“What do you want to do this weekend?”
This question, unanswered, still hangs in the late August twilight.
Instead, the glare of oncoming headlights going way too fast, the crunch of metal. The sensation of spinning through space and time. I sit stunned in the passenger seat. Richard’s voice, “are you ok babe? Can you move?” My head rests against the airbag that kept my head from hitting the window, the pain of an impact so strong it spun us around like a child’s toy bringing me back to reality.
We all walked away, alive and whole.
Lucky. No broken bones, mild concussion, I’ve got this. Oh-so-naively, I gave myself the weekend, on Monday, it was business as usual. Start the day with a short run and my yoga mat. Take my son to school, teach my classes. Grade projects. Wine with friends. Dates with Richard.
Then the headaches. As the deep purple bruises faded to shades of pink and yellow, my injured brain began to wrap my body and soul in a thick layer of bubble wrap. I could see out, but everything was distorted. Mental fog. Nausea. Dizziness. Deafening tinnitus in my right ear. Memory lapses. Did I mention crippling headaches? My mild concussion turned into a “syndrome.”
Undaunted, I keep pushing…I just need time and space to heal, right? I rest on my office floor between student meetings. At home in bed by 6 p.m. most evenings. I resign from volunteer commitments, turn down all extracurricular activity. In just a few weeks, the word “no” is an unwelcome staple of my vocabulary. I felt weak and cowardly, like I was letting the whole world down. I start a “concussion” series of paintings to channel the anxiety I felt as my rogue brain became my enemy.
But nothing worked. Nothing. And it begins to sink in, I have a head injury. A numbness settled over me. I felt uninspired and inadequate. A college professor who can barely string coherent sentences together? A wannabe artist who has a panic attack when she picks up a brush? What now?
Panic replaces self confidence. I barely recognize myself. Emptiness where expression once lived. Did the accident knock the creativity out of me? Did a piece of my intelligence get lost in the twisted metal like my favorite pair of glasses that we never found?
A diagnosis of “post-concussion syndrome” is nebulous (or, more aptly, the most BULLSHIT diagnosis ever). There is no treatment or real prognosis. No promise of recovery. Each day brought new symptoms and challenges. Basic problem solving skills eluded me. A single trip to the grocery store exhausted me. A hypertensive crisis and emergency EKG finally got my attention. Eight weeks into the semester I yielded to my doctor’s orders, handed off my classes to colleagues and went home to (hopefully) heal.
Alone with my worries, I obsessed. What if I couldn’t go back to my old life? What if I was permanently impaired? I had so many dreams…to write…to paint…to develop social media courses…lead study abroad programs. What if?
Since my creativity was MIA, I settled for reading about my favorite artists and listening to books on tape and podcasts about people who had experienced TBI. Although I could not retain everything, as I learned about others who had parallel experiences with either physical or mental challenges, I was comforted. Not exactly optimistic, but no longer terrified.
Here are just a few of my “post-concussion” heroes. In one way or another, they overcame. They persevered. Instead of retreating, they created.
If you know me AT ALL, you know Frida Kahlo is and will always be an inspiration. The arresting pictures of Frida Kahlo (1907-54) were in many ways expressions of trauma. Through a near-fatal bus accidents at the age of 18, failing, health, a turbulent marriage, miscarriage and forced abortion, she transformed her afflictions into revolutionary art (Andrea Kettenmann).
Kahlo was forced to spend months confined to a bed, but continued painting using a special easel. She literally turned emotional and physical pain into art.
When game designer Jane McGonigal found herself bedridden and suicidal following a severe concussion, she dove into the scientific research and created the healing game, SuperBetter. Anyone faced with a tough situation can benefit from this game.
In 2011, music legend Glen Campbell announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of hanging up his guitar and preparing for the inevitable, Glen and his family set out on a “Goodbye Tour.” Campbell turned his struggles with the devastating disease into a powerful documentary and Grammy Award-winning song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” You don’t have to be a country music fan to be moved by his story. Watch the trailer here and stream the documentary on Netflix.
Vincent van Gogh
Yes, his mental illness is legendary as is his body of work. But did you know van Gogh likely suffered advance-stage syphilis? Or that The Starry Night was inspired be the view (sans bars) from his room in a French asylum? That he wanted to be a minister and insisted on giving his meager possessions to those less fortunate? His artistic techniques were (and are) revolutionary. I find it oddly comforting that someone so extreme and unstable, someone so crippled in mind and body was still able to create something beyond himself.
My friend and colleague (and creator of A Creative Human) once asked me for my definition of creativity. Although I don’t recall my exact response, I’m sure it included phrases like “new approaches to old problems,” “no fear” or my old standby “question everything.” While those still ring true to me, I now put “perseverance” at the top. Creativity is no accident. It’s not lost or found. It is a human response to challenge. A choice to be made. My journey is still unfolding, but I refuse to let circumstances define me. I choose to be creative.
How do you define creativity?