Tag Archives: brain injury

The Journey Home…A Personal Quest.

“Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

– Matsuo Basho

For those of you who have been following my blog for awhile, you’ve probably sensed that I’ve been grappling with something. Something like a whole lot of random puzzle pieces, and wondering why they won’t all fit together. Arranging and rearranging them and then darting down another wombat tunnel (these are rather long and extensive by the way) searching for another missing piece, hoping that this time, I’ll finally be able to see the entire picture. Or, at the very least, have all four corners and the edge pieces in place.

Fueling this quest has been a sense that something isn’t quite right, which might’ve been blown off as anxiety or misplaced perfectionism if the story had been a little different.

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The Good Little Girl.

Of course, the general recommendation was “to go with the flow”. The only trouble being, that I was beyond the flow. Moreover, nobody ever presented me with a map or gave me any directions whatsoever to try to find the flow, let alone a lift. Indeed, since whenever, I’ve never gone with the flow or even known what it was.  Hence, why I’ve called my blog “Beyond the Flow”.

Rowena 1981

Here I am in Year 6 aged 12. The Serious Student.

Lately, this sense of not going with the flow re-positioned itself, and I felt more like I was living in between the lines where I perhaps don’t belong to either group but see something in between that other people miss. This perspective is also rather interesting when you look at it from a visual perspective, as you’re inhabiting that white space between two sentences. Not that I can actually read either sentence, as I’m up too close. It’s all a blur. I’m just there. Indeed, I could well be fast asleep, and quite at peace in what actually seems an uncomfortable, or even isolating position.

Rowena Dressing up

I used to love dressing up and performing. My brother and I put on little shows at home.

By the way, I didn’t say that I was alone. I’m not. Indeed, I’m actually starting to wonder just how many of us hover in between worlds not really knowing where we belong and yearning to find our home. Or, perhaps we/they have reached a point of acceptance, or even giving up, and have pitched a tent where they are and set up camp.

For many of us, there’s a complicating factor which heightens this sense of living in between the lines. Of not going with the flow. Even, grappling to know who we are within our own skin, before we can even attempt to work out how we can find our place in the outside world.

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The Irrepressible University Student. You can see I’ve jumped right out of my box by now.

Personally, my struggle to know and understand myself raised up into something of a tsunami wave, after I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus or fluid on the brain when I was 26. Apparently, it had been there since birth, but randomly became symptomatic in my mid-20s. Suddenly, thanks to my diagnosis, I had an explanation for being quirky, uncoordinated, and not fitting in. Better still, I had a cure. A magic fix. I had brain surgery and was given a shunt, which not only reduced the pressure in my brain and improved my coordination, it also felt for a time like the lights had gone out. Indeed, I started to believe that the theatrical, extroverted independent woman I had always been, was largely the fabrication of this disease. That all this pressure in my head, had made me disinhibited. That at least some percentage of who I thought was me, was in actual fact the disease stepping into my shoes and even inside my very skin and taking over.

Poetry Reading

Performing My Poetry in Paris in 1992.

This, of course, left the door open for way too many questions, and they not only moved in, but also made themselves at home.

Indeed, it left many doors and pathways open as I grappled to find some rock solid sense of myself. That core at the very centre of my being. The bit that is left, when you remove and take off all the layers and external forces and just is.

“To know yourself as the Being underneath the thinker, the stillness underneath the mental noise, the love and joy underneath the pain, is freedom, salvation, enlightenment.”

Eckhart Tolle

Much of this exploration has either been unconscious, or going on in the background while I’m getting on with the realities of life. If you’ve lived with this , you’ll know what I mean when I say the front screen is running but there’s another screen running behind closed doors, behind the curtain, or even somewhere at the back of your eyeballs (the eyes being the window of your soul). I never intended to live and operate like this, and I must admit it’s been very frustrating. I’ve really struggled to know quite who I am, and then to confound it further, I developed a debilitating auto-immune disease, which side-swiped me like a massive monster truck. Of course, it didn’t stop to see if I’m okay, or to even help me get my bearings. It just kept going.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

Aristotle

Anyway, as I said, I’ve been niggling with this in the background and moving very much by feel. I feel comfortable, belong and really thrive in some settings, but in others, I shrivel up and am almost screaming in my skin to escape. I feel awful. There doesn’t need to be an explanation. Indeed, there often isn’t one.

Performance Queanbeyan 1886

 

I am coming to wonder whether it’s been this struggle within myself, which has taken me so deeply inside my family history. Indeed, now that I’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle, it feels like this is what I’ve been searching for my entire life. It wasn’t a coincidence that I wanted to swing from the chandelier. Or, that I wanted the be an actress right through high school (in addition to being a journalist). There was this pull from somewhere deep within my DNA, which didn’t connect with Mum and Dad or anybody in the near vicinity. However, deep within the lines of historic newspaper text, there it was. My grandmother’s grandmother performed in an amateur Minstrel Show in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. While it wasn’t New York, the programme was printed in the newspaper, and she wasn’t only the pianist. She was also acting. Indeed, Lizzie Johnston was playing Louisa in a romantic farce: The Rival Lovers. Finally, I had permission and acknowledgement of who I’ve always been. A constant beyond the ups and downs of life and collisions with life-threatening illnesses. An extrovert who doesn’t need a stage to perform, and can even perform in words upon the page, just like my kids sing and dance across the stage. Indeed, I don’t need a drink to perform a on stage either. Rather, I need someone to tie me to my seat in the audience.

