Dec 262017
 

The day after Christmas, Julia had planned to work at home but discovered she didn’t have the password to remotely access her company computer and left to work a full day down the peninsula. I planned to get coffee with my pal Tony, before assembling with Gale & Julia for dinner. After a lazy morning reading in bed I showered after 11am, noticing pins & needles in the heel of my right foot as I stepped out of the shower and went back to bed to wait for the numbness to pass, becoming engrossed in my book.

A few chapters later I got up to use the toilet and my right leg almost buckled under my weight. Surprised, I lurched to the toilet and sat down heavily. When I tried to stand up, my right leg gave way completely and I went down. HARD. The kitchen is the worst room for a fall, with plenty of hard and/or heated surfaces & pointy things to mess you up but the bathroom is no fun to tumble in either, with many immovable objects bashing me on my way to the floor; sink- WHAM! toilet bowl- WHAM! wall- WHAM! tiles- WHAM! (a tapestry of bruises and sprains told this tale much later). Looking back at the timeline it’s quite possible I was briefly knocked out, but in the moment I felt I had a full grasp on reality and my place in it;

I was on the floor, awkwardly wedged between toilet bowl and sink and when I tried to sit up, half of my body would not respond, as if the connections to my right side had been severed (which was precisely what had happened, I discovered later). When you’re accustomed to using your entire body to sense the world and orient yourself, suddenly having only half your sensing and motor equipment is shockingly strange. It took an incredibly long time to simply sit up, because I couldn’t maintain my balance and would fall over the other way, slowly get up again and fall over the opposite way, and so on. Eventually, I pulled myself somewhat upright, but was afraid to walk or hop, as my leg and arm were useless and my sense of spatial awareness was shot completely. Even crawling was impossible.

The paralysis was not just the obvious stuff – my arm and leg – but all all the obliques, abdominals and back muscles on my right side as well, and it turns out that those muscles are a crucial part of holding yourself upright and adjusting your balance. Even now, after 5 years experience dealing with this battered & often useless body of mine, it amazes me how difficult it is to perform even simple tasks when half my body weight wants a free ride. Back at ground zero for this disability, it required all my focus to simply move; pulling and kicking with my left-side limbs as my right-side hung limp and heavy, like a corpse. After a long period of trial and error I was able to slither out of the bathroom inching along the floor. It was extraordinarily hard work.

To an amazing degree, I was emotionally calm, even though I knew without a doubt that something was terribly wrong. I was in no pain whatsoever, with no clue as to what had happened to my body, but knew I had to find my cell phone and call for help. Where had I left my iPhone? From my worm’s eye view on the floor I couldn’t see it, but hoped it was on the shelf by my bed and slithered over there as fast as I could. While inching along like a slug, my underpants were incrementally pulled down by the carpet. Fate had not only pummelled me to the ground but enjoyed a vindictive chuckle at the sight of this middle-aged, bare-assed man grimly struggling on the floor.

The distance from our bed to the bathroom and back is not far, but a harrowing saga ensued on that few feet of carpet that changed my life forever, all happening in slow motion. A multi-hour surrealist epic, written by Spike Milligan, ponderously directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and starring little old moi in the role of slithering idiot/butoh dancer writhing on the rug. Was I conscious for the entire time, between when subtle symptoms first appeared at 11am, to the onset of full debilitation & that fateful fall in the bathroom, until finally getting help that evening? Hard to say. Although I always felt mentally present and thoroughly focussed, perhaps time was dilated by cognitive impairment from the get-go, possibly heightened by periodic bouts of actual unconsciousness.

I only realised how thoroughly banjaxed I was upon eventually finding my phone (I’ll spare you another long drama of locating it, pulling myself upright and retrieving it from a high shelf). Phone finally in hand, I stared at it.. ‘How do I open this?.. a code.. What is the code? Oh no…‘ My mind looked back at itself, and was surprised to find itself severely lacking, and no longer capable of doing what it could normally do. It is a truly strange experience to reflect on the failings of a mind from within that mind itself. The realization dawned that not only my body but my mind too was in serious trouble, and that my already dire situation was worsening. My time was running out and I was fighting for my life. The calm I felt in the face of this expanding horror surprises even me, as I think back on it now.

I knew that to survive whatever had devastated me I had to operate the phone, but this was such a monumental task for my enfeebled mind that it’s entirely possible that most of my all-day struggle was spent wrestling with my iPhone – remembering my code, opening it, and then figuring out how to navigate from whichever app was already open; ‘what are these tiny pictures?.. icons… for apps.. which one is for messages?’ ..into the message application to open a message thread to JULIA. My will to succeed was strong, but dwindling powers of concentration and memory made the task slipperier than a well oiled eel.

Like a hacker trying to break into a computer while in a burning building swarming with killbots, I finally got a message open to Julia, but had trouble grabbing concepts from my mind, translating them into words, decoding those words into text, and then having the dexterity to type those letters on the teensy digital keyboard.. My cognition was dissolving but still grasped the cruel irony of that moment – after struggling to find this lifeline gadget, my mind was reduced to sloppy quicksand when I eventually needed to use it. In frustration I randomly mashed alphabet buttons, then SEND. Mashed more alphabet buttons, then SEND. Again, and again, hoping that these bursts of incoherent babble would alert Julia.

They did.

Julia was by that time already driving home at day’s end. Startled by these texts, she pulled over to call me and I was able to pick up her call. As I’ve mentioned before, my emotional state was surprisingly calm, given the thorough unravelling of my mind, and I explained my predicament clearly and simply. Or so I thought.. What poor Julia actually heard at her end of the conversation was incoherent wailing, as if Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster had stolen her boyfriend’s phone. Though shocked and frightened, and not even 100% certain where I was by that time, Julia had the presence of mind to first call an ambulance to our apartment before driving as fast as she could to my side, finding me sprawled naked on the bedroom floor not long before paramedics arrived, to hustle me onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. During the ambulance ride I was shot full of drugs, and have a hazier grasp on my memory from this point onward – jarring impressions, resembling those fish-eye shots you’ve seen in movies;

-I’m urgently wheeled through hospital corridors, as overhead fluorescent lights strobe past. People look down at me, barking how many CCs of drugs must be administered, ‘STAT’.

-Being hustled bodily into a cylindrical scanner of some sort, my emotions calm despite feeling as if I’d been inserted inside a jet engine, so TOTAL was the noise.

-I’m in the ICU. More peering, jabbering heads, more rapid commands. I’m a thing. A faulty piece of broken equipment, as engineers discuss how to prevent my head from destroying itself. A fog drifts in and I’m gone..

-I remember coming to awareness in the ICU, with my pal Tony sitting by my bedside watching the TV mounted on the wall. ‘Oh, Rambo, First Blood. This is a good one‘ I slurred; the speech of a man with a swollen brain and only half a face to speak with. We chatted briefly and then the fog blew in again, dissipating my conscious mind, though our conversation may have gone on longer.

There’s a period I have little memory of, and mostly know about from loved ones. Some out of town friends were in San Francisco that Christmas (Tony & Rhode) and along with local friends (such as Derek) they rushed to my bedside. Flying from Virginia, my brother Jo was with me within 24 hours and two more brothers followed from Australia soon after (Rob and then Dom). According to these folk, I was sometimes awake but babbled all kinds of nonsense.. Eyes open, I was somehow not aware. Where was my conscious mind during those lost days? Where was ME? (Perhaps in that place where the minds of dreamers and sleepwalkers go, and drunks who navigate home, unaware?)

During this babbling fugue state, periodically the consciousness of my true & real self would bubble to the surface of an otherwise stormy mind, and I’d be momentarily aware & present, giving me isolated memories from that lost time, including fleeting impressions of visiting loved ones. Though barely sensed through my mental fog, these impressions of LOVE gave me untold comfort, like a lighthouse beacon glimpsed through a storm. I was lost at sea, but began to realise what I was desperately struggling back to, before again being submerged by my fever-dream…

-More glimpses of debating medicos, discussing me.. I was out of the danger zone of more brain bleeds.

As my mind slowly gained more connections to shared reality I was moved out of the ICU and into a nearby ward, where I was tended to by a bearded & tattooed nurse who treated me with great gentleness. The beds were surrounded by curtains, and next to me was a terminal patient I never saw, but could hear. He was cheerful and sunny with visitors to his bedside, but would quietly sob to himself for long hours after they left, as he faced alone the end that was inevitably coming for him.. My mind could barely operate at the time, let alone offer comfort to this poor man, but I still think of him, often.

I was moved to another facility for several months of physical rehabilitation, where I was taught to talk and walk. Eventually, it was explained what had happened to me: a small blood vessel had leaked into my left lower brain, an area called the thalamus, and this rupture caused a stroke, severing connections to my entire right side. I had to be told more than once, because for several weeks after this fateful event I had the mind of a kitten – very little long term memory and my short term memory was non existent, forgetting questions asked of me mere seconds before. Initially, my mind was such slop that I didn’t notice these lapses, but soon became aware, and I vividly remember the anguish of first realising that I couldn’t remember the names of people I loved most in the world.

As my mind began to slowly re-write itself, the knowledge of how utterly broken I’d become was devastating. I was completely helpless, needing assistance to dress, to eat, to bathe, and to use the toilet. For weeks my paralysed throat couldn’t be trusted to swallow, and I was given thickened water so I would not choke. Vision distorted by the brain swelling, I could only see any object from the corner of my eye, but such strange effects gradually passed as the swelling of my brain subsided. The haemorrhage, the ensuing swelling of brain tissue, and steady cocktail of drugs to mitigate that damage, had fogged details after my stroke, but somewhere deep within me the earlier memories were preserved, to be retrieved later, thankfully.

