Growing Through It

January 1994

Media: Three-dimensional, word-laden collage, oil on masonite, 36" x 48"
Venue: Boulder Brain Injury Support Group
Location: Boulder, Colorado

Workshop 2 - Growing Through It art pieceParticipating Artists: Chris Carter, Nicole Carter, Robin Carter, David Cole, Bittin Foster, Kim Johnson, John Litchenberg, Eileen Mc Kim, Lana Mollendor, Sherry Olson, John Olson, Rusty Portlock.

Art Piece Story: This art piece is the first “test workshop” and namesake for the Growing Through It collaborative art workshops. This art piece is a visual expression created by ten members of the Colorado Head Injury Support Group, Boulder Chapter. The composition directly portrays one group’s experience of life after sustaining traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Our journey began at the January 1994 Boulder Group Meeting where the interested people decided on the dimensions and John Olson graciously volunteered to build the frame. As I was interested in the relevance of trees to healing neurons, I suggested that the group also work with the same imagery. The first day people brought in photographs of trees and ideas of trees that they wanted to represent on the art piece. I drew the specifics as the group told me what they wanted. Kim began the process by bring a photograph of a favorite tree from her life, a weather worn tree. This image began our slanting right tree. A wondrous component of our group was that at the time Sherry was pregnant with Heidi, her and John’s’ expression of their love and commitment to one anther! The tree needed to hold this, so Kim’s’ tree became pregnant. Thanks Sherry!! A second tree was suggested by the group. With just a few sexually oriented comments, the second tree was designed and erected! Rusty and Lana discovered a new bud growing on a tree in Chris’ sun room which became a riveting topical component of the left tree. The final images were drawn onto the canvas.

The group members completed the physical labor of juicing styrofoam peanuts, drilling holes and hammering nails, while Lana was a savior and picked up the Elmer’s glue that I forgot (oops!). These tasks were a lot of fun; from the adventure of making styrofoam juice (I think Sherry quickly became the Peanut Juicing Goddess) to the release of tension as holes were drilled and nails were hammered. Our one time and uncommitted members of David Cole and John Litchenberg took on the challenge of drilling and hammering with John Olson and Rusty. The four of them did a great job and worked with such skill, ability and commitment. While the group took a necessary break, the Carter girls pulled their full weight as they enthusiastically mixed the peanut concoction and applied it to the prepared surface. Lana gracefully assisted with her keen eye and dexterity. Day one was complete and very successful. The group was assigned homework to write about their personal experiences with their TBI.

During the second meeting a few weeks later, the writings were read aloud to the entire group and then laid onto the surface of the art piece. The stories were insightful and telling, as we all have such different experiences, injuries and surrounding circumstances. Yet a common thread binds all of our experiences together to reflect what it is to be human; love, determination and will power. Depression, loneliness, joyfulness and personal discovery. Acceptance, satisfaction, difference and appreciation. Thankfulness, unemployment, understanding, hope and prayer. Loss of memory, seizure threat, fear, time, faith and respect. Creativity, process and progress. Courage, growth, defeat, pride, success and loss. Physical limitation, relationship, wisdom, well being, adversity and unfolding paths. Observation, confusion, changes in processing and expression. Insight, strength, bonds, nurturance and Spirit. Open mindedness, mystery, direction, change and “diffablity”. Life, lessons, experimentation, learning, relearning, choice and trust.

The last day was rushed as we had limited time to paint the final art piece, bind a book filled with the original stories and title the piece. The group did a great job painting. Kim decided to join the painting process and she initiated the significant purple lily. We would occasionally stand back and reflect on the painting and make additions and adjustments. I’ll always remember with fondness the integrity Rusty showed while he meticulously painted the dendritic branches…the rock that Lana painted at the base of the second tree…the roots that John painted to symbolize his and Sherry’s’ marriage, and the Carter girls who joined the painting process with youthful and skilled excitement.