Of course, that is not to say we’re pre-determined by our genes. However, personally I found it very encouraging that someone else in my family has been down this road, and I’m not crazy. That it wasn’t the result of too much pressure on the brain. It’s simply me. Moreover, there are quite a few performers on both sides of my extended family tree.

Aunty Rose & Kookaburra.JPG

My Great Great Aunt, Rose Bruhn, owned an elite hair and beauty salon in Brisbane but could also make kookaburras laugh on command, had a budgie who recited reams of Shakespeare. She appeared with them at charity fundraisers where she also performed poetry and she played the violin.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost.

Rowena Lizottes

The humble violinist. I was actually a rank beginner when this photo was taken, but I have an in-built sense of theatre.

However, I’m not sure that this discovery is going to change a hell of a lot. These days, I’m pretty content with what I’ll call “my lot”. I’ve been doing some performances on my violin, which isn’t quite the same as jumping out of a cake or swinging from a chandelier, but I now understand a little better why I wanted to perform, and wasn’t content to only play alone at home.

While this journey is incredibly personal, and having problems with your brain isn’t something to brag about, it was a story that needed to be shared. While it’s been a catharsis for myself, I wanted to reach out to people grappling with similar issues, and hold your hand. We are not alone.

The Missing Piece

Lastly, I wanted to share an animation of a favourite book of mine by Shel Silverstein: The Missing Piece . It might be simple, but it’s very profound.

If this post connects with you in any way, I would love to hear from you via the comments.

Best wishes,

Rowena

D- Roald Dahl’s Reply #atozchallenge.

No sooner had I pulled up in Mum’s Taxi after a bleary night conversing with a certain Dead Poet starting with E, than I found a reply from Roald Dahl.

No, it didn’t arrive in a model aeroplane . I didn’t find it wrapped up in a block of chocolate either. Rather, by some kind of miracle, he’d managed to sneak passed the dogs and into the  house and there in a half-eaten packet of Tim Tams I found this note:

Dear Rowena,

Get on with the You-Know-Exactly-Whatsit!

A big bang on the head, doesn’t have to be the end. Strangely, it can even be the beginning. However, you already know that. You just need to act. Move it!

By the way, I’m impressed with how you crawled inside my head. Quite frankly, I’d never thought of climbing through the ear to pull that off. Being so tall, I never thought I’d fit.

We must chat again.

Warm regards,

Roald Dahl.

PS If I’d ever eaten a Tim Tam, I never would have died!

…….

So, it appears my son is not the only one who can’t stop at one Tim Tam.

Of course, I know exactly what the You-Know-Exactly-Whatsit is. It’s my Book Project. I know it’s been in the pipeline FOREVER and keeps metamorphosing before it even goes into its cocoon.

writing in Paris

Writing on the window sill at the Hotel Henri IV, Paris  July, 1992…a very different version of me.

What’s been stopping me? There I was reading my poetry at the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris in my early twenties. Since then, the entire river’s passed under the bridge. What’s holding me back?

Well, there was such a thing as having a career and trying to “find the one”, which was so rudely interrupted by a not insignificant neurological meltdown. Of course, this was followed by kids and then another near death experience this time resulting in a physical meltdown with all my muscles wasting away. That’s nothing to sneeze about either. Yet, while I was in rehab, my husband brought in my laptop and I started writing seriously again.

Anyway, when you’ve had so many ups and downs, it’s hard to work out where you are and how to make sense of it all. I’ve persisted but it now seems that there is no perfect sense. Not all chaos but that the answer is out there somewhere sitting on the fence.

Finally, I’m feeling that sticking with the questions is okay. That even if we don’t get answers to particular questions, that we’re still being fueled by the quest. We even wander into other realms we never knew were there.

As John Lennon said:

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Mind you, when undertaking such journeys to foreign realms it’s always good to be prepared. To not only take along your map, torch and compass but also some refreshments. A long piece of string never goes astray either. That way, you can always find your way back out of the labyrinth.

Anyway, here I go again waxing lyrically instead of getting on with it.

I need to move it! Move it! Move it!

xx Rowena

PS: How are you going with the A-Z Challenge? I you are participating or have found some great posts, please leave links in the comments.

 

D-Roald Dahl: Letters to Dead Poets #atozchallenge

Dear Mr Dahl,

It is such a privilege and an honour to be writing to such a literary great. Indeed, it is incredibly humbling. I apologise in advance for writing such a long letter but I had no idea how many twists and turns our journey would take. Or, that the man who has made the whole world laugh, had endured so much grief.

When I was a little girl, you brought all my chocolate fantasies to life in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and seemingly wrote about my own daughter in Matilda.  Even though she is little, she is very strong-willed, determined and capable. As a parent yourself, I’m sure you can appreciate how this iron will can be a force for good and let’s just say “not so good”.

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My daughter and I at Matilda The Musical in Sydney, 2016.

Anyway, now that I’ve captured your attention, would you mind just sitting still for a moment. NO! DON’T MOVE!!  I told you. SIT STILL. This won’t take a moment. The best way for me to see inside your head, is climbing through your ear. Just need to scrape away a bit of wax. No use trying your nose when you’ve got a cold. Ah! In like Flynn! I apologise or the ongoing discomfort while I pull out my map, compass and torch. When you’re walking around inside someone else’s head, you really need to be prepared. Don’t want any accidents, especially when I can be rather wobbly on my feet and I didn’t bring my walking stick.

Sorry for popping in on you like this but if it’s any consolation, I didn’t get a lot of notice either. I was simply walking along the beach with my dogs photographing the clouds, when someone or something, jumped inside my ear and suggested that I write Letters To Dead Poets. Not just any dead poets but the ones who have inspired and spoken to me. Lit that spark!

