50 Stitches

After a serious head injury, artist Caroline Douglas rebuilds her life in clay.

Caroline Douglas1 January 2004

After a serious head injury, artist Caroline Douglas rebuilds her life in clay.

Artist Statement. On June 9, 2000, I sustained a serious head injury while decorating for my daughter Catherine’s eighth-grade graduation at Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder, Colorado. As I was descending a ladder, the cage of a nearby cherry-picker collapsed on itself and crushed my head, smashing my face into a steel bar. I felt surrounded by whiteness, peace and calm, and trusted that the outcome of this event would be the right thing. I could not have imagined the time ahead of me: the incredible exhaustion, blackouts, hours and hours spent staring out the window, the cognitive and spatial problems and the short attention span. Frustration at not being able to follow a conversation and the fainting wore me out.

The work in these pages centers around my recovery from this injury. I tried many different healing methods, many of which were effective to a point. However, being able to express my experience through my art has been my main healing tool. The tactile nature of clay, the quiet time needed to work, the visionary journeys to realms to retrieve images, all contributed to my rehabilitation. As my skills returned and stamina increased, I would become lost in an altered space, unaware of time or obligations. That in itself was healing for my brain.

I remember. I remember how the impact felt like melting into clouds of cotton. I remember the flash of awareness, the whiteness and peace that flooded me. I remember leaning into it. I remember trying to hide my face’it must have looked hideous. I remember seeing my son watching me as he backed off, still carrying his lunchbox. I remember crying, then trying not to cry because I was choking on all the blood and tears. I remember feeling so sad because I messed up Catherine’s graduation. I remember eating and halfway through, my head and eyelids would not stay up. I remember laughing with Bill. I remember talking with dead friends and relatives. I remember convulsing during an MRI. I remember how sickening it was to lean over. I remember the first time I worked with clay and how good that felt.

The Hospital. Fifty stitches. Mostly on the inside of my nose. Putting it back together so there were breathing holes. While picking out broken bone chips with a pair of tweezers, the doctor found a nice piece of epidermis. “This will do nicely,” he said. Ten shots in the face to numb the sewing pain. Then the doctor left for too long: when the stitching began, I thought I was going to die or wished I had died. So another round of shots. Oh well, it won’t really effect the inside,” he said. I remember looking in the hospital mirror, crying and crying – for my once too big nose, which now looked like elephant man’and for Bill who had to look at me.

I remember. I remember that talking on the phone was so hard that after one minute I wanted to say, “Bye.” I remember feeling like I really ought to be embarrassed now about something. I remembering having to go to sleep right after I ate anything. I remember that I used to be funny. I remember being patient, barely. I remember seeing two of everything while driving. I remember being so tired and depressed that all I could do was sit at my back window and watch the deer eat my garden. I remember I used to have so much energy I didn’t know what to do with it. I remember wondering if people knew that I was struggling to complete a thought. I remember jumping at every little noise. I remember all the time spent with my children.

Sandy. Two fawns were born before my fall. I see them out my big back window. We named them Sandy and Spot. Then Sandy had his own big adventure: stuck between two wire fences, struggling until he came free – but not without a scar down the front of his long noise, curving at just the right spots, just like mine. I see myself in this jumpy newborn. We follow each other’s comings and goings all summer, all winter. He and Spot getting bigger. Still restless and nervous in his skin. Same for me.

A year later, Sandy grows his first horns all furry and fat. One day, one horn has snapped and is swollen, bleeding, hanging down one side of his face. Tense and agitated, Sandy runs around in a frenzy, even butting Spot away. She is persistent though, as is his mother who, pregnant again, still tries to lick him as she has for months.

Red Toe Nails. I have come to love. Must be all the time I have on my hands. All I do is sit in the spa and stare out the window. Catherine and Willy caught on and turned on the bird sounds and the humidifier. Brought plants in. Painted my toe nails. Thank you, Catherine. Gave me back rubs. Thank you, Willy. Loved me anyway.

I remember. I remember going outside after dinner to watch the stars. We spread a sheet on the grass and huddled in the chilly twilight. Catherine said, “Let’s make a wish on a falling star.” Within a minute we saw a slow red shooting star cross the summer night sky.

Art. You brought me back to the land of the living. You stood by me while I hung out in the world of the dead. You gave my brain a challenge to get the eyes straight on my sculptures. You cheered me on and showed me where to turn. You gave me hope in the midst of depression. You made me stop thinking, which gave me a headache anyway. We wrestled with values, insights, boundaries and space. You always won. I bow to you. I am devoted to you.

Caroline Douglas

Caroline Douglas has been working with clay for thirty years. She teaches classes and workshops in creative expression in Boulder, Colorado.