By Eugenie Grobler. Published in Femina, December 2000 as winner of the Femina/Sensa Feature Competition.
Eugenie Grobler set out one morning to work with victims of Traumatic Brain Injury and met 13 'angels' who taught her about courage, hope, humour and the joy of being alive.
My beautiful friend, I need you tonight. Sometimes nobody else will do. I wish you were here. Since you are not, I turn to paper and try to share where I find myself. My heart and mind have gone wild. I am overwhelmed. The filters that keep me sane censor my speech, and actions have been lifted the familiar social codes and conducts stripped away. I've been moved out of my comfort zones.
Where do I begin? It's strange: whenever I'm out of the country my stress evaporates like thin smoke, even though my workload doubles. It usually takes about two weeks after re-entering this country for the symptoms to catch up with me: needing to smoke, jumping whenever I hear a loud noise, crunching of teeth inside a skull each time I get into the car. The nagging anxiety overtakes me. I used to think I handle the stress of my busy schedule badly. Now I think I handle my country badly. Especially when I hit the road.
Last week Wednesday: early morning. As so many times before, we say goodbye. I leave Stellenbosch. The memory of your body lying next to mine in our bed stays with me for a while. I think about your upcoming departure to Brazil - in a few days you will be near the rainforest, to further your studies of healing others and in ten days' time I will join you. I snap back into the moment. Before I join you, there is work to do.
I take the N2 and drive up to Pretoria: Worcester, Touwsrivier, Matjiesfontein, Lainsburg. The towns speed past at 130kmlh. I feel the sleep creeping up. I could kill for a cigarette. I fight it. I drive faster - 15 Okmlh. I want to arrive before dark. Arriving in Pretoria, I go to sleep. I sleep the sleep of the dead.
Thursday: the sweet taste of morning in my mouth. I like it. I smell everything. When the craving for my ,fix, gets too intense I walk around the malls, smelling everything. The leather jackets, the food, the fragrances. I relate through my nose.
Friday evening: I start the first of six theatre-therapy workshops hosted by Headway, a national organisation giving support to people with traumatic brain injury. This workshop focuses on the impact of losing a loved one to this injury while simultaneously gaining a loved one with impaired brain function. I meet the families. We spend the weekend sharing questions, anger, hope, stories and our tears.
Sunday, late afternoon: I wave goodbye. Leaving Johannesburg I'm on the Pretoria highway. Torn between aggressive driving and speeding – cautious driving and going slow. It's all about signals, you know. Drive like a victim and you'll become a victim. I try to negotiate a balance between hijacks and reckless accidents. In South Africa there are 80 000 new cases of traumatic brain injury per year. The major cause is motor vehicle accidents. Official statistics reflect a story of speed, stress, alcohol, recklessness and road rage. The second major cause of traumatic brain injury in South Africa is violent attack. This is the hyper-reality of living in a brain-damaged country of hijacks, armed robberies and crime.
It hits me between the eyes. The "country of my skull', to borrow Antjie Krog's phrase, is a land that feeds the marrow to my bones. This beautiful landscape I was born in is having a seizure. Closing my eyes, I sense the emergency signals of a stressed-out organism trying to cope by inflicting substance abuse on itself and violent abuse on the other. Fear floods my body. I crave a cigarette.
I think about the next workshop. I've met the families, now I have to meet their injured loved ones. In this workshop with seriously brain injured people I will hear the stories behind the statistics. How will I do it? Why am I here? What is driving me to the scary places in the skull? Where is this road taking me?
Monday: I fight the isolation and the fear. I relate. I live my life. I think of you. I check my e-mail messages. Nothing.
Tuesday morning: Waking up early, I put my face on, check my lipstick in the mirror while driving. Enjoy the texture of my skin, the new shining quality of it. For six weeks I have not smoked.
Arriving in Johannesburg at the Headway Centre, I park the car and spend a moment to catch up with myself. Ah - my better self has arrived. I meet my body as I get out of the car. I am glad to be in my body, out of my car. Happiness in my arms and legs. Happy to be under my skin, happy to be in the blood that runs through my veins.