So here I am with my notebook in hand ready D for Roald Dahl. Indeed, I’m just peering out through your nose. So, please don’t sneeze! That’s NOT how I want to learn how to fly. That said, I’m open to other suggestions!

There is so much that I would to ask you and so much I’d like to share that my words and thoughts are flying all over the place, each with a mind of its own. Sounding like your Vicar of Nibbleswicke, perhaps I need to fly around in circles to make sense of my thoughts. However, should I go forwards or back? Goodness knows!

While I’d like to come back to you another time to ask you about your writing, this letter has assumed quite a different purpose.

Plane Crash 19th September, 1940.

Roald Dahl plane

I’d like to ask you how that plane crash in WWII changed and influenced your life. You fractured your skull and temporally lost your sight. Prior to the crash you were working in business for Shell and afterwards you emerged as a writer with such an incredible imagination…as well as a sense that something had changed in you.

As your biographer, Donald Sturrock noted in Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl:

“A monumental bash on the head” was how Dahl once described this accident in the Western Desert, claiming that it directly led to his becoming a writer. This was not just because his first published piece of writing was a semi-fictionalised account of the crash, but also because he suspected that the brain injuries which he received there had materially altered his personality and inclined him to creative writing.

His daughter Ophelia recalled her father’s fascination with tales of people who had experienced dramatic psychological and physiological changes – such as losing or recovering sight – after suffering a blow to the head. He also told her that he was convinced something of this sort had happened to him, as it explained why a budding corporate businessman working for Shell, without any particular artistic ambition, was transformed into someone with a burning need to write and tell stories. This hypothesis was doubtless attractive, too, because it pushed potentially more complex psychological issues about the sources of his desire to write into the background.

Nowadays doctors might well have diagnosed Dahl as suffering from what is called post-concussive syndrome. The initial symptoms of this condition are normally forgetfulness, irritability, an inability to concentrate and severe headaches. Dahl suffered from all of these. In some patients the symptoms disappear, but leave behind longer-lasting behavioral changes, which are usually associated with mood swings and an increased lack of inhibition. In some cases, too, it can also result in a fundamental alteration of the perception of the self.

With Dahl, these alterations were marginal, but they were nonetheless significant. His sense of embarrassment – already minimal – was further diminished, his sense of fantasy heightened, while his desire to shock became even more pronounced. He emerged from his crisis more confident, more determined to make a mark [1].

However, this plane crash was only your entre to the workings of the human brain.

Theo’s Dreadful Accident 5th December, 1960-  Hydrocephalus.

By some horrible twist of fate, while your four month old son Theo was out with his nanny, a taxi drove into his pram fracturing skull and causing hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain. It was a horrific accident and he was lucky to survive. However, after some promising signs, his condition rapidly deteriorated and he had surgery to insert a valve to drain the excess fluid into his heart. This valve kept blocking putting him through surgery after surgery, each time further increasing the likelihood of permanent brain damage and blindness. So, you did what Dads do. You went to fix the problem. You knew a bloke who made hydraulic pumps or model aeroplanes which didn’t block and you linked him up with neurosurgeon and the Wade-Dahl-Till (DWT) valve was developed. While Theo’s condition improved and he didn’t need to use that shunt, their invention changed the lives of 3,000 children…thanks to the love for your son and your resourceful thinking.

My Journey with Hydrocephalus.

Like Theo, I also have hydrocephalus and quite coincidentally, we were born on the same day nine years apart. Given your sense of humour, I don’t know whether you’re now wondering  whether being born on the 30th July means you’re going to have expansive water views inside your head, or maybe not. Indeed, when I was first diagnosed, I pictured a cheeky cartoon character called Bart Simpson surfing inside my head. So, my imagination is alive and well too!

In my case, the hydrocephalus was probably caused by a particularly difficult birth and wasn’t diagnosed until my mid-twenties. For some reason, whatever compensating mechanisms I’d  had, suddenly stopped working and I plummeted into a terrifying neurological abyss. I had brain surgery to insert a shunt, followed by at least six months of intensive rehabilitation. By the way, my shunt also blocked.

Surgery launched me on the precarious pathway towards recovery but also a strange sense that something had changed. A feeling you also expressed.  Having a bruised or broken brain, isn’t the same as having a broken leg. You can seem quite alright on the outside and yet there are “complications”, subtle changes and with it, much confusion. These subtleties are not easily understood from within and are even harder to explain. I wish we could have talked about that. Perhaps, we could’ve nutted a few things out together, which not only would’ve helped ourselves but could also help our “colleagues”. I’m not talking about fellow writers here but you already knew that.

At the time, a friend mentioned that you had invented the shunt. That surprised me. After all, you don’t usually expect writers with such an extraordinary imagination, to be equally good at  “nuts and bolts”. I thought we were all dreamers lucky to have a toe dangling anywhere near terra firma, let alone both feet. However, there is always an exception and thank goodness for that!

Ever since my diagnosis, I have wondered how different my life would’ve been if I’d been diagnosed as a baby. Reading Theo’s story gave me some serious insights into just how different it could have been, especially if it had been symptomatic at the time. That was pretty scary. Although some things might have been easier, I’ve always suspected that I would’ve been that fragile, special child kept locked up in the china cabinet and only brought out on special occasions. There would have been no netball, climbing trees or undertaking other “risky” activities. No adventures at all…just sitting still.

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Who could have suspected that this little girl had a harbour in her head?

