interview by Rosalie Murphy
Sharetta Howze is a survivor.
The 33-year-old experienced a traumatic brain injury a decade ago. After years of physical and occupational therapy, she calls the injury “a beautiful complexity, because it helped me become who I am now” — an artist and the facilitator of Cr3ative Expressions, a support group for TBI survivors and their caregivers. At Cr3ative Expressions, survivors have developed a deeply supportive community, while learning how to use art to express what they’re feeling and experiencing.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
RM: Can you tell me about your TBI?
SH: I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2007 [at age 21]. I was doing a lot, putting a lot of stress on my body — I was working as a senior account manager at Bank of America; going to school at UA for dance, communications and nursing; I taught dance for Akron Public Schools; and then there was a beautiful [praise dance] ministry that I was doing called Chosen Ministry. So it was too much stress on my body and I didn’t know it. Eventually, pain came. I continued to work but [began taking medical leave].
On April 7, 2009, I said I wasn’t gonna go to work because I was hurting. But then I turned around and — because I am who I am, I like to press — I decided to still go. Long story short, I rushed, dropped a can of green beans, lifted up, smacked the sharp part of the cabinet [with my head], and then went outside, didn’t know my balance was off, slid, smacked [my head].
From there I went to the hospital. They said, ‘oh, you have a minor head injury, you can go back to work the next day.’ I drove all the way to Beachwood and my manager looked at me — my eyes were red, my face was swollen — and he was like, ‘why are you here? You need to go on leave.’
I had to experience occupational therapy, speech therapy, vision [therapy], physical [therapy], every therapy you can think of. Of course that changed everything because I couldn’t work, I couldn’t really do anything, and the disability happened from there. I’d lost my words. I didn’t know who I was. I felt like I wasn’t good enough; nobody would love me. I withdrew from all my friends. I was really depressed.
I am a believer, and so the closer that I got to God, when I was like, ‘What is wrong with me?’, the more He started saying, ‘Hey, you are a hidden treasure. Life has beat you down, but you still have a purpose.’ From there, everything started clicking.
RM: What role did art play in your recovery?
SH: It was two things simultaneously. I was in and out of the hospital probably every other week. I had a relationship that was just bad. He wasn’t supportive, it was crazy, and I was like, who else is going to love me in this situation where I’m sick like this? I started journaling, which I hadn’t done in years, and all of a sudden, as i was journaling and journaling, I started writing little lines… and it became a poem. I told a friend, ‘oh my gosh, I wrote a poem for the first time in years,’ and she was having this event, and she was like, ‘you need to say this poem at this event.’ Me being a dancer, it all came back — what if we had somebody dance to my words? So this girl who used to be in my dance ministry, she danced to my poetry.
After that, I had vertigo and I kept falling. I was told, okay, you need to get some [occupational therapy] on your hand. […] We started doing something with these marbles and these rocks. I’ve always wanted to do jewelry and start an artistic business. My aunt took me to the store and we got some jewels that were the same size as the rocks. I asked, ‘can I use these as my therapy so I can make something at the same time?’
It started with the jewelry. As I was in therapy, I realized, ‘I really want to paint.” Here I am at Cr3ative Expressions, I’m laying out paint for everybody else, but they don’t know that I can’t do it. I felt really bad. I went to therapy and I asked, ‘Is it possible for me to write again?’ I’d had to use recorders for everything and I was kind of tired of it. So they gave me these little buildup things [for brushes and pens]. I put brushes in there and one day I just played music and just started painting.
RM: Tell me about Cr3ative Expressions.
SH: Cr3ative Expressions [is] the brain injury rehab group that I run at Summa Rehab Hospital. It’s just letting them know, you’re not alone, number one; you’re important; and art heals.
The whole focus of Hidd3n Treasures is to form a healthy mind, body and spirit. Cr3ative Expressions is [a program of Hidd3n Treasures, and it is] like my baby on a platter. It is just a way for us to come together to help one another, to be a support for one another, and to create art. A lot of times we’ll bring different speakers in, because we want to hit every aspect: the mind, the body and the spirit. We’ll bring in, say, a speech therapist. We struggle with memory. So why not have them talk about memory, talk about the logistics, what can we do to help each other, talk about our struggles? Then there’s always an art form that will tie into it. It’s just a way to show survivors that they can use art. When you are frustrated and you can’t get your words out and you don’t know what else to do, maybe paint or listen to music to calm you down, and just really focus on art as healing.
And then we’re like a family. We go out to eat, we have bonfires, we go to the zoo, we go to comedy shows. To be honest, I didn’t have anyone during the first part of my brain injury. None of my family, not my mother […] because, sitting here now, I don’t necessarily look like I struggle or like I have a brain injury. It was so hard because my mom was like, ‘you look normal, you sound normal.’ I would always tell her, ‘why don’t you come to appointments with me?’ Cr3ative Expressions was really born because I said, ‘never again will I allow anyone to feel like me.’ I just wanted them to know that there’s somebody that understands, there’s somebody that cares, and there’s somebody that knows and loves you.
RM: How do you maintain a boundary between your work as a facilitator and your own identity as an artist?
SH: I was so consumed with helping, helping, helping that I didn’t do it for myself. I’m teaching you creative coping, but I’m here in the house, like, ‘my body hurts so bad that I can’t do anything.’ And it’s because I didn’t stop to take a breath and realize how important self-care is and a part of my self-care is the creative coping.
If you aren’t well or if you can’t take that time to work on your craft and what you love, you will begin resenting other people. When I’m in Cr3ative Expressions, I don’t have time to stop and paint for me, I have to make sure you’re okay, and if you need any help, and encourage you, and keep it going, and lo and behold… I really found out that you’ll burn out if you don’t do what you love too. Just trying to find the balance and the boundary between stopping and saying, ‘Nope, I’m just gonna take such and such time today,’ and just creating and doing your own thing. It makes you happier, it makes you more effective, you can help other people — but if you don’t, I promise you will look up and be like, ‘I’m teaching all of this and…’ I feel like a hypocrite. I’m teaching you self-care, I’m teaching you to paint or just have fun; I’m teaching all this stuff but then I’m not doing it myself. And then I’m stressed out, and I’m supposed to be using this stuff as a stress reliever, so it doesn’t feel real. I just had to learn, stop, take some self-care time, or just time to have fun. Go to a comedy show. Go to a concert.
It used to take everything out of me to do everything, because I’m still… I just finished physiotherapy, I’m still in speech therapy, we’re working on memory and focus and some of the higher-function things; I’m still in different things while I’m trying to do this. So you have a disabled person trying to be an advocate, trying to self-care, trying to be an artist, and at the end of the day, once I realized, stop, do it for you, everything flows so smoothly, and I’m able to do these things and do them effectively.
Find Sharetta on Instagram at @sharettalatrice.
Cr3ative Expressions is celebrating its third anniversary with a meeting open to the public. Join them on Thursday, Nov. 14 at 6 pm at Summa Rehab Hospital, 29 N. Adams St., Akron. For more information, contact Cr3ativeExpressions@gmail.com.
Rosalie Murphy is Editor-in-Chief of The Devil Strip.