Participants’ Stories:

The ONE word in healing that I have personally experienced is 
People who “make the best…” are strong in their belief in themselves and their loved ones – I feel a bond with others in similar circumstances and I do believe that this bond of love and strength will be essential in creating and nurturing future life – There is always a reason for the way things are– — Chris, 1994

I have witnessed a husband hit by a car and flung many feet in the air to land on hard pavement. I got that familiar jolt of adrenaline which faithfully leads to panic! In ’84 spring I became a spouse of an injured person. At the time I thought Alvin had finally learned through healing time to “stop and smell the flowers” – He was indeed slower and less responsive – He had actually sustained what I grew to recognize as changes in processing —- after being hurt seriously. This, and other factors led to a divorce. At times I sigh and realize I’m/we’re part of a statistic of relationships fallen apart (due to) trauma. This is sad for my girls and I commit each day to “make the best of a difficult situation.” On the other hand, I’ve gained insight from being a loved one that I use day in and day out.     – Chris Carter

When you say head injury the thought of you missing part of your brain is the image you get. My head hit the telephone pole as I fell or was thrown from the car. With a knock like that it really knocked me out. I just happened to break my back also to the point I can’t walk anymore. As people see me now is that I am retarded sense my memory and functions are not to their functions. I still can think and feel when someone throws SHIT at me. I’m living on my own with a part-time job. I also take care of two little boys who are my best friends in this world. These boys are turtles which is great and sad since I need someone to talk with me. The men friends I have only want to see if they can make it that’s sex with someone in a chair. My family loves me, they think it is different having a handicap person in the family. This makes them special not in a original way but still in some way. As I get older all the hard times I had and having makes me more wiser. So don’t think I’ll take anymore shit, for someone already tried. My only true friends, that will ever be, are my boys and my chair.

Kim Johnson-“GTI” poems 1994

To understand, is to know.
To touch, is to know.
To talk, is to know.
To trust, is to know.
To love, I don’t know?
Love and Friendship is one.
Trust and Caring is one.
Body and Soul is one.
We are not.
I told my past,
I told my future,
I told my now,
She told me bye.
I gave her my heart,
she gave me friendship.
I gave her my body,
she gave me friendship.
I gave her my soul,
she gave me friendship.
I gave her everything,
she gave me friendship.
I kiss,
I close my eyes.
I hug,
I close my eyes.
I cry,
I close my eyes.
I sleep,
I close my eyes.
I alone,
I open my eyes.
To hear,
To see,
To touch,
To walk,
To love,
Is not for all.
— Kim C.

My Brother, Rusty’s, Head Injury
                                                                       February 10, 1994

It began for me when I received a call in the middle of the night ten years ago. It was my mother saying that Rusty was in the hospital. She said it seemed pretty bad. I remember the fear that struck me. I picked up my brother, Brent, and we went to Saint Anthony’s Central Hospital where he had been airlifted after the accident in the jeep.

Fears about whether Rusty would be alive or dead when we got their crossed my mind. We arrived at the hospital and went directly to the intensive care unit. The looks on my family members faces were grave. My heart stopped a moment. Was he still alive?

The doctor came out and said that it was possible that Rusty would not live through the night. They just did not know. He was in a coma and may never come out of it. He could be a vegetable if he did. The thing in his favor was that he was in excellent physical shape due to his athletic pursuits. The doctor had performed emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from Rusty’s brain. A patch of bone was removed form his skull to allow for the expected brain swelling. He was then placed in the recovery room and we would be allowed to see him when he was stabilized. Time would tell. The longer the time… the better the chances.

We all waited. After awhile the doctor came out and said we could see him now (one at a time.) When it was my turn, I was frightened at what I would find. I walked in to the room. The usual paraphernalia, tubes, respirator, and heart monitor, were attached to my brother. His head was wrapped in bandages; he wasn’t bruised and broken like I thought he might be.

I touched his hand, I held it, and I now he was still present in there. I talked to him in my mind, I told him I lived him, and that I know he was there. I told him we would be there for him….. be there when he woke up.

We took turns camping in the hospital waiting room over the next few days. Someone was always there. Keeping the faith. Talking with others whose loved ones were seriously injured and in a coma. Some died, some lived. Rusty was physically improving but still in a coma.

The meeting with the doctors came when it was known that Rusty would probably live. They spoke in self-protective terms, gave a very poor prognosis for Rusty…..”Vegetable” that is what he would be. I said No to myself, he is in there. I feel it through his hands. “No insurance for the first $25,000, no rehabilitation money… He would be turned over to the family to progress on his own… see the financial services office about the bill.” By now Rusty was in a room by himself…. out of intensive care… still in a coma… breathing with a respirator. Two weeks he was in a coma, he began to come out.

