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When a Stroke Leaves You Feeling Cursed

A loved one who has suffered a stroke assails you with a burst of profanity. Don't take it personally.

Nothing has prepared you for the news that your loved one has suffered a stroke. Then comes your first visit to the hospital. Your mother, who has stressed the importance of good manners for as long as you can remember, curses a blue streak from the moment you enter the room. You leave, distraught and wounded.

You are not alone in your anguish and neither is your loved one. Psychologist Timothy Jay notes that about 55 percent of those who have suffered damage to the left side of the brain tend to unleash outbursts of profanity at a time when their normal speech capabilities are severely limited.

Tips for coping with strong feelings when faced with strong language:
Be supportive: Hold his or her hand and maintain eye contact.
Don't take it personally.
Ask a lot of questions about which parts of the brain were affected by the stroke or injury.
Remain composed. Don't let your face betray your anguish or shock.

"There are people who can't say regular words like table or chair, but they can swear with good articulation," concurs NYU neurolinguist Diana Van Lancker. This is often the case with people who have stroke-related aphasia, Alzheimer's disease and Tourette's syndrome.

Van Lancker recently completed research that set out to explain this phenomenon by examining the areas in the brain that govern the use of profanity. We know that the left hemisphere is responsible for language, but Van Lancker's findings suggest that there are two levels of vocal production.

Vocalizations like swearing, which are instinctual and reflexive, may be processed in the subcortex of the brain, which is responsible for vocalizations in animals. In support of this theory, Van Lancker notes that in aphasia, the subcortex is very often intact. This leads her to believe that "the subcortical expression we see in primates may still be operational in humans."

Understanding these functions is only part of the healing process when coping with a loved one with brain damage. Jay, who has written numerous books on the psychology of swearing, advises:

    • *The first time you visit a loved one who has suffered a stroke, don't go directly to them. Prepare yourself by walking around the nursing home or hospital. You will hear other patients whose only form of communicating is swearing.

    *Don't take it personally. Understand that this form of expression is not directed at you; it has everything to do with how the brain recovers.

    *Be supportive, in non-verbal ways. Hold his/her hand. Maintain eye contact.

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