Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Lesson from Hildegard of Bingham

Did you know that Hildegard had sensory "visions" from the time she was a small child? She describes them as "internal" sensory experiences. This sounds like synesthesia to me.
Then she felt the "call" - to write down her sensory experiences. But she didn't...out of humility, fear, and playing small. It was after being "laid flat" with a terrible illness at the age of 42 that she finally started writing. And as she wrote, she healed.
Oh my, so much to be learned from this Mystic. I shall keep writing, keep painting, and keep using my voice no matter how silly it seems to me...and no matter how much I tell myself to shut up, be quiet, stop saying so shall keep going. 

Original Art by Heather Thompson, Blue Phoenix Art

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Letter to Friends and Family as I Search for Another Diagnosis

A week ago I was in the hospital with an elevated lactate number (indicative of tissue death), undergoing significant testing to rule out life-threatening diagnoses. Over the last month, local medical experts have been unable to figure out the cause of sudden acute flank pain that has leveled me since the first week in August. So, tomorrow, I am leaving for the Mayo Clinic in search of a diagnosis. I wrote the following post to my supporters on CaringBridge – friends, family and loved ones. Because it puts words to the experience of going from the unknown to known, I wanted to share with all of you as well.....

Dear Friends and Family,

Today was rough. The pain kept breaking through, and I didn’t get much relief at all. Tomorrow I leave for the Mayo Clinic. I pray for a diagnosis.

I need to start by clearing one thing up – Today I was reminded by a brave friend that I haven’t yet told all of you that we are no longer concerned about a life-threatening illness. Oh my! I thought I had said that already! I must say that I am grateful for my friend’s willingness to ask me the life/death question, as authenticity should be at the core of all friendships!

OK, now that we have that out of the way….

Here is the current situation – we need a diagnosis because this pain is terrible – and this affects quality of life. This has been going on since the beginning of August. That said, you should know that when my lactate number went down in the hospital, we were able to take a collective deep breath.

Now we are looking at things that aren’t fun, but they also aren’t imminently bad (as Egon would have said in GhostBusters). This is just like what I have lived with all along – not fun diagnoses, but chronic conditions that I eventually learn to manage.

I know how to walk this path. I have done it before many times, and I can do it again. In fact, I have been doing it for so long that I am pretty unshakable when it comes to parenting in the midst of physical challenges. My daughter is always my priority. We have systems and backup systems to make sure that we are squared away in the midst of difficulty.

All of that said, some of you have brought to my attention that I am not as good at asking for help….but I am improving. In fact, this site was created by loving friends to support me in learning to ask for help during the rough patches that accompany chronic illness. It’s hard to feel like a burden, or like I am asking for too much, or the ever present fear that friends/loved ones will walk away… but I am slowly letting all of this go. Simply by being present – by offering to witness this journey with love and kindness – you are teaching me. Your loving comments help me heal wounds of the past. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I believe we are meant to live in community – I believe that people care – and for that I am so grateful. Thank you for making me a better minister by teaching me how to be the recipient of the love and kindness I would so willingly give to others. I am learning that I am worthy. What a gift!

All my love,

Living My Dream Life Even with Chronic Illness

Rising Courage
Original Art by Heather Thompson, Blue Phoenix Art
Published in The Mighty Sept 2017

There was a time that I would have not known what to say to a person living with chronic illness. I was a high-powered business strategist, living my life on airplanes, traversing jetways in 4 inch stilettos and giving keynote presentations across the country. I had no idea what it would be like to live a life with physical limitations. Then it happened to me. My life changed in a single moment when the tailgate of my SUV fell on my head in between business trips. Although the injury was classified as “mild” (because I didn’t pass out), it changed my life instantly.

I am no longer the high powered business woman. Most people today don’t even know me as I was before the TBI, they only know who I am today – a woman living with dysautonomia, chronic migraines, adrenal insufficiency, post concussive syndrome, hypopituitaryism and more…Interestingly though, I don’t think that I have changed; no, I feel that I am the same woman, just no longer wearing a mask and living with some new challenges.

In my former life, I was like most people – it felt awkward to be in the company of a person living with chronic illness. I mean, what do you say?! That’s why I try to have empathy toward those that fumble over their words, as I have been in their shoes. But I will be honest, there are times when I have a strong reaction – and that is especially true when it comes to pity.

