What we have lost, what we can learn and the road ahead

Anniversaries, birthdays and milestone markers can bring fourth positive emotions like joy and happiness but can also call for sadness, grief and avoidance.

For people with an acquired brain injury the anniversary date of their accident is a day that is clearly remembered. Loss after a brain injury include memory impairments, planning problems , regulating emotions and although these people will forget new name, new faces and daily, the one thing they have engraved in their minds is their anniversary date.

I would like to share a story about a young man learning to cope with the effects of an acquired brain injury. Our Mindful Art group started on May 7, 2015 and I was informed that this is two days before the anniversary of his traumatic motor vehicle accident resulting in two fatalities and one survivor – Tobi. I was informed by his case manager that “this can be a more difficult time for him.” Tobi is a 22 year old young man  who sustained injuries as a result of a severe motor vehicle accident

During this group, participants tried to meditate and learn to carve and print linoleum blocks. This was the first time each participant tried this art activity. Tobi carved his first print called “Turn that frown upside down.” Initially, he drew many set of eyes in his art journal when he was designing his print. However, when it was time to draw on his linoleum block, Tobi’s image evolved into something different – faces expressing emotions. He seemed very pleased with the final result. As each person shared their art work everyone was supportive of each other and was delighted at the results of their efforts. There was an unconscious theme – ghosts, two graves and block of eyes. As I placed each piece of art work in the center of the table, the collective theme that emerged was a big surprise. The mindfulness theme of this session was: judgment + acceptance = surprise! (for further details click here) and this abstract theme became personally meaningful for each  individual person as each was was delightfully surprised by their own creation.

Turn that frown upside down by Tobi Banjo
Turn that frown upside down by Tobi Banjo
Mindful Art Workshop - Spring 2015
Mindful Art Workshop – Participants in the Spring 2015 group

I like to end our group with a gratitude exercise. From previous experience, I have found this exercise to be a powerful experience for people wishing to reflect and found it to be an opportunity for everyone to say something personally meaningful and share their thoughts. So I use the opportunity to explore the topic of anniversaries, as it is also my birthday in 3 days – an anniversary of birth.

I start the gratitude exercise by asking each person to thank themselves and those involved in helping them arrive to the group. It takes a lot of effort and planning to make a decision then stick with it and show up. Next, we thank each other for friendship and company and we thank our community for giving us a safe space to gather. Then I lead the exercise with something I am personally thankful for. I stated to the group that an anniversary is coming up, and that my birthday will be on Sunday. I wanted to express my gratitude for life and being alive and being thankful for my parents who gave me a body and life those many years ago. I could sense some tension from Tobi when I was talking about anniversaries. He was sitting beside me so I could see he was intently listening to my words. Then I asked other people in the group to share what they were grateful for and this is what Tobi said:

“It’s going to be two years since my accident in two days, so I am thankful that I am here and I am thankful for the people who have come into my life and the lessons I’ve learnt throughout these two years.”

When all seems lost and in a moment, the world we thought we knew seems to crumble, we can remember – that the most precious gift we have is our life. By living and surviving we can continue to learn and grow. We can become kinder, wiser and open our hearts in ways we had never previously imagined. When we learn to accept the difficulties of life, we can  create a space in which our real essence can reveal itself in so many surprising ways.

I shared this story with Meka Sadler, another young 24 year old woman that I work with. She had also sustained a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle crash almost 2 years ago. Two young people, two accidents, two moments that changed lives forever. Now two years later these two people are able to connect in ways that they would have never thought of before. I showed her Tobi’s art work and explained some of the overall details of his creation. Then I asked Meka, “After everything you’ve been through, if you had to give advice to this person (Tobi), what would you say?” She responded:

“It gets better…let go of the past, because it only weighs you down. (Because this is when things started to change for me. When I stopped focusing on the past and focused on what I needed to do) Focus on the new you. And still aim for your old goals and if you don’t achieve them, change your markers of success, or change your course of action”

I suggested to Meka that perhaps she should write her story down and share it with others. Because after all, we do not know how one person can shape another and the most precious gift we have is your precious human life.


From Toronto to Fredericton with Love

Spring is finally here and the warm sun rays have returned to kiss our faces. It’s about time because this past February had been the coldest month in recorded history of Toronto. The East Coast also had record snow fall this year and cars had been buried in the snow.