Yet, basking in ignorance, I learned to read when I was four, pulled off an Arts Degree with Honours from the University of Sydney. At 22, a friend and I boarded a KLM Flight bound for Amsterdam. We had open tickets and could stay away for 12 months. Our only plans were to spend 3 weeks in Paris. During that time, I did a solo poetry reading at the famous Shakespeare Bookshop where the likes of Ernest Hemingway had hung out. I didn’t know that then or that even the Proprietor, George Whitman, was a larger than life figure. I was simply an intrepid 23 year old backpacker from Sydney who’d self-published her anthology on a photocopier. That’s all.

Then, in my mid-twenties, these ripples suddenly and inexplicably took off with a vengeance, raged into a tsunami. There was no doubt then that surgery was a matter of life and death and my neurological functioning was seriously impaired.

So, to a large extent, I don’t need to imagine what it was like for your family when Theo was struck down, although he was so much younger. After all, it’s very rare that even when two people are travelling along very same road, that they walk in the same shoes. Have the exact experience. The story always veers left or right but there’s still that common ground. By the way, I also remember my Dad thinking about how the shunt was made, why it blocked and how to manage the pressure.

Anyway, that was my story. Unfortunately, your affair with the Neurology Department wasn’t over yet.

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Roald Dahl photographed with wife Patricia Neal and children Olivia and Theo

Your Wife – Actress Patricia Neal – Has  A  Burst Aneurism – February 1965.

In February, 1965 while pregnant with your fourth daughter, Lucy, your wife had a burst aneurysm. Following emergency surgery, Pat remained in a coma for almost three weeks, lying on an ice mattress to minimise swelling and besieged by tubes. Antibiotics to prevent infection and anticonvulsants to prevent further damage to the brain dripped constantly into her system. You sat by her side, hour after hour, endlessly repeating: “Pat, this is Roald.”

For days there was no improvement in Pat’s condition. But on March 10, almost three weeks after the haemorrhage, she began to regain consciousness and went home a week later.

However, as Pat struggled to put her thoughts into words, to teach herself the names of colours, to work out how to use her right arm and feed herself, she became overwhelmed by the awareness of exactly what she had lost. The fact that she was pregnant, also made relearning how to walk particularly exhausting. You later described her condition in stark terms: “If left alone, she would sit and stare into space and in half an hour a great black cloud of depression would envelop her mind. Unless I was prepared to have a bad-tempered desperately unhappy nitwit in the house, some very drastic action would have to be taken.”

Apparently, your methods were Spartan. No self-pity, no indulgence toward the illness, just a determination to beat all the disabilities. With an approach based on “common sense”, your aim was to avoid “inertia, boredom, frustration and depression” and “get me to do it myself”. You sent her for physiotherapy at a nearby RAF military hospital. Then each day, between nine and 12 in the morning and two and five in the afternoon, you arranged for friends and neighbours to visit. These amateur therapists read children’s books to her and played elementary word games, simple arithmetic and puzzles…activities to stretch her mind.

On New Year’s Day 1966, you publicly raised the stakes on your wife’s recovery, telling the press that he felt certain she would be “working again within the year”.

After knocking back a few roles, finally, Edgar Lansbury offered her the lead in a film version of the Tony Award–winning play: The Subject Was Roses by Frank Gilroy. Pat liked the part of Nettie. Her therapist Val Eaton Griffith convinced her to accept it.

Yet Pat remained anxious that she was not ready. Val, however, had already persuaded her to deliver a speech in New York in March 1967. You wrote the text of her address and Val coached Pat on it daily for a month, before accompanying her to New York for the celebrity dinner.

“An Evening with Patricia Neal” was a fund-raiser for brain-injured children held at the Waldorf-Astoria. Her speech won her a standing ovation. The adulation stimulated her desire to recover and she began to believe she might pull off the movie comeback.

That night she saluted you for your efforts. Later, she would articulate her gratitude more eloquently: “I knew at that moment that Roald the slave driver, Roald the b—–d, with his relentless courage, Roald the Rotten, as I had called him more than once, had thrown me back into the deep water. Where I belonged.”

Mr Dahl, I appreciated your patience with me or going over what must be old ground or you. However, I wanted to share the gallant way you fought to save your son and your wife. It would be such an encouragement to people affected by neurological conditions. It is my hope that people will read your story and feel great encouragement. That through hard work, persistence and courage they can improve their lot, even if they can’t go back to how things were before. They still have a future.

Wait…There’s More!

However, these rendez-vous with the Neurology Department were only the tip of a huge iceberg of grief. Despite your career’s stellar success, tragedy was seemingly just around every corner.

When you were only four years old, your seven year old sister, Asti, died. Overcome by grief, your father succumbed to pneumonia a few months later, leaving your mother to carry on. Then in 1962 when you were still dealing with the aftermath of Theo’s accident, your much loved daughter Olivia died from encephalitis due to complications from measles. Olivia was also seven…the same age as your sister.

Surely, you had to ask yourself, God and the world what all this insanity was all about? Why do such awful things happen to good people? Why are so many rotters out there still walking round alive, when your angel’s been snatched away?  Now, I can’t help wondering if these thoughts were going through your mind as you wrote Charlie and The Chocolate Factory in the aftermath of Theo’s accident and your daughter’s death? One by one, the horrible children in the story disappeared until only Charlie was left. Was this your way of trying to grapple with your all-consuming anguish? Was this your way of saying that it should’ve been the other way around? That all the horrid people of this world should have been taken and your Olivia spared? I wouldn’t blame you for flying away in that great glass elevator either and somehow trying to find the happiness you’d lost.

