Below you will read an inspiring and true story about how an art therapist found comfort and strength in art, music and writing as she struggled to recover from a stroke. If you would like to contact Ruth, you can reach her at: Rwmiller13@aol.com
“In that semi-conscious state before waking, I clearly remembered what I had just dreamed. It seemed as if I had taken a picture of the scene. I was in front of a large barn-like house, standing there with several friends, or family members, and waving good-bye to some visitors. There was nothing sad in the good-byes, but as the picture-taker, observing the scene, noting the incongruities with reality, I realized that it was my right arm and hand that was waving. Becoming more awake, I consciously knew that that motion was an impossibility. My right arm was not able to move at all, no matter how much I tried. It didn’t seem at all inconsistant that I was standing. In actual fact, I could no more stand than I could move my right arm, but somehow, even then, I knew that standing was not an issue. I woke up completely, and there I was, in a hospital bed, not able to move anything on my right side.
The feelings came pouring out – I was mad as hell, I was grief-striken, and I was scared! What could I possibly do in this helpless state? My life was suddenly different. At this point I couldn’t begin to plan a course of action. Without even realizing that I was reaching for “tools”, those I had always advocated in my creative expressive therapy work in the past, I put on the earphones that were by my bedside, and listened to some music. That was enough for a while to get the simmering emotions to come more to the surface. Tears came easily with music. I didn’t know then that both tears and laughter are both much closer to the surface in post-stroke patients. Anyway, I KNEW that I needed some way to express those feelings. I wanted to DRAW! I had always done that with my RIGHT HAND! How could I make it work with the left hand? The images were in my still functioning head and there had to be some way to bring them to the paper through my left hand. And so it was time for me to get to work – that challenge alone was therapeutic! First, I needed to get out of the hospital bed and room, freedom from constraint being the motivator. I got a nurse to help me into a wheelchair and wheel me out to a patio which would be my refuge from then on when I needed to “express” myself. I had supplies, now I must trust the process. The music and art materials had not appeared magically. My daughter was the delivering angel. She had brought tapes of music she knew I loved, a tape-deck, earphones , plenty of batteries – plus my favorite coloring pens and a tablet of drawing paper. She had delivered these to my bedside even before I knew I wanted them!
At first my efforts were shaky and the pen didn’t go where I intended. But then I realized that it was going where I wanted it to go, and I had to try to understand these directions and my need for them. I let the colors lead me – and it worked! Some colors were energizing and uplifting while others were pacifying and some actually enervating. I could surely feel a healing effect of the colors in general. When I drew, I usually did so with earphones on and taped music playing in order to, not only keep the hospital world out, but to keep me close to and in touch with all my feelings. It became gradually easier to express the emotions and subsequently more simple to define them.
My anger and hurt were significant and I explored them further by drawing and sometimes by manipulation of colors. The anger could be dissapated by drawing – that I knew from “before”. But sometimes that same anger needed to be there, to be looked at carefully, in order to understand it. I needed to make the energy of anger and hurt work constructively for me.
And so the work proceeded. Along with the Physical therapy, Occupational therapy and Speech therapy, there was “Recreational” therapy. This latter was playing games and doing “Art” projects. Here I was, trying to grow up again at the age of 67, and they were forcing me back to childhood. I recognize the importance of being in touch with the youngster inside, but the timing felt all wrong. When the therapists saw what I was doing on my own, and knowing my background in Art Therapy, they asked me to “do something” in Art with the stroke patients. I was not too successful because, at the time, I was much too concerned with my own healing process and had a hard time dealing with everyone’s concern with the “product”.
Even handling my equipment was to some degree therapeutic. In my wheel chair, on my crowded lap-board, I had a tape-deck, tapes, drawing paper, the container of some thirty coloring pens, and my useless right-arm – all jockeying for position. Many times the pen container overturned and pens rolled all over the floor – where I had to retrieve them while balancing myself in the wheel-chair. It felt good to have something to laugh at, and my one-armed juggling act while skidding around in the wheel-chair, provided this humor for me. I learned to be more careful and came to know my own NEW capacities.
When I look back on the experience in the rehab hospital, where the concentration was on physical recovery and rehabilitation, I know I couldn’t have made it nearly as well without my art and music. No wonder that some of the patients yelled at the staff or had uncontrollable crying jags or whined incessantly or threw their food. They didn’t have the tools to appropriately express the feelings that are inevitable with any catastrophic illness. And, in addition, the art and music and eventually the writing were necessarily helpful in creating the understanding which has served me to lead a productive and relatively well adjusted life.
The above was written within a year of having a stroke. Now, 8 years later, I am able to walk but still have limited use of my right arm and hand. Instead of providing art therapy with children and adult workshops, I now teach art classes in a senior community and conduct art therapy sessions in convalescent and rest homes. Best of all, I truly enjoy doing creative expressive art work and playing with colors, colors, COLORS!!”