5 years later, I’m still a mess in many ways. My ability to speak eventually came back to me, though with a slight slurring that can make me sound tipsy when sober (and completely shtonkered when merely tipsy). Movement is still a constant struggle, and sadly my drawing arm is thoroughly kaput. I wish with all my heart to be the able bodied man I once was, but must face the likelihood that I’ll henceforth always walk like a drunk zombie with twisted pantyhose.

However, I’m grateful that I’ve progressed from that broken wreck of a man I was on Boxing Day – December 26, 2012. Visually impaired, mentally unmoored, emotionally devastated, physically half paralysed, & financially drained; a man with 220K of medical debt, who’d lost his means to make a living (and dig himself out of his pit of despair). After 4 years of practising to draw with my left hand I’m back working in animation, and although my left-handed drafting skills are only as good as when I was 17 years old, they got me back in the game (after all, it was 17 year old me who got this job in the first place).

A week ago I had a reminder of my harrowing tale of haemorrhaged brains & palsied muscles, when my iPhone battery swelled up like a toad, pushing the faceplate off and startling the staff at the Apple store. They replaced my phone on the spot, and reinstalled its memory from a backup done a few days prior – restoring photos, contacts and everything, except a few days of texts not included in the backup. This process reminded me of the swelling of my own CPU 5 years ago, damaging my own memory chip, the loss of my operating system, and the eventual reinstall of myself. In that case too, some of my own memories from December 27, 2012-mid January 2012 were lost, but the life leading up to my stroke I remember as well as I always did, and that day struggling for my life is remembered with vivid detail.

And yet, the reinstall of my phone worked because of the external backup, but where were the memories of my life stored, during those weeks when my own corrupted hard drive was sending error messages, and ME was unavailable to me? The experience of being connected to myself, then disconnected, and reconnected again is strange indeed, leaving an uneasy feeling that perhaps this reinstall isn’t quite the real thing. How many of these ‘recovered‘ memories were fudged on the spot? But does that happen to some degree anyway? Even long before this trauma upended my life, I’d already wondered if any certainty of ‘self’ is an ongoing self-fulfilling fiction.

This idea can be ghastly or liberating, depending on your point of view. If memories define us, but might be imaginative embellishments of what actually happened – that’s potentially UNSETTLING. By the same token, that opens the possibly of rewriting who we are into who we want to be – which is WONDERFUL. Given that I’m obliged to rebuild my life anyway, I choose to take it as a positive that at any moment we can rewrite our own stories, and our own attitudes. One thing I’ve learned in the last five years is that the human mind is quite capable of eating itself in moments of despair, but is also capable of bettering itself too. Choose wisely.

This is exactly what I’m trying to do. On this anniversary of my near fatal system crash, I’m thankful for my reboot – my chance to rewrite my own code (even if my hardware still needs an upgrade). I’m grateful too for people believing in me, despite my deficits, and giving me opportunities and encouragement on this difficult journey to the person I’d like to be.

THANK YOU.

Dec 262016
 

On December 26th 2012 at about 11am, I started to slip away as my brain and body both began to gradually shut down. A tiny blood vessel had ruptured in the left thalamus of my brain like a bomb blast in my head, and 4 years later I’m still living in the ruins of that explosion. Every day gives me ample illustration of all that I’ve lost, but today, on the anniversary of what could easily have been my death, I prefer to ponder all that I still have, and any advancements that I’ve made. Boxing Day has become my very own personal day of thanksgiving.

A major goal of my rehabilitation has been somehow getting back to work in a body that no longer operates properly. Having a useless drawing arm has been very challenging for a cartoonist, but despite this I’m happy to say that 2016 was a work milestone. Firstly, Thanks to the recommendations of old friends ED BELL & STEVE LEE, I had three months teaching 3 seperate classes of 2D animation at Academy of Art University. I had never tried teaching before, but settled into it when I saw each class as a creative team with a creative goal that we worked towards together; a process that I have a great deal of experience with.

I’ve been retraining to draw with my LEFT hand ever since losing dexterity in my trusty RIGHT drawing hand, and those efforts recently paid off when I landed a 7 month storyboarding gig just after my teaching assignment finished. My old friend JIM CAPOBIANCO took a chance on me, and I storyboarded on an animated sequence within a live action film (the new MARY POPPINS) under Jim’s direction. I had to make up for my lack of left-handed drawing speed by working long hours each week, but I was happy to do it. The chance to make myself useful as a professional cartoonist again was an absolute joy.

Since waking up in a hospital bed 4 years ago, half paralysed and 220k in debt (due to an insurance SNAFU) I had a powerful motivation to think of some new way to make a living, but although I wracked my damaged brain as hard as I might, I simply could not think of a viable PLAN-B career. Being a cartoonist is all I’ve ever wanted to do, or been half way good at. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but that has always been the life of a freelance cartoonist. My recent medical travails have highlighted it perhaps, but adapting to change was always a big part of this career I chose for myself at the age of 17.

Like living in a half ruined house, some things still work in this ramshackle body of mine but many things don’t. Some damage may be repaired one day, some damage may be permanent, and it’s often hard to know the difference. But with the help of dear colleagues & friends believing in a slightly shop-soiled cartoonist, I’m extraordinarily thankful that, professionally at least, I’M BACK.

Jan 022016
 

Jan 2, 2016 8:10pm– When I was 48, I turned 96 years old. From someone who ran on a treadmill a few times a week and regularly walked miles across town, I became a doddering and feeble geezer overnight. Paralysed, confused and unbalanced, I struggled with the simplest of tasks, both mental and physical. Three years of exercise and physical therapy have improved my age discrepancy slightly, from 48/96 to 51/80, and I’m hoping that my real age and virtual age will again align sometime, but at the current rate of improvement it will possibly be around 60/60.

Even after my 3rd STROKE-iversary (on Boxing Day 2015) I am still not yet used to my situation, because my transition from middle aged to elderly has been so sudden. When walking through a mall during some recent pre-Christmas shopping I accidentally caught sight of myself in a shop window, and the lopsided and shuffling old man that I saw reflected there did not match the image of myself that I still carry in my mind’s eye. Of course, this disconnect happens to all of us as we age, and the middle-age that I’m at now is where we first begin to experience it, but in my case that shift has been dramatic rather than gradual.

It is still a profoundly weird experience to be living inside a body that doesn’t do what I ask of it. Many muscles are still asleep and don’t respond to my requests at all. Others respond, but sluggishly or not in the way I expect. It often feels like a malicious imp is countermanding my own commands but I bumble and stumble around as best I can. My sense of balance is better than it used to be but only because in the past few years I’ve learned to compensate visually for my onboard balance system being broken. I’ve always been a late bloomer. When everyone else could ride a bike in kindergarten I didn’t learn till I was 10. I didn’t learn to swim till I was 17 and while many people started shagging in their teens, my own furtive fornicating fumblings didn’t begin until my twenties, and I still can’t drive a car. When I noticed this late-starting pattern many years ago I consoled myself that my old age too would happen later in life, but wouldn’t you know it, the one area in which I’m ahead of the curve is decrepitude.

As I shuffle awkwardly through a two-handed world with only one functioning hand, I find that my nemesis is packaging of all kinds, with a particular loathing of child proofing. Pill bottles and Ziplock plastic bags fight me but I’m proud to say that I can now open a can of cat food with one arm. As I dawdle with my cane across the threshold of self-closing bathroom doors I’m often caught like a mouse in a slow-closing trap. Very occasionally, mini ordeals such as these will cause me to howl in frustration, but thankfully that is very rarely and only when I’m completely alone. Mostly, I see the comedy in my situation and a lifetime of being a cartoonist has trained me well me in this.

Preparing to ride the train not long ago, I positioned myself on the platform where the train door would open when the train finally arrived. I hoped to enter as quickly as possible and take a disabled seat, as I dread being on my feet when the train lurches forward, but as I made a beeline for the disabled bench a pregnant woman and a dude on crutches were equally focussed on the same goal. It was like the climactic three-way showdown of THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY. As The Pregnant, The Injured, and The Crippled sized up the situation it was an amusing impasse, with nobody clear on who took priority in this gimpy game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Thankfully a shootout was averted when able bodied-passengers surrendered their seats. By the way, an interesting variant on this situation is when spry old ladies already occupy the elderly/disabled bench when I enter the train/bus. Based on such situations I’ve been in so far, elderly able-bodied women trump younger feeble-bodied dudes, sometimes with a “don’t even try it” glare to underline their premier status.

Till recently, my right leg was stiff as a plank and didn’t flex and I walked like a pirate with a wooden leg, but in the last six months I’ve gained the ability to flex my knee a little due to Botox injections in both my leg and my arm in 2015. At first, the Botox seemed to have no effect on my spastic muscles, but after multiple extra injections in my thigh, my knee finally relaxed a bit. This is potentially an exciting breakthrough. I still have to fight against some spasticity and quickly tire in this struggle, but I’m optimistic that over time I will get a smoother walking motion. Back when I first began working in animation learning the positions of a walk-cycle was an early professional focus- how the back-most foot pushes off and the front-most foot arcs and connects- and I’m back at trying to master this motion again, but in the first person this time, much as I must have done as an infant. It is a common motion, so common that we all do it twice with every step we’ve taken since we were toddlers. I’m not even able to guestimate how many times I’d already effortlessly made the manoeuvre before Boxing Day 2012, but I now struggle with this elaborate coordination of multiple muscles being turned on and off in sequence. I hold the ideal walk pattern in my mind’s eye to coordinate my palsied muscles via imperfect neural connections, hoping to perform this elaborate ballet of mind and sinew. Interestingly, I heard one of my physical therapists explain to a colleague that I have unusual powers of visualisation, making it easy to explain certain movements and principles which are normally difficult to explain to patients who’ve never considered the mechanics of human walking since they were a 2 year old. 30 year animation career for the win.

