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Why I Shouldn't Pull My Health Up by Its 'Bootstraps'

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I am notorious for pulling myself up by my bootstraps. In fact, I have bootstraps that could rival the best of them!

By definition, bootstrapping literally means, “Improve one’s position by one’s own efforts.” Yep, that is a very good description of how I lived my life prior to 2011, when I was rocked by a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

For me, bootstrapping usually began with the “decision” that I was “all better.”  Truth be told, I was never actually “all better.” Quite the contrary. I simply chose to ignore the symptoms and plough ahead. There’s nothing quite like being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Add to it the cruelty of medical professionals that place the blame on the patient (“it’s all in your head”) when they are unable to find a diagnosis due to the limits of their own medical knowledge. My response in my younger years was to bootstrap my way out of it. Little did I know that I was quite literally dragging my body around through a toxic combination of force of will and disassociation. This worked for a while, up until the chickens came home to roost, so to speak.

In my former life, I was an award-winning entrepreneur and business strategist in home health and hospice. Chronic illness was the subject of many of my keynote presentations – which, I find this ironic given my life today. It was six years ago that I suffered a life changing traumatic brain injury. There is nothing like a TBI to force me – a tough bootstrapping warrior woman – into total body awareness.

In an instant, my career was over. My marriage ended a year later. My weight went up due to hypothalamic injury. I could no longer support my family financially. My entire identity was shattered. I could barely get out of bed because my vestibular system had been affected. Everything that I would do caused my brain to crash… everything except art.

I was not an artist before the accident. I couldn’t even paint a stick figure. In fact, I loved to look at abstract art in particular because I was amazed at the artists’ innate creative talent, something that I thought I didn’t have. Shortly after the accident, I discovered that I could paint. It started with pastels and then exploded overnight into huge canvases. It took some time to eventually discover that I had what is called “acquired savantism.” I am now among the 50 plus officially tracked “acquired savants” in the world, as identified by the expert Dr. Darold Treffert.

I can’t describe what it felt like to be held in suspense while my brain healed. Frustration is an understatement. Thankfully I had the gift of art to keep me moving forward. Doctors didn’t know how long it would take for me to recover. My own husband grew impatient. In the weeks, months, years that followed, I repeatedly tried to grab my bootstraps and force myself into healing… but that strategy no longer worked.  One cannot rush the process of healing from a brain injury. So, I bravely faced the judgement of others, and I learned that I am capable of standing alone.

I continued to paint, and I allowed the language of color to calm my nervous system and provide insight into my healing process. Ultimately, I set my bootstraps aside and continued to gently find the right people to facilitate proper diagnosis and treatment. To this day, I am still learning about the things that were injured on that fateful day. I now life with chronic migraines, dysautonomia, adrenal insufficiency, and pituitary dysfunction… and I am certain there are others that remain undiagnosed.

A purple and yellow art piece titled, "Beyond Dusty."

That brings me to the current episode. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, I crashed again a month ago. It started with massive pain (think machete or chainsaw) in my flanks that hasn’t subsided since. Nothing makes it better or worse. It is a level over 10 on the pain scale, and the diagnosis is a mystery.

Having undergone significant testing with few answers, I can feel myself wanting to reach for my bootstraps again – it’s so tempting! Yet, I know that they are not going to help. In fact, they have never helped. If anything, bootstrapping perpetuates a negative cycle of chronic illness by creating a false sense of recovery only to be followed by another crash. Having made a conscious decision to keep my bootstraps off to the side where they belong, I must now constantly remind myself to walk gently – to go slowly, to be loving toward this body that is in pain. Furthermore, I must remember that it is not my job to make it easier for my physicians. If they are unable to find a diagnosis, and that causes them frustration, then I need to lovingly move on to someone that is better equipped to evaluate my case.

What does it look like to walk through this new healing journey without dragging my body along and pretending to be healthy? I honestly don’t know. Right now, I am simply keeping myself honest by choosing to put those old bootstraps away. Now I am focusing on the things that I can do – which right now is art.  Once again, amid my limitations, I am able to paint. The gift of art is significant. It is a huge source of gratitude. I painted my way to health before, I can do it again. Swapping out bootstraps for paintbrush, I shall begin an alternative path to wellness. Art heals. Pass it on.

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Art provided by Heather Thompson

Originally published: September 20, 2017
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