Once again, I'm in the cold exam room. Awkwardly, I climb up on the table and pull my winter coat tight around me. My brain feels prickly, as if someone is stirring its sludgy contents with a spoon.
I know enough to catch rest where I can get it. I curl up in a ball. The banging of construction workers and the rusty engine rumbling outside roll over me. I want to be in a warm bed with pale blue sheets, with rain hitting the windows and splashing in the gutters.
But I am at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, waiting to be told, once again, that they can't find anything. Not after six years and dozens of attacks where I fall down hard, can't speak or respond, followed by hours and days of garbled language, scrambled memory and a limp. Not after the right side of my face was paralyzed, and my entire right side weakened.
I try not to let it bother me. I know what this physician will probably say.
Still, there is a jelly bean of hope down in my gut. This neurologist rides horses. She noticed we had the same gold watch. Her first name, Constance, sounds calm and true. I want her to be the one.
When Dr. Johnson walks in, I struggle to sit up, to right my hair, to snap my saggy face and dead eyes to life. She sits at the desk and begins to pore over pages of jagged lines. Layers of delicate markings that tell the story of my brain. I see her pause at one page, tracing one line with her finger.
I look away, trying to focus on the old concrete walls, the maroon and brown tiled floor.
"This is suspicious," she says, pointing to a wide zag, one of hundreds of miniature mountain peaks that have registered the electrical activity in my head. On page 107, there it is in black ink. That whole row didn't match the ones before or after it. She circles it in green marker. I am trying to breathe. Then she circles another one.
I get down from the table and sit beside her, clenching my fists in my pockets, wishing, hoping, praying, scolding myself -- no, this will not be it.
For years, I had wanted the name so badly, the label, the excuse. It would be my own personal handicap license plate, something to silence murmurings that maybe my illness was imagined. That I worked too hard, or couldn't handle the stress. That's what people needed to believe when doctor after doctor, test after test, came up empty.
No one wanted to accept that problems can't be addressed and bundled up all neat and mailed off to some faraway place. No one wanted to hear about a medical condition that didn't get tested, identified and treated.
So many people believe that if they were in my position, they could conquer it. Maybe even cure it. They'd find the best doctors. They'd go to world-renowned medical centers. They'd try vitamins, massage, meditation. They'd drastically change their lives, if that's what it took. They'd quit their high-stress jobs, move to the beach and waitress in a margarita joint.
I tried almost every one of those options. But laughter can't rewire your brain. No one wants to accept the truth, except those of us it is forced upon: that the causes of many health conditions are elusive, and that they last forever. Despite all the books and advice, you can't always heal yourself.
And no amount of sleep, medicine or yoga will ever bring back the self you lost.
For so long, I thought I could.
The morning it started, Dec. 28, 1990, was like so many winter days in Northern California, chilly, foggy and gray. But from the moment I wrested myself out of an unusually deep sleep, I knew something was off. My face felt numb, my entire body felt heavy and slow. I tried to shake it off and headed to the police station. I was a cop reporter at The Sacramento Bee.
I had to force everything: my eyes to focus on the reports, my hands to hold the blue Bic pen, my mouth to form the words to talk on the phone to my editor.
Then it got easy. My body fell hard against the cool tile of the lobby. I couldn't squeeze the medic's hand. I couldn't lift my eyelids to see the detectives gathered on the nearby staircase. I mumbled a few answers, trying to give an emphatic no when the medic asked if I was pregnant, sending a ripple of speculation through the crowd.
The ammonia from the smelling salts assaulted my nasal passages but couldn't rouse my body. The medic's hand, slapping against my cheek, stung. They called my name, loud and slow.
"Diana, Diana. I need you to look at me. I need you to stay with me."
But I was floating, limp, loose, going somewhere else. I had no conception of how far I would go. I was 25 and in the intensive care unit. The diagnosis was stroke.
When that was ruled out, I was swept into a whirlpool of tests, doctors, disease and doubt. During the next several weeks, I faced a parade of neurologists, cardiologists and infectious disease specialists.