It is still unclear if I’ll ever be able to resume that career I loved, but I’m trying my best to make it possible. In addition to my physical therapy chores, I spend a lot of time trying to train my left hand to draw, and made significant progress in this regard in 2015. The left-handed drawings I do now don’t look like my old right-handed drawings, which I can live with, but in order to re-enter a career as a professional artist I need to draw faster. Drawing speed is perhaps the second most important requirement for what I used to do professionally, and it is still unclear if I’ll ever get that speed and dexterity back. After focusing on analog sketches and watercolours for the first 2 years of my drawing training, I’ve recently been trying to make artwork digitally. It goes slowly but there is significant progress, and I try my best to get my drawing speed up, so if an art gig finally eventuates I can rise to the occasion. Even if I’m never a pro artist again it’s still very important to me to be able to draw and make visual art. I’ve self-identified as someone who draws since I was a small boy, and a life that does not contain it in some form would be hard for me to bear. My current hope is that my right arm can one day serve me as my left arm once did; to stabilise a check I’m signing, a sketchbook I’m drawing in, or to hit the OPTION key on my computer, and so on. So far, it’s only marginally useful in these simple tasks because of violent tremors and a complete lack of spatial awareness (a real 6th sense that we all of us normally have is ’proprioception’, now totally lacking on my right side). Unlike my leg, my arm has not yet responded to the Botox injections, but more are scheduled for 2016 and I’m hopeful that it too will become more cooperative in time.

So the ongoing big IF is still how I will ever earn a living again. If not as a cartoonist, then what? Many people have suggested teaching and I’ve actually gone to speak to several classes at media colleges, but so far at least, there is no prospect of supporting myself financially that way. Part of the trouble is the drawing speed issue that I mentioned earlier. Online schools would need me to sketch redline draw-overs on the students homework in REAL TIME (via a web interface) and my dexterity and speed are simply not there yet, but hopefully I will get there soon. Another quirk is more logistical/bureaucratic. The rules of the meagre disability allowance I survive on now are very quirky, such that I can lose the disability allowance completely if I earn 50% of the dollar amount I get for my monthly check. Seems a counter-intuitive way of DIScouraging work, doesn’t it? I called Social Security to double-check I had not read misunderstood the phrasing of the rules on the Social Security website, but confirmed that yes indeed, that is the case. Nevertheless, I’m committed to trying to find employment anyway, but it does put some pressure on me to find a volume of work that would offset the loss of my disability check. Most of my friends who teach are doing so part time, and those opportunities are out there, but they don’t offer enough compensation to risk losing my disability allowance. ‘Let’s see how it goes’ part time gigs don’t really cut it.

This year a personal goal is to write some material that will work as professional writing samples. I’ve been writing and drawing anyway, simply to prevent myself from going mental, but I hope to advance my writing to some kind of ‘next level’ by writing a screenplay and a manuscript for a childrens ‘chapter book’. Julia gave me a wonderful Christmas present in line with this goal; a  gift voucher to a college that specialises in teaching writing, and after I figure out which of their many courses best suits me, I’ll take one. When I was 17/18 years old, I began to figure out the way to get people to pay me for drawing. That was not initially an easy thing to do either, yet I somehow learned to navigate that world. If I cast my mind back to the early years of my animation career, before I had any connections, reputation or experience, it was a time of spotty employment and I imagine it must be the same trying to be paid to write. It is a more crowded field, because many more people attempt to be writers than cartoonists, but it is worth a shot.

Wish me luck!

Dec 262015
 

December 26th, is the anniversary of my life being turned upside down. 3 years ago, at around this time of day, my mind and body both began to fail after an artery in my head ruptured, leaking blood into my brain and wreaking damage on my head-equipment that I deal with to this day.

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For the past few years, BOXING DAY has become my own personal Thanksgiving; a day to reflect on any progress since the same day last year, no matter how slight, and be grateful that I’m here at all. However, this year various dear friends of mine suffered their own losses, including some tragedies just before Christmas, and I’m thinking of them instead.

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As I grow older, my circle of friends grows too, and today’s social media means that I know intimately and immediately about the grim dramas unfolding in the lives of people I care about. It can be hard to process and make ‘sense’ of all these heartbreaking tragedies, whether you’re at ground zero and it’s happening to you personally, or whether you are trying to offer comfort to others in distress. Some people, perhaps doubting their own ability to offer any profound wisdom, simply stay away, but having been on both sides of the tragedy equation, I think that simple human connection is the most powerfully healing thing we can do for each other in times of crisis. No words of wisdom required. Tragedy of course is inevitable in life, we all must face it eventually, and even the most privileged and sheltered among us will eventually have to deal with setbacks, failures, and wounds. Facing these unsolvable problems is somehow less daunting in the company of others.

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I love people who believe in God and I also love people who believe just as strongly in nothing at all, but whoever is right, I think we can all agree that the day to day decisions of what to do in any particular earthbound crisis are up to us humans. So, when there’s a tsunami, a plague, a humanitarian crisis, a murder, a medical emergency, or a tragic death, it’s up to us frail human beings to respond, and I think the reason that we’re here (if there’s any reason at all) is simply to help each other through crises such as these. Keeping that baton of kindness, empathy and love being handed from hand to hand is what makes this at-times difficult life not only bearable, but sometimes actually wonderful.

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Apr 152015
 

Apr 15, 2015 3:05pm

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After almost 25 years living in California, I’ve finally gotten my own Botox injections. Instead of being used on my ever wrinkling brow and baggy eyes, the preferred wonder drug of Hollywood starlets was jabbed into the spastic muscles of my arm and leg. One of the strange aspects of what has happened to me is the muscular spasms. While the LEFT half of me functions normally, on my RIGHT side, some muscles are still paralysed, some are coming back to life, and others are only partly under my control due to SPASTICITY, a sort of muscular Tourette’s Syndrome, where certain of my own muscles fight against me, and overpower the weaker muscles. Botox injections are famously used to weaken the muscles that cause frown lines and therefore bestow a blandly beautified movie-star brow, but in my case the Botox will (hopefully) weaken my spasm-ing muscles and level the playing field between them and the weaker muscles I have full control of.

Sometimes, when Julia and I are at home watching a movie, we’re amused that my right-side has a mind of its own and involuntarily reacts to the film. Even an incredibly lame ‘BOO’ scene will cause my body to react like a Tex Avery cartoon coward, with a hilarious ‘TAKE’ reaction. I can only assume that there’s some involuntary twitch or ‘fight or flight’ reaction that is immediately suppressed on my left side, but is highlighted on my right side where I have little voluntary control.

Although constant spasms are sometimes a frustration, they’ve had their place in my recovery. The muscular rigidity in my leg, likewise involuntary, acted as a sort of SPLINT in the early months of my rehab, allowing me to walk when I otherwise didn’t have had the strength to stand. But now that I’ve regained some voluntary muscular control, the idea is to ease the spasms and restore a balance. Speaking of balance, my internal gyroscope has improved a lot since the early days, when my equilibrium was completely shot. It isn’t yet back to 100% normal, I still have a hard time looking around while walking and must keep my eyes forward to maintain balance when in motion, but I now have functional balance, and it has been over a year since I had a fall.

It is a strange thing to realise that there are ‘shades’ of numb. I still have no touch-awareness in my right hand, and yet the numbness is a different numbness from when I first awoke in the hospital. Back then, the entire right side of my body was a absolute void in my mind. I was still mentally connected to my LEFT side, but my RIGHT side had ceased to exist, mentally, when I closed my eyes. No sense of touch, no sense of space, no ability to feel pain. Nothing. Now, 2 years later, there is something there.. There’s still no touch sensitivity, but my hand sometimes has an ever-so-faint pins & needles tingling.. that feeling after your leg has ‘gone to sleep’ when sensation is coming back. Oh, how I hope that that actually IS what is happening (though over a period of years, instead of minutes). For the last six months or so, sometimes, I feel a vague warmness in my hands and fingers. Fingers crossed (numbly) that this indicates that connections are being reestablished. I will take anything, even pain, over the numbness and lack of connection to life.

I sometimes feel like a puppet with its strings cut, but to take that analogy further, I’m a puppet with cut and tangled strings. What appears to be the control to move the puppet’s leg UP actually moves it DOWN. When quietly concentrating on the muscles along the back of my leg, the hamstrings and calf, some muscles can’t be sensed at all, some I can mentally connect to, but with the limb moving in the opposite plane of motion than I’d anticipated. My right arm is more dexterous than the leg, but still very clumsy. Thankfully, it has been a while since I’ve broken a cup while doing the dishes, but my staggering clumsiness is a constant issue. I spill stuff, I drop things, I bump into furniture and scuff and kick the walls. This is not the result of my lack of care. In fact, perversely, the more careful I try to be, the more spastic my body movements often become. It is a very strange to be so out of touch with this body that I’ve spent my entire life in. In primary school, the mean girls would call me a SPAZ, and now I’m spastic for real; lurching about the place like a drunken Frankenstein’s monster.

Speaking of primary school, a few months ago, a dear friend from childhood, PETER LAWLOR, visited San Francisco on his way to business meetings in Las Vegas. We laughed the whole weekend he was here, but had extra chuckles the afternoon we spent together in the pub. I’m unsteady on my legs even on a good day, but after a few Drambuies and even more beers and chuckles, I was lurching about so crazily that I was scaring passersby as we made our way from the bar to dinner. Julia met us in the restaurant, where we were still giggling like maniacs. When she remarked that perhaps we’d had a little bit too much to drink, I replied that if I looked drunk sitting down, she should’ve seen me careening up the street in the dark, frightening the neighborhood children.