I recall speaking with a woman authority figure a few years ago about my disability accommodations. Although I am not required to disclose the details of my disability, it can be helpful to give context given the way that I process complex information. As an example - I have synesthesia as a direct result of a traumatic brain injury six years ago, and I take notes in color. To the average person it might look like I was disengaged and doodling, when in reality I am using color to capture complex lines of paradoxical thinking via my right hemisphere. I am an “acquired savant.” That means that I suddenly developed artistic talent in the wake of a life changing traumatic brain injury. I could not paint before the accident; after the TBI I was literally an insatiable artist. This is the “new normal” for me.

As I conveyed my story to the very professional looking woman, just as I have done many times before, she sternly looked at me and said, “Wow, there must be so much grief.” My first reaction was surprise, followed by anger. It took me a while to understand why her statement evoked such a big response inside of me. Upon reflection with my counselor (something I recommend for anyone adjusting to life with a disability), I realized that I didn’t like having someone project THEIR feelings onto me. This is especially true given that grief isn’t the emotion that I associate with my healing journey. For me, my path is one filled with gratitude and grace, even when it has been messy and difficult.

Truthfully, I am happier than I have ever been in my entire life, even with the limitations imposed by living with disability. There is a strange kind of balance in my life today. On the one hand, I am living the life of my dreams – I live in the country, surrounded by old growth cedars, with a menagerie of animals (including goats) and my lovely 9 year old daughter. At the same time, I live with my fair share of struggle – and even as I write this I am coping with physical pain of an unknown origin. In fact, I am on my way to the Mayo Clinic this week to attempt to get a diagnosis.

See, I love my life. Even with the flaws, and even as I take every courageous step toward greater healing, I embrace this moment as absolutely perfect exactly as it is. I no longer hold the belief that “I will be happy when…”….No, I choose to be happy NOW.

As I look back on the conversation I mentioned earlier, I have a different awareness. People have assumptions about chronic illness. I have observed that they attempt to empathize from their own perspective, without any ability to grasp what life is like for those of us that have a physical disability. They try to imagine what it would be like – and then they experience the shock, horror, and/or fear that comes with the recognition that life could change in an instant. This is at the root of pity – it isn’t about me or my condition; rather, it is a person struggling to imagine what it would feel like to live in my shoes.

Isn’t it remarkable, then, to realize that my life with chronic illness – most people’s worst nightmare – is filled with a depth of love and gratitude that I can’t even begin to put into words? And so I paint it. I use the gift of synesthesia to express that which cannot be said in human language. I take notes in color. I embrace the ways that I am different, because those are the gifts….and I try to be patient with my body because this is the vessel that carries me through life.

In my opinion, the most challenging aspect of living with a chronic illness is coping with the opinions of others. That is why I have placed authenticity at the core of my journey. The more that I become willing to be authentically be who I am, regardless of what other people think of me, the more I cultivate my freedom and ultimately my happiness.

I am not going to ask people to stop pitying me. Instead, I am going to dare to life the life that I have been given with my courageous vulnerability acting as a cornerstone of strength. Perhaps being open about this imperfectly wonderful life might show even one person that joy and pain can live side-by-side, and when it happens to them – because some kind of life-threatening condition will happen to all of us – it will be okay. Just as stated by one of my favorite authors Anthony De Mello, “Though everything is a mess, all is well.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Healing - Swapping Bootstraps for a Paintbrush

Note - This post was published in The Mighty - click on the link below:

I am notorious for pulling myself up by my bootstraps. In fact, I have bootstraps that could rival the best of them!

By definition, bootstrapping literally means “achieving what seems absurdly impossible.” Yep, that is a very good description of how I lived my life prior to 2011, when I was rocked by a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

For me, bootstrapping usually began with the “decision” that I was “all better.”  Truth be told, I was never actually “all better.” Quite the contrary. I simply chose to ignore the symptoms and plough ahead. There’s nothing quite like being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Add to it the cruelty of medical professionals that place the blame on the patient (“it’s all in your head”) when they are unable to find a diagnosis due to the limits of their own medical knowledge. My response in my younger years was to bootstrap my way out of it. Little did I know that I was quite literally dragging my body around through a toxic combination of force of will and disassociation. This worked for a while, up until the chickens came home to roost, so to speak.

