Stories from the Field: Love Your Brain

This past May, Whirled Tree Arts had the honor of leading an art therapy project for the LoveYourBrain Foundation’s annual retreat for people affected by traumatic brain injury (TBI).  The story that follows is that of TJ Johnson, an artist, loving wife, beautiful person and survivor who attended the retreat for the first time after a horrific accident that injured her brain.  This is a story of overcoming all odds, finding the light in life’s darkest shadows and how making art with others can change lives.

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Life can be full of surprises, some beautiful and some disguised as mountains for us to climb. My name is TJ and this is my story of overcoming the odds. I am one of those people that typically tries to find the silver lining in all things. I am an artist who loves life and the outdoors and has always enjoyed meeting new people and inspiring others through my work. On April 20, 2014 everything about my life that I knew changed drastically.

I had just arrived in Charlotte, NC from Calgary, AB with my wife and was feeling happy to be on vacation. I was going to introduce my wife to my friends and reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in over eight months. My best friend had just met us to help us move furniture with her pick-up truck and, in my excitement of seeing her, I jumped on the back of the truck’s bumper. She hit the gas not realizing I was not holding on tightly and I flew off and hit my head on the pavement. According to my wife you could hear my head crack over the sound of the truck engine.

In the ICU, it was not looking likely that I would survive. I had suffered a Basilar skull fracture- the hardest part of the skull to break or crack. I had also broken my left temporal bone and had bruised the entire frontal lobe of my brain. Luckily with a lot of prayer, I somehow did the impossible and survived.

The road to recovery has been a long one and one that will never really end. Fresh out of the hospital I could barely function and had little sense of my surroundings or of who I was. As the months went by and my brain began to heal, the people around me saw I had changed. I could not allow my brain to be over stimulated, no computer, TV or loud groups for more than fifteen minutes a day. The social person everyone had known was now gone. In her place was a person that needed sleep, quiet and could only take things in little doses. My exhaustion was quick and I could only do what my brain would allow. It was hard for people in my life to understand that these changes in my behavior and activities were not voluntarily especially as time passed and my injuries were no longer outwardly visible. It seemed hard for others to know that inside there was still so much healing to do and that the changes in my personality and interests were the effects of my disabilities. This is who I had become in order to heal my brain and survive.

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Art has always been my healing. It has been a way to express myself and the things inside me that words just cannot say. Happiness, joy, sadness, struggle, love, life, all of it can be expressed with just one stroke of the brush and paint. Before the accident, I had been able to see my paintings in my brain before I did them. After my injury all I saw was blankness, which worried me. What if I could not paint anymore? What if art was no longer possible for me?  Before the accident, I was starting to become a successful artist getting paid commissions, showing work at art shows and having pieces up at various businesses and homes. People were inspired by my work. It moved them and that was the greatest reward of all. Just to help people feel something, had helped me feel as though I was contributing to life. After the injury, I had asked, now what? What do I have to contribute now? Perhaps I needed to make peace with the fact that I was broken and that art was no longer a part of my life. With this, sadness set in.

Then I attended the LoveYourBrain Camp at Zeno Mountain Farm in Vermont. I was excited and nervous. It had only been about a year since my injury and I had a lot of healing left to do, both physically and emotionally. Through my recovery process I had become more introverted, and felt very alone and misunderstood. Being with a new group of people worried me. What if I could not relate? This had seem to be my experience in the world since my injury: I couldn’t relate to people anymore, let alone inspire them.

I can now say that LoveYourBrain Camp was one of the most life changing experiences I have ever had. One particular element of the retreat that significantly affected my healing process, was an art therapy project led by the amazing Carolyn with Whirled Tree Arts. Using plaster and decorative materials, Carolyn had us make masks to express the metaphorical masks we wear related to our injuries. Although it may sound strange, throughout my recovery I hadn’t thought about doing art to express my injury. Even though I am an artist, it had never occurred to me to use art to explore my experience of injury and recovery. The mask project however opened something up in me I didn’t even know needed to be opened.

