A few weeks ago I was suffering from a pretty minor illness (pneumonia) and was frustrated when I couldn’t get as many things done as I wanted. That’s when I thought of my good friend, Alyssa Glassford, who has been through a lot more significant distresses (in life and in health) than what I was experiencing. I immediately reached out to her for perspective, “How do you deal with the feeling that comes with not being able to make progress as quickly as you’d like because of health?” I asked, and that conversation brought about the idea for this blog. This 26-year-old has a story worth sharing and perspective worth preserving. Join me in my attempt to perpetuate this beautiful example of humanity as it is reflected in a Glassford.
“Humanity” (the alias she uses as a street artist in Nanaimo, BC) began her journey as a small town Saskatchewan girl who moved to the Maritimes before settling in beautiful British Columbia, and although the art she produces is at least as gorgeous at the province she inhabits, her path has been teaming with beastly burdens. Her adolescent years were difficult as she struggled to first accept herself, and then be accepted by others, as gay in a time when this was not as well-received as it is now. She went through extreme bouts of depression related to this and what was to follow. In her adult years she was bestowed with a different battle – one related to her health; at the age of 23, while living in Halifax, she was diagnosed with a rare brain condition called a Chiari malformation that made even getting out of bed next to impossible. Although this woman has handled more than her fair share of hard times, these very things have made her appreciate life so much more and have made her into the beautiful being she is today: she exudes positivity and zeal.
The artist tells of her selfless objective, “My goal is to help forgotten neighbourhoods prosper by adding life through artwork.” And it is clear the clever creative is reaching her goal; you can find Alyssa listed on the city of Nanaimo’s website, and her projects are making a profound impact:
“I currently spend my spare time working on a community project in an area that has been neglected and frequented by high levels of crime and intravenous drug use. Every day I meet new people; I hear their stories and learn how their lives have been influenced by the artwork I do. It’s an incredible feeling to do something you love and hear how others are benefiting from it… I have surrounded myself with like minded individuals and together we have created some pretty awesome things like 100% recycled public libraries through out the city.”
Not only is her work influencing others, but art is a big aspect of who Alyssa is as an individual and creating it has helped her in hard times: “The ability to draw and paint has single-handedly healed my soul. Every day I am thankful to be blessed with the time and ability to create.” She states that she can lock herself in a room for days to create something, but still admits that another one of her passions is people:
“All I want in life is to see others happy. I want others to experience their own form of success and find an inner balance and calm. I truly believe that so many problems and forms of mental illness can be treated or remedied by just having a sense of belonging and truly understanding what its like to be loved.”
Alyssa has herself struggled with depression. She shares a bit of what it was like to be a young lesbian growing up in a time before homosexuality was as accepted as it is today, “I grew up trying to be someone I wasn’t. It caused me a whirlwind of problems mentally and physically.” Alyssa kept her girlfriend a secret for a long time, and when her partner was lost in an accident, she states she, “kept all of that hurt to myself. I tried to deal with it myself as I was too afraid to tell others what she really meant to me.”
Our growing artist continued to hide aspects of her individuality, and tells that repressing who she was lead to even greater adolescent troubles, “Keeping my secret led to sexual assault, drug abuse, and problems with alcohol. It’s crazy what self-loathing truly does to a person!” she exclaims. “I got drugged at a party once and that changed my life forever – waking up from that, everything was all of a sudden difficult.”
Still, as any exceptional artist somehow manages to, Alyssa was able to transform that tragedy into something beautiful, “I woke up seeing constant colours and years later I learnt it was a condition called ‘Synethesia,’ which, oddly enough now benefits me in my arts endeavour.” Anyone who has had a glimpsed at Glassford’s murals would not question her gift, though none of us would wish upon her the struggles that provided her with it.
During her trying teenage years, she states that sports were her “saving grace:”
“I was privileged to go to a private school, and also privileged to travel around the world with something I was passionate about (hockey). I met tons of cool like-minded people. I also met tons of other lesbians who ultimately showed me being gay was okay. Once I learned to accept that part of myself a lot of the depression I struggled with disappeared.”
Although she had learned to accept herself, Alyssa still struggled with the opinions of others. The private school she attended had its roots in religion: “Being surrounded by religious people certainly didn’t help, as many were actually quite cruel. However, there were a few that managed to show me love and kindness and those are the faces I choose to remember.”
The trials didn’t stop after her teenage years. At 23 Alyssa was diagnosed with a rare brain condition. She describes it as follows: “Chiari Malformation Type 1 is a neurological disorder where part of the brain, the cerebellum (or more specifically the cerebellar tonsils), descends out of the skull into the spinal area. This results in compression of parts of the brain and spinal cord, and disrupts the normal flow of cerebrospinal fluid.”
The condition proved to be debilitating. “I passed out in the shower one day and had a headache that just wouldn’t go away. I went to the doctor and right away they sent me for a CT scan. They called me the next day and I knew that meant something was wrong. I walked to the doctor on my lunch break received my diagnosis and mindlessly went back to work. Everyday my headaches got worse, and putting any pressure on my feet sent shooting pain into the back of my eyes. I was constantly dizzy, and slowly doing normal activity became impossible. I slowly lost my life.”
The illness and Alyssa’s physical pain sent her back into a state of emotional destitution, “There comes a time when you ask yourself is the quality of life you have worth living for? The whirlwind of depression and struggle to accept what was happening to my body was a lot for anyone to take in.”
She could no longer rely on her “saving grace:”
“I had to give up sports because my spine was too vulnerable to injury, then doing things like going for a walk became impossible. There were days I would crawl to the bathroom because I could not put any pressure on my feet. At the time I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia and it got to the point I was constantly in the hospital. I had spinal taps a few times a month, and for anyone who’s ever had a giant needle in their spine, they know it is highly unpleasant.”
