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After a life-changing spinal cord injury, Art questioned who he was and what he could do in his new body. Find out how embracing his artistic side helped him heal and thrive.
How art helped me heal after an SCI
How art helped me heal after an SCI
Before my injury I had the world by the tail, so to speak. Active, healthy lifestyle. Fancy car. Family and friends and great relationships. Successful business. It was an exciting life, bringing new products to market, traveling to exotic locations, going to big fancy shows. And then I woke up in Vancouver General Hospital Emergency, Spinal Cord Intensive Care Unit. My life had been brought to a standstill.

Everything I had, everything I had done, was now in the past. I was frozen in an immovable body, with tubes going into and coming out of everywhere, machines beeping, buzzing and wheezing. Fast-forward a few months and I’m touching a civilized existence again. But what am I to do? Where do I go, and how do I justify my existence on this earth based on some kind of contribution.

The answers were not to come easily. I was used to a fast-paced lifestyle, where mountains got climbed, rivers forded, towers built. I had energy, drive and determination, combined with physical competency. But now I could not lift a finger. I moved to an apartment and felt equally out of place and without purpose. Living in a box full of boxes! If the sun was shining, I went out. If not, I sat inside and brooded. I sat. I stared. I self-deprecated. I wallowed. What was I here for?

I had a computer, but I couldn’t do what I did before. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t ski. I couldn’t ride a bike. I was overwhelmed with “I couldn’ts”. I received career guidance, but all opportunities seemed to point to what I was doing before, which didn’t seem possible or practical. Like a car starting and stopping and starting and stalling, unable to get going, I was spinning my wheels and going around in circles, unable to find a place to go or a means to get there. I was used to building things, making things happen, and working with designers. I wasn’t doing any of that anymore. I felt like there was a mismatch between the person I was supposed to be and the person I had become.

This changed the moment I was challenged to draw with a mouth stick. I became a different animal when my competitive instincts were aroused. This was done carefully, by someone, able-bodied that drew with a mouth stick in order to experience the challenge equally. I could not refuse. I was stimulated to try, as competitively as I could. 

Fiercely I tried and latched onto this new outlet to fill my need to build, to create, to present something to the world - something that could possibly be great. I went to the studio every day, worked hard, gained skills, and increased my understanding of the technical form. This was the outlet I needed.

Competition alone, was not the determining factor, however. I had been challenged to do things before. Why had that not worked? Because it was the same thing and this was something new. A spark of possibility in a completely unknown territory. I hadn’t exercised my artistic abilities since my elementary school days; times that bore no resemblance to these.

So I likened myself to a potential master. What would Leonardo do? How about Michelangelo? Brugel? Durer? These were just names on the covers of books, but they became mysteries to solve. What was their secret? What was the nature of their abilities? Could I mimic their craft? Now I was building again. I was developing. I had a mission. My mind had been opened.

Painting became my new love and I was unable to let her go, afraid that if I stopped the chase, I might possibly break the spell. My talents, my motivation, my drive, my enjoyment might disappear. So I stayed on with the quest - a horsemen pushing his beast.  At some point it must stop for rest but I may not start again. So I drove on.

Then one day I did stop and I looked around to see all that I had done. I noticed that the world was beautiful again. There is something great and wondrous about trying to bring beauty into the world. If you create just a little bit of it, then the world is a better place. That is a fine achievement and a sense of fulfillment results.

Something else happened. A flower of creativity opened. I felt inspired, motivated, and driven to create more. Not just paintings, but poetry, short stories, songs, and novels. The pent-up frustration had turned into a fountainhead of production. Things had to come out and an avalanche was unleashed. Suddenly confidence emerged. If I had an idea, I could turn it into something. This was a great feeling. I felt abilities coming from everywhere. I was no longer stuck, shackled, or withheld from participation. I was blossoming and growing into something bigger. Challenged due to my disability? No. Now I felt like anything was within my grasp.

I gained new, great tools, ones that I did not have before. The ability to foresee a vision, to consider the possibilities, to venture into the unknown, to try, to risk failure, but fearlessly push on and succeed in the end. I gained new perspectives as if exploring new worlds.

I don’t suggest that within everyone lies a painter, poet, novelist or songwriter. But within every each and every one of us is a creative spirit. So, in the most difficult times, when we are searching our souls for the tools to rise above great challenges, we may only need to reach within, and firmly grasp the tools we all have. Those that give us the power to explore and to express. It doesn’t matter what the outlet is, or how perfectly we execute our craft. Your achievement may be as humble as building a better omelette, or it may be as grand as designing a space station. What or how big is not the point. Creativity leads to productivity, which leads to the feeling of accomplishment and achievement. Dabble in creativity and feel your power; just give it a chance.

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About the guest blogger: Art Jonker (Artorius) is a thriving painter, poet, writer, performing artist and businessman. You can see sample of his work at houseofartorius.com.

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