Sketching the bigger picture

It was August 2020. Indigo Van Houte was sitting outside her house in the afternoon sun. She was drawing mindlessly, with music playing in her ears.  A neighbour stopped by, and they briefly said hello to each other.

When Indigo first started to draw, she had survived a brain haemorrhage and, as a result, was going through severe physical and psychological trauma. A brain haemorrhage is a type of stroke that happens from a vein bursting inside one’s brain and is also commonly referred to as a Cardiovascular accident (CVA). Back then, keeping her mind on what she was drawing meant that Indigo could keep her anxious thoughts away.

Indigo (on the left) and her friend and co-writer of this article Avalon (on the right)

Now, three years later, she uses her art as a way to process or to de-stress from her life’s events. For Indigo, her subconscious drawing is not necessarily about closing her eyes or cutting out all her senses: “it’s more so that I make sure that my brain is busy with something else, so like listening to music or watching a series on the side“, she explained. In that way, her true subconscious thoughts and emotions come out onto a piece of paper. This makes Indigo’s art a raw representation of “what is truly going on, on the inside” and the best way through which her story can be told.

Accepting that the lemons might be sour

“When life gives you lemons…make lemonade. But if that doesn’t work…Take the lemons and accept that they are sour” was the saying I changed to help me through accepting the changes the stroke forced me to make”, explained Indigo in a text message.

At the time that it happened a ten 20 year old Indigo had a lifestyle that many of us can relate to. She was in the second year at the nursing school, had just moved out of her parents’ house and was doing an internship at the liver intestine ward at the hospital. Her passion for dancing and a life-long dream of being a nurse and specialising in E.R (emergency room) or tropical disease post-graduation was especially important to her. She did not know it yet, but her life was about to change in a way that would no longer allow her to live her life the way she used to.

However, this is not a story about the hardship of being a young stroke survivor. It’s about resilience and the time taken to accept that some lemons might indeed be sour.  

So, what actually happened?

It was the 16th of April 2018. Indigo had woken up feeling a little nauseous, with a headache and within the next two days she had begun having trouble seeing.

On the 19th of April, the third day since her symptoms had begun, her pupil was still enlarged, and she was beginning to feel even worse in her body.  She did not think too much of it and assumed that it was due to exhaustion. She went to her shift at the internship, but as the day went by, her colleagues noticed that something was wrong and urged her to go and see a doctor immediately. Her GP immediately sent her to an eye doctor who then sent her straight to the Emergency Department, where she promptly went through the CT scan.

While Indigo lay in the CT scanner, awaiting her results, the realisation of the fact that there was something definitely wrong with her body started to kick in. She could no longer open her right eye due to the nerve paralysis. And while she did not want to think about what the problem could possibly be, she feared that it could be something that could mean that “she is either not going to be able to continue her life the way she always planned it to be or that she could not continue it at all.”

Because “in the moment when you’re lying in a C.T. scan”, she explained, “you know that after you will get a result and that it’s either going to be nothing or it’s something that’s gonna change your life”. And in that case, it was not nothing.

The first weeks she was in denial, “I think when you receive serious medical news, everything immediately becomes a bit of a blur”, she elaborated “You don’t want to deal with everything, so you just shut down…It takes some time for the wave (of realization) to truly come in”.

The CT scan revealed that Indigo was experiencing a brain hemorrhage. She drew a circle around the bleed.

It was only later, in the rehabilitation centre that she realized the severity of the change that the brain haemorrhage was bringing into her life.

“With the stroke it wasn’t just about not being able to live alone or to continue studying”, she explained in an interview, “it was also that my left side was fully paralysed and my right eye lost its function”.

“Two sides of the same body. They should be working together but they won’t. One side is able to move and act normal, the other is paralysed and lost its function.”