He progressed rapidly, he began to walk, to get angry (nothing worked the way he wanted it to his body and brain had betrayed him.) He needed help to do everything but he hated that help. He was enraged. He had to learn everything over again. He hated the catheter. He was restrained to protect him from himself. My six year old daughter and I spent many hours at the hospital.

Soon Rusty was out of the hospital and living with my mother. He began to resent my mother for he was forced to rely on her. Rusty was thirty years old physically but emotionally he was toddler, then a rebellious child, and then a teenager. He was learning to work with a computer. He wanted to do what he did before (electrician.) It was a long process but Rusty was talking and trying to create a life for himself.

Rusty finally moved out on his own. Far from a vegetable, he lives on his own today. The doctors said he would stop making progress after two years. They were wrong again. Rusty made a mistake the night he injured himself, his life was radically changed forever… in an instant. So was our relationship. He is a vital and loved human being, still growing daily… still directing his life for the better. He is courageous and I believe that he can achieve what ever it is he is willing to work toward. He may not be able to do it the way he used to but in the final analysis it does not matter. He has overcome many hurdles. He is involved in life.

For a long while it was painful to watch the struggles my brother had to go through. The defeats he had to face in his progress tugged at my heart. He has pushed passed those limitations one by one. I have been frustrated with him at times when he imposed self-limiting road blocks in his own way. He always finds his way around those road blocks in his own perfect way. I take great pride in my brother’s many successes.

He has never given up. Rusty is my brother; I am happy he decided to stick around. I thank God for the gift of his life. I believe in him. I love him and I am proud to be his sister.– Lana Mollendor

My life since my accident in my opinion is not worth living. I am a very lonely person. I am in need of a woman to be close to. But when anyone finds out that I am unemployed, they go somewhere else. It is like I have a terrible disease. I know a lot of it is from not being able to understand, but that does not help cure the problem. I live day to day hoping and praying but to no help! I cannot have or keep a job because I have no memory. I have no ability to recall anything. If I do recall something I have no idea the reason, I am able to do so! I have to take medicine four times a day in order to prevent me from having seizures! When my body adjusts to the medicine, they put me on a different kind of medicine.      — Rusty Portlock

Remembering Adaptations

Looking into a trap door in the flow of time. That is what looking back at my notebook that describes my adaptations to life after a head injury that was written while I was a patient at Craig Hospital. Yet, just as with the real flow of time, everything is changing; nothing is constant.

If I don’t remember it, did it really happen? It must have, we wrote about it way back in trap door land. You know what was important, the food. It was written down every day. Was it because of my obsession with it before my head injury or was it because, maybe, it was something that can be determined absolutely. Don’t you remember, on Saturday February 11, 1989, for breakfast I had 1/2 a waffle – no butter, syrup, OJ, and milk. I don’t expect you to remember it, because it happened in trap door land, but we wrote it down so we don’t have to remember.

The overall feeling I have thinking of trap door land is Grateful. Grateful that John is with me, grateful that I can walk, grateful that I can talk, grateful that I can see, grateful that I can write, grateful that I was able to write and defend my thesis to obtain my Ph.D., grateful that I can work at NOAA, grateful that I can ride a bike, grateful that the bus system is in the area, grateful that I don’t have to drive. Grateful that I am still alive, because LIFE IS GREAT!!!

I used to thrive on the feeling that everything was going to be the way it was before the accident, some day. Now I am almost able to accept that things will never be the same. Part of my mind rejoices with this thought because there are twisted things that I never want to face up to again. But, part of my mind grieves with this thought, because so many activities I was able to do before I fell into trap door land brought so much joy.

However, I am still able to obtain satisfaction with these activities by knowing that I did them, once. If one was to climb Mt. Everest, could satisfaction be obtained through the memory of the climb, or would the rest of one’s life have to be spent on the mountain to obtain true satisfaction with the activity.

I am not broken, I am just different. Able to enjoy life more now than before, because of my closer knowledge of the shortness of life’s breath. Breath only wasted by so many in their fruitless race from death. Let’s choose deaths shrouded face as an ally helping put the importance of every moment in its proper place. Things can never be the same. So, come, let us gather, and let us not forget how bountiful our harvest is.     — Sherry Olson

Sherry had just returned to Colorado following her extended journey abroad. What had begun as a wonderful scientific tourist opportunity (opportunity) in Hobart, Australia ended with a Mid-way transport return. Sherry had a terrible car accident and had sustained a traumatic brain injury. I flew to Australia to be with her after the accident. Although she had much remarkable progress, she could not eat, walk, or talk.

