the healing muse

Volume 9, 2009

Accidental Therapist

Sallie Naatz Bailey

            I fumble inside my purse reaching for a tissue but I can’t find it—until I open the purse wide so the light reaches its contents. There it is—I just couldn’t feel it. Seated in a restaurant, I move my chair and accidentally unplug a wall lamp that illuminates the table. I reach down to replace it, find the bulky plug and try to find the wall receptacle, but it’s impossible to feel the place to plug it in and so I fumble awkwardly. A waitress arrives at the opportune moment. I move my chair back and stand, giving her room to access the wall socket. Light is restored. How embarrassing.
            This lack of sensitivity in my fingers is the result of a lacunastroke, a stroke caused by an interruption of the blood flow to an area of the brain, rather than a blood clot or hemorrhage. It was minor by stroke standards, but in my case, it affected an area very close to that center which controls movement on the right side. My good luck! I was “lucky” that it wasn’t closer because the neurologist informed me that my side would have been paralyzed. As it is, I am left with numbness, a permanent sensation comparable to one’s arm being “asleep,” except that it extends down the entire side of my body. I have full use of my right hand but the sensitivity—the “fine tuning” in the fingers is gone.
            Certainly not the worst outcome of a stroke, but of course I’m an artist—a right-handed artist. I found it impossible to do any drawing or watercolor painting afterward. It wasn’t a physical problem, but rather—a mental one. I just couldn’t try. It was fear of failure.
            I had always felt a sort of mystical connection of “hand to shoulder to brain” when I was deeply absorbed in drawing or painting. At least, that was how I described it—how I feltit. Fortunately, I have long been involved with doing computer art and was able to satisfy most of my creative urges through that medium.
            Two years after the “event,” (in medical parlance strokes are called“events,” which conjures something like ski competitions at the Olympics), my husband and I returned to a favorite spot on the coast of Maine. We had vacationed there many times in past years—and every time I had carried a full complement of portable sketching and painting materials. This time was different. I didn’t even want to look at the “tools of my trade,” let alone pack them.
            It was autumn and the weather was incredible. The owner of our rental house has shelves full of intriguing books, among them, a volume by Betsy Wyeth about her husband Andrew’s preliminary drawings for watercolors. It’s what is commonly called a “coffee table” book—the term often derisively defined as“a book that would be large enough to serve as a coffee table if legs were added!”At any rate—it was a dauntingly large, heavy book.
            My husband, Dwight, kept urging me to look at it, and I kept making excuses not to do so—the weather’s too nice to read.... It’s uncomfortably heavy, etc. (Granted, the latter was a pretty lame excuse). The truth was that I didn’t want to look at drawings, reminding me of a skill I was afraid I no longer possessed. My hand is numb! I was fearful that my sensitivity to the line, the ability to create the necessary variations in pressure, was gone.
            Finally, after a string of glorious days, the weather turned, and we had a full day of lowering clouds, wind whipped rain, and lashing waves. It was a perfect day to read. That afternoon, after further urging from Dwight, I somewhat reluctantly picked up the book. Turning page after page, I looked at Wyeth’s superb drawings. As I did, I could feel that familiar “itch” in my hand, as though I could feel the pressure of the pencil. I wanted to draw and—of course—I hadn’t even bothered to pack my travel art gear.

            The next day dawned bright and sunny. We went into town and stopped at the local art supply store. I bought a small sketchpad and just a few colored pencils—nothing like the huge array of Prismacolor pencils I had left at home. We returned to the house, and I threw caution to the winds, producing six quick sketches during our last two days. It was exhilarating when most turned out just as I wanted. (Not all, of course—but I can’t blame those on my hand!)
            The following year, I packed my watercolor travel kit and did a watercolor sketch of the ocean view—just one—but it was reasonably successful. I may still have trouble buttoning my blouse, because I can’t feel the buttonholes (and yes—I didn’t realize till the onset of the numbness, that it is a task one does entirely and automatically by touch) but I can draw! I owe a debt of thanks to Dwight, who so persistently urged me to muster the strength, mental and physical, to take up that book and to Betsy and Andrew Wyeth—all of whom so unknowingly served as therapists.

Return to Table of Contents, Volume 9, 2009.

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