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Emma had a stroke at 33. She's having to relearn everything.

This post deals with the topic of depression and might be triggering for some readers.

Emma Beesley was thriving at age 33 - a passionate lawyer working in the family court. 

Then she experienced a stroke. And the effects of that stroke impacted her ability to talk - something many of us simply take for granted. She was soon diagnosed with Aphasia, which is a language difficulty caused by damage to the brain. 

A difficultly not many understand. 

However, the news surrounding Bruce Willis and his Aphasia diagnosis has prompted a larger conversation about what exactly the condition entails. 

Over 140,000 Australians currently live with Aphasia, and for many, it's an everyday struggle.

As Emma said to Mamamia's news podcast The Quicky: "Aphasia is the loss of language - not intelligence. After the stroke, my words made no sense. Like, I know what to say. I just can't say it. And it's very, very frustrating."

Watch: The Stroke Foundation encourages people to act F.A.S.T. in stroke situations. Post continues below.

The frustration at not being able to find your words and losing speech is hard to describe, not to mention the grief associated with it.

"I was depressed. I just couldn't get the words out and I couldn't communicate my thoughts and feelings. And people couldn't help me, like, my mum and dad. They would try to say something [on my behalf] but no, that's not what I meant," Emma said.

More often than not, Emma would give up trying to communicate what she was thinking, as the process was so difficult. Instead, she would just let others do the talking for her and try to assume what she was thinking, to varied success. It's not like Emma could write down what she was thinking either, given Aphasia impacts a person's writing, reading, communication and comprehension. 

And in the years since, Emma has had to relearn how to speak and how to spell. And understandably, it's been a lot. 

"I'll get there. Slowly, slowly, slowly. It comes and goes. And some days are better than other days. I get fatigued too -it's kind of like a brain fog."

Listen to The Quicky. Post continues after audio.


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As for what the treatment or 'recovery' process looks like for those diagnosed with Aphasia, it's complex and varied. It impacts every person differently, with some only having mild difficulties and others having very severe communication problems.

"They sort of tell you it's a lifetime thing. And we'll probably always need therapy. So speech therapy is crucial to me," Emma said on The Quicky.

"I have a great speech therapist. I can do homework and I'm actually trying to read books again. It's hard, but I will get there."

Kirrie Ballard a Professor in Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Sydney has published on diagnostic approaches and procedures for acquired and childhood speech and language disorders, including a focus on Aphasia. She explained to The Quicky that not only does Aphasia cause language problems, but also challenges with concentration, memory, attention and problem-solving.

"Regardless of the cause, we tend to use very similar types of treatment for all. We see people for extended periods of time to work on their language skills," Professor Ballard said. "And of course, depending on whether you have had a single stroke, and therefore now are on a path of recovery, that treatment and approach might be quite different to someone who's on a degenerative trajectory. The main treatment plan is to actually work on their language production to try and improve their skills."

And there have been some significant wins for Emma in the years since her stroke, and for her and many experiencing Aphasia, celebrating the small highs is important. She has also obtained her licence again using a modified car. 

Emma celebrating her progress. Image: Supplied.

Professor Ballard also wants people to know that recovery isn't 'linear'. 

"People who have had a stroke do always go through a period of what we call spontaneous recovery. And in that period of spontaneous recovery, we step in there to try and maximise and accelerate that recovery. Without speech therapy, they may or may not return to normal function. But it takes a lot of effort."

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And with maximum effort come feelings of burnout.

"When you have difficulty communicating, there's a stigma associated with that. And people with Aphasia can become withdrawn. Their social networks can shrink," Professor Ballard said.

So although the news associated with Bruce Willis' diagnosis is tragic, it also presents itself as an important opportunity to raise awareness of what Aphasia is and the impact it has.

For Emma, she is incredibly strong and is determined to use her experience to raise much-needed awareness. 

Last year, she was recognised for her effort and announced as the recipient of the 2021 Courage Award winner at the National Stroke Awards.

As she noted in her acceptance speech: "I am proud of winning this award and of turning a life-changing event into something positive. Not many people in the community know what Aphasia is, but I am determined to change that."

Emma giving a talk at National Stroke week 2021. Image: Supplied.

If you'd like more information about Aphasia, the Australian Aphasia Association (AAA) is a not-for-profit support and advocacy association and registered charity for people with Aphasia, their families, and the professionals who help them.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Supplied.