Given that I’ve been in this medical pickle for over 2 years, it’s amazing to consider what tiny percentage of that 27 month period has actually been spent under professional medical supervision. I was in hospital for 8 weeks, where the care was amazingly good; several therapy sessions per day for all my various broken bits and pieces. I was pushed to my limit almost daily by an amazingly supportive and caring team of therapists, doctors and nurses. After I checked out of the hospital in late February 2013, it took a while to get into an outpatient therapy program, but I was finally accepted in May 2013, when I had one weekly 45 minute session for both arm and leg, through till December 2013. Then I was cutoff.

It frankly amazes me that after the level of devastation my body and brain had been through (and still deal with) only 70 X 45 minute sessions of occupational/physical therapy sessions were deemed sufficient before being left to my own devices. I was offered cheerful soundbites about “getting on with real life!”, but it was unclear what this actually meant, and it’s still a question even now, over a year later. I was set ’free’ in much the same way that a one-winged bird would be let back into the wild; it might be a feelgood moment back at the animal shelter but utterly terrifying for the bird. After a mini-tantrum to my physiatrist (“I’m a professional cartoonist whose drawing-hand still doesn’t work; HOW am I supposed to ‘get on with real life’?!”) I got an additional 3 months of therapy for my hand, but was only granted one 45 minute session per month, which was next to useless. That monthly session felt as if it were merely for the benefit of the insurance company. I’d do the exact same exercises that I’d done the previous month, with the therapist measuring my progress with a stop watch. The data was soon used by the insurance company to claim that my lack of progress did not warrant any more care, and in May 2014 my therapy ended for good.

This highlights a difference in opinion of what the purpose of medical care actually is. From the insurance company’s point of view, I get care as long as I improve but not when I plateau. To MY way of thinking, lack of progress is the PRECISE reason that I need more care (after all, if you hit a plateau at the gym that’s exactly when you need a personal trainer). I expressed these frustrations to my medical care-givers, and they commiserated, shrugged their shoulders in resignation and the older ones even confided in me that it wasn’t always so; over the last 20 years the insurance-tail is wagging the medical-dog. America is famously proud of having ’the best medical care in the world’, and I think the carers themselves are wonderful, but the insurance companies who control access to that care are notoriously stingy. The knowledge that this superlative care is there, but just out of reach, makes this process doubly frustrating. I feel like Oliver Twist asking for more soup.

The truth of any longterm medical recovery is that the bulk of it must be done on your own steam. In the early months after my release from hospital, I had constant care from a supportive crew of loved ones who would supervise me on my walks and exercise regime. After my physical therapy ended— December 2013 for my leg and May 2014 for my arm— and my caregiver loved ones were finally back to their own lives, I continued the exercises I’d learned on my own. I was able to gradually improve enough over the past year to get my physiatrist to ask for more physical therapy, and it just re-started in February. Once again, it will only be for a few months, but my hope is that it will give me enough new exercises to be able to improve further and jump up to a new level.. It is a very slow process.

I’ve been working very hard on my left-handed drawing. Julia and I often go sketching outside when the weather cooperates, which over the last year or so has been very often. When not drawing on location, we simply sit on our bed and draw from the TV, which is equally fun, and we do that frequently. Julia recently bought a little PC drawing tablet, and has been doing some amazing work. My Lefty drawing continues to be the one area of my rehabilitation where I see quantifiable improvements month to month, especially recently, when I got my first paid drawing gig using my left hand. My friend Carol commissioned me to illustrate the cover to her new children’s book (now available for digital download on Amazon) and I was grateful that she thought of me. It was very fun to do, although it was time consuming and fiddly using Photoshop with one hand. I may buy some foot pedals to make those two-handed key-commands easier. My friends who make a living as illustrators tell me that it’s not the best time to try and get into illustration, with print media suffering, but I’m optimistic I might get such work every once in a while. A good friend has put my name forward as an illustrator for his children’s book, so fingers crossed for that potential project.

I previously mentioned how I’d started a little ‘story consulting’ late last year, and I had more of the same again just a month or so ago. Hard to say if that will lead to any more such work, but it has been extraordinarily gratifying to feel professionally useful again within the industry that I love, if only sporadically. I’ve been trying to keep up my writing practice, with a least one blog post every month or so. There are a few personal writing projects that I want to push forward on. In addition to the autobiographical childhood stories I’ve been writing on my blog, I have an old idea for a children’s novel which I may also try and adapt into screenplay.

Julia and I recently took an editing course, because we both plan to make some little movies. Julia wants to make more of the painting-process films she’s been making, but with more sophisticated editing, whereas I want to tidy up the animated film I made in high school. I recently had it transferred from Super-8 onto digital media and it was hilarious to see again after all these years. At the bare minimum, I need to do a little bit of colour correction and put a simple soundtrack to it, and then maybe I’ll put it up on Vimeo. While taking the editing course, I realised that I have even more potential material that could be made into simple short films. I’ve been writing autobiographical childhood stories on my blog for several years, and since my stroke, illustrating those stories has been great training for my lefthand. If I can read the text into a microphone, perhaps I can edit the images into a 2 or 3 minute movies. These would not be ‘proper’ animated films, but simple camera-pans and zooms across my own illustrations, but it’s quite exciting for me to consider that I could make some simple short films, even in my reduced circumstances.

I look forward to getting started!

Dec 262014
 

Exactly two years ago, starting at around this time of day, my brain tried to strangle me. Thankfully, Julia stopped that from happening and ever since that day she, and all of you, my family & friends, have helped me navigate the tricky world that I live in now. I’ve had many humiliating and humbling setbacks; financial, physical, psychological, professional and emotional. Although I progress, there’s still a very long way to go to be back where I want to be, and it’s daunting at times. But on this day, the anniversary of my downfall, I give thanks that I’m alive at all, and still have so much that I want to live for, and so many people that I love.

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Sep 302014
 

— Sep 30, 2014 1:36am

Not long after I wrote my last update in JUNE, Julia and I attended the Story Department Wrap Party for one of the last films I worked on before my stroke, INSIDE OUT, which will come out next year. The party wasn’t one of those fancy black tie affairs, but an informal and very pleasant night of socialising with my old colleagues, that required me to navigate a lot of tricky winding steps up to the venue, then come back down those same rickety stairs in the dark a few hours later, after I’d had a skin full of booze and was even more wobbly on my pins than usual. Such real-world situations as these present a special type of physical therapy: CROWDED MALL THERAPY: will I be able to navigate that bustling crowd of bag-toting shoppers? EGG NOGG THERAPY: How will I manage walking downhill at night after a few Egg Noggs? Let’s find out shall we?

An exciting recent development has been a few chances to write professionally. I’ve found that writing, both here and on my blog, has given me a great deal of comfort during this difficult time, but now I have been making myself useful by wring on some projects. In some cases, they are the personal projects of friends, and don’t represent any income, but give me a chance to practice writing screenplays professionally, as well as work creatively with pals, which is always uplifting. However, around about June of this year, I was contacted by someone that I’d met many years ago at Comic-Con, who wanted me to do some writing for Disney TV. It was a small project, just some development for TV show ideas, but it was very fun just the same, and I am optimistic that this may turn into something more in time.

In JULY, my old pal Phil, who himself has been going through his own medical ordeals of late, invited me and his friend Mike to accompany him on a Northern California road trip in his brand-new Airstream trailer. One of those sleek silvery luxury numbers. This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get away from the grind and head to Lake Tahoe. My last attempt at a getaway was last December, when Julia and I tried to escape the drudgery of my medical woes and attempt a New Years trip to Napa Valley. Only to both catch a fearsome cold within mere hours of checking in, and spend the entire trip confined to our hotel room as sick as dogs. Unfortunately, the HOLIDAY CURSE continued on the ‘Boy’s Trip’ to Lake Tahoe, when the hitch between Phil’s Land Rover and the Airstream trailer came loose and the trip was cut short. Nobody was hurt, but the potential for utter disaster was definitely there. Thankfully, we were only driving a few miles an hour, as we were on a narrow and very winding country road. However, the spot where we’d stopped to re-hitch the trailer was on a bend, and we worried that we might not be seen by on coming traffic. Being the least able bodied of the 3 of us, and utterly useless in the physical labor part of the mission, I went back down the road a way, to wave a pillow-case and flag cars and warn them to slow down when taking the next turn.

When confronted by the sight of a gimpy bloke with a walking-cane on a back country road and frantically waving a pillow-case with his one good arm, 90% of drivers know that something must be wrong and stop to enquire if they can help. Hilariously though, a few did the exact opposite, and FLOORED it! Lord knows what they were thinking; that I was attempting to carjack them with my pillow case? Or that I was scamming them, and my gimpy gang would hobble out menacingly from behind a rock? Or that whatever problem this particular gimp was in, they wanted no part of it? So off they sped, in a frenzy of screeching wheels to watch that evening’s ‘Survivor Island’.

Thankfully, we DID receive some help, and one fellow offered us flares to place on the road. I got the impression they’d been in his car for years unused, and being able to actually use them in a bona fide emergency gave him a lot of satisfaction. Finally, the trailer was re-hitched, and we managed to limp to a pleasant trailer park near a river, and although it was tempting to spend the weekend relaxing there, we ended up hiring a tow truck to tow the trailer back to the Bay Area. Last I heard, poor Phil was still dealing with both the Airstream dealership and the Land Rover dealership, each denying any responsibility at all, even though they’d each previously said that the combination of the two was safe. The tow truck driver that got us home, an expert on hitches I’d assume, said the hitch was fundamentally flawed.

