Words are something we take for granted. But all of that changed when Lotje Sodderland woke up in her apartment, disoriented, ill. A headache made it difficult to think. Impossible to speak. She left her apartment and stumbled into a nearby hotel, where she collapsed. Lotje was having a stroke.

This is the emotional opening to Netflix’s documentary, My Beautiful Broken Brain, a culmination of Lotje’s efforts to understand her new way of seeing and interacting with the world with aphasia. We’re unpacking this wonderful documentary in a series of four posts.

Waking Up

She explains in an article she wrote using Siri for the Guardian that when she woke in the hospital, she was unable to reassure her family and friends. She recognized her brother but explains: “When I woke up, I knew who he and my mother were – but I couldn’t be sure the familiar stranger inhabiting my body was me.”

My brother and mother loomed down at me, and a funereal line of friends came to the ward. They looked at me with sad eyes; I wished I could say something to assuage their sadness. There is no silence more resounding than that of a cognitive communication malfunction.

That communication malfunction is the focus of the film.

Unable to Speak or Read

Lotje describes her inability to speak as “beyond terrifying.” While she can’t comprehend or produce language after the stroke, her brain begins to find new spoken language routes a few weeks later.

For instance, with practice, she reaches the point that if someone says a word, she can repeat the word. But despite repeating the word several times, she can’t hold it in her brain. She is retaught the word “record,” and repeats it over and over again. Yet each time she looks at the object, she asks the videographer how to say the word.

She is candid about her recovery, admitting “I didn’t think I’d have trouble with the word ‘the’.” She struggles with retaining information and remembering the order of things. Prior to the stroke, she was a writer and reader, working at an advertising agency. After the stroke, she can’t read and admits as she looks at an Internet page that “it’s gobbledygook.”

The Stuff We Take for Granted

What she lost was “the stuff we take for granted,” her brother says in the film. In exchange for her words, she gains a heightened sense of reality. She experiences colours and sounds differently, and everything is intensified.

This is where the film starts. Our next article will unpack where the film takes the viewer.