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There is an assumption that recovery – after an illness or traumatic event – means going back to how things used to be.
But after living with lingering concussion symptoms for five and a half years, I can assure you that it’s not that simple. And that everyone experiences recovery differently.
My name is Kanika Gupta, and I work as a multidisciplinary artist. I am a curious, hopeful and constantly evolving person. I’d rather not talk about the event that caused my concussion because the details of what happened are insignificant. What’s more interesting is what I’ve done since then. Today, I continue to experience symptoms that affect every aspect of how I function: For example, I live with acute sensitivity to noise, which hinders my ability to be present in public spaces. I can’t stare at screens for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Some days, I can’t look at them at all.
Over the last few years, I’ve showcased my paintings, ceramics and more at a museum, a hospital and several galleries all over the Greater Toronto Area. I’m looking forward to creating an outdoor sculpture in an Ontario provincial park later this year. When I first started to get my hands dirty with paint and clay, I never set out to be a professional artist or display my projects. The art anchored me in an activity when my symptoms made it difficult for me to do anything else: When I couldn’t read, I would paint. But how my art unexpectedly turned into a full-time career is just one of the surprising ways that recovery doesn’t fit the narrative of returning to the life you had before.
Immediately after my concussion, I gave my brain time to rest by lying in dark rooms and not using technology. I consulted with dozens of specialists and consumed copious amounts of literature on concussions. My experience paralleled what Mary Ann Mackenzie described in this piece for The Globe and Mail: You must learn how to recover at your own pace. Mackenzie, who suffered a concussion herself, found a drill that felt familiar – activity, then rest and repeat. My own process was much more delinear and all-consuming than was anticipated.
I, too, once subscribed to the notion that I would be recovered once I went back to my life as I knew it before. Most research and literature, like this piece by Paul Taylor in The Globe, acknowledges that return-to-work after a concussion can take anywhere from days to weeks. But these expectations fail to understand just how much we all recover differently. It’s not just that recovery works on different timelines, it also takes you to different endpoints. For example, I tried to go back to my role as CEO of a social enterprise just three days after my injury. I was supposed to fly to Washington, D.C., for work, but I realized I was not better and needed more time. As the months went by, I realized, I would not be able to return to my role and left my job. But afterwards, when I bumped into acquaintances or relatives, they would ask if I was back at work. The implication was that I should be going back to the same type of work I used to do.
We must also acknowledge that recovery can vary between genders, cultures and so on. This piece from American health reporter Ann Medaris Miller, for example, highlights how female brains are more easily injured, and this NPR piece explains that women can take longer to recover. Still, media coverage often perpetuates the same narrative – rest, and you’ll eventually return to where you were before.
Steps to understanding different forms of recovery are coming. This mental health organization in Australia does the best job of explaining how recovery can vary: It discusses how recovery traditionally focuses on an individual’s experience and is often a reflection of values in western culture. But it can be more about the concepts (different sense of purpose, family relationships, community participation, etc.), rather than process. For example, instead of expecting recovery to mean complete health, we can look at it as a restoration of balance and finding new purpose.
In my own recovery, I started wearing earplugs and went back to handwriting letters to my friends. But I don’t see these behaviours as things I’ve had to resort to; they’re choices I’ve made about the way I want to live my life. Recovery, I’ve learned, is about the process of figuring out what to hold onto and leave behind. I’ve learned not to apologize for doing things differently.
I didn’t expect any of this. I had never dabbled in art. When I revisited some of the original prints, photographs and ceramics that I initially created to pass the time, I discovered that they explored different ways of defining recovery. Bowls cracked into pieces and put together again expressed variations of what it means to be recovered. And, life began validating me. There was no way, for instance, that I could have planned for my art to be displayed in the hospital where I was first being treated. (ReThink Recovery is currently on display at the Innovations Gallery at University Health Network’s Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.)
I believe I got here because I didn’t carry that expectation. My art is a mirror of how I choose to recover. I used it to communicate when I had no words. With it, I gave meaning to recovery: It is a dynamic, ongoing process. It’s about choosing which pieces to pick up and how to reassemble them to make a whole, which fractures and cracks get highlighted, and, ultimately, it’s about finding beauty and completeness in the imperfections.
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