Having picked up some of your bits and pieces, I can’t help but sense that you were caught up in a macabre, nightmarish déjà vu where the nightmares of your past repeated themselves and yet the characters and scenery had changed. I’m sure that trying to make sense or unravel it all had to be a burning obsession. How do you explain the strange happenings in the universe? What are you supposed to do with the all the random, floating pieces which haunt you in the night? Do you turn them into stories? Develop a sense of humour which something turns the darkness light, and the worse it all gets, the funnier you become? Is that how you wrote your greatest work: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while coming to grips with your son’s accident and then losing your beloved daughter? You somehow ended up righting this cruel world by giving a poor working class boy the golden ticket and he is the one who ultimately gets the chocolate factory. His fortunes turn completely upside down and goodness and order is restored. There is some sense of fairness in this world and the knowledge good will triumph over all the bad, even though there is utter heartbreak all around you. Why was your beloved Theo, an innocent baby simply lying in his pram hit by a random out of control taxi and how could he fracture his skull and lose his sight (albeit temporarily) when you had also fractured your skull and lost your sight when your plane crash during WWII? How could your beloved daughter Olivia who was so vibrant, intelligent and alive suddenly contract measles and then die from encephalitis, a rare complication? It was hard enough for you to lose your daughter but she was only seven and the same age when your older sister, Asti died…a death which seemingly  led to your father’s untimely death from pneumonia only a few months later and left your mother battling to hold the fort. When you lost Olivia, did you also wonder whether you would succumb like your own father? That you wouldn’t survive? After all, you seemed to be following the same script. Yet, it was during this time that you wrote your greatest work Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, a few years later, your wife Pat had a series of strokes following a burst aneurism while pregnant with your daughter Ophelia. While many would’ve packed the towel in by now, you sat by her bed side and spoke with her: “Pat, this is Roald” over and over again. No doubt you remembered what it meant to be all alone in the neuro ward and that incredible, crushing despair and you fought that beast with everything you had devising a gruelling rehabilitation program which might had had her cursing but brought her back.

Yet,while you’re family lie was travelling through hell, your literary career was  travelling along a parallel street enjoying success. In 1961, James and the Giant Peach, your first famous book for children, was published. You had started working on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory shortly after finishing James and the Giant Peach and it as published in September 1963, initially in the USA with the UK following a few years later. Apparently, the idea for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory grew out of your love of chocolate and your experiences as acting as a taster for a well-known chocolate factory while at school.

I don’t think you or I can even begin to unravel or explain all of this but I do hope that by reading about how you suffered so much and truly knew the full meaning of anguish that it will give the living hope. That you could go through all of that, not give up and still laugh and seize the day.

I have found this poem very encouraging:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)

By Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

 

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

 

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.

 

So, after what has been a very extended journey, it’s now time for me to pack up my bag and find my out. At the same time, something, tells me this letter is only the beginning.

Warm regards

Rowena

Roald_Dahls_Grave,_Great_Missenden_(geograph_2373400)

Sources

 

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/7934421/Roald-Dahl-the-plane-crash-that-gave-birth-to-a-writer.html

Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl.

 

N is for Neuroplasticity: Changing Your Life.

Welcome to N for neuroplasticity on the Blogging A-Z April Challenge. My theme for the challenge is: A Few of My Favourite Things and while neuroplasticity might seem left-field, I really want you to follow me on this journey because the power of neuroplasticity has radically changed my life and understanding how it works, can help you as well. You can read an overview of my journey in my About page here: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/about/.

While I can appreciate that neurplasticity might sound intimidating and be a trigger to flick to another blog, it is not as complex or mentally challenging as you might think. Nor is it some wafty, unproven fad. It’s a proven, scientific process, which has been championed by Canadian psychiatrist, Dr Norman Doidge through his two books: The Brain which Changes Itself and The Brain’s way of Healing.

In other words, it’s not a fairy story.

Neuroplasticity is really quite a simple concept when you explain it properly and when you harness its strength, you like me, will experience absolutely miraculous change. Unfortunately, you will still experience those “stubborn mules” which prove stubbornly resistant. However, at least, you know you’ve done your best to try and move them!

From what I’ve learned about neuroplasticity, we shouldn’t just be teaching kids the 3Rs but also how we learn. Some basics on how the brain works such as “use it or lose it” and how “practice perfects”. That our success or failure is based less on innate talent than hard work and that it takes a lot of hours…at least 10,000 to be precise, to even have a chance of making it to the top of our field. That success just doesn’t arrive on a silver platter.

Of course, some people have been blessed with bigger, faster engines but if they leave them in the shed, they’ll soon be overtaken by apparent snail power and left behind.

If you and your kids can get a grasp on how this works, you’ll never look back. You’ll still have ups and downs but you will be more empowered and skilled-up to tackle them more effectively. There’s little doubt you’ll be working harder but I guarantee you that whatever you apply yourself to, will see results. It’s as simple as:

1+1 = 2

It’s not rocket science.

Perhaps, the simplicity of it all is what stops people from having a go. We’d much rather put our faith in a much more complicated, mystical route than sticking to potentially tedious, repetitious practice and hard work…going over and over and over our mistakes until we have overcome them and “got it”.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

Diagram showing brain activation while playing the violin.