I go in, meet them. They take me by surprise. They spin me in and out and up and down for four challenging days. I introduce myself to the workshop participants. They stroke me in so many ways - boldly over the ego, softly over the hands and face, move inappropriately into my space as a woman, appropriately I am moved out of my mind and my perception of normality. They call me "Aladdin's-Magic-Genie-in-the-lamp".
I take my stand, not wanting to be moved, fearing the change this experience might bring in me. I fight back. For four days I fight them with hope and love and discipline and love and tears and love and anger and love and fear and love and power. Giving in, I feel myself slipping, being moved out of my safe, familiar perceptions of the world. I use my power to negotiate. I stand astounded at the laser force of it. I cut them open. We size each other up. I think to myself: If you are going to move me, I will move you too.
Our goal is to re-encounter our creativity and to stage a play through which we can share the subsequent drawn out and painful exercise with the audience on the last day of the workshop. I never realised that, for some of us, the gesture of lifting a hand is like taking a journey around the earth. We start to work.
Late afternoon: Day one.
I am shaken. I look at my legs and I look at the wheelchairs some of this group are living in: 'Please,' I ask, 'don't let this ever happen to me.' I check my e-mail messages. Nothing. I get into my car and I snap. I spiral into a lighted fag. My first in six weeks. I inhale. I don't care. Life is short. I chain-smoke to it. I won't die today.
Wednesday morning: Day two.
Ben speaks to me by pointing to the letters of the alphabet. He is bright but his voice and legs are gone. He's been to Brazil twice to see a healer. (I tell him about you, my friend, that you are there at the moment, that I will join you soon.) The healer tells him that he will walk and speak again. He holds onto his hope. Pointing at the letters, we communicate, as he teaches me about abundance and challenges my perceptions of the brain and the injured.
William kisses my hand. He speaks to me with the brilliant words of a once-gifted self-confident boy. Now, he no longer speaks within a context. He tells me that the dove is a symbol of peace. Send it to your enemies and through that, tell them to 'peace off'. He corrects my spelling mistakes when he sees me writing. His short-term memory is 30 minutes long.
I fall into rage: 'Want to live in the moment Genius,? Why don't you try brain damage? It's the fastest way to get out of the past and the future. And some call that Nirvana. Hurt the people around them with their quasi-Buddhist attempts at embodying the moment. Thinking only of themselves, they "Zen" the bonds of memory, history and responsibility that tie them to each other into the void.' They call it being free. Enlightened. I prefer to light my cigarette.
Because I made him feel like a whole person, Daniel cries when I leave. He is afraid that he will forget this feeling. He won't remember, he says. I cry.
Schadrick lifts my spirits. Of the 13 people in the group he is the only one who wasn't injured in a car accident. He worked as a security guard when he was shot through the head during an armed robbery. Now he 'looks after the safety of the group'. He needs to sleep a lot. He teaches us about joy.
Dee used to be a doctor before her accident. She talks about hope. She walks it (or tries to, her body is a damaged tightrope). She cats hope, she smells of it. She turns her eyes to me. She is afraid.
Elmo is desperate. People get angry with him. Can I help him? How must he be?
jean hugs me, and forgets to let me go. He is a big, strong man. Nothing wrong with his body. He stays in the hug until I talk to him, as if I am the parent and he the small, young boy. He is mice my age. The smile leaves his face. He lets me go. I walk away.
The unexpected intimacy of his hug reminded me of our hugs, of how it feels to stretch myself out in your embrace. I miss you, my love. I want to lose myself in a hug with you. I think about the stupid things we sometimes fight about and I shake my head. I think about the incredible ability of our bodies to reach out and touch each other in so many beautiful ways, without us having to struggle. We do not even need to think about it. And I promise myself not to take it for granted again. When I see you again, I will hold you like the precious being you are. I will stroke your body with my hands and my feet and my hair. My tongue will run small circles around every inch of your skin. I will worship the movement between us.
Grant makes sounds like Gaya. He looks like Mother Earth. His body reminds me of the earthquakes in Turkey. His lungs are an amputated rainforest. His mind is familiar with the ozone gap. He lives in a state of emergency.