Later that same month, I had yet another attempt at a holiday. My brother Jo, and his wife Priscilla and their kids had very generously invited both Julia and I, and my Dad and his wife Wendy, to attend a vacation in Mexico where they’d used their timeshare points to swap for a week in nice resort by the beach. Since my stroke, I’d not travelled by plane anywhere, so this was to be something of a landmark trip for me, and Dad & Wendy used this mini family reunion as the first leg of a multi-month trip to connect with those of us Bakers living in the USA, and then head on to meet even more family living in Europe. Unfortunately, about a week before we were due to fly to Mexico, I came down with what appeared to be a severe case of flu. The day before we were due to fly, I was feeling so miserable that it was touch-and-go whether we would cancel the trip.

The morning of our departure though, I felt substantially better, perhaps a shot of family-reunion-adrenalin had kicked in, and we decided to fly after all. I managed quite well through San Francisco airport and boarding the plane and even the flight itself. As soon as we arrived in Mexico, however, and they popped the door open and that hot Mexican air found my feeble Celtic body, I was overwhelmingly sick again. The process of getting off the plane, getting our bags, getting to the hotel and checking in, waiting in a crowded lobby that was not air-conditioned, was utterly exhausting, and I began to melt. By the time I’d had a shower and later hobbled to dinner with my family, I was about as wretched a human being as you could ever hope to meet.

The very next day, a doctor came to the hotel and diagnosed me with a bad case of bronchitis, and put me on and a round of antibiotics that thankfully did start to make me feel better (though I wouldn’t be completely healed until another month and an additional round of antibiotics). In terms of being a restful vacation and sightseeing trip, for me, the trip to Mexico was an utter failure, but I don’t regret going. If it was a choice between staying in San Francisco sick in bed, or going to Mexico and being sick in bed, but spending the evenings with my family members who I so rarely see, going to Mexico was the better option. A few days later, while still doing our best to try and relax, we got more bad news when Julia found out that her entire division of Disney interactive in Palo Alto was being closed and she was losing her job.

When we came back to San Francisco, the inevitable happened, and poor Julia got sick herself, and had to cancel some painting workshops she’d wished to attend. Truthfully, even now, two months, later she is still recovering, and has an evil-sounding cough. Whatever we both caught, was it was incredibly tenacious. It’s times like these, where bad luck seems to dog us at every turn, that we sometimes feel a curse is afoot. After Napa, Tahoe and Mexico, I’m afraid of what will happen on our next attempt to unwind. If you see a mushroom cloud on the horizon this Christmas, don’t be alarmed. It will just be us on holiday again.

Perhaps the highlight of AUGUST was the wedding of our friends Ben and Amanda, which was held at Stern Grove, a beautiful little park not far from our apartment. The reception was actually held within a pretty little building that I had previously sketched earlier this year, so Julia and I decided to give them that sketch of the building where they’d held their wedding, nicely framed, as a wedding present. Ben & Amanda’s wedding was very distinctively arranged and a lot of fun to attend.

Dad & Wendy’s travels brought them back this way in SEPTEMBER, after their visits to family in Europe. Coincidentally, Julia’s father and stepmother were in town, and the six of us got together. Unfortunately, the bad luck struck again when I had my bag stolen when we all relaxed at a cafe in the Chrissy Fields district, and I wasn’t as attentive of my belongings as I should have been.. For the past two years, I’ve constantly been in the care of people who care about me and have my best interests at heart, so I’ve lost my street smarts. With my mind on other things of late, I’ve forgotten that when in a public place you need to watch out for your personal effects. I’d only walked away from my bag for 2 or 3 minutes before I realised I’d left it back at the table, but by the time Julia dashed back there to retrieve it, the bag had gone.

It was a trendy shoulder bag Julia had bought for me. In fact, several people had stopped me in the street to ask me about it, so I’m sure that thief had expected a laptop, iPad, or iPhone to be within, but the most valuable thing inside it was the monogrammed handmade leatherbound sketchbook that Julia had given me for Christmas. It contained several months worth of my left-handed sketches. I feel sure that that the thief would’ve immediately tossed this away as useless, but this loving gift from Julia was priceless to me. It contained all my left-handed sketches I had done while on our ill-fated holiday in Mexico, a bunch of nerdy tribute sketches to Doctor Who, and a sketch of a rusty old car. Julia later went back to the spot where the bag went missing, and spent several hours plastering the neighbourhood with REWARD fliers, but the very next day, those flyers had been taken down, whether by an OCD neighbour or the thief himself who can say?

Many years ago, when travelling in Peru, I likewise lost a valuable sketchbook containing several years of travel sketches, when a bag of was stolen from my hotel room as I slept. In that case, the theft caused me to lose the momentum of sketching, but this time, I’m determined to get back in the saddle and keep drawing. Several of my friends have made this a lot easier by sending me beautiful replacement sketchbooks as encouragement, and I am committed to filling those up. Every few days, I discover yet another missing document or object that was in the bag, and have to go through the process of replacing them. Such as my cheque-book and Social Security card (in my bag as ID for a recent job) which necessitated that I get some identity theft protection on the recommendation of my bank.

The theft was such a shame, because otherwise, the visit by Dad & Wendy, and Julia’s parents, had been going very well. We’d spent about five days together in which the weather had been absolutely beautiful and culminated in seeing Dad & Wendy off on their Cruise back to Sydney. By a remarkable coincidence, the ship that they sailed in was part of the same shipping line that our family had used in 1974, to travel between Sydney and Southampton. Back then, it was known as Chandris Lines, after several mergers and corporate takeovers, it’s now called Century Cruises, but the logo is still the same: a white X on a blue field. They no longer offer passenger services, those were phased out when airline ticket prices came down in the 1970s and people started to travel more commonly by air. They just ply the cruise trade nowadays.

The day we took Dad & Wendy down to Pier 35 to check their baggage onto the ship, the process was a shambles. I’m not exactly sure what the problem was, perhaps the shipping line had not assigned enough porters, nor a baggage supervisor, but he outcome was that it was utter bedlam as we tried to check in their bags. If you remember those chaotic times at an airport getting onto a flight, where they’re only checking in 200 passengers, try to imagine the same thing with 1800 passengers and their baggage. After enough voices were raised, we managed to get Dad & Wendy’s bags checked in, and went to have a surprisingly pleasant meal at nearby Pier 39. Then we said goodbye to the world travellers and saw them onto their ship, and watched the ship depart. It was a spectacular sight, seeing it travel across the bay and out under the Golden Gate Bridge for the 24 day voyage across the Pacific to Sydney. I have no idea if Dad & Wendy could see us standing at the end of Pier 39 to wave them off. We couldn’t see them, as the passengers on the deck were simply too far away to make out, but I hope they have a fun voyage home!

In addition to my writing jobs earlier in the year, some of my old animation pals have recently called me in to do a little bit of what you’d call ‘story consulting’. Back in the days when I could still draw at professional speed, I was essentially paid to draw, and my ideas were for free, but recently, I’ve been paid to consult on story ideas entirely verbally. I have no idea where any of this will lead. I’ve spent 30 years establishing contacts and a reputation as a professional artist, and it remains to be seen whether I can reinvent myself in such a way that I can still make a living in the industry I love, even though I no longer draw, but I am excited to try and find out. In order to do this job, I needed to ride the BART, which is the main train line that connects San Francisco with the rest of the Bay Area. I have ridden public transport a little bit since my stroke, but not during rush hour, though I had to do that to get to work on time. I used to ride the BART every single day, like any half-bored commuter, but now it’s a roller coaster ride fraught with drama.

For example, I timed the opening and closing of the train doors at about 15 seconds. If you’ve seen the way I am today, it takes me about 8 seconds simply to sit down or get up out of my chair. 99% of people are very considerate when they see someone shuffling towards them with a walking-cane and immediately vacate their chair for the geezer, but these days, most people within a bus or train have their head buried in their iPad or iPhone. When you’ve only got 15 seconds to get in and take your seat before the train lurches forward, and you’re a slow moving badly balanced human being, with only one hand able to hold on and support yourself, but that one usable hand is already in use holding your cane, it doesn’t leave much time to ask a person to get out of the disabled chair, before you are potentially lurched onto your arse when the train takes off. Nor the reverse situation; getting out of the gimp-seat once the train has stopped moving, and hobble out of the door before the onrushing passengers. So far, it has all happened without incident, as long as I take care to ride the train at the tail end of rush-hour, when it’s not as busy.

This chance to work again and feel useful (after two years of feeling anything but) was immensely gratifying to me. At the moment, the work is very sporadic and certainly nothing I could live on, and I get by on a monthly Social Security disability check, and report my additional income to the Social Security office. There is a grace period of 9 months where I can begin to earn income but still retain the entire Social Security payment. Then, there is an incredibly bizarre Kafka-esque bureaucratic Catch-22, whereby if I start to earn more than $1000 per month, I will lose my $2000 per month Social Security check. This sounded like a mistake, and I called Social Security Disability to double check that I had not read it wrong, but that is indeed the way it is, which seems like an amazing incentive NOT to go out and find work, but I am determined to try anyway.

Physically, my condition is very similar to how it has been, and any improvements in my walking or the flexibility of my arm, are very subtle at this stage. I’m still experiencing the strange combination of numbness and pain. I’ve asked my medical care givers how this is even possible, and they explain that the numbness is only on the surface of the skin and the outer muscles, whereas the pain is coming from deep within the joints themselves, and they happen on different nerve tracks. So my touch sensitivity is kaput but my pain receptors are working. (Oh good; my own body is as capable of hollowly ironic Catch-22s as the Social Security office.) My right hand continues to tingle, and my hope is that this is caused by nerve connections being reestablished. In terms of any real feeling, although I have no touch-sensation, I can feel temperature in my right hand. When I wash the dishes, I can feel the warm water, and more recently that ability to sense heat and cold has gotten so sensitive that I am able to feel the warmth of a person’s skin when I shake their hand, without feeling the hand itself (and yes, that feels very strange). It would make an immense difference to me if I could get even a little bit of touch sensation back in my hand, and I remain hopeful that it will come back in time.