I was preparing for an overnight trip on the Colorado river through Westwater canyon. I was going with the CO Kayak club, for whom Sherry was reigning, although not active, President. My mind was on Sherry, in particular, on a meeting I had just had with a family counselor. It had been about 2 months since Sherry’s accident and the counselor told me that since she still hadn’t started talking again, it was possible that her brain had lost that function. I could not prevent images of Sherry and I communicating by sign language, although I hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
This trip would be great therapy for me, I knew. Westwater is a deep canyon cut through red stone resulting in a variety of cliffs, arches, spires and other magnificent scenery. I had always considered Westwater to be a very spiritual place and so had the earlier Indian visitors. there was ample evidence in the canyon of past settlement by the Anazazi.

After a short day of river running on easy Class 3 we camped at Little Delores camp. The camp was a favorite of mine. It featured a shear 1000 foot cliff directly across from the camp. The rivers first large rapid contributed a soothing auditory background.

The group, many of whom knew Sherry and some that didn’t, were deeply concerned about her. Only a week earlier, they had been on Westwater and recorded a tape for Sherry. After lots of talk about what had happened to Sherry, someone suggested we hold a seance to summon Indian spirits on her behalf. I half heatedly agreed, remembering slumber party seances of my youth, but with an open mind knowing life to be at best an unsolved mystery. One of the group was quite serious and had lead many bizarre seances. She soon convinced me and the rest of the validity and seriousness of our undertaking.

We must have concentrated for over an hour in our circle holding hands. Asking for spiritual intervention and signs. Sometimes chanting, at others silent. Much to the surprise of all, no sign was received. We all retired with a feeling of failure.

The next day was spent in glorious, consuming fun on Westwaters big rapids. We all had great, and exhausting runs. I got back to Boulder that night at 3:00 am and went to sleep immediately with thoughts of big waves and rapids in my mind. At 6:00 am I was rudely awakened by the phone. I answered expecting a wrong number but it was Sherry’s father. “John, you’re not going to believe this. Sherry started talking at 4:00 am this morning. she hasn’t stopped since and is starting to get hoarse.” Finding it hard to control my joy I said “Well, let me talk to her.” ” Oh John. Oh. Oh. I love you. Oh John…”

It was true. She was talking and without any apparent problems.. It was later that I remembered our seance, of the previous night. I guess the Indian spirits had waited to give a sign.


Change is natural,
Nature is change.
Change too fast- lose direction,
Resist change-combat sadness.
Embrace change.
Love life.

I’m not disabled.
Just differently challenged.
We’re all diffabled.
— John Olson

1.    You will receive a body. You may like it or hate it, but it is yours the entire period this time around.
2.    You will learn lessons. You are enrolled in a full time informal school called Life. Each day in this school you have the opportunity to learn lessons. You may like the lessons or think them irrelevant and stupid.
3.    There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial and error experimentation. The “failed” experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiment that ultimately “works.”
4.    A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go onto the next lesson.
5.    Learning lessons does not end. There is no part of Life that does not contain its lessons. If you are alive, there are lessons to be learned.
6.    “There” is no better than “here.” When your “there” has become a “here,” you will simply obtain another “there” that will, again look better than “here.”
7.    Others are merely mirrors of you. You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects to you something you love or hate about yourself.
8.    What you make of your Life is up to you. You have all of the tools and resources you need. What you do with them is up to you. The choice is yours.
9.    Your answers lie inside you. The answers to Life’s questions lie inside you. All you need to do is Look, Listen, and Trust.
10.    You will forget all of this.
— anonymous writing found in a 1990 issue of the CHIF Magizine

After a while you learn the subtle differences
between holding And chaining a soul.
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
and that company doesn’t always mean security.
And you learn that kisses aren’t contracts
and presents are promises.
And you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes straight ahead;
with the grace of a woman or a man,
not the grief of a child.
And you learn to build all your roads on today,
because tomorrow is too uncertain for plans,
and futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn that even sunshine burns
if you ask too much.
So you plant your garden and decorate your own soul,
instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure
And you are strong
And you really have worth
And you learn and you learn;
With every good-bye – you learn.
— unknown author

My brain was injured in my right frontal lobe – the source of our human emotions and our creativity. The source of my emotional confusion and overwhelmedness. I feel good about feeling this anger and sadness because I have denied myself these emotions for so long. I still have much to discover. I’ve just begun this human journey of emotions.