After my lunch break I return to work. Grant lost the use of his muscles, including the ones needed for speech.
We spent 40 minutes to figure our one word of what he wants to share with us. They are so patient with each other. Turning his agony into a theatre game, we play the guessing game. My cars open up to his teaching: patience. He doesn't give up on me. He keeps making his Gaya sounds, over and over: NNGGGHHAAA! Until I hear it. He smiles at me when I get it. He used to be head boy of his school and a South African sports star. I cannot help myself. I have to ask it: 'After the life he had, how does this new one compare?'
His dad comes to fetch him after our second day together. He kisses him on the forehead with so much strength and love that I choke on my judgement and fly from the question I uttered.
I go home. I buy myself a packet of cigarettes. I chain myself to them. I go to bed. I dream of the rainforest. I want to come and find you but I can't walk. I shout your name but my body swallows the sound before it reaches my mouth. I cry out in silence. I wake up with the taste of ashes in my mouth.
Thursday morning: Day three.
Tabu says her first word. Longing to sing, she borrows my voice for the concert. She moves her lips to form the words of my song. When we do our play the next day, she quietly moves the whole audience into their hearts. She smiles. She talks to me about love.
Peter is so strong. His father is a GP. They rushed Peter to the hospital three years back. His bean gave up the struggle and Peter was ready to leave. Taking over from the other doctors, his father fought for his son. He would not give up but it was to no avail. Peter was gone. His mother, however, refused to give up. She tells me: 'When his father gave up, I told him to go back to my son. How could he be dead? He was so strong.' Once more they fought for his life. They loved him back to life. His heart could not ignore the call. He returned.
Three years later, his heart beats on. It is beating me up, breaking me open. I feel. He smiles at me and always answers with so much kindness. From him I learn the lesson of respect.
William gets lost in his old life when he speaks. He starts our play: 'I had a dream.' He remembers the things he used to know. He escapes in it: 'I had a dream. I dreamt that all men are created equal.' I stop him. I chase him around the corners of his dislocated speech and I bring him back to the empty moment. He goes silent: 'Genie,' he says, 'you are so beautiful.'
Rene used to landscape gardens now he landscapes me. With brain injury, people often lose the mask, the shield of familiar codes and conducts that society uses. People without masks make the masked ones uncomfortable. We are not used to voicing true thoughts and feelings. Rene talks to me about honesty and it is really very simple. He rips off my mask. What he requires from me is to honour the truth of who I am and how I feel.
John is a tonic. He cracks the jokes when things get too serious. He teaches me about laughter.
The day draws to an end. Walking to the car, I become aware of my body and all its effortless movements. I enter the dance of embodiment. I rejoice in the miracle of co-ordinated action. The messages that dance from the brain to every corner of the body are the matrix. The hand that reaches out, the tiny muscles forming words that flow in such an abundant stream from the mouth that I stumble into a stutter. The eye: the signals which run to the optical nerve disclose the world we live in. I feel lost in the abundance of sensory input. I need my shields. I need a fix. I get confused. I crave your touch. Instead of holding onto you, I hold onto the cigarette between my lips. I want to go home. I am losing my balance. The dance goes wrong. I fall like Abel did this morning, flat on my face.
I sleep like a wounded one that night. My dream carries the scars of my working life into the night. Stellenbosch: I dream in black and white, see my parents leave for a holiday. It is night. I run after them, through the quiet streets, to say my goodbyes. Too late, they are gone. I enter our house, go up to the bedroom and lean against the wall. It falls away. Why is it so fragile? I push against the texture of my dream. It falls away. Why is it so fragile? I get lost in the bathroom. I wake up. My mouth tastes of ashes. A new day. Our last day together. Today we will present our play.
I arrive at Headway. The group embraces me as one of them. They accept me without any agendas or expectations. Is this what it succumbs to before people accept each other? Do we have to be damaged before freeing ourselves from social conditioning and judgement? What will it take before we will cease to injure ourselves, each other, the country we live in?