In my former life, I was an award-winning entrepreneur and business strategist in home health and hospice. Chronic illness was the subject of many of my keynote presentations – which, I find
this ironic given my life today. It was six years ago that I suffered a life changing traumatic brain injury. There is nothing like a TBI to force me – a tough bootstrapping warrior woman – into total body awareness.
What It Feels Like to Get a Migraine
In an instant, my career was over. My marriage ended a year later. My weight went up to 200 pounds due to hypothalamic injury. I could no longer support my family financially. My entire identity was shattered. I could barely get out of bed because my vestibular system had been affected. Everything that I would do caused my brain to crash… everything except art.

I was not an artist before the accident. I couldn’t even paint a stick figure. In fact, I loved to look at abstract art in particular because I was amazed at the artists’ innate creative talent, something that I thought I didn’t have. Shortly after the accident, I discovered that I could paint. It started with pastels and then exploded overnight into huge canvases. It took some time to eventually discover that I had what is called “acquired savantism.” I am now among the 50 plus officially tracked “acquired savants” in the world, as identified by the expert Dr. Darold Treffert.

I can’t describe what it felt like to be held in suspense while my brain healed. Frustration is an brain injury. So, I bravely faced the judgement of others, and I learned that I am capable of standing alone.
understatement. Thankfully I had the gift of art to keep me moving forward. Doctors didn’t know how long it would take for me to recover. My own husband grew impatient. In the weeks, months, years that followed, I repeatedly tried to grab my bootstraps and force myself into healing… but that strategy no longer worked.  One cannot rush the process of healing from a

I continued to paint, and I allowed the language of color to calm my nervous system and provide insight into my healing process. Ultimately, I set my bootstraps aside and continued to gently find the right people to facilitate proper diagnosis and treatment. To this day, I am still learning about the things that were injured on that fateful day. I now life with chronic migraines, dysautonomiaadrenal insufficiency, and pituitary dysfunction… and I am certain there are others that remain undiagnosed.

That brings me to the current episode. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, I crashed again a month ago. It started with massive pain (think machete or chainsaw) in my flanks that hasn’t subsided since. Nothing makes it better or worse. It is a level over 10 on the pain scale, and the diagnosis is a mystery.

Having undergone significant testing with few answers, I can feel myself wanting to reach for my bootstraps again – it’s so tempting! Yet, I know that they are not going to help. In fact, they have never helped. If anything, bootstrapping perpetuates a negative cycle of chronic illness by creating a false sense of recovery only to be followed by another crash. Having made a conscious decision to keep my bootstraps off to the side where they belong, I must now constantly remind myself to walk gently – to go slowly, to be loving toward this body that is in pain. Furthermore, I must remember that it is not my job to make it easier for my physicians. If they are unable to find a diagnosis, and that causes them frustration, then I need to lovingly move on to someone that is better equipped to evaluate my case.

What does it look like to walk through this new healing journey without dragging my body along and pretending to be healthy? I honestly don’t know. Right now, I am simply keeping myself honest by choosing to put those old bootstraps away. Now I am focusing on the things that I can do – which right now is art.  Once again, amid my limitations, I am able to paint. The gift of art is significant. It is a huge source of gratitude. I painted my way to health before, I can do it again. Swapping out bootstraps for paintbrush, I shall begin an alternative path to wellness. Art heals. Pass it on.

All art included in this post are original pieces by Heather Thompson, Blue Phoenix Art.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Song for Heather..."Just Be the Vessel"

Original Music by Jenny Van West

It has been an incredibly difficult week with pain and lots of unknown, with a hospitalization and a myriad of medical tests. In the past, I have struggled with abandonment in times of vulnerability. I will be completely honest and say that my greatest fears were realized a few years ago when I lost many of my primary relationships in the wake of a life changing traumatic brain injury.  Since then, I have lived with a variety of chronic conditions, some of which have taken years to diagnose and others remain undiagnosed to this day.

Although I could wallow in the pain of the past, I choose to view my journey differently.  It was in my darkest moments after the TBI, when I felt most alone, that God reached out and grabbed me with a grace so powerful that it sits in the land beyond words.  I became an artist overnight (the gift of acquired savantism and synesthesia). I possessed the extraordinary courage necessary to stay true to myself and advocate for my daughter while suffering with indescribable pain and difficulty. Words cannot begin to shed light on the bedrock of strength that was given to me when I was quite literally skinned of the life I had previously I began to walk toward a new life focused on God.

Over the last week, I have felt as if I have been moving through the fractal experience of the TBI in 2011. Like a spiral, it has been as if I am moving through similar circumstances as a means of healing so that I may finally move forward free of the scar tissue of the past.  I never would have done this willingly, and yet I am willingly surrendered to the path that God has sent before me.