As a musician, I’ve experienced this first hand. Instead of playing my favourite sections of a piece over and over again, my teacher gets me reworking the rough bits and playing them over and over again. She doesn’t say: “Play it again, Sam”. Being somewhat of a slavedriver, albeit a very nice one, she says: “I want you to play that section 10-20 times a day to get it right”. This sort of detailed practice is quite foreign to me as I just want to get up there and play, especially to an audience but you can’t do that straight away. It might be a year’s worth of practice on that one piece of music to bring it to the level of perfection where it can be performed. That’s a lot of hard work behind the scenes. However, once I have reached that long-awaited moment of victory, it’s like nothing else. A real eureka moment and I’m running down the street naked like Archemedes carrying my violin. Well, not quite but you get my drift!

What is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity “refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[1]

In The Brain Which Changes Itself, Norman Doidge M.D. a psychiatrist and researcher set out to investigate neuroplasticity. He writes “that the brain can change itself. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature”. http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1259

This brain plasticity isn’t just something for the laboratory or people experiencing chronic medical conditions or disability. It affects us all and is a more “scientific” explanation for what we have always known: “Use it or lose it!!” Indeed, our brain is constantly remoulding and fine-tuning itself.

To get an idea of how brain plasticity works, picture an old fashioned telephone exchange with all those cables plugged in. Our brain is built of these cables. So for example if we keep getting angry, those anger pathways will keep getting bigger and bigger just like exercising a muscle. Moreover, the bigger these pathways become, the angrier we will become unless we take action.

Conversely, each and every time we appease our anger and breathe deep, count to three whatever it takes, those neuropathways shrink and actually disappear. These are actual, physical changes in the structure of our brains. The brain map is different.

I have experienced these changes myself after undergoing brain surgery to treat hydrocephalus. I have experienced many changes but probably the most surprising is that I can actually play the violin and I now play in an ensemble. That takes some pretty complex brain and physical developments, which I never thought possible. I only took the violin up to help my daughter.

Neuroplasticity and Acceptance.

At the start of 2012 after a serious health scare, I set a personal challenge. I applied neuroplasticity to the serenity prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.”

-Reinhold Niebuhr

You see, since forever, people have been telling me to accept things and quoted that prayer. Yet,  the trouble was that I simply didn’t know what I could change and what I had to accept and that’s what I decided to put to the test. I didn’t really set out with any clear cut goals but I was needing to lose some weight, which is a tough call when you’re taking prednisone AKA the “fat drug”.

It was during this time that I heard about brain plasticity and also the 10,000 hour rule and so what I was starting to appreciate was that I wasn’t set in stone. That all these words I used to describe myself, both the good and the bad, weren’t indeed words tattoed on my forehead which couldn’t be changed. They were more like stepping stones or train stops on a journey. I didn’t have to stay there. I could apply a bit of elbow grease and I could move on. Indeed, I was now in the driver’s seat and with the accelerator pushed to the floor, I was flying.

That was until I drove straight into pneumonia followed by a flare up of my auto-immune disease, which really was attacking my lungs this time and threatening my very existence.

Yes, neuroplasticity couldn’t fix everything.

However, my lungs have also responded to the same kind of repetitive practice and hard work which I’d applied to practicing my violin, except in this case I focused on building up my healthy lung cells instead of focusing on the damage and limitations. My lung volumes have since increased from a recorded low of 43% to 62% and are currently stable. In a sense it was a miracle and also the result of medical intervention but it also takes ongoing hard work.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to start walking before that all important tide comes in and puts me out of business.

Living in a tidal zone really reinforces the need to carpe diem seize the day because “the tide waits for no (hu)man.”

Xx Rowena

PS When school goes back next week, I’ll be having to reacquaint myself with my violin. It has been rather neglected of late and I don’t want to lose the progress I’ve made!!

Sources

http://www.normandoidge.com/

[1] · Pascual-Leone A., Amedi A., Fregni F., Merabet L. B. (2005). “The plastic human brain cortex”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 28: 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216.

Brain Plasticity & Saving Two Australians on Indonesia’s Death Row

Frankly my dear, I do give a damn!!

When it comes to fighting for justice, I will personally stand up and be counted, even when the case is rather controversial. After all. it’s easy to have compassion for someone you love. It’s much more challenging when someone has a few prickles…or a past. Yet, sometimes our journey takes us down that road and we are forced to argue the points backwards and forwards inside our heads until we can make sense of it all and hopefully judgement turns to love.

I don’t know if the imminent execution of two convicted Australian drug smugglers in Indonesia has made International news. However, as citizens of the world, this case affects each and every one of us who believe in the sanctity and importance of justice and the capacity for humanity to change and redeem itself.

We are all called to stand up and fight.

The case I am referring to is the imminent execution of two convicted Australian drug smugglers in Indonesia: Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who were part of the notorious Bali Nine. Since their conviction, these men have completely turned their lives around and deserve a second chance. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be punished. Just that they don’t deserve to die.

Portrait of Andrew Chan by Myuran Sukumaran.

 

My justification for clemency lies in the science of brain plasticity or neuroplasticity. If you know anything at all about brain plasticity, you will know and understand that these men have changed the very physical structures of their brains through rehabilitation and are no longer who they were. That they are, indeed, very different men. After all, if you have a different brain, how can you possibly be the same?

Victorian Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry , summed  this up well when he addressed the Melbourne vigil held on 18th February, 2014. Lasry had been involved in the case of Van Nguyen, the Melbourne man who was executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in 2005. Lasry said that he has visited Chan and Sukumaran in jail in Bali several times and was in no doubt the pair had redeemed themselves.

“The reality is that if Indonesia go ahead and execute these two men, they’ll be killing an artist and a church pastor,” he said.

“The drug traffickers have gone. The drug traffickers left in 2005. “4.

