The First Step

When people want to accomplish anything it typically starts with desire. When the person desires something they will likely take steps toward the goal. Here’s an excerpt from The Seven Steps to Healing your Brain where I took an early step toward recovery.

“I particularly remember the first night in the rehabilitation hospital, the fourth hospital in which I’d been a patient. All of the brain injury and stroke patients attended dinner in an echo-filled white hall. Rows and rows of white tables and chairs slowly filled with people wearing hospital garb. Some patients entered walking, and they all wore the badge of affliction with a protracted limp, or facial droop or flow of spittle. Some were in wheel chairs. Some came with the aid of a walker. The patients all sat at tables and staff brought their dinners. We ate in silence, except for one patient who endlessly nodded his head back and forth while humming tunelessly.

This was a critical moment in my recovery; On this day, I was scared. I felt different than most of the people in this room. I wanted to talk. I couldn’t. I wanted to laugh. I couldn’t. I wanted to recover. I could. I looked at the faces, some sad, some vacant, some lost, and I was terrified to be counted among them. This is not to be dismissive of other’s situations, but is rather to suggest that in that moment the passion to recover overwhelmed me and I wanted to rise above the situation.

When dinner ended and the staff began to collect trays from the patients and the room became alive with the sound of clattering cutlery and melamine dishes and trays, I made a decision. I thought,  ‘I am not like this. I am capable,’ and I rose up and began collecting trays from tables, helping staff clean. It was awkward, especially balancing the trays, and placing them into the movable racks, but I kept trying and trying and failing until one time the tray slid smoothly into the rack. I persevered. And in that moment, I shifted from being a victim of my circumstances to one who took control of his life.”

You can accomplish amazing things when you combine passion with effort. First, desire and second, begin.  Do something, anything, toward your goal. What are you waiting for?

*****

In the spring of 1990 Allan Boss was in a motor vehicle accident. He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. The attending neurosurgeon informed his family that he would never walk again or talk again. He recovered and finished three university degrees including a Ph.D., has written/edited four published books and his CBC Ideas docudrama “Updrafts” about recovering from brain injury won nominations for multiple international awards including the Peabody and the Prix Italia. He is currently writing a non-fiction book about his recovery.

Want to learn more? Email info@allanboss.ca  with the subject Send Me the Free Outline to the book, The Seven Steps to Healing your Brain.

Drama Therapy

I was scared. I imagined standing in front of hundreds of people and delivering lines and forgetting the words and stammering and the audience snickered, laughed outright, and I froze with a shocked face, wide eyes, dropped jaw — imagine Jack Torrence at the end of Kubrick’s The Shining— and then the audience jumped on stage and poked and chastised and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t run. I was paralyzed. It was terrifying.

That’s how I felt when my sister Peggy said, “Come on, audition with me.”

“No,” I said.”

“It’ll be fun. It doesn’t mean you’ll even get a role.”

That made me feel even better. “No.”

“Both of us may not. And even if we do … just give a try,” she said.

“No.”

“If you don’t like the rehearsals, or the people–”

“No.”

“…or it’s too scary, you can always quit.”

I didn’t like that word. And after all I’d been through over the last couple of years – the accident, the coma, the numbness, the torpor – I felt that if I gave up and embraced the disability I may find myself stuck in that moment forever. The future would become stagnant. It frightened me more than almost anything, the word quit.

“OK,” I said, “I’ll audition.”

The production was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a rollicking musical about pirates, cops, a major general, with an obligatory love story. The kicker was, the show would be the inaugural production in the newly constructed Festival Place Theatre. The entire community was thrilled about this new facility and many felt it would be an honour to be one of the first people on the stage. As a result more than a hundred people auditioned for roles. I was selected, a fact that both thrilled me and made me nauseous.  I learned later that the community theatre group producing the play, Sherard Theatre, had a mandate to include anyone who auditioned. I would have gotten some sort of role either on stage or behind the scenes no matter what, just for showing up.

But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that none of these folks – except my sister – knew that I’d suffered a recent brain injury. They accepted me for who I was.

The cast supported each other, regardless of ability. We learned our lines together. We learned our blocking together. We learned the plot, with its twists and turns, together. We laughed together. As the production developed I grew as a person and tackled activities that were difficult: memorization, social interaction, physical movement, public speaking. The experience changed my life.

