Monday, November 28, 2016

Disconnect to really connect

By Monica Vest Wheeler

A recent media photo of a group of protesters made me chuckle as I looked at one of the leaders in the front row. She was staring at her cell phone while marching. And it wasn’t even a selfie pose.

I have no idea what she was even protesting, but I’m thinking, “You could put your damn phone down for a couple of blocks and show the world this is a top priority if you’re taking it to the streets.”

I saw a perfect metaphor for our society today: we are so distracted by our gadgets that we have trouble delivering our message to others and they’re having trouble receiving it.

We're not communicating very effectively these days, even though we're allegedly the most connected generation since Adam and Eve, who only had each other. And we wonder why there are so many misunderstandings, an overabundance of confusion, and a need to keep repeating the message.

Our brains are on overload from the relentless bombardment of information. What's happening to our brains is happening to our bodies, a stress level elevated by constantly being on call, never letting our guard down.

Give your precious brain a short break every day from the gadgets of your life, unless of course, you're dealing with an emergency situation. Even then, take it out of your hand or pocket or purse and set it aside for even 10 minutes.

Your gray matter and blood pressure will thank you.

Your loved ones and friends will thank you for putting the phone away and having a quality, engaged conversation.

Your brothers and sisters in a social cause will thank you for giving your full attention to the important message that you're trying to share with the world.

Sometimes you've got to disconnect to really connect. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

When words of thanks are not enough

By Monica Vest Wheeler

As the Thanksgiving holiday blankets our nation this week, the outpouring of words of gratitude and thanks are as abundant as the food and leftovers soon to be filling our bellies and fridges.

The traditional outpouring of generosity spills out through these final weeks of the year as the focus shines on the needs of the less fortunate, the hungry, the homeless, the jobless, the sick, the lonely. We are a blessed nation, yet one filled with great need.

The recent bitter and divisive election revealed our private and public pain, and it was not pretty. The still seething buckets of hatred and anger across this nation are excruciating to witness, and all it does is hurt more individuals.

The greatest lesson to be learned is that one person alone cannot solve the problems of such a diverse and challenged country. No matter who won, no matter your preference, there would be many who feel defeated.

As individuals, we cannot rely on any one president to erase our personal woes. We can't rely on any one elected official anywhere to make everything better. We have to step up and learn to take care of ourselves and rally with our neighbors to help those with the greatest needs.

In all the years I've worked with families affected by brain-related injuries, illnesses and diseases, the most powerful assistance doesn't come from Washington, D.C., or the state capital. It rises from within the community members who support each other and the organizations that meet the daily needs of families in crisis.

Don't look to D.C. for the answers. Look in the mirror. What have we given to the hungry, the homeless, the jobless, the sick, the lonely? Have we taught our children not to judge people by the color of their skin or religion? Do we speak up when we witness someone mock another person's physical or emotional challenge? Do we see the full spectrum of humanity, and how each of us is but one human being, with the endless potential to create a better world?

Abandon egos and embrace souls.

Reject intolerance and discover commonalities.

Turn a little empathy into a lot of action.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Unwrapping the emotions of the holidays

By Monica Vest Wheeler

Yes, ‘tis the season for THAT holiday spirit … which means something different to each of us human beings who recognize traditional and ceremonial dates as winter and a new calendar year blow our way. In the United States, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the most widely celebrated and “legal” holidays.

However, not everyone is enthused about the arrival of THE holidays, and there are more people dreading this time of year, many, many more than you think. If you feel that way, you're not alone.

It's not that most of us are not filled with genuine thoughts of thanksgiving, but the stress of putting on a “happy” face non-stop for six or seven weeks can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. So much is expected of us this time of year that it's easy to put ourselves on automatic just to survive. Automatic can be good at times, but not necessarily during the “most wonderful time of the year.

I admit that I do struggle with the holidays and have for years. I remember tragedies and losses during these closing weeks of the calendar year, and the ink of those impressions have a sense of permanency simply because of when they happened. And I am not alone.

What I have discovered is that it's all perspective, and everyone has one, as unique as our DNA. While we cannot force someone to change that perspective, we have the power to influence those thoughts and observations in a positive, loving, supportive way. And it's not done in the noisy parade of the holidays, but the quiet corner of personal connections this and any time of the year.

It's all about listening and sharing. It's about helping unwrap the complicated emotions of the holiday experience one layer at a time. It's about exploring the deeper meaning of our human bonds.

It's about unwrapping and sharing yourself, the real you, perhaps the most precious gift of all.

If you'd like to read more about this topic, please consider checking out the following:

Monday, November 14, 2016

The healing power of photography

By Monica Vest Wheeler

I never imagined I could help treat my own pain with photography. Sometimes you don't see the full picture of life until you look through that tiny viewfinder and witness the miracles the everyday world misses.

I'm extremely blessed to have about 70 of my favorite and the most meaningful photographs I’ve shot in the last nine years, on display during November at the downtown gallery of the Peoria Public Library. It was VERY hard to narrow this selection down from the thousands and thousands of images I’ve accumulated.

I’ve had the privilege of attending more than 100 camps across the country that serve the unique needs of survivors of stroke and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). At my first Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camp™ in 2008 as a volunteer, I was addicted when I picked up my camera and saw amazing moments experienced by survivors and caregivers.

The love was compelling, the laughter was contagious, and the beauty of experiencing the simplest joys in life was beyond anything I had ever experienced.

With my own long-term struggles with depression, I realized that I needed camp. Then I discovered that camp needed ME as I received endless words of gratitude and hugs because I was giving campers memories of a lifetime via my photos.

By interacting with survivors and caregivers in the informal camp setting where they can be themselves for a weekend, I learned so much about the everyday challenges of those persons with brain injuries, no matter the cause. And one of the most common is short-term memory loss. My photos became their precious memories. I was humbled beyond words.

You would never think that I’m actually an introvert by looking at a collection of “selfies” in a big purple frame (my favorite color) in the exhibit, but I am very shy in many respects.

I had picked up my camera at that first Stroke Camp because I had trouble working up the courage to talk to campers and volunteers. I didn’t want to “bother” or interrupt them, but I could do something from behind my lens. I also felt I needed a “purpose” to be there and wanted to “earn my keep.” Depression can do that to you. Sigh …

Since that first camp in Central Illinois, I’ve traveled coast-to-coast and north to south, either in my own car or driving the Stroke Camp™ equipment van. I’ve added TBI camps sponsored by Texas and Louisiana Pilot Clubs, as I’m a member of the Pilot Club of Peoria service organization.

And then there’s the kids camp I discovered in the lush green of eastern Pennsylvania, Camp Cranium, created for kids who have survived various types of brain injuries, from internal and external causes. I spend that entire week photographing real kids having real fun … and make their parents cry at the conclusion of camp when I present a video of the photos.

But no one cries more than I do, and for all the right reasons. When I see their smiles and tears of joy, all because I captured moments that help them celebrate the true meaning of life, I’m truly alive.

It’s the best and most precious medicine in the world ….

You're invited to the exhibit … 

Many of these images on display during November at the downtown gallery of the Peoria Public Library, 107 NE Monroe, come from the 89 Stroke Camps I've attended across the country, in addition to the traumatic brain injury camps I connected with starting in 2012.

If you're in the Central Illinois area, please stop by to see me and the exhibit at a special reception at