This February I was also contacted my Nancy Morin, Occupational Therapist in Fredericton. I met Nancy through a lunch and learn session held in June 2014 hosted by the Canadian Association of Occupation Therapists. We’ve exchanged emails and talked about program development to connect our clients to meaningful occupation and artistic expression. At the time, Nancy had been interested in starting a creative expression group and was putting together the bits and pieces to combine Occupational Therapy with creative expression and even mindfulness. We exchanged ideas and encouragement and several months later Nancy had started her creative expression group and was wondering if I would be interested in participating in an Art Exchange with her group. I happily accepted!

I introduced this idea of an art exchange to the artists in my Winter 2015 workshop. Most people had not heard of an art exchange and did not know what it was all about. There was some hesitation as I explained the concept to the group. With encouragement several clients came forward to have their art work featured in the art exchange. Some people were unsure if they were ready to share their art work with others. Our group worked on putting together a collection of gift tags. I also contacted past participants and asked if they would be interested in adding their beautiful art work to this collection. Three weeks later we had a completed collection from the artists at Community Head Injury Resource Services of Toronto (for further information on CHIRS click here). This was mailed out with love to Fredericton.

From Toronto to Fredericton with Love
From Toronto to Fredericton with Love

On the last day of my winter workshop when I was feeling distracted and consumed by emails. I walked down the hall feeling a bit defeated by my to-do list and scheduled appointments, I checked my mail box and saw a brown paper envelope. The art collection from Fredericton had arrived and opening each paper envelope brought a smile to my face. By the time I finished opening all the envelopes, my mood had changed from exhaustion to delight and inspiration. Here is the collection of art from Fredericton to Toronto with Love.

The art you see below was sent to CHIRS as part of an art exchange with the Horizon Health Network of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Five artists in the Addiction and Mental Health Services program in New Brunswick contributed their art. They are: Sam, Sunayna, Lynn, Vicki, and Amanda.

In exchange, the artists in Mindfulness Art Workshop at CHIRS sent a collection of their art to Fredericton. The artists from CHIRS are: Orlando, Roxanne, RB, Chris, Scott, Ali, Cathy, Elisheva (Rehabilitation Student) and Amee (Occupational Therapist).

So where did where did this art work come from? Nancy kindly wrote the following explanation:

The Recovery Art Studio creative expression group was founded in September 2014 by Occupational Therapist Nancy Morin and Visual Artist Marsha Clark. The Studio is open to adult clients of Horizon Health Network Addictions and Mental Health Services, Fredericton Region. We also work in partnership with the Capital Region Mental Health and Addictions Association (CRMHAA) and their R.E.A.C.H. Centre (Resources, Education, Activities, Connections & Help Centre). The approach in the Studio is to fully integrate healing based on the principles of Recovery, Occupational Therapy, mental health care, visual arts, mindfulness and vocational counseling. Members are supported on their own recovery journey to self discovery and expression through art, greater self-esteem, skill building and improved confidence.

From Fredericton to Toronto with Love
From Fredericton to Toronto with Love

As Nancy said “members are supported on their own recovery journey to self discovery and expression through art, greater self-esteem, skill building and improved confidence” and that is the power of art contributing to positive health outcomes. The power of art to connect groups of people from one province to another is a testament to our ability  to form new social connections with one another. Through creative expression we can connect with a part of our self suppressed but longing to speak. Sharing art and stories improves self efficacy and boosts self esteem.  When we can push through the barriers of judgmental thinking social pressures, we may be surprised at the results and once we create we should share this genuine inspiration with others.

My teacher at the Kadampa Meditation Centre in Toronto  told me that after Buddha attained enlightenment he was unsure if he could share his experience and knowledge to the world. What he had attained was so great that he was uncertain if the world could understand these teachings. He waited two months and with a special request from Indra and Brahma he was asked to turn the Dharma wheel (teach the path to widsom) and he did. Imagine if he had never shared his experiences to his disciples and pass on his knowledge and wisdom. There would be no Buddhist concepts of: meditation, mindfulness, loving-kindness, and compassion in the world. There would be no path, no teachings, no guidance, no ways to change your mind to cope with difficulties. This gives all of us the encouragement we need to start sharing. We will never know how much our life can touch another’s. The only thing we can do is try our best everyday to put effort in being kind to others and being true to our inner voice and share these moments. Knowing this we can slowly learn to appreciate the preciousness of this human life.