It’s hard – I’m to balance out actually feeling these emotions and also passing beyond them – through them. Oh… I’m getting confused now! Yuck!! (what do I want to say? high insight – I want to allow myself to feel all of these emotions and express them all – especially anger – and then be done with it. I can’t be angry about what happened to me in the past… It happened in the way in which it did – I can do nothing about it now. I don’t know – I’m still trying on these emotions. Ultimately I know this truth of just accepting the past for the way in which it was, but this reality contradicts with my newfound human emotions of anger. So I’m in a place today experimenting with this anger and accepting what’s happened to me.

High insight I also know and experience that this stage I am at today is still a small part of my entire recovery from my brain injury. This regaining of my emotions is an incredible opportunity for me… I denied myself. I remained in my intellectual rational thought process. In this place, I had learned, I am safe – because I don’t have to feel any emotions that I deemed negative or bad.

So, I survived and I “succeeded” (whatever that means). I graduated from college, improved my balance immensely, and expressed my experience via an art project. This project came through me, I just let it in and it created its self.

I soon began an office manager type job part time, within 8 months I was onto full time. Another 8 months passed and I was able to objectively see how this job had and had provided me with the means of higher level cognitive therapy, also – relating with people in the office – in personal/professional ways. The cognitive therapy aspect of my job has been outlived for me today – I am quitting in 2 1/2 months time. I see this as a clear function of this job and its responsibilities for my regaining of myself. The interpersonal component has just finally been awoken to higher levels. My coworkers are near the seed of my emotional realizations. I could have not arrived in this place I am today without me being in my current work situation. It is here where I am totally supported for traveling my art show and doing what I do and being who I am.

After traveling my art show which expresses visually my experience with and transformation from my brain injury – I became unusually depressed- utter overwhelmed with the life we humans live. With my life, I’ve been facing this deeper pain and anger about what has happened to me from my injury.

Actually, I wasn’t even aware that this was the core issue of my depression until 2 weekends ago when I was given and gave myself the space to feel angry about the fact that I got in that stupid car accident anyways. Just 2 weeks ago! God!! My life has just begun anew again. I’ve now realized that I have created in my whole life possibly, and especially after the injury a language. This language I created has protected me fro the feelings of my true human emotions. My true human nature. In this language I have denied myself what it is to be a human being. I did not allow myself to feel or identify with such emotions as anger, hate, shame or guilt. I also, because of this suppression of these emotions, I have not truly allowed myself the freedom of love – love for others has been limited as I’ve realized that I struggle with actually loving myself. Truly loving and accepting myself for me – just the way I am – with all of my “good” and “bad”.

I’ve felt and I feel a lot of anger and sadness when I let in what has happened to me.

I get so confused with all of these emotions….

An opportunity for me to create positive and supportive relationship with these emotions I previously deemed negative and bad. This is a unique opportunity for me to work on redefining and learning definitions of words of humanity that I’ve forgotten, or I never knew in the first place.
This won’t be “easy” and it will take time. I must remember to be patient with myself. To be kind and generous to myself. I’m still in the middle of my journey. Embrace it, accept it and appreciate it. Allow myself the space to feel, allow myself the space to fail, allow myself the space to explore, allow myself the space to learn, allow myself the space to nurture the tree that has become the visual symbol of my brains regrowth and regeneration. Allow myself to love, to love others, accept and respect – allow myself to love myself. With this self love I can more fully and truly love and accept the worlds, its animals and its people.

This journey continues and will never end – embrace this truth. Accept it. I am thankful for all I have been given from my family, the powers beyond and the powers within. I open myself to vulnerability again. I can create the woman I am – how I want to be…..

The journey has just begun………..                                                     – Bittin Foster

If you were part of this fantastic creation and want me to edit or add anything about your art piece or stories on the web site, please contact me!  – Namasté, Bittin

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