I, Jim Chambliss, am a reformed attorney who is successfully rebounding from traumatic brain injury in 1998 that led to temporolimbic epilepsy (TLE), migraines and temporary cognitive damage. I am currently a 44-year old PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in a dual PhD program that combines creative art and medicine. The study that I am doing, in cooperation with the University of Melbourne, St. Vincent’s Health, the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria and other medical service organisations is called “Sparks of Creativity: The Influence of Epilepsy and Migraines in Art." The inspiration for this research came from a personal metamorphosis in a series of life-changing events after the injury that opened the door to a new life and undiscovered artistic ability. My quest to understand what happened to my brain after the injury has led to some interesting discoveries and revelations. As a result of my experiences stemming from the brain injury I am now more genuinely and compassionately focused on helping other people in similar circumstances.
I had a brain injury in the summer of 1998. Afterwards strange things were happening to me like having false sensations of smells that were like something rotten was burning, losing track of what I was doing, going blank while talking to people, getting lost in familiar places, having quick jerks of my hand and developing unusual writing habits. In non-scientific terms I was “feeling out of it” and had trouble focusing. I did not recognize that I was having complex-partial seizures. I thought of seizures as only the tonic clonic version of falling and shaking. Three months after the brain injury, that was originally thought to be only a “minor concussion,” I had a tonic seizure at a Christmas party. Numerous people from the party described that I stiffened and fell like a tree. I hit flat on my face on a hardwood floor. I have neither memory of the event nor the ambulance ride to the hospital. Maybe it is best that I cannot recall the first 10 hours or so that I was in intensive care. I woke with more pain than I can fully convey. I was wearing a neck-brace, heart monitor and tubes going into my body. My nose was broken in two places and some of my teeth were cracked. I had three face lacerations and an eye that was swollen shut. A friend of mine, who was a nurse at the hospital, could not recognize my face.
For several years I had migraines and headaches that were viciously painful and disorienting. So many weird things were happening to me that are hard to distinguish as being caused by epilepsy, migraines or a combination of both. Damage to my left hemisphere impacted on functions such as reading, writing, numerical calculations, listing and those things associated with mental efficiency. Frontal lobe damage led to an executive dysfunction with trouble remembering, making wise choices and keeping track of things. It took me years to recover from the cognitive damage from these serious brain injuries. The practice of law became too complicated and too unforgiving of mistakes for me to continue to be competitive at that time. However, I remain a licensed attorney in good-standing. During the recovery process and resulting medical expenses I lost most everything I had of monetary value. This was most unexpected, frustrating and humbling for a formally cocky attorney.
Pursuant to conservative medical management I was not put on antiepileptic medication until I blacked out and wrecked my car! I couldn’t drive for more than five years until medication, and my ability to remember to take the medicine, successfully brought the seizures under control.
In spite of my challenges I refused to become a person who continued to focus on the negative or dwell on what life could have been without the dramatic changes. Subsequent to the brain injury, I discovered a talent for art when I was playing around with a block of Styrofoam one day while working as a substitute teacher. I carved a salamander from memories of my childhood that impressed the students and the faculty at the high school. I had no artistic training or recognized creative talent before my brain injuries and the resulting seizures. Subsequently, my art has won numerous awards and has been published on multiple occasions. I was very fortunate to have the advice of an outstanding and caring neuropsychologist named Dr. Steven Schmidt. He recognized what I could do best and helped me focus on the positive potential I had for art.
Over the years the reserve brain cells seemed to slowly work through the training process to compensate for the damage. I regained most of my cognitive and academic skills to a point of having even more success in school than prior to my injuries. I graduated in 2005 at the University of Louisville in the USA with a Masters in Visual Art. I received a prestigious International Postgraduate Research Scholarship to the University of Melbourne. I read a statement in the book A Purpose Driven Life to the effect that ‘your most effective mission will come out of your deepest hurts.’ I genuinely believe that I can achieve more socially beneficial goals as a researcher, teacher and advocate, specializing in interdisciplinary studies involving the medical and psychological influences in creativity than in my prior career path.
Many people with epilepsy, migraines, brain injuries and other chronic medical conditions are misdiagnosed and misunderstood. While most attention, regarding neurological impairment, focuses on the negative aspects, my current research investigates the positive accomplishments in artistic expression by people with epilepsy and migraines. There can be a productive side to the electrical mischief that epilepsy and migraines produce, through enhanced creativity. This phenomenon is not contained within the boundaries of what is normal, expected and predictable. Some types of epilepsy and migraines can spark inspiration, enhance creative functions and lead some people to produce art that is of such novelty and value as to change the course of mainstream thought, production and appreciation.
Some of the World’s most creative minds are thought to have been influenced by epilepsy, such as Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh and Lewis Carroll. There were no EEGs or brain scans available during their lives to affirm a diagnosis of epilepsy. One of my goals for the research that I am doing in association with the University of Melbourne, St. Vincent’s Health, the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria and others is that it will serve as a foundation to evaluate whether past artists had epilepsy and/or migraines based on comparisons with the artwork and writing of living artists.
You can contact me by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.