and encouraged me to do it as well. In 1981, I followed his recommendation and engaged in the rigorous experience.
As he was turning 50 and about to go out on a book tour, he experienced a stroke that impacted on him physically and cognitively. The part of the brain that was most dramatically affected is known as Broca area. Damage to that segment causes speech and cognition limitations. In his case, memory was also impeded. With intensive physical therapy, Borris was able to regain his mobility and dexterity. He re-learned to walk, run, roller blade, drive and ride a bicycle. He lives independently and participates in activities with his children. Guitar lessons, gardening, his dogs Bear and Oreo, family and friends are among his joys. In 2014, he ran in the New York City marathon. He enrolled in an Outward Bound course in his 50’s, when he hadn’t done so since his 20’s, to test himself and prove that he still had what it took.
What was not fully recouped was his ability to communicate as he once had. As a result, he retired from his beloved job. As a tribute to the importance of his work, when one of his former students (now an adult who pursued a career in teaching) saw on social media that he was raising money for a charity in order to run the marathon, she commented that he had saved her life.
One of the frustrating aspects early on in his recovery was that he needed to learn to speak again, along with his youngest son who was a toddler at the time and learn to read and write again as had his oldest son who was in school back then. These days, the words still evade him at times to communicate what he thinks and feels.
In September of 2017, he fell while roller blading and fractured the hip that he had surgically replaced following the marathon and landed in a rehab. While there, he had a medical crisis and needed to have laparoscopic gall bladder surgery. His doctor informed him that he would not be able to skate again. His initial reaction was an expletive and then what followed has become a mantra for him: “Oh, well,” said with a shrug of his shoulders. He has also been incorporating the reminder to breathe as he places his hands in mudra pose and closes his eyes.
Although he was always of a philosophical bent, it is apparent that the stroke has become a teacher in ways that all the years of reading, meditation and other spiritual and psychological practices couldn’t be. I venture a guess, that they may have prepared him for this rug-pulled-out-from under him experience. He is in the process of writing a book about life before and after the medical event that became a pivotal moment. Poignant, sad, heart rending and humorous, it brings the reader to the inner sanctum, much like Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight.
When asked about his journey, he had this say:
What were some of your thoughts at the time of the stroke?
I don’t know. I was asleep for four days.
What has it taken for you to reinvent your life?
- breathe, constantly breathing
- honesty, true honesty, not the kind of honesty some other people practice, but brutal honesty, so much so that it turned my life around.
How can someone in your situation recover emotionally?
Practice guitar. Speech therapy. Rollerblading. Counseling (it all depends on your counselor, good, bad, indifferent). Write, especially write. Walk. Take your dogs to the park.
Are there times when you want to give up?
Sure, I want to kill myself, often, but I can’t give up. The kids the neighbors, everybody has a point, I just go through that point, and I live. Sometimes, when people are sad, they take their own lives. I know. I have been at suicidal victims’ funerals. I just can’t go on like that. Maybe it’s optimistic, maybe, it’s deep depression, and I fight it. Optimism wins. Everybody is going die, sooner or later.
What do you do to keep yourself going?
Breathe, breathe, breathe.
For those who have experienced strokes and for their caregivers, The American Stroke Association has a list of support groups.