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"I will never be the guy I was pre-stroke"

Singer Alan Frew talks candidly about stroke, recovery and finding an inner strength he never knew he had
Singer Alan Frew

Alan Frew picked up a pen in his right hand.His paralyzed fingers could barely grasp it. Lifting his wrist with the otherhand, he laid it on the paper in front of him and slowly started writing outthe lyrics to his 1986 hit song, “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone).”

When he looked at the paper nothing was legible. “It just looked like a bug had run across it,” Alan recalls now.

That was August, 2015, just a few days after Alan had a stroke in his sleep at age 58. The Scottish-born singer, front man of the hugely successful Canadian synth-pop band Glass Tiger, was lying in a Toronto hospital bed, paralyzed on his right side and facing a terrifyingly uncertain future. But already he was determined that this stroke would not define him.

Alan talked to us about his stroke, the aftermath and the long journey back — a journey that continues today.

When did rehabilitation begin for you, and what did it include?

My wife and daughter flew in from Edmonton, where they’d been visiting. They were leaning over my hospital bed and saying, “This is not who you are. We see you getting back onstage and being the man we know and love — the artist and singer that the world knows.” Until that moment I’d been thinking my life was over. But hearing those words… that’s where rehab really began for me.

The neurologist told me it is all about movement; you feel like your leg and arm don’t work, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to work.

So I focused on moving my right arm. I tried to make my fingers touch my thumb, and wiggle my toes. I tried to raise my leg off the bed.

I also had a real stammer. So I took opportunities to speak as much as I could. I started speech therapy. And that’s when I wrote out those lyrics.

After eight days I moved to a rehabilitation hospital. They had me do things like putting my hand in a big bucket of rice, pulling out little objects hidden in it. I had to pick up coins and put them in a jar. These things can feel demeaning because you don’t want to be there. But it’s an attitude thing. So I kept up my attitude: “This is not who I am. I am not going to let it define me.”

How did it feel when you eventually came home?

I had become used to the rehab hospital, so coming home actually felt fearful. I could walk very gingerly with a cane. But I worried, you know: my dog and my cats, are they going to trip me up? Am I going to fall downstairs?

Then there was the fear of going into my studio. I set a challenge. We booked a gig — a concert that sold out, in spring 2016, at the Great Hall in Toronto. That gave me that challenge of having to get my voice back into shape. Through those months, I did outpatient therapy two or three times a week.

That concert was a success and helped raise awareness and funds for Heart & Stroke. What has it been like for you to speak publicly about your stroke?

If I can help one person feel less stigmatized, I have done my job. After my story hit the media, thousands of people wrote to me. Many thanked me for going public, saying how it helped them.

What helped in your recovery?

I have a family that knows I do not need hand holding. I need strong, grounded understanding that what I am going through, we are all going through together. They’re there to help me. They’re not there to baby me.

I would encourage other stroke survivors to understand that the people you love are going through this with you. And because there’s a whole trip that comes with levels of frustration and anger and depression, they might be the punching bag that your emotions want to go to. It’s so important to remember that you’re all in this together.

I trained as a registered nurse. So I respect the highly skilled healthcare professionals who did so much for me. If they tell you to put your hand in a jar of rice or touch your nose, they have a good reason. Sometimes I questioned them, and you can do that. But generally speaking you need to accept the position you are in.

You mentioned frustration and depression. Can you talk more about the emotional aftermath of stroke?

There was massive depression at first. Stroke is just such an insult to the human condition.

Before it happened I was working on my album; I was getting ready to put a band together and tour. And the next day I’m paralysed on my right side, a broken remnant of who I was the night before. I cried, fairly uncontrollably, for three days, trying to figure this out in my mind.

You have to allow yourself to be broken and mourn what you have lost, then accept that this is it. And again, it’s very important that you let people in.

The fear factor of having another stroke can be constant if you let it. You think: “Am I a ticking time bomb? Is it just a matter of time?” Dealing with that part is really a big part of the trauma.

How do you feel now?

On the outside people see no difference. They say, “Hey, you’re looking great!” — better than before the stroke. But I am still affected by it. My hand will never be the same; my arm will never be the same.

I have good days and bad days. I will never be the guy I was pre-stroke. He’s gone. I can only be this guy. But I am still singing at the top of my game.

I am very vigilant with my medication and I swim every day. I’ve cut my sodium. I pay attention to what I’m eating. My weight is down.

I went through a rough time of being almost antisocial. When I go to social functions where there is lots of noise, those affect my brain terribly. Now I like being social in small doses.

There are some good things that have come from my stroke, weird as that sounds. It’s made me incredibly more aware of the time frame that we are on as human beings; in a blink of an eye you can be gone, or devastated. So I treasure my time more.

Stroke has showed me that I have an inner strength the likes of which I could not have imagined.

What’s next?

My next big challenge is to bring the story of my stroke to the public. We’ve been filming this documentary and I would like it to be seen by millions of people.

Glass Tiger has got 25 dates booked this year. And I’m going to Nashville to finish up an album. I am as good if not better than ever. I can still knock it out of the park.

Learn more about stroke