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The Big Lie 'Big Little Lies' Told About Stroke Survivors

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I am a big fat fan of “Big Little Lies” (BLL). I loved the original novel by Liane Moriarty; I gobbled it up in two days. I remember putting down the first couple of chapters and thinking “this is incredible.” I was working in the Palisades, a ritzy neighborhood of LA, at the time, as a nanny / assistant / tutor, I kept thinking this Moriarty woman is writing the story of the westside of LA. The complexity and nuance oozing out of each page made my heart explode with recognition and admiration.

I went on to adore the show. I didn’t mind any liberties taken or the fact they always show the Big Sur bridge when it’s supposed to take place in Monterey (they are hours from one another!) I couldn’t have cared less that they changed some of the story, because the artistry, acting and what they envisaged was so good. I have been particularly impressed with the sensitivity with which they have addressed domestic violence. The show is full of nuance aesthetically. You could watch a scene, sound off, and get the gist of the dominant emotion through color and movement, but the shining star for me has always been the writing.

Each word is carefully crafted, different strings of an intricately weaved tapestry. I couldn’t wait for them to describe the complexities that are so much a part of being alive with each new and fresh episode. I was enamored and one of their biggest, loudest fans, until very recently.

I had the privilege of watching this particular episode by myself. It was early morning and my family had gone for a walk. I poured myself a cup of coffee and cozied up to watch my favorite show. Episode 5: Season 2. This episode is titled “Kill Me.”

I did a thorough sweep of the internet to see if anyone has written about this topic yet. Several articles have been written about this episode, some of them critical, but not for the same reason. As a colossal fan, I went through several phases of grieving: shock, anger, disbelief, and then full on sadness after watching this scene.

“Big Little Lies” is a safe haven for female voices and the underrepresented in general, so it stung to see an experience so near and dear to my heart rendered so poorly. Here is what happened.

Spoiler Alert!

Bonnie, played by the exquisite Zoe Kravitz, is sitting in a hospital room having psychedelic, perhaps omniscient, guilty dreams. In between flashes of herself drowning, she replays pushing a man down several stairs to his death and her mother abusing her as a small child. It all tumbles together like when you get stuck in the barrel of an indomitable wave.

“Big Little Lies” does a wonderful job of expressing the expressionless, like how childhood trauma can leave a person feeling as out of control as they were as a child. Bonnie’s mother is in the hospital bed after a massive stroke. In order to connect a complicated race, abuse and murder-laden storyline, the writers did something unconscionable.

I have been in the room of people who wake up in that post-stroke nightmarish haze. I will never forget the first time I experienced it. It was at UCLA hospital with a man post emergency craniotomy. I was still a student and my instructor walked in to help him out of bed or more accurately, his chair. He wasn’t allowed to lay down on account of not having a skull. I was mostly observing until he was fully sitting without assistance and I met his eyes. He was probably in his early 40s and he had the most clear green eyes, made even clearer by all the bruising and swelling surrounding them. He looked at me searchingly, and without thinking, I said, “This is the beginning of your journey, not the end. It will be OK.”

It was like a reflex or like someone else said it, not me. I felt exposed in the silence that ensued. But he did something I did not expect — he squeezed my hand. Then he cried and then he sobbed. He tried with a mixture of signaling and muffled words to tell me, “just a couple days ago…” I think he was trying to explain that he was in an alternate reality and that he was a lawyer living in Santa Monica three days ago. I can’t remember if I pieced that together, or if he was able to communicate it. What I do remember is the pain and disbelief, likely fear, in that room. You could not breathe without contracting it, and my eyes began to sting as my throat closed.

Incredibly, the emotion I remember most was what he expressed through his eyes — the will to live. Once he stopped crying and even as the tears poured out of him, there was this understanding that he was not going to take this lying down or even sitting up. The horror of his situation lurked there in disharmony with this acerbic desire to know what the hell was going on and what the future held.

I went on to meet many people post brain surgery or stroke then emergency brain surgery. It is not a pleasant reality, but always memorable and at times unforgettable. When my own dear dad came to after his stroke and heart attack, I wasn’t with him. He came in and out of consciousness several times with varying degrees of awareness. He was so confused that when they finally allowed us to see him, after three days, only one person was allowed in at a time.

We fudged this rule, and I was able to sit with my mom while Dad slept in the ICU. He woke up for a minute. He was really uncomfortable and his throat ached from the breathing tube and his chest hurt from the CPR. He was out of it, but he looked at my Mom and all he said was “I love you. I love you so much.” Then he repeated “Bridget?” He hadn’t recognized anybody in five days. Mom could barely croak out an “it’s me Pat, yes.” He just kept repeating over and over how much he loved her.

As their child, I have seen them be loving before. I would say they are annoyingly loving at times, but these were anchoring final words — goodbye, thank you, acceptance — a kind of “I love you” that I had never seen. All of these experiences tumbled in my head while I watched Bonnie’s mother wake up for the first time.

Screenshot from "Big Little Lies" of Bonnie's mother in the hospital after a stroke.

I was recently exposed to the word “ableist.” It is the assumption that a disabled life is not a life worth living. I get that it tied up a plot line to do with murder, but having your stroke survivor sit up in that magical moment of realizing you are alive only to say “kill me” horrified me. To then have the daughter ask, “Can we kill her? She would not want to live this way,” felt like getting the wind knocked out of me.

What does “this way” mean? Obviously, some pains were made to understand stroke, because the survivor had the correct resting night splint on, but what other research was done? Did it matter or did this lesser plot just need to be tied up neatly? Stroke is a leading cause of disability in the United States. It leads to many different lives and ways of living. It happens to babies, children, teenagers, young mothers, athletes etc. It is not a death sentence, but a Lazarus style miracle that marks the rest of a full albeit different life.

Since my dad almost died two years ago, he has begun a new phase of his life. He has held his eighteenth grandchild — my son Georgie — been to visit Hawaii with his Bridget, attended countless events for his grandchildren, and told me stories I never knew about young Pat. I never thought a survivor at 70 would walk, read, or think as well as he does. I could never have imagined it turning out this way. I would not have dared to dream it.

Lead photo via HBO.

Originally published: January 20, 2020
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