The unspoken question that hovered in the air since the beginning of the workshop finds an outlet in the words of Mark: 'Genie, do you think we are normal?'
'Because other people don't. They treat us like retards.'
I am asked to be the judge of normality. I think to myself: the meaning of normality is similar to being average. I turn to Mark: 'No, you are not normal. You are way too special for that. There is nothing average about your life. The lessons you embody are extraordinary. They are so profound that it takes special people to see them. Most people are normal - average. They do not know how to look. We have to be patient with them and help them to see and hear us. It is not easy to be mediocre.'
I look up. I see 13 faces smiling back at me. It is the smile that lifts me from my comfortable mediocrity. I lose myself in their gaze. They take me in and hold me in the saliva that dribbles from the corners of their mouths. They do not spit me out. Through them I accept all of myself. I settle in the gaze. The wheelchairs, the memory-lapses, the disordered speech, the broken bodies and emotional scars disappear. I dive into the saliva. It turns into a river. I am baptised in it and I feel myself grow whole. I see 13 angels smiling at me, nodding their heads in unison. Take the gifts we have to offer, they say. This is why we are here: to show you what courage, hope, humour, joy, beauty, patience, acceptance, respect, love, non-judgement, abundance, truth and life is. To help you distinguish between what is important and what is not. I cry. Not out of pity but out of gratitude for meeting angels.
The moment has passed. We are back at the Headway Centre. The show draws to an end. The curtain falls and we r~ede into 'the wings' while the audience applauds. It is time to go. I hand them each a long-stemmed rose to smell. And like a cheap fragrance I get up and I am gone.
It's easy to walk away, isn't it?
So, my beautiful lover and friend, I guess I am writing tonight to prepare you for the change. I will be different when we see each other again. The mask is no longer needed. I need your hand in my hand, need you to hold me whole. As always, I am fragile, too sensitive, not strong enough to deal with life on my own as we live our lives bordering on the edge of the slipstream that leads to the void. I will hold your hand. I will hold you whole. For you are fragile. A moment away from the slipstream that leads to the void. Take off your mask. I invite you to be yourself with me. All of you are welcome. I can take you in and I won't spit anything out. Do not be scared. There is no time to waste. Live fully, truthfully, abundantly.
When I see you in Brazil, I will give you this letter and sit with you in a magic circle, break some bread with you and share the gifts I have been given in that other magic circle where I sat for four days. Read these words with your heart and move past the wheelchairs, broken speech, injured heads and bodies, past your own fear, impatience and judgement. Dive into the river of saliva. Treasure this letter because it is easy to forget. When you need to, use it as a map that leads to that place in ourselves where it is possible to see the angels that come our way.
Tomorrow I will not smoke.
Headway Gauteng is a registered welfare organisation that gives support to traumatically brain-injured people and their families.
Fund-raising number: 00I-304 NPO.
For details, contact tel (0II) 442-5733, fax. (0II) 447-9957,
Eugenie Grobler is a singer and facilitator of Hlumelo theatre therapy. For more information on theatre therapy training or specialised workshops, e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Posted 10 July 2005, www.face.org.za, author: Eugenie Grobler.
From nightmare to healing, through theatre.
by feature writer Gorry Bowes Taylor. Published in the Cape Argus Newspaper on Monday, June 15, 1998.
A guitar, a chair, centre stage: a pretty woman pillowed with pregnancy. "Hush my baby," she says, patting her pillow. "Mummy can't wait for you to be born. Sometimes I wonder whether you'll have love and happiness or sadness and pain."
In another room, in this hospitable safe house for abused women and their children, children giggle in their games.
Music: Hush little baby, don't say a word, mama's gonna by you a mocking bird. Enter left, abusive 'husband'. Cruelly: "Let me organise a nightmare for you, a chasing scene perhaps and you can't run away..." Mum looks terrified, the pillow palpates a bit, and wicked husband leers off, right.
Eugenie Grobler, director, whose back is in spasm, says good, good, that's wonderful.
The assailant scene. Two women trembling walk round and round the room. This is a dark field, you can hear the sinister night sounds, feel their fear. This is a nightmare. The chorus comes in and Eugenie, doubled up, must stand in for A (no names), who is ill.
