I Survived a Stroke at Age 18. Then, I Developed Depression.


Louisiana resident and musician Chelsea Keenan’s life turned upside down in 2014 when she had a medical emergency. Her recovery journey has been long and complicated.

Music has always been a passion of mine, so it was incredibly exciting when I was signed to a record label when I was 15. By the time I was 18, I was about to go on a headlining tour in Asia and Africa — when everything changed.

I was watching “The Bachelor” with my mom when I started to have unusual symptoms. I confused my words — I asked her to get something out of the oven for me when I meant to say “refrigerator.” I also suddenly wasn’t able to say my last name. My speech started to get garbled, and I was losing the use of my right side. My mom rushed me to the hospital.

This was a really scary experience. I knew something was off, but I didn’t know what was happening with me.

At the hospital, I was given several spinal taps and other tests. Doctors determined that I had a stroke that was caused by meningitis. I didn’t know at the time what a stroke was, but I learned that it’s when the blood supply to part of the brain is blocked or reduced, keeping brain tissue from getting vital oxygen and nutrients.

I ended up being in the hospital for 10 weeks, trying to recover. I had really bad memory loss — I couldn’t remember what someone had told me an hour before, which was terrifying — and I also couldn’t use my right side. I couldn’t really walk, I couldn’t pick things up. My hands would just shake a lot.

I also lost everything I had worked so hard for in my career. Suddenly, the tour was off the table. It was heartbreaking. I just wanted to go into my room, curl up into a ball, and not come out.

Eventually, I started to get better. I did a lot of physical and speech therapy, and I started getting my strength back. But about a year after my stroke, I had another one, along with a series of transient ischemic attacks, which are also called warning strokes. They weren’t as debilitating, but it was still an event. Those went on for a few years, until doctors discovered a hole in my heart that seemed to be related to the strokes. All told, I was in and out of the hospital for five or six years. It felt like forever.

I don’t know when my depression started.

I just know that when I would get out of the hospital, I wanted to go to my bedroom and not come out. I wrote a lot of songs during that time, and most had the themes of, “I don’t want to be here,” and, “why did I live?” I couldn’t figure out why I still had to be around if I wasn’t able to be “normal” and use my body. At one point, I passed out, and my sister wanted to call an ambulance. I remember telling her not to do it — I didn’t want help.

I didn’t have a relationship at the time, and I’m a hopeless romantic. It was hard for me to not experience things like dating, which other people my age were doing. I felt very alone and isolated. I didn’t feel like anybody could understand what my experience was like. So I just stayed in my room and wrote music. I didn’t really talk to anybody.

Eventually, I got help for my mental health, too. I tried some medications to help with my depression, but I had allergic reactions to them, and they didn’t really work out. But I also went to therapy, which helped. And I continued to lean into songwriting.

I’ve learned that depression is common after having a stroke, and it’s usually caused by biochemical changes in the brain. Now, whenever I get sad, I write a song to work through it. But sometimes I’ll also just go into my room and curl into a ball.

Looking forward.

I’m now 27 — it’s been nearly a decade since my first stroke. I was medically cleared by my doctor a year ago, and I’m so excited about that. But while I feel a lot better, mentally and physically, I still have reminders of my stroke.

I have to do a special low-carb diet to lower inflammation in my body. I also get a lot of migraines and headaches as a result of the stroke. I take medication to keep my heart rate and blood pressure stable, too.

I’m moving on with my life, though. I just got accepted into Grammy U, which connects members of the Recording Academy with aspiring artists, and I’ve released a new song called “Sirens.”

I also volunteer with the American Stroke Association. Through the organization, I’ve been able to connect with other people who have had similar experiences, and it’s made me feel less alone in my journey. It’s really helped me with my outlook on life.

Overall, I feel normal, but there are reminders of what I went through. When I overdo things, I get brain fog. I want to push myself, but my body tells me “no.” It’s a constant struggle with me and my body, and I’m still trying to find balance — but I know I’ll get there.

— As told to Korin Miller

Korin Miller is a writer specializing in general wellness, health, and lifestyle trends. Her work has appeared in Women’s Health, Self, Health, Forbes, and more.

Image Sources: Melanie Keenan and Marc Keenan and Photo illustration by: Keila Gonzalez

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