These past five months have been very challenging for me – both from a physical and emotional standpoint. The good news is that doctors think the heart attacks and strokes were a “one-time” event unlikely to occur again and the medications I’m on should support that diagnosis. The frustrating part is the recovery period is so much slower than I want it to be. I’m learning that practicing patience and gratitude is an art…and one I’m not particularly good at.
I’ve never been a patient person, I’m a go-getter. I’m used to being “in control.” I decide what it is I want to accomplish and then I work until I get there. As a self-taught wildlife artist, I started my painting career much later in life than I would have liked. After I finally decided to surrender to my passion and teach myself how to paint, those years were a blur of studying other artists whose work I admire, learning different painting techniques through trial and error and finding a voice of my own. I had finally begun to feel that in the past two years I’d really grown in my ability and success…being accepted into Birds in Art was a prime example!
And then two strokes put a real dent in my progress. At first, I was unable to hold a fork or feed myself; buttoning my shirt or tying my shoes was a major undertaking; and simply trying to walk with a weak leg and compromised balance was exhausting. Here I was trying to do the simplest of things that I’d been doing since I was a small child…why was it such a struggle??? I’d get mad, I’d cry, I’d throw things. It was physically and emotionally draining and some days I just didn’t have the energy or motivation to do much of anything.
I was very lucky to be assigned two excellent physical and occupational therapists who were hard task-masters and they taught me to celebrate even my smallest accomplishments. They gave me hope and the strength to work hard to regain my ability to function as a regular human being. With their guidance, I realized that small steps of progress were the key. I had to learn to regain my balance skills before I could walk properly. I had to strengthen my upper arms and shoulder muscles before I could control my right hand movements. I had to learn that patience and gratitude for small victories was necessary rather than letting memories of my previous life sabotage my progress. With their help, I recovered most of my right arm function and a lot of my left leg strength and I thought, “Wow, I’m nearly back to normal!” I didn’t realize at the time that that was just the “physical” recovery part of my journey.
I’ve discovered that while I’ve retrained my body, I’ve still got a lot of retraining to do for my brain. In physical therapy, you can measure progress; feel the strength and control returning; and you can begin to see a timeframe for recovery. That was my primary focus for months but now I’m finding that while there are things you can do to help your brain recover, it’s all about time. The brain needs to heal itself and it takes as long as it takes…it’s that simple. I have trouble finding the correct words or I forget in the middle of a sentence what I was talking about. Processing a large amount of information is difficult. I can paint for about 15-30 minutes at a time, then my brain becomes overloaded and exhausted and I have to stop. Intense concentration for long periods of time is still out of my grasp.
I asked an artist friend who had gone through a somewhat similar situation how he dealt with the frustration and exhaustion of trying to get his drawing skills back to where they were before his accident. First of all, it has taken him 4 ears to finally get there and, along with some other great advice, he told me, “The one most important thing is, still, patience…if you finished a great piece in a week, allow yourself 2 weeks. If it was 1 month, allow yourself 2 months.” His advice made me realize that the strokes have changed the rhythm of my life to a much slower pace. The brain’s ability to heal itself is an amazing thing and possibly someday I’ll be back to 100%, but maybe not. All I can do for now is acknowledge that I’ve got a lot of recovering still to do and be thankful for the things I am able to accomplish. Regaining skills will take lots of practice and impatience will only impede the progress so every day now, I have reminders that patience and gratitude are a necessary part of my life. After all, things could have turned out a whole lot worse.