"OK girls," she says to the chorus, "on the second boomf, when I stamp boomf, you turn around."
Boomf. The chorus turns. Eugenie, the assailant, stabs B (no names). B falls, eyelashes like wings over tightly closed eyes. As the chorus open their mouths in a soundless scream, a breastfeeding baby next to the kitchen wails. They do that scene, that dream again. Patient. Passionate.
The grandmother scene. Granmother, bent over her stick is minimally more doubled up than poor Eugenie, who (standing in for A) is on the opposite side of the river to grandma, who says: "No, my child you cannot come to me, look behind you." Behind is a vicious 'husband', C (no names). D (no names), standing at the top of the river says that she is the tree of life holding bitter and sweet fruit in her hands and Eugenie should take both: "Sweetness to help you cope with the bitterness you have experienced." Thus empowered, Eugenie says to her husband: "I have eaten the sweet fruit, I will try my best to change my life. I leave you now"... and the 'husband' writhes away into meaninglessness.
You can't help but applaud. "Mooi, beautiful," says Eugenie.
Eugenie, an acclaimed actress and cabaret performer, currently completing a master's degree in theatre therapy, is one of the leaders of Hlumelo ('the shoot of a dead tree' in Xhosa), a theatre group that aims at reconciliation through theatre. The other leader is Abel Dlamini of the popular traditional musical group, Thula Sizwe.
Hlumelo has developed over the past four years with the support of the University of Pretoria's Bureau of Cultural Affairs and the Southern Life Foundation. The Hlumelo theatre group is travelling to 20 South African towns and cities this year with its project, 'Awakening the Hereos Within', involving some 400 South Africans directly in five-day workshops. The workshops are of two types, some like this safe house/abused women one, others are of a more communal nature relating to topics identified by the community themselves.
The benefits of these workshops are expected to reach many hundreds more as the participants pass on their experiences and new skills in their work and family lives. "I feel," says Virginia Ogilvie Thompson, Southern Life Foundation executive director, "that Hlumelo's work will go a long way, at the grassroots level, to assist the process of re-examining the problems and scars of the past and therey create the path for the country to move forward promptly and positively."
But this isn't the Hlumelo group here, just one of its directors. Eugenie's week-long workshop is with the abused women themselves. And all the more moving and powerful for being so. "We workshop scenes based on the women's dreams, and symbols in those dreams. Emotions run high. They hold their emotions just here." Eugenie hits high in her throat.
Indeed, over coffee in the safe house dining room where pine tables are covered in pretty cloths, and the children eat cheerfully, D (no names) tells me that in rehearsal in her scene yesterday where she dreams of being chased and stabbed by an unknown man, she collapsed in tears. Her real-life alcoholic husband had her by the throat just days ago, it's still bruised. "If you're ever in that situaiton again," says Eugenie, "you will be able to think before you act, exactly as you've rehearsed."
Another woman is being hunted for muti, they've killed the rest of her family. Rich businessmen buy the flesh, she says, stroking the back of her hand, it empowers them. Another had to leave behind children, cats, home and business. They're looking for jobs, most have been dependent on their men, few are trained. D's husband is about to sell their joint business, and the house they own together. Will she get any money? "I need a lawyer," she says worriedly.
They've been workshopping for a week, this is the dress rehearsal we've just watched. It was profoundly moving. Has the experience changes them? "I can feel that they're moving towards self-esteem and courage." Eugenie is doubled up at the table. "Now they're secure enough to say "I've got something to say and we can share it.'"
A: "We're getting out of the victim into the empowered mode." C: "I can take action. I can change my reality." Eugenie: "We had difficulty gettng stories from our lives..." D: "Difficluty in verbalising..."
Eugenie: "Then we went to our dreams."
NICRO Women's Support Centre: (021) 42201690
Ilithalabantu: (021) 633-2383
Rape Crisis: (021) 47-1476
Mosaic: (021) 434-7916
Posted 10 July 2005, www.face.org.za, author: Gorry Bowes Taylor.