Alyssa eventually had to move home, “I had to make a hard choice to move home because I was unable to continue with my daily routines,” and when she arrived she was greeted by new tribulations. She was forced to relive the pain of the initial diagnosis, “My neurologist actually laughed in my face and said ‘Chiari? Oh, you don’t have that – those are incredibly rare. I think you just have migraines, but I’ll do another MRI.’ I left his office feeling defeated and in tears because, yet again, I was meeting another dead end – another doctor who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, help.”
Although the physician eventually admitted his mistake he did little to offer assistance and another move was in order, “I left Saskatchewan feeling like I was a crazy person and my health issues were all just manifested in my mind. I ended up in BC and worked full time for a bit before I once again succumbed to the intense pain and headaches. I left my job for something with less responsibility and less hours. I scraped by, struggling to survive and forcing myself to work because I had to.”
In the province she now calls home she found hope, “Finally, I found a new doctor, and to my surprise he was sympathetic and couldn’t believe I was living like I was. He referred me to two neurosurgeons – both agreed I needed surgery and both were sure they could help… I chose to go with the guy who was outraged no one had helped me yet, and promised to restore my health to a functional quality of life.”
Alyssa describes this as one of the happiest moments in her life, “Him saying, ‘I can give you your life back.’ That was definitely a feeling of euphoria – to be bed-ridden and losing the ability to use your hands and sense of feeling, and then hearing those words: ‘I can give you your life back.’ – that was an incredible experience. I phoned my mother right away and had a good cry.” The doctor fit her in within a few months and she says it has “forever changed [her] life.”
She also extends gratitude to her loved ones, “My friends and family were incredibly supportive! They raised over $5000 for me to help cover my expenses during my recovery as…I didn’t qualify for any benefits since my condition is relatively unknown.”
Post-surgery, the Alyssa we know and love was able to finally be herself and enjoy life again:
“The recovery was brutal, but so worth it. I wake up everyday with a smile on my face. I am truly thankful to be given back my life. I have started training to run 5 km, I opt to walk when possible, and I have finally returned to work full time. I have been given back the ability to feel hot and cold, my pain is 80% better, and I suffer from 75% less headaches. I am thankful for modern medicine. Throughout every part of this struggle it has brought me to a place where I feel I am finally perfectly okay being me. I know my limitations, explore my strengths and I have this incredible inner peace that I just want to share with everyone.”
The budding painter is again able to take pleasure in her passions of creating and working with people, and she combines these two desires brilliantly into her work as the street artist “Humanity.”
Although not to the same extent as during her teenage years, Alyssa is again able to enjoy her third passion: movement, and she shares another one of her happiest moments only half-a-year after the neurosurgeon told her he could restore her life, “Fast-forward 6 months to when I laced up my skates for the first time in five years. It was a leisure activity with an amazing friend and I was terrified I had forgotten how to skate. Thankfully, I did not. I couldn’t wipe this incredibly massive smile off of my face. The feeling was pure joy. I was elated. You really don’t know what you have until its gone.”
Alyssa says, “On most days my face actually hurts from smiling so much; I’m considering taking up facial yoga.” She is excited for the future because even though her condition wasn’t cured by the surgery, it did offer relief and a better quality of life.
Alyssa offers this advice for those struggling with illness:
- Use “Spoon Theory:”
“I have 10 ‘spoons’ I can use for different activities during the day – from things like brushing my teeth, to exercising to working. Rank each activity based on how physically demanding it is, and pick and chose your day around the ten things you can accomplish. Before I used my ten spoons on getting dressed, eating 3 meals, and if I was lucky I could go to the grocery store or maybe the mall for some human interaction. Now I can use those ten spoons for so much more! I think it’s finding a balance between allowing your drive to push you and knowing you’re human and will have days that aren’t as good as the rest.”
- “Know when to say, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’ The ‘No pain, no gain’ slogan doesn’t apply to sickness. It’s if there’s pain let’s take a break and stop so I can get out of bed and function like a normal adult tomorrow, haha. It was extremely frustrating at first but I’m actually good with it now.”
- Finally, “A principle called ‘K.I.S’ – keep it simple:”
“If you are suffering from health problems, just keep your daily routine simple. Exercise is important, so do one new thing a day and build a routine with what you can do. Don’t focus on what you cannot do. Life is constantly changing and evolving and testing us. Usually life gives us exactly what we need so keep your head up and have faith that right now in this moment you are learning and being prepared for something you will face in the future.”
It is clear in her 26 years on earth (it is her birthday on Wednesday), Alyssa Glassford has combatted more challenges than many do in their entire lifetimes, and yet she manages to see these grapples as contributing factors to her growth. Through adolescent struggles as a lesbian and adult health troubles Alyssa has learned acceptance – of herself and who she is, of others, and of her limitations. Although she is not perfect (none of us are) she has found what I think all of us need to: a way to combine who we are in our very core with the experiences that have shaped our lives into a magnificent vocation with which we can change the world – Alyssa does this in her art. She says, “Every mistake I made led me to where I am right now. Life has been a constant struggle, but everyday I learn something new, and I learn about who I am as an individual.”
So I invite you to drink up this tale of a Glass(ford) full of Humanity, follow Alyssa’s example, and use all of your mistakes, all of your past history, every trial and tribulation life has thrown at you, and combine it with your gifts and passions to make something beautiful. Life is about finding your own artistry. Thank you Alyssa for sharing your rainbow with Nanaimo, and the world.