I wrote my first play during that production. I used it a year later in a portfolio submitted to the Writing Program at the University of Victoria. They accepted me into the drama stream. Four years after that I graduated into a changed life.

My accident happened in 1990. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in 1997. Those seven years were the most intense learning I’d done since birth. Looking back I realize that these changes were, to some extent, initiated through the arts.

The arts can change lives. And don’t take it just from me.

Encounters with arts or heritage expose people to ideas and understandings, new or old, about how to interpret the world around them. This provides people with a greater diversity of options for social action and relationships. This diversity of options is what Swidler has called social repertoire, or the individual’s cultural tool kit. It is out of this repertoire of understandings that individuals craft strategies of action to make their way through life (Stanley, 2005a, 2005b; Swidler, 1998, 2003). Being better equipped for social interaction and having more options available can increase the individual’s confidence and capacity for collective action, or what Appadurai (2004) has called “the capacity to aspire.” (Introduction: The Social Effects of Culture)

If you are overcoming trauma or know someone who is, invest in the arts. Sing or play music or dance or draw or paint or sculpt or act … take it from me: it can change your life.

*****

In the spring of 1990 Allan Boss was in a motor vehicle accident. He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. The attending neurosurgeon informed his family that he would never walk again or talk again. He recovered and finished three university degrees including a Ph.D. (in Drama), has written/edited four published books and his CBC Ideas docudrama “Updrafts” about recovering from brain injury won nominations for multiple international awards including the Peabody and the Prix Italia. He is currently writing a non-fiction book about his recovery.

Want to learn more? Email info@allanboss.ca  with the subject Send Me the Free Outline to the book, The Memory Box.

Breaking Out

My dad used to say that I had legs for pulling a plow. My sister would say, in reference to my size 14s, that I had a “good understanding.” And I used to say I was strong like bull, smart like tractor. We joked about my strength. I didn’t look like a body builder, but I was powerful in a sort of torque vs horsepower kind of way.

But in the first couple of years after the accident I wasn’t strong. My body shook uncontrollably at the oddest moments. I spent months in a hospital bed. I spent day’s laying on the couch, watching TV, eating, and playing guitar as well as my semi paralyzed fingers could manage. This “laziness” meant my muscles were shrinking and muscle atrophy from disuse can last a lifetime.

I was a burden on those around me.

Dad worked. Mom worked. And dad wanted me to work … but I couldn’t even bring myself to apply for a job. I may have looked normal, but I wasn’t. (That’s why TBI is known as the silent epidemic.) Things weren’t “right in my head.” I was tired all the time. My spatial reasoning was wonky — sometimes even putting my hand into a shirt sleeve required intense effort. I couldn’t speak well, odd words coming out of my mouth at inopportune times. After a couple years I tried working with my father’s company and made it through one day, but couldn’t return.

Really, I spent all my time reading, writing, exercising and playing guitar. It was fortunate that my support system allowed me to focus like that, for it meant I could strengthen myself.

After four years I worked up the courage to apply for a part time job selling clothes at Eaton’s. It felt awkward filling out the application and even stranger having an interview, but I got the job and overcame a major hurdle. That was an exciting summer. It was the summer that I began to break out of the shell of my parent’s house. Not only did I get a job, but I took a couple of summer courses at the University of Alberta. I also learned that I’d been accepted to the University of Victoria, beginning that fall, in the Writing program.

What’s the moral of this story? Take the time to develop yourself. Focus on activities that build the brain like reading and memorizing and playing music and exercise. Push yourself to do the things you need to do. Ask for help. Don’t rush. And don’t expect immediate change. Keep at it. It may take a while, but good things will come. You can build a solid life. It won’t be what it was, but it could be better.

*****

In the spring of 1990 Allan Boss was in a motor vehicle accident. He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. The attending neurosurgeon informed his family that he would never walk again or talk again. He recovered and finished three university degrees including a Ph.D., has written/edited four published books and his CBC Ideas program “Updrafts” about recovering from brain injury won nominations for multiple international awards including the Peabody and the Prix Italia. He is currently writing a non-fiction book about his recovery.

Want to learn more? Email info@allanboss.ca  with the subject Send Me the Free Outline to the book, The Seven Steps to Healing your Brain.

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