About Brain Plasticity

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity “refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behaviour, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.[1] Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how – and in which ways – the brain changes throughout life.[1]

In The Brain Which Changes Itself, Norman Doidge M.D. a psychiatrist and researcher set out to investigate neuroplasticity. “He writes that the brain can change itself. It is a plastic, living organ that can actually change its own structure and function, even into old age. Arguably the most important breakthrough in neuroscience since scientists first sketched out the brain’s basic anatomy, this revolutionary discovery, called neuroplasticity, promises to overthrow the centuries-old notion that the brain is fixed and unchanging. The brain is not, as was thought, like a machine, or “hardwired” like a computer. Neuroplasticity not only gives hope to those with mental limitations, or what was thought to be incurable brain damage, but expands our understanding of the healthy brain and the resilience of human nature”. http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1259

This brain plasticity isn’t just something for the laboratory or people experiencing chronic medical conditions or disability. It affects us all and is a more “scientific” explanation for what we have always known: “Use it or lose it!!”

To get an idea of how brain plasticity works, picture an old fashioned telephone exchange with all those cables plugged in. Our brain is built of these cables. So for example if we keep getting angry, those anger pathways will keep getting bigger and bigger just like exercising a muscle. Moreover, the bigger these pathways become, the angrier we will become unless we take action.

Conversely, each and every time we appease our anger and breathe deep, count to three whatever it takes, those neuropathways shrink and actually disappear. These are actual, physical changes in the structure of our brains. The brain map is different.

I have experienced these changes myself after undergoing brain surgery to treat hydrocephalus. I have experienced many changes but probably the most surprising is that I can actually play the violin and I now play in an ensemble. That takes some pretty complex brain and physical developments, which I never thought possible. I only took the violin up to help my daughter.

My argument is that through rehabilitation, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran have demonstrated that through such brain plasticity, they are no longer the men they were.

Therefore, as an exceptional case and while not dismissing the severity of their crime, these new men deserve a compassionate response…jail not execution!

This quote from US President John F. Kennedy sums it up well:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.”

Background to the Bali Nine

Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were the ring leaders of a group of Australian drug traffickers known as “The Bali Nine”. On 17 April 2005, the Bali Nine were arrested for planning to smuggle 8.3 kg (18 lb) of heroin valued at about A$4 million from Indonesia to Australia. These men were no angels and heroin, as we know, is a hard core drug which destroys lives. Authorities must do whatever it takes to get heroin off the streets. While people do dispute the death penalty, they are not advocating a more relaxed after to stopping the trade of heroin.

Going back to the time of their arrest, I didn’t have any sympathy for the Bali 9. Due to the very publicised case of alleged drug trafficker, Australian Shapelle Corby, the severity of Indonesia’s drug laws had been front page news for some time. I might not agree with the death penalty but Indonesia’s tough anti-drug laws most definitely weren’t a secret.

Australian Shapelle Corby had been arrested in Indonesia on 8 October 2004 when she was found to have 4.2 kg (9.3 lb) of cannabis in a double plastic vacuum-sealed bag in her unlocked bodyboard bag. Corby was convicted on 27 May 2005 and sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Denpasar District Court and imprisoned in Kerobokan Prison. To this day, Shapelle maintains her innocence and there have been numerous theories about how the cannabis got into her body board bag. Her case became a “cause celeb” and during that media frenzy, the severity of Indonesia’s drug laws was made very, very clear.

From where I was sitting in front of the TV, you’d have to be a complete idiot or have a serious death wish to even consider smuggling drugs in or out of Indonesia. I know people talked about making their luggage more secure after Shapelle’s arrest. Indeed, I’d even be checking the paperwork on my prescriptions before heading to Indonesia…especially given the amount of pills I take in a week. They could easily be perceived as trafficking quantities!

Those were the sorts of precautions your average Australian traveler was taking when the Bali 9 were arrested. Nobody wanted to be another Shapelle Corby and we were leaving absolutely nothing to chance. The consequences were just too great.

Given the historical context, the Bali 9 did come across as a bunch of idiots who had earned themselves what’s known as the Darwin Award: http://www.darwinawards.com/ After all, they didn’t need to be Einstein or have some kind of mystical crystal ball to know what they were getting themselves into. They just needed to turn on their TV. Shapelle Corby’s face was everywhere. Remember: Shapelle Corby was arrested on the 8th October 2004 and on the 27 May 2005 she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The Bali Nine was arrested On 17 April 2005, the Bali Nine were arrested right in the middle of Shapelle’s trial. You do have to wonder what they were thinking and if they were even thinking at all and certainly you would never expect these men to amount to anything much at all!!

That was then. This is now.

Self-Portrait by Myuran Sukumaran

Self-Portrait by Myuran Sukumaran

Fast-forwarding nine years, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan are changed men and are inspiring other prisoners and leading exemplary lives. These are not the same men who were convicted back in 2006. Their names might be the same and they are older versions of themselves but in terms of their soul, spirit, character and no doubt even the neurofibres in their brains, they are not who they were. Therefore, executing these men would be a great travesty of justice.

Victorian Supreme Court Justice Lex Lasry has long campaigned against the death penalty and was involved in the case of Van Nguyen, the Melbourne man who was executed for drug trafficking in Singapore in 2005.

 

Julie Bishop, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs  outlined how much the men had changed when she addressed Federal Parliament on 12th February, 2014:

“Both men are deeply, sincerely remorseful for their actions. Both men have made extraordinary efforts to rehabilitate.

Andrew and Myuran are the model of what penal systems the world over long to achieve.

