The art of understanding trauma

3 Mar 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 3 Mar 2017

Shannon Yee suffered acquired brain injury nearly a decade ago, before composing a show that puts the audience through her experience. She tells Scope about recovery and some of the direct benefits of artistic expression.

Art has a mixed reputation.

On the one hand, everyone sees and enjoys the benefits of culture – even if they are often taken for granted.

On the other, it has a reputation as a nebulous and secondary pursuit, something intangible that is undermined by its own lack of firmity.

If that is sometimes fair it is still not always fair and, in fact, art has the potential to make palpable positive changes in all aspects of life.

Last week Scope wrote about Reassembled, Slightly Askew – a show by Shannon Yee, about her experiences of suffering brain injury, which had returned to the MAC.

The process of creating this show – and the final show itself – has made local neuroclinicians rethink some of their processes, allowed the public a glimpse of what such an experience is like, and provided Ms Yee herself with a better understand of her own circumstances.

Nearly ten years ago, she suffered an acquired brain injury – with permanent, life-changing consequences – following an infection.

Shannon began writing about what she was experiencing, but said this was not driven by emotion, and that she was certainly not doing it “as a kind of cathartic puke all over the audience and as a way of promoting my rehabilitation.”

Instead, in terms of her own benefit, it was more of an intellectual process – trying to understand what she was going through.

“Some of the things I found particularly interesting were my hemiparalysis – I was paralysed down the right hand side of my body – and my huge noise sensitivity.

“I was also very intrigued by how my brain had changed. Before I moved to Belfast I was a teacher and was always interested in how we think about how we think.”

Ill effects

In December 2008 Ms Yee was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital after a sinus infection led to spasms, headaches and vomiting. The diagnosis was a rare brain infection. It was detected just in time for would-be-fatal pressure to be relieved in surgery.

Then began the process of recovery.

“In the early days I would leave a room and forget what I had entered another room to do. The apartment was littered with half-completed tasks and piles of things because my short-term memory was shot.

“On one occasion I broke something and I couldn’t figure out the first step to resolve this, couldn’t identify that I needed to get a brush to sweep up. My ability to sequence things was impaired, I couldn’t find the right words to express myself, and I was absolutely exhausted.

“This fatigue was nothing like I had ever experienced before, getting up and having a shower would put me back to bed for a nap.”

Recovery

As she struggled to regain her movement and control of her own mind, Ms Yee says she felt like she had “fallen through some cracks”.

Her convalescence was going relatively well, and she was not referred for further treatment at the Musgrave Park Regional Acquired Brain Injury Unit, having learned how to walk again and seen better-than-average improvement in cognition.

She was still left with an invisible disability and, of course, had support from clinicians –saying that “without my neuropsychologist I wouldn’t have had the toolkit of skills to support myself” – but felt that the reality of what she was facing was not adequately reflected in the support she received. Nevertheless, even this feeling was not straightforward.

“At the same time, I wanted to be surrounded by positive trajectory, by where I was going, not by people more adversely affected than myself.

“Also I felt guilty. I had learned how to walk again and how could I go to a support group with people who had not? For my rehab, I knew I had to be positive and I needed to be surrounded by positive possibility. So I thought, generally, about creating Reassembled.”

Artistic understanding

Ms Yee started writing about her experiences early on in her recovery. It was a way of understanding what she was going through and part of that process was finding the best possible form to express this.

The vision for what this would eventually become emerged following a meeting with Anna Newell – her director, and part of the five-strong creative team that supported her in making Reassembled, along with sonic artist Paul Stapleton, dramaturg Hanna Slättne, choreographer Stevie Prickett and project support Matilde Meireles (Ms Yee is keen to stress the importance of others’ input, also frequently praising the support of her neurosurgeon and neuropsychology).

“Initially I thought it might work as a radio play, then maybe something using movement or dance. I met with Anna in early 2010, we had a coffee, and talked about our options. Then I got an email from her at 3am saying “what about this?’.”

Development

Key to the project is binaural microphone technology, which uses two microphones when recording to create three-dimensional soundscapes. The expertise of Paul Stapleton in this area was necessary, as was a try-it-and-see approach to writing.

Because they did not know how well any of their ideas would work using the binaural techniques, there was a “really rich process of drafting revisions and messing around, back and forth.”

Having received some modest grants, it wasn’t until the receipt of a Small Arts Award from the Wellcome Trust in 2013 that the project really gathered speed – and Ms Yee was provided with confidence to finish what she had begun.

Reassembled was not completed until 2015 and the fact that it took five years from conception was to its benefit – “giving us that time to reflect and be very meticulous.”

Benefits

Again, where Ms Yee sees personal benefits in this project, they are less about emotional reconciliation and more about rational understanding, as well as helping her development as an artist.

Moreover, she said the very fact that she was thinking so hard about this, and applying herself, reaped its own rewards in terms of neural recovery.

“The team saw this themselves, the said to me in 2014 or 15 that they noticed an improvement in my ability or capability to engage or concentrate or stay focused.”

But, beyond all this, she says Reassembled has made neurological staff who have experienced the show think more about their practices – and has the potential to drive further change.

“Some clinicians have experienced it, whether in a short ten-minute draft at conferences, or whether it was the whole thing; I did training with the SE Trust a couple of years ago. They all say that they have been moved, it made them reflect on their procedures.

“All nurses at the conference said they would change their process, and for me that kind of impact is tremendous.

“To know that what I have experienced and therefore what I have created can hopefully have a positive influence on service design and on how other people have experienced brain trauma are experiencing care they received and also family members.

“My favourite quote from one of the neurosurgeons was “I thought it would be something arty farty and I had no idea it would move me so profoundly and viscerally.” Reassembled is a great example of how arts can enhance medical practice, especially when talking about patient-centred reforms.”

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