“We connect with each other through our wounds.”
Rachel Naomi Remen
Right after his heart attack, Dr. Stephen Parker began an impressive project as part of his healing journey. The result is a compelling series of images that the Alaska clinical psychologist created over a 40-day period of recuperation. The 40 drawings came first, and then his accompanying commentary, which then became a blog, and the blog then became a touring art exhibit called “Healing after a Heart Attack: Images of the Psyche”.
A year later, New York journalist Natalie Walsh interviewed Dr. Steve’s sister Anne Diggory about her initial reaction when finally alerted to the depth of her brother’s illness:
“She told those who had gathered at the exhibit’s opening reception that when she was first notified that Steve was having heart trouble, she felt removed from the experience:
“He was far away. I didn’t really understand what he was going through. Then I read the blog and I really understood, and I realized that I wasn’t paying attention.”
Dr. Steve explains:
“A heart attack is a deeply wounding event.
“I have been struggling with this never-ending wound for more than a year, and still it haunts me by the hour.
“A heart attack is also a deeply isolating event. Others act as if their lives will go on forever, but can I participate in this charade, knowing deeply and irrevocably that any moment could be my last one?”
Both his colourful images and his words really struck home for me. They seemed to exquisitely capture what I had experienced myself following my own heart attack in 2008. Dr. Steve, who still at times copes with anxiety and depression, believes:
“There isn’t a lot of recognition within the medical community of how important the psyche is.”
But he also claims that his experience has changed the focus of his work as a psychologist. His clinical practice now specializes in working with chronically ill people.
“It has transformed my life,” he said, adding that his attention is now focused on deeper issues of meaning and purpose and values.
I particularly loved Dr. Steve’s heart drawing from Day 19 and his commentary below. He called this entry: “Emotions of the Wounded Heart”.
March 4, 2007:
“I experienced so many swirling emotions after surviving this heart attack:
- relief at survival
- disbelief and anger that it happened
- grief for everything that was and will be lost
- gratitude to those who helped
- extreme vulnerability in a previously safe world
- fear of what the future might bring
“I had taken my vitality for granted, and assumed that I would have many long and healthy years of life ahead of me. Now, I had no solid ground to stand on. I was profoundly weak from the injury. I never knew whether or not I would wake up the next morning. I doubted that I would ever be able to return to any kind of normal life again.
“It is as if I had crossed the River Styx to the Underworld, and was allowed to return to the land of the living, temporarily, for an unspecified period of time.
“While the journey has certainly been Hellish, at the same time it has given me something important and valuable: I now have an increased compassion for the wounded, a compassion for all those who must cross the River Styx.
“While the heart attack has broken my heart, it has also opened my heart.”
© 2007 Dr. Stephen Parker
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