Successive Governors of Kerobokan Prison in Bali – whose prison has given Andrew and Myuran the opportunity to reflect and change – have testified to their remarkable transformation.

A decade on from their crimes, Andrew and Myuran are changed men. They are deeply committed to a new path.

Both men are paying their debt to society. With dedication and unwavering commitment, they are improving and enriching the lives of their fellow prisoners.

Andrew has completed a theology degree in prison. As a pastor, he now provides religious counselling and guidance to fellow inmates. On the day he received the President’s rejection of his clemency application, Andrew’s Australian lawyer Julian McMahon said he was nowhere to be found, for even at this moment of undeniable personal anguish, Andrew had taken time out to comfort a fellow inmate who was seriously ill.

Myuran – referred to by many as the ‘gentle giant’ – has nearly completed a fine arts degree in jail. He has had the opportunity to become an accomplished artist; his raw talent recognised and fostered by his friend and mentor, renowned artist Ben Quilty.

In prison, Andrew and Myuran sought permission from prison authorities and began an array of courses to benefit fellow inmates, and to prepare them for their return to society.

They have led extensive and varied arts, cultural and vocational courses. Some of their courses are aimed directly at drug addicts, equipping them with the skills to beat their addiction, saving their lives and giving them real prospects in the future.

Andrew and Myuran have raised money for fellow inmates’ medical procedures; for victims of Typhoon Haiyan; for Indonesia National Day festivities.

Indeed, such is the profound effect of Andrew and Myuran’s inspiring humility and service, their fellow prisoners have come forward to lend support, even offering to take their place in execution to President Widodo…

Their remarkable rehabilitation, and the circumstances of their arrest, has prompted five successive Australian Prime Ministers to make representations in their name. [2]

What Brain Plasticity Means For Chan & Sukumaran. Why Spare These Men?

If somebody completely turns their life around and becomes an entirely new and different person on the inside, should they still be judged and sentenced to death because of crimes they committed in the past? Although they have the same name and DNA, they are a different person and things become very problematic.

Would justice truly be served and can we as a global community just stand back in good conscience and do nothing to spare these men? Or, do we both as a society and as individuals need to do whatever it takes to prevent such a tragic and unjust loss of life?

The answer is a resounding “yes”!! After all, two wrongs have never made a right!!

Although I have never met these men and I certainly don’t support the use or sale of such drugs, there is such resounding evidence that these men have significantly and are now dramatically improving the lives of those around them as well, rehabilitating and educating other prisoners much more effectively than other methods.

“Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, whose husband was charged and convicted of a similar crime to Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, spoke out in Parliament saying: “criminals can be redeemed – my husband is proof.”

She adds that the laws which underpin the executing these men is the basic “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law that has influenced the Old Testament and earlier legal codes in countries around the world. But that’s 3,700 years ago. We’ve moved on a great deal from an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-12/plibersek-these-men-deserve-restorative-justice-not-execution/6088334.

I also thought it was interesting that at last night’s vigil, emotional statements were read from the pair, which acknowledged their original stupidity,  saying that  the “compassion and kindness from people forgiving our stupidity” has made them feel “truly blessed” 4″

Their Last Words

Andrew Chan: “Thoughts from the Edge

“Thank you Jesus that you give me the strength and courage that I need to stand strong and to trust in you when the waters arise.”

“I thank you Jesus that you never give up on me and that your faithfulness is what helps me striving forward. I thank you for all the family and friends you surround me with in life and how your love pours out from them.”

“The Lord is revealing to me through this scripture is about how he’ll fight the battles for us and that we won’t be defeated if he goes ahead of us… The truth is God is remind us that when all seems helpless and you feel as though the enemies army surrounds you, God is telling us to stand still, take up our battle stance but do not move.[3]

Myuran Sukumaran – Thoughts from the edge

“When you are young you think money is the only way to get happiness … after being here for eight years you realize it is not.”

“After being in prison for eight years I only realized when it comes when it comes to drugs nobody gets rich – there are a few people – most get caught and end up in places like this and that’s the lesson.”

“I want to become a better person and I want to help everybody else become a better person as well. It is like a vehicle for everybody to travel in to better themselves.”

Last Words or a New Beginning…

Time is running out and I don’t know what any of us can do at this late hour. I understand that over 30,000 Australians have written to the Indonesian Attorney General pleading for mercy and many many people have spoken publically. Last night, a vigil was being held in Sydney to pray for the men and their families and this was just one of many. I can sense a collective heartache if these efforts fail and these two young men are put to death.

Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are in my heartfelt prayers.

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus”.

*Please reblog this post and spread the word. It now looks like the lives of these men rest on divine intervention and people power.

As the saying goes: “Never give up”!!!

Love & Blessings,

Rowena

[1] · Pascual-Leone A., Amedi A., Fregni F., Merabet L. B. (2005). “The plastic human brain cortex”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 28: 377–401. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144216.

[2] Parliamentary motion: Chan and Sukumaran, Address to House of Representatives Speech, E&OE, Parliament House, Canberra,12 February 2015.

[3] http://www.news.com.au/national/six-living-former-prime-ministers-make-united-final-plea-for-doomed-bali-nine-duo/story-fncynjr2-1227222259664

4) www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-18/vigils-held-for-bali-nine-pair-facing-execution/6143978

Paintings: http://www.news.com.au/world/asia/bali-nine-member-myuran-sukumaran-paintings-in-melbourne/story-fnh81fz8-1227049488225

I apologise  for any breaches of copyright regarding the images used in this post. I am merely trying to support their cause.