Recently, Julia and I attended an advance screening of one of the last feature films that I’ll possibly ever work on as a story artist, called The Boxtrolls, and it just opened in the USA. I worked on it from 2008 till 2012, off and on, but because all the work was in the early part of the process and the final film changed quite a bit after I left, I have nothing in the final film or ART OF book. Thus my final credit was “additional storyboards by”. This is one of the downsides to working on films at the front end; you often end up with not much to show for yourself when the film comes out, but it is a very fun phase to work in nevertheless. This very quirky movie is perhaps not the sort of thing that will be a worldwide Pixar-style smash hit, but it is a wonderful film nevertheless and I was very gratified to finally see it.

I’ve gained a lot of solace from other people who’ve gone through what I’m going through. Firstly, in the very early days of my ordeal, an old friend of many years volunteered that he too had endured a stroke years earlier, but had managed to keep it secret from many of his friends, including me. I was immediately reassured that this quagmire IS surmountable. Earlier this year, my occupational therapist introduced me to another person who’d had a stroke. I’d already attended several stroke survivor support groups, but far from finding the experience to be supportive, I found it to be thoroughly depressing. However, the idea of bonding with people who been through the same experience does have an appeal to me, and my therapist felt that meeting such people would be therapeutic, so she introduced me to Robbie, a fellow very much like me; a creative person disabled by a stroke. Within a few minutes of meeting, we realised that we’d both worked for the same company many years ago, and though we’d never previously met, we shared quite a few friends. Like me, there’d been a snafu with his insurance, leaving him horribly in debt. There are so many similarities between our two stories that it’s amazing.

In Robbie’s case, his affected side is the left, rather than the right, as with me. We are mirror images of each other, and often joke that if we were lashed together we’d have the makings of one functional human being between us. Like me, losing his manual dexterity has affected Robbie’s livelihood, because he was a carpenter, specifically a movie set builder and model maker. Julia and I recently attended a wonderful benefit auction staged by Robbie’s friends to raise money for his medical costs, and held in the place he once worked, and Robbie attended the auction in person. He is a better man than I. When a similar auction was held for me in 2012, it was relatively soon after returning home from hospital, and I was still physically frail, and didn’t go. Apart from physical frailty, I admit that I was was afraid of breaking down emotionally too, but now regret not attending. So it was very cathartic to attend a similar auction for another person going through the same ordeal as myself, and see how marvellously moving it is that his community reached out to help pick him up.
Thalamus_small
Sometimes it feels as though the uppercuts are the only thing keeping me on my feet. Given the recent disastrous attempts at vacations, the illnesses, and disaster narrowly averted, smashed car windows, thefts, and job losses, in my moments of weakness and self pity, I wonder if there is a curse afoot, feeling that Fate has been cruel to us. I’d fire my Guardian Angel if only the lousy bum ever showed up for work. In his absence, Karma, the Universe, Luck and divine intervention have not been working in my favour either. The only thing that has consistently been there for me is my community; my friends, my family and loved ones. You have all been wonderful through all of these ordeals, and this support continues to keep me buoyed up. If I ever get back up on my feet, that will be the reason why.

Jun 122014
 

Jun 12, 2014 7:25pm

I have noticed that in movies or on TV, there is often a quick montage to show someone recovering from illness or injury. It spans a minute of screen-time, and then they are back at living life with the same vigour that they had before. More even. But a real life medical recovery can represent years, and I’m living right now in that 60 second healing montage that actually takes years of my life.

I was made to think about the short-hand that fiction often uses for complicated medical issues while watching the high grade British soap opera DOWNTON ABBEY. One of the main characters is wounded in World War I, and comes back home to England in a wheelchair. After a few episodes of moping about the place, as a ’woe is me’ cripple, he suddenly springs up out of his wheelchair spontaneously to stop an elegant Edwardian miss tripping on the rug, and boom: he’s cured. Just like that, he can suddenly walk perfectly. ‘Righto, time for a spot of tea and scones, what?’ This approach is so common in the stories around us that it is difficult not to be influenced by it. I must confess that even after year and a half of being physically incapacitated, I still do fantasise about just such a scenario for myself.

In my fantasy, I’ve even figured out a logical rationale to make it possible. I imagine the neurones connecting themselves in my brain; some coming from one side, and some coming from the other, like two halves of a bridge being constructed. In this vision, on the day those two halves of the bridge meet in the middle, I will suddenly be able to walk properly again, and I will suddenly be able to use my right arm as I once did; BINGO! It’s a very appealing image, and I’ve had one or two vivid dreams of walking normally. Sometimes, just after I wake up, I lie very still and hope that this miraculous moment of neural connection has happened while I slept..  ..alas, my body has not responded yet, but maybe one day, who knows?

A more realistic portrayal of a physical calamity was in the hit TV show BREAKING BAD. After one major character is gut-shot by baddies, he spent the next TV season dealing with the unglamorous physical and emotional effects of this in, I thought, a very believable way. Unlike John Wayne in an old Western movie, who shrugs off the gunshot (’it’s just a flesh wound’) this character, and those that cared for him, had physical and psychological effects to deal with for the better part of a year or more. But that attention to physical and emotional detail is rare.

In the recent spate of Superhero movies, for sure any freak accident or medical emergency will actually have an UPside. Nuclear accident? Gamma radiation? That’ll be superpowers all ‘round, thanks! There is also the hollywood/Marvel-comics notion that if you lose some abilities, you will be compensated in other ways. It is a very appealing idea, but I have not so far seen that myself yet. I’m physically disabled, so where are my psychic superpowers? Or the ray that shoots from my eyes?

Being professionally involved with the construction of cinematic fiction myself, I’m led to ponder; what ACT of MY movie does this physical calamity represent? Is this the end of ACT 1 of my story? Where I suffer a life-changing setback and then rally? Or is it the end of my 2ND ACT; my ‘low point’ where I am learning one of life’s lessons? (maybe the stroke was actually about my own hubris, and so forth.) Or, is it the end of my 3RD ACT; where I have learned to adapt to these changed circumstances?

If this ordeal of mine were to be repackaged as a TED talk, there would certainly need to be an affirming life lesson. In my early days in hospital, I was made aware of one of the most viewed TED talks of all time, which was given by a neurologist who herself underwent a stroke. Just like me. At times, I could relate to parts of her story, and her step-by-step descriptions of the shutdown of her body and mind as the stroke began, and the strange mental detachment, curiosity and calmness during what should have been an utterly horrifying event, could have been describing what happened to me perfectly.

But she left me behind in the later part of her talk, where she described a process whereby the stroke turned her mind turned inside out, and she became keenly aware of the universe, like some sort of magical Dali Lama. If I sound jealous, it’s because, quite frankly, I am jealous. My therapists are quick to point out that no two strokes are alike, and comparisons are useless. So I must accept that this woman became imbued with the super powers of a spiritual Yoda, attuned to life’s mysterious beauty, while all I got was a crippled clumsiness, and attuned to the humiliating potential of my own spastic incontinence. Her TED talk hinted at the idea that having a stroke was the best thing that could have happened to her, following that time-worn narrative device whereby an ordeal is a blessing. It was the TED talks version of the familiar Marvel comics story; stroke as super power. The TED talk of my experience so far would only offer the idea that a stroke is an ungainly slog through physical hardship; a gruelling psychological marathon.

What I’ve been dealing with recently, at about a year and a half since my stroke, is that my medical caregivers (my doctor, my physiatrist, and my physical therapists) who were all previously my cheerleaders, have been gradually changing the message over the past 6 months or so. Each of them now coaches me that I have to accept the likelihood that I will be physically incapacitated to some degree for the rest of my life, and move on with an adjusted set of expectations and build a new life around my diminished physical capabilities. When the people who were previously on the sidelines cheering me on: “you can do it!” have shifted to telling me: “face it, you’re a cripple!” that has been a very difficult adjustment.

Of course, I do see that there are certain times in life when ACCEPTANCE is the wisest thing that you can do. There are moments when refusing to let go of something from the past will prevent us from enjoying life in the present and future, and make us intolerable to be around. I do understand that. So although this is been very difficult, I don’t resent these caregivers at all, because I understand they are trying to ease me into an awareness and acceptance of my changed circumstances. I know the statistical realities; that at a year and a half, most of a stroke survivor’s recovery has already happened, and any advances from this time forward will be incremental at best. But I am not yet ready to give up on working on my recovery. Not just yet.

However, this professional assessment by my caregivers means that medically, the official position is that I have hit my PLATEAU. The P-word is a dirty word in my situation, as it means there will be no more insurance coverage for my case, because it’s considered a lost cause. From this point forward, I’ll still visit my physiatrist about 3 or 4 times a year, so he can see if there have been any changes. If any of those ‘neural bridges’ that I fantasise about do actually connect in my head, my case may be reopened. But shy of that sort of development, it is ‘case closed’ from the medical insurance company’s point of view.

I think that the medical insurance system in the USA is built around a certain model; a case that takes a certain amount of time and gives certain quantifiable outcomes. After an accident, whether a broken leg or even a serious car crash, there is a period of surgery, intensive care and physical therapy, and about a year and a half to two years would resolve most cases out there, because your case is either so bad that you die on the one hand, or recover on the other. In most scenarios there’s a clear outcome after a ‘reasonable’ amount of time. Pregnancy, cancer, hangnail, skiing accident will all be resolved, or at least have a resolution in sight, after a year and a half. But with a case like mine, where recovery may take 5-8 years, or even more, the system is not so good.