“Two sides of the same body. They should be working together but they won’t. One side is able to move and act normal, the other is paralysed and lost its function.”
“This contains a lot of eyes and obviously the bones of a human hand” she wrote in an explanation to this art piece “Hands, bones and eyes keep coming back in the drawing without me paying attention to what I draw”

Over-stimulation and dance

Indigo’s description of the drawings of the dancers goes as follows: “Dancing used to be my passion, my outlet and almost the way I presented myself. Since the age of 7 I have taken ballet classes, later complemented by contemporary classes. After I had the stroke, my brain was damaged and the over sensitivity for noises and crowded spaces is one of the main effects of the damage that is a daily struggle…The drawings are showing my passion and the most noticeable result of the damage for the outside world. For me there are many daily struggles, others only see the visible results.”

In its essence, dance served a similar purpose as art does now. It meant that Indigo could put “everything that was stuck inside her head out there…. It made (her) feel free”.

In July, sometime after she left the rehabilitation centre, Indigo went to a trial class with her old dance teacher. The intention was to watch and do a few simple warm-up exercises. But then it struck her that “In a dance class you have loud music, other people together in a small room, and a teacher either yelling or counting”, she explained. The “over-sensitivity to noises and crowded spaces “hit and all those external stimuli meant that her brain started to “shut down”. She immediately started having a panic attack, accompanied by a loss of eyesight and extreme physical pain in her body.

“And then you have to make decisions”, Indigo added “Is it something that I prioritize in life? Is it something that I do three classes of and then take weeks to recover?”

But the point is to accept “that you’re not losing the past” by giving up the things you once loved to do or the lifestyle you used to have. “The past is still there, but it’s not something (you) can build forward with.”, said Indigo.  It is, indeed, a matter of accepting that the situation “can be sour but by accepting it you can make changes and develop”.

The Whirl

Invisible Illness

“This drawing shows the whirl my brain turned into after suffering a brain haemorrhage. Some days I get sucked in through extreme noise sensitivity, exhaustion, and physical pains while other days I can climb out and live life the way I planned. The point is, to maybe do a little less or plan carefully, in order to prevent over-stimulation and exhaustion and “make living the life I want to live possible.”

While the physical affects the stroke has had on her body still come up through Indigo’s subconscious way of drawing. “It is no longer something that triggers a lot of emotion”. It is the mental experience of having an invisible illness that does.

Two years after having experienced the brain haemorrhage, Indigo returned to her internship at the Stomach and Intestine ward. There, something really interesting started to happen. While people obviously knew that indigo had gone through a stroke, “they started to say that they didn’t notice”.

“Which might be a blessing”, she explained “because mentally and physically I can do a whole lot”. But then there is the curse part…

In June 2018, a couple of weeks after Indigo was released from the rehabilitation centre, she went to the beach with a friend of hers at the time. The beach, just like many other crowded touristy places, has a lot of loud sounds. All the stimuli meant that Indigo’s brain started to become over-stimulated. She felt “sick and anxious and just wanted to go home”. The friend replied: “we just got here, can you try to do your best a bit more?”. 

“I was very upset because of the lack of will to listen and to try to understand and help me through”, she elaborated “Eventually I cut off the friendship.”

 And that is the curse. It is the sensitivity of her nerves and its mental and physical effects on her body that “people do not see”. Or, sometimes, do not even try to. “It is when you take a step back”, Indigo added, “that people tend to start saying things along the lines of “but we didn’t think that it would be a problem”, “or can you just try harder”, “or don’t act like a child ”.

This drawing is the face off between what is really inside(black) and what is shown on the outside (silver). Keeping things shiny is and was a way of coping, but it developed an imaginable stare-off between feelings and looks. Almost like looking in the mirror when the reflection doesn’t correspond with you as a person. “

“It would be helpful if society started to realise that 1) people with invisible illnesses exist 2) an invisible disability is a real disability”, explained Indigo.

It is one thing for a survivor to accept and adapt to the fact that “their lemons might be sour”, but without those around them putting the effort in to understand and to accommodate to the fact that they might have different needs and ways of living, “things will just keep getting harder”.

Polina Papakhina and Avalon Leiman

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