Quills & Queues: Art, language and the brain

When she was 44 years old, Dr. Ruth Resch, a psychologist and baby expert, stepped off a flight from Portugal to New York, fresh from delivering a lecture and feeling pretty darn good about herself and her future. Moments later, she had a stroke that resulted in aphasia, a neurological disorder that causes loss of speech and the ability to read or write. Resch's story could end there, heartbreaking and silent, but it happily doesn't.

This Sunday, she will present stories and artwork from her recently published book, "Without Utterance: Tales From the Other Side of Language," a memoir of a 33-year-long journey back to language and expression. The free event will take place at Hidden Springs Wellness Center in Ashland at 1:30 on December 1st.

Resch, who lives in Ashland, will share her story of learning to cope with aphasia, and then moving beyond coping to living a vibrant life rich with art, adventure and humor. "Normally, people with aphasia don't write. They can't access the language to describe their interior life, what they are feeling or how they respond to things," Resch says.

In the book, she describes the frustration of not being able to communicate her thoughts as being trapped in a black box; even her thoughts were wordless. Her recovery required letting go of language and allowing her brain to focus on other pathways.

While Resch was recovering, she continued her work as a psychoanalyst and struggled daily with speech therapy. Her busy schedule left her exhausted, so her speech therapist told her to give the left side of her brain, the part that controls language, a break and do something creative. Though Resch had little previous experience, she decided to take an art class. "When I took up art, the immense relief in my brain and body was almost immediate," she says. Resch credits the balance she found in art with helping her retrieve much of the language she lost. "Art isn't just for leisure, it's for balance in life, it's for the soul."

Resch's reliance on art results in a story that reads like a poem, with clear images and crisp, elegant prose. "Before my stroke, I wrote in a very academic style. I knew there was another way of writing, but I didn't know how to. I started to rely on my memory and senses to articulate my experiences," she says. "I worked so hard to put language together, and in the book I was very careful about what I wanted to say, and not wasting words."

Resch wants to share her story with other people who have aphasia and their caregivers, but she says the book is mostly for everyone else, people who take language for granted. "Language is a miracle and a blessing," she says. Her story, she hopes, will remind people how precious language is, and how resilient we can be in the face of chaos.

Sunday's event will celebrate Resch's book, her artwork and the power of perseverance that she says is in everyone. "I want people to read the book and I hope they see what humans are capable of when they don't give up," she said. "When I came out of the stroke, I was alive. Yes, there was frustration and exhaustion but mainly I was alive and that was amazing. I wasn't going to give up after that. I decided I'll go as far as I can, and I kept going and going."

Resch considers her recovery ongoing. "I still see change after over 30 years," she says. "The brain is a plastic thing and it can go further than people think," she said. "I've become an artist, a poet, a green belt in Shotokan karate and I've written this very satisfying book. Life is good, beyond my wildest imagination."

Hidden Springs Wellness Center is at 1651 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. For more information, email rachrich@jeffnet.org or call 541-488-1192. For book details visit www.WithoutUtterance.com.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.

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