If 15 people break their legs in exactly the same spot, their cases will all follow a similar path. Not so with strokes, which affect a myriad of different parts of the brain and therefore have a variety of unforeseen consequences. My understanding is that each of our brains is wired differently, so that even if you and I were to suffer a brain haemorrhage at EXACTLY the same spot, unlike with our our similarly broken legs, the consequences of our brain injuries may be vastly different. My doctor explained that the reason that my stroke has been so serious, despite the size of the haemorrhage being moderate (I’ve known others with a bigger bleed to be back at work in 6 months) is that my bleed happened in a particularly delicate spot (Imagine a mid-sized bomb explodes in a city but does untold and far-reaching damage because the location of the blast was the power station.)

At this one and a half year point will I recover or not? Nobody will categorically say NO (stroke survivors sometimes do recover even at 8 years) but at the same time, insurance companies do not want to sink more money into a case that has no end in sight; it throws off their calculations of the odds (what you eventually realise is that bookies essentially run the medical industry). When the insurance companies shut off the spigot, many stroke survivors simply tap out; when even the experts tell you to accept it, it’s hard to stay enthusiastic. So it’s no surprise to me that STATISTICALLY there’s less progress after about a year and a half to two years, because that is when they stop providing the resources to heal, and it becomes something of a self fulfilling prophecy. So, now that the insurance/medical complex has filed my case under ’no more money’ (for now anyway) I’m at the point where I must research all sorts of alternative cures. So if you hear of me buying vials of armadillo urine, or having my chakras rubbed and my aura massaged etc, that is the reason why.

In my last post, I mentioned my career PLANS, A, B, and C; cure my right hand, train my left hand, and try some new career, respectively. I’m very pleased to say that there has been significant progress in both PLAN B and PLAN C. Learning to draw again with my left hand (PLAN B) has been challenging but I see progress every month, and I’m extremely gratified by that progress. I have no idea whether or not I will ever be able to draw as fast as I once did, and speed is an important part of my old job, but drawing will always be a big part of who I am, so this improvement is hugely important to me, whether or not I ever get to draw professionally again.

After several months of focussing on sketching from life, I have set myself a few little personal projects, such as finishing some old COMICS stories, and illustrating some new stories, that will hopefully improve my left-handed drawing skill and give me some tasks in Photoshop, so I can learn how to operate various computer programs with only one hand. I have no idea if I will be able to match my old drawing style, but I am keen to try. I also have in the back of my mind to maybe do a short animated film, as a longer term goal to aim for. For now though, I will set my sights firstly on colouring some old comics stories, and reformatting them for digital distribution, and maybe adding a new panel here and there.

In pondering a career PLAN-C; a new job entirely, I’ve had to really wrack my brains for something that I’m not only wanted to do but could do. The only thing I’ve ever prepared myself to do for a living was draw, so being suddenly faced with the inability to do so really stumped me for a long time. Learning software so that I could still participate in the storytelling process as an EDITOR, or some other job that does not require me to draw, is something I’m still researching. TEACHING others to do what I used to do is another area where I have a couple of leads. But the area I’m most excited about is finding an opportunity to WRITE professionally. As luck would have it, there are three separate little projects happening now where I’m helping friends write scripts and outlines for their own projects, plus I have at least one opportunity to write professionally. Obviously, this is something I’m very excited about. I know that the world is already full of wannabe writers, and it is a much more competitive field than being an artist, but I’d like to try.

Being an artist is competitive as well, but the fact is that most people in the world cannot draw at all, so the pool of people you compete against as an artist is significantly narrowed. However, every single person you’ve ever known in your life has an idea for a novel, screenplay or children’s book. The field of potential wannabe writers is huge. So I have no idea if I can realistically do this for a living; meaning a way of actually paying my bills, but at least it should be a satisfying creative outlet.

I have not updated here for a while, and consequently there have been some posts over on my regular blog that I can share with you. The latest post is about some RECENT SKETCHING that Julia and I did in our neighbourhood. In addition to sketching from life, Julia and I often sketch at home, from the TV, and there’s another post about a sketch night of STAR TREK. A find of old travel sketches done in 1986 inspired this post about my time working in TAIWAN. And going back to the earliest of my recent posts, this one shows some of my early LEFTY DRAWINGS.
Thalamus_small
In this montage that I’m living in now; doing my therapy exercises, dealing with insurance issues, and clumsily drawing with my left hand, it’s difficult to know the context. Is it like a JACKIE CHAN Kung Fu workout-montage, before he triumphantly rebounds and opens some whupass on his foes? Or a transition-montage, like at the beginning of a movie like THE WRESTLER, where MICKEY ROURKE ends up a broken-down old has-been, and stays there? When life gets hard or inexplicable “Everything happens for a reason” is a phrase that often gets bandied about, to help make sense of it all, but I’m not so sure if real life works quite like that. Of course, I’m never sure of anything, but I often suspect the exact opposite; many important, wonderful, and even catastrophic or terrible things happen for no reason at all.

Even if there is some cosmic reason for this situation, or some nut of wisdom to grow out of it, so that one day I’ll look back on it all as a ‘blessing in disguise’ (and I’m the first to admit the appeal of that idea) I am in still the middle of this story, and therefore don’t have enough perspective to decode it all yet. So I just have to battle away slowly, one day at a time, and focus myself on pushing as hard as I can to get where I’d like to be, without lapsing into bitterness if things do not go as I would like. I’ve always found that maintaining this balance to be the trick to living a happy life, so in a very real way, nothing at all has changed.

Mar 182014
 

Thalamus_small“SpaceLog, 2014.3.18:
Acting-Captain Baker of the StarCommand vessel GIMP reporting. We’ve been drifting in deep space for over a year, far from home with many systems still down. Sensors are slowly coming back online, but still patchy, with starboard still on manual as we struggle to re-wire that side of the vessel.. The bridge crew are gone and I’ve assumed command, even though I don’t  know how anything works. I just continue to mash buttons randomly, hoping something happens in this drifting hulk..”

It’s felt like that at times.. as I sit and try to move my right leg, finessing the mental connections to my hamstrings and calf muscle. They are still not firing properly yet, and after 12 months of silence, I must confess to being a little worried about it. Finally though, I feel something back there. It is less a movement and more of a feeling; hard to say exactly what is happening, but I will assume any change at all is good. Perhaps some tenuous mental connection is finally being made between my brain and the back of my right leg?

One big change in my circumstances is that my physical therapy (on my leg) and speech therapy both ended on the 31st of December, although I continue with occupational therapy (on my hand). This is not to say that my leg is healed, far from it. That will be at least another 2 years I would think, but you know how the US medical system works; once you move beyond critical care, out the door you go. I prevailed on the physiatrist to lobby the insurance company for more hand therapy, and so far that continues, although once a month rather than once a week as before. From here I’m committed to doing the same program of leg exercises that I did for months under supervision, but on my own from now on. I’ll do my best to do them as often as I can and get as strong as I can. I still have the same issues I’ve had all along; weakness in my right shoulder, and weak muscle reaction on the back of my right leg.

For several months now, I have been getting on the elliptical and walking BACKWARDS, to work my right hamstring, on the prior advice of my physical therapist. In my current condition, I am barely able to use the right hamstring at all and the right leg is almost 90% assisted by the left leg in the opposite side of the gizmo. On top of that, I can’t keep going for more than 15 minutes before my left leg is overwhelmed, but I think the exercise is finally starting to pay a small dividend.

I am truly grateful for the gains of the last 12 months, and the limited mobility that I now have, and yet I’m utterly astonished at how slow my recovery is, and disappointed I am not further along, as contradictory as that sounds. Extrapolating this past year’s rate of recovery, but going forward, I guess it will be several years to recover to anywhere even close to where I would like to be. That is a sobering thought and I must concentrate on my minute gains not to become despairing of my situation. There is some solace in knowing I am beyond that critical stage at least. I have mobility, clumsy yes, but at least I am mobile, and I have been riding public transport alone, a goal from a few months back which I have now achieved.

I spoke of spasticity in another post before; the tendency for muscles on the affected right side of my body to spasm and twitch and ‘fight’ with me. This is a very real problem in times of urgency, like hobbling across an intersection to beat the lights, where it feels like an invisible imp fights me for my own controls. Needless to say it feels beyond weird to lay in bed and see my own arm reposition itself without any input from me. The only time this may happen for you is that involuntary stretch during a morning yawn, (or the ‘piss-shivers’) but I feel it all the time in my right side, and it will be a factor as long as the muscles on my right side are not strong enough to override it..

One recent clumsy, spastic one-armed gimp moment was that I dropped my iphone In the toilet. In hopes of drying it out, I tried all the internet tricks- I put it in a bag of rice for a few days, I zapped it with a hair dyer, but no luck. I could hear new texts and phone calls, but frustratingly the SCREEN was black and therefore the phone was rendered utterly useless. For someone in my condition, being contactable at all times by phone is not just a luxury but something of a necessity, so I had to buy a new phone, and because Apple recently changed the cables that the new model uses, I had to buy all new peripherals and accessories too. That was an expensive trip to the toilet… So let this be a lesson to you about the perils of Twitter on the shitter.

In addition to my physical therapy, I also have the task of training my left hand to draw (which I spoke of in my last post). It’s not really stroke therapy as such, but an important part of my rehab never-the-less. I’m pleased to say that this is one area in which I can see clearly visible progress from week to week, and recently I’ve been feeling that my left-handed drawing has been markedly improving. Julia and I often draw from the television, and I’ve posted at least one example of our TV DRAWING sessions so far on my blog, plus, another post of some recent LOCATION SKETCHING. All this focus on drawing and my new relationship to it as a left-hander, inspired me to write my last post here on CaringBridge, but I elaborated on that in a NEW POST on my blog, where I talk about how I came to love drawing in the first place, as a child of 8.

And that about sums up my news of late. Until the next thrill-packed episode!

“SpaceLog, 2014.3.18- supplemental:
Sadly, Ensign RIGHT, is still in sickbay… A good man, but no longer fit for duty, till he regains his senses… Meanwhile, Yeoman LEFT is filling in for him, with mixed results. We hope to be back in our own sector within a year or two. It’s a long haul on backup engines, but what else were we going to do out here anyway? Crew-morale is good. Let’s hope it stays that way or this already long voyage will be extra long.
BAKER out.”

Feb 052014
 

Feb 5, 2014 7:10pm

I’ve had a strange and tempestuous relationship with drawing over the last year. From January to June I didn’t really draw at all, though it was on my mind more or less constantly. This was partly because I was preoccupied; I was dealing with major problems with my mind and body, and exercising to improve my cognitive skills, being able to dress myself, or learning to walk again, took most of my attention. Plus, in in the early months, I became exhausted easily and needed to sleep much of the time. With several family members coming to town to help me during that period, I wanted to spend as much of my free time with them as I possibly could.

But I must admit that another reason for not drawing was simply that I was full of anxiety about it, and deeply afraid. Each time I picked up a pencil, whether it was with my right hand or my left, The best I could draw was clumsy squiggles, I would persevere for for a moment or two and then get very depressed. The hand that knew how to draw since childhood was now paralyzed and the hand that was not paralyzed was clumsy and useless. I can honestly never remember a time when I did not draw, right up until 2013. Since early childhood, I drew as all children do, but I began actively thinking about drawing from the age of 7 or 8 years of age, and from that point forward, it was something I became fascinated by, and in the many years since it not only became my living but also a means of escape, of expression, and of identifying myself. “The kid who drew.” But now, a part of me that I valued, that I healed myself with, and traditionally turned to when feeling low, was absolutely dead to me when I needed it the most.

I was afraid of the emotional spiral I might get into if I dwelt too much on it.. One thing I have learned in the last year is that the frightened human mind is quite capable of eating itself alive if you let it. So you must not let it. I was already a physical mess and financial ruin, without being an insufferable self-pitying sad-sack as well. So I did whatever I could to keep my mind occupied, and if there is any advantage to being in such poor physical condition as me, it is having so much physical therapy that there’s a full slate of activity to distract my mind with. I searched about for some other way of expressing myself, and discovered the catharsis of writing. These posts here have been a great help to me. I picked-up my old project of writing down childhood recollections to keep my mind busy, and began posting new stories on my long-dormant blog.

Then something happened with my feeble drawing around September, and it was more an attitude shift than any advances in my skill. The drawings were still unbelievably crude compared to what I used to do, but it didn’t bother me. As is often the case with me, the breakthrough came in a chuckle. A crude little squiggle that I drew amused me, and at that moment, the joy of drawing was ignited, much as it must have been on that first now-forgotten day when I first drew something that made me LAUGH, as a wee child. Now, unattached to any expectation of visual polish, I relish the surprise and exploration of drawing, and I’ve pushed through to the point where I enjoy it again.

It’s as if I’ve gone back to the time when I was 11 to 13 years old. At that age, I was very much into drawing, I loved it and was getting better at it, but it was anybody’s guess if any particular drawing would turn out terribly or turn out great. Sometimes I would do an absolutely brilliant drawing and surprise myself. The very next time that I tried, the drawing would be utter garbage. But the point is that I would sit down with a great sense of anticipation and wonder every time I did a drawing. There was mystery and excitement, and I think I’ve tapped back into that feeling at the moment. All last year I was fighting through the feeling that an important part of me had died when I could no longer draw, but it is coming back, and in a way that I had forgotten; the JOY comes first and the POLISH comes second.

My childish joy at drawing again was recently shared by my cartoonist friends, who’d gathered in solidarity at my plight, at a non-dominant-handed drawing event. It was very fun way for other cartoonists to show their support, and I have a recent POST ABOUT IT on my blog.

After several months of enjoying drawing goofy doodles, I’ve now hit another drawing milestone in that I’m drawing sketches from life again. This takes a lot of effort and perseverance, and I am excruciatingly slow. Part of what makes it so difficult is the simple act of sitting for so long. Since half my body has withered, I now have no bum-cheek on my right side, and while my left bum is still the well-upholstered shelf it ever was (an inheritence from the BAKER side of the clan) my right bum-cheek is so thin it’s like I’m sitting on the very bones of my pelvis. (When I said ‘excruciatingly slow’ earlier I meant it in more ways than one.) I’m now quite literally living a life HALF-ARSED, and can report officially from the half-arsed community that this really is just as bad a way of doing things as you’ve all been led to believe. So, while my gluteus maximus is currently so very minimus, an essential part of my drawing kit these days is a cushion. I have ANOTHER POST where you can read about my recent half-arsed sketching adventures, on my blog.

Thalamus_smallThe rest of my physical situation is more or less the same as it was a few months back; I walk with a cane and leg brace and my right arm is still restricted in its movement. There are subtle improvements month to month, but I need to cast my mind back to a time 2 to 3 months ago to see the change. I’ve often tried to get my therapists to help me guesstimate where I may be a year from now (or even two) but they wouldn’t play that game with me, and would instead go into Yoda-mode; ‘Do not obsess on the details but be in the now’..

If you break your arm or leg, the medicos will tell you how much time it will take you to recover, but with brain injuries and stroke recoveries they quote vague, fortune cookie affirmations. They want to keep you positive but don’t really know concrete answers. Each brain is wired so differently that each case is unique. So they tell me to not put expectations on it, but focus on the therapy. In terms of attitude management, it is great advice, but I must confess that it makes it difficult to plan my future.

At one year out from my stroke, I’ve had to seriously assess my right hand. I laid it on the line for my occupational therapist; vague can-do Mr Miyagi mantras aside, I really valued her assessment of my condition and where I could reasonably expect to go from here. I said that I understood the reasons why the predictions are kept loose and patients are coached in that way (imagine how often their predictions must cause anger, or bitterness in patients) but I said that I really needed to prepare for the rest of my life. She knows what I can do currently, and where I want to be, and has a lot of field-experience with such things. So, what does she think? (I should mention that I really loved all of my therapists, and genuinely feel their care for me).

She stared at the ground for a long time, and I could see that she was choosing her words with great care. Finally, she said that the hard truth is that I will never be able to draw with my right hand with the sensitivity I once did, if I cannot feel. Being able to do any fine motor skill requires tactile feedback from the fingers, and without it, they will always be clumsier than they once were. That assessment would change if feeling ever came back to my hand, which may yet happen, but the chances of my right hand coming back to full dexterity get slimmer by the day, just because of the continuing numbness (other areas of my right side have regained sensation but sadly not my hand.) She said that at one year later, they would expect to see my hand further along than it is. I appreciated this candour. Even though it was a stomach punch that put me on the floor, it was a jab that I’d asked for, and had suspected already for months.

This is not to say that I am giving up on my RIGHT hand, far from it, it is still my PLAN-A. There is quite a lot of emotional stuff simmering just beneath the surface, so even if I do learn to draw competently with my LEFT hand, there will be a hint of sadness if I ever gave up on my old friend, the RIGHT, but I need to explore some PLAN-B options for ways to earn a living..

My best bet at drawing again, in the short term, is to train my LEFT hand to draw, so that’s what I will do. Everyone is chipper about it, but I am facing the possibility that I may not be as good as a true lefty, because of brain wiring we all have, attached to our dominant hand. The other possibility, is that I may eventually draw wonderfully with my LEFT but it may take a long time to train it, to pro standard. One year or five?  And what do I do while retraining for my left-handed PLAN-B?

For that reason I have PLAN-C as well, and I’m looking into my short-term alternate options. I have only ever done animation, since I was 17, so I have to wrack my brains for what else I might possibly do instead. Maybe teaching? I spoke with a career guidance guy who admitted that he had never seen a case like mine. People who normally go to him do so because they do NOT like their jobs, whereas I was as happy as a clam (your typical stroke survivor is well beyond retirement age, so the subject of retraining does not often come up). If I have to, I’ll do anything, but rather than do data entry at a dentist’s office, I think my best bets for something that draws on my 30 years of experience in animation are; (1) Teaching, whether story-boarding or design (and I have some messages in to teacher pals to ask about that) OR (2) some form of writing. This is a longer shot, but would be closer to the kind of problem solving I used to do as a story artist.

More than anything, I hope to go back to my prior life; pre-December 2012. Even the absolute ‘shittiest’ day from that earlier time seems like heaven to me now, and all my energies are focused on getting as back close to it as I possibly can. Bear that perspective in mind as you feel oppressed by your boss, or your ill-fitting shoes, or the IRS bill you got in the mail, or the rude person on the train. That crappy moment may be one that you’ll likewise long-for one day. I am not saying this in a spirit of woe-is-me. Not at all. I know right now, at this very moment, people who have terminal illnesses, medical issues and financial situations that make me exceedingly grateful that my own woes are manageable. I think the point is that stress, fear, embarrassment and anxiety start as outside factors but often become bigger inside our heads than they need to be, and can rule us if we let them. We each have to do some mental and emotional exercises to keep our perspective. This is not simply a case of resignedly saying “it could be a lot worse” but re-connecting with the simple opportunities each of us have each day to make true JOY for ourselves. Because that comes first and improved circumstances second, not the other way around.

I don’t know where the lefty drawings will lead me. I’m not sure if I will ever be ‘good’ enough or fast enough to draw professionally again, but I am enjoying the exploration, and the fact that a part of me feels like it is slowly reconnecting in my head.. So thanks to all of you who gave me drawing supplies, and sketchbooks and so on. I had a slow start using them perhaps, but I am back on track now!