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The first day of the project we made the masks on our own face using plaster strips with a partner. I worked with a man named Rey who is truly a ray of light. The process of making the masks on eachother’s faces helped Rey and I bond in such a vulnerable way. I did Rey’s mask first, putting the Vaseline on his face so the plaster wouldn’t stick to him. We laughed and giggled as the mask hardened because we had to stop talking which was not easy for Rey!! Next it was my turn and Rey was so nervous he would screw it up since his right hand had been paralyzed from his injury. I hugged Rey and told him you cannot mess it up. It will be exactly as it should be. We both smiled and realized in that moment how this process of making the masks was a metaphor for our injuries. We came to see that, just because we cannot do things the way we used to does not mean we can’t do things beautifully. It made us both teary and something cracked in me. Rey asked for help and did an amazing job on my mask. Just getting to spend this time with him and being able to see everyone’s masks that day was just so much fun and beautiful. We were all so encouraging and supportive to each other.

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The next day we got to decorate our masks! There were all kinds of things to choose from to help our masks come to life and express whatever it was we wanted. As I sat staring at my blank mask, emotion and creativity flowed. I felt a part of me come back to life; a part I thought was gone. There was an energy in the group of hope, love, and pure understanding as we watched our masks come to life.  Being part of the creative process as a group was like being home with your dearest family members. It was beautiful.

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My mask has a piece of it missing, and it is made up of multi-colored papers so thin yet so bright. My head is stitched and held together and feathers are on the side of it. The piece missing represents the parts of me I don’t yet know but am learning about. The papers are how I feel after my injury. I am still this bright, loving, shining person who is broken and put together in parts but still whole. The feathers are my wings, and what everyone at the camp helped me to realize that despite my injuries I can still fly.

Part of the experience of the mask project was to share with one another what our masks meant to each of us. The process of sharing and reflecting as a group brings tears to my eyes even as I write this; tears of happiness, and love and of some sadness of my own. Before that day, I had never expressed how my brain injury made me feel. That process, and the opportunity to hear the stories of others in the group was nothing short of inspiring and life changing. It brought our group closer in a way that hadn’t seem possible by allowing us all to be so vulnerable and open in our sharing of love and understanding. The experience changed the course of my healing process in ways I can’t begin to describe. Even today, anytime I feel down or depressed I think of that circle and the stories that inspired me to rise above the hardships.  We were a group of people who needed that sense of acceptance, understanding and love more than anything.

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When you have a brain injury you just want to be seen and loved for exactly who you are and this mask project did just that for us. The project was not only fun but also therapeutic in ways I could never have imagined. As an artist, it helped me find my creativity again. I hadn’t realized that I had been suppressing my feelings about my injury. I wanted to be that person that everyone wants to be around but the truth is I don’t know who that person is anymore. I just know who I am now and once I was able to express how I was feeling the gates inside me opened up. My mask allowed me to realize that it is okay to feel and deal with my feelings about my injury. This was the key I needed in order to open the door to real healing.

Since the LoveYourBrain camp I have been making art again at a level that I had never expected. Anytime I feel stuck, or lost, I just look at pictures of my mask and those of my friends at camp. I remember our stories and I am instantly filled with love. It is something I wish everyone could experience. It is what life really is about. I am so beyond grateful for camp and for the mask project that Carolyn facilitated. Without this experience I don’t know where I would be. It has inspired me to do art projects like this with the youth groups I volunteer with which has helped me to view my injury as a blessing. My injury has changed my life significantly in ways that are terribly hard but also in positive ways that I could never have imagined. My road to recovery is tough at times but I am doing it and now I have an amazing family in Vermont that I am so forever grateful and blessed to have. My brain injury has helped me better understand the true meaning of life and my mask is something I no longer need to wear. I just need to let my light shine through the cracks and let love flow. Thank you Carolyn for being such a light in this world for those of us that so desperately need it!! Let your art shine on!!!