Gratitude. All that I feel is an overwhelming and abundant sense of gratitude. I have never felt more loved in my life. Being surrounded by people that genuinely care for me over this last month has been among the most healing experiences of my life. While I wouldn't wish excruciating pain upon anyone, I can say that it is a God of Mercy and LOVE that transforms suffering into a thing of beauty.

This brings me to the reason I am sharing this video with you today. Jenny came into my life when I was just 18. It was with Jenny that I began my own independent journey toward finding God. She was at my baptism at 21.  She sang at my wedding (I am now divorced). And here we are, more than 20 years later, with her singing this song to me on a night that I needed to be reminded...."Just be an empty bowl and let life fill me up."  This is the essence of the Kenotic God of Mystery........and it is where my restless frustration can finally find peace..... and I can begin to heal.

Thank you Jenny for LOVING me. Thank you to everyone who has poured out LOVE when I needed it most over this last couple of weeks. You are healing things in me that have never seen the light of day, and for that I am deeply grateful.


Maintaining Humility when Given a Position of Power

I feel deeply blessed. 

Yesterday I received phone calls from two of my mentors in Seminary...both checking in on me in ways that felt more pastoral than professorial.

Earlier this week, I was visited by my Badass Nun Spiritual Director (BNSD) while in the hospital...also a professor from Seminary - she gave me the Prayer of Jesus in the Garden. 

Amidst these visits, I learned that the faculty was holding me in prayer. 

Being the recipient of such love and caring from the institution that is forming me for ministry left me with an important new awareness this morning ... and I wanted to share....

When possessing authority or power over others as a teacher, professor, pastor, mentor, adviser, etc....never underestimate the power of that position. Maintain awareness of how you are viewed through the eyes of others and work to level the disparity rather than reinforce it. This requires humility and a bedrock of authentic confidence rather than arrogance masking insecurity.

Furthermore, when others look up to you, never underestimate how much a simple phone call, card, or in person visit can quite literally change a person's life by cultivating a sense of value and LOVE in a time of need. I have been on both sides of this...and it's an essential lesson especially in a time when text and email can create a false sense of human interaction.

Maintaining our humanity amidst power structures that aim to dehumanize and elevate some over others...totally badass.

May We All Become Prophets

My prayer today is that we stop thinking of prophets as rarities, and instead begin to consider the idea that we all can become prophetic.

From Fr. Richard Rohr this morning....on what it means to be a prophet:

"First, a prophet is someone who listens attentively to the word of God, a contemplative, a mystic who hears God and takes God at God’s word, and then goes into the world to tell the world God’s message. So a prophet speaks God’s message fearlessly, publicly, without compromise, despite the times, whether fair or foul.

Second, morning, noon, and night, the prophet is centered on God. The prophet does not do his or her own will or speak his or her own message. The prophet does God’s will and speaks God’s message...In the process, the prophet tells us who God is and what God wants, and thus who we are and how we can become fully human.
Third, a prophet interprets the signs of the times. The prophet is concerned with the world, here and now, in the daily events of the whole human race, not just our little backyard or some ineffable hereafter. The prophet sees the big picture—war, starvation, poverty, corporate greed, nationalism, systemic violence, nuclear weapons, and environmental destruction. The prophet interprets these current realities through God’s eyes, not through the eyes of analysts or pundits or Pentagon press spokespeople. The prophet tells us God’s take on what’s happening.
Fourth, a prophet takes sides [the “bias toward the bottom” or the “preferential option for the poor”]. A prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized. . . . A prophet becomes a voice for the voiceless. Indeed, a prophet is the voice of a voiceless God.
Fifth, all the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are concerned with one main question: justice and peace. They call people to act justly and create a new world of social and economic justice, which will be the basis for a new world of peace. Justice and peace, they learned, are at the heart of God; God wants justice and peace here on earth now. And the prophet won’t shy away from telling us that if we want a spiritual life, we must work for justice and peace.
Sixth, prophets simultaneously announce and denounce. They announce God’s reign of justice and peace and publicly denounce the world’s regimes of injustice and war. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., they hold high the alternatives of nonviolence and disarmament and lay low the obsolete ways of violence and weapons."


A Bedrock of Hope and Peace

Yesterday my bad ass nun spiritual director came to visit to me in the hospital, and she gave me the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane... I said WHY ME while laughing of course. Her response was, "Why not you??"

"My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me semicolon yet not what I want but what you want."

"My father, if this cannot pass until I drink it, your will be done."

And it was then that Jesus was taken into the hands of those that would ultimately arrest torture and crucify him.

Powerful modeling of what it means to have one's will fully intact with a natural hope for peace and ease.... yet total simultaneous surrender to the will of God even if it means enduring a seemingly horrible outcome.....and yet it is that very outcome (crucifixion and resurrection) that saves Humanity.

I suppose this is why Kierkegaard said that the gospel is not a happy and easy thing to preach on Sundays. It should offend and scare us... and yet show us a loving path that brings an unshakable bedrock of hope and peace.

This is what I'm mindful of today.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Can Anyone Paint?

"All you do is splatter paint on a canvas. Anyone can do that. You should call your art 'the emperor has no clothes'..."  

That's what someone said when he recently looked at this painting. My response was simple...

Heather Thompson, Blue Phoenix Art

It's true. Anyone CAN splatter paint on a canvas. I suppose the question lies in the INTENT behind the splattering. In my case, there are no accidents in any painting - every splatter holds hidden meaning and conveys an aspect of my deeply personal transformative journey. I communicate via a complex language of color. 

I am among those who believe that anyone can express themselves through the innate creative talents that we all hold within us. I know this because an "island of genius" (referencing book by Darold Treffert) opened up in me in the wake of a traumatic brain injury 6 years ago. This is what it means to be an acquired savant.

That being said, what comes out of our creative center- the island of genius in all of us- is far from a haphazard mess of paint on a canvas, it holds meaning, and that is precisely what makes it ART.

Why I'm Daring to Love My Chronically Ill Body

Published in The Mighty

My body is what it is at the moment. Finding acceptance, even love, for this swollen and unrecognizable body is downright bold in a culture that fears extra weight – perhaps more than we fear illness.

I already have several conditions that challenge my body, including adrenal insufficiency, dysautonomia, migraine, and hypopituitarism… with an anorexic history. And now I’m dealing with something undiagnosed so I’m on steroids for acute pain, which means extra swelling. So be it!

I’ve decided to love and embrace my body. Over the last week, I bought new clothes that fit. When I wear them, I feel cute! But more importantly, I feel enthusiastic about getting dressed because the outfits are comfortable and just my size.

When it feels difficult to love my cushingoid cheeks, swollen neck and protruding stomach… I’m daring to love all of me. Even when I feel judged and misunderstood, I’m daring to give myself the love I used to crave from others. And when I feel unlovable, or afraid that people will walk away, I’m choosing to turn away from isolation and allow the love of friends and family into my vulnerable heart.

Through love and vulnerability I have found a bedrock of strength. And truthfully, I feel deeply loved – maybe even the most loved I’ve ever felt in my life.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

New Art! "Cataclysm"

Part of the Series: "She Begins"
Acrylic on Canvas
24 x 48

Blue Diamonds for a Blue Phoenix

Many of you know that I have wanted a blue phoenix tattoo, a very large one, for quite some time. Blue phoenix is the name of my art studio, so it holds special meaning for me on many different levels. The blue signifies calm, compassion, tranquility, and the Yin of water. The Phoenix represents Yang, fire, transformation, the chinese feminine, resurrection, and Ascension.

My immune system is not in a place to tolerate the addition of a tattoo at this point in my life. So for my 41st birthday I bought this banded ring of blue diamonds. It's not meant to be fancy... afterall I got it on clearance at Kohl's... but it does carry significance for me. This ring signifies a time in my life where I am embracing yin and yang as represented by the Blue Phoenix. It is a symbolic band that captures the love that I have cultivated for my self and my body on this journey toward wholeness.

Friday, September 1, 2017

NEW ART! Series - "She Begins"

New art as a part of the series "She Begins"...Here are a few of the pieces that I have created in the last few weeks. More to come!

"Flowing Mountain 1" 12 x 12

"Flowing Mountain 2" 12 x 12

"Green Fire" 30 x 30

"She Walks" 24 x 48

"THREE" 24 x 36

"Eagle with Wings Open"
Two Pieces
12 x 12 each

"Bleeding Edge" 24 x 48

"Cultivating Zhi" 24 x 48

"Dynamic Chaos" 20 x 20

"Brain" 12 x 12

"Blood" 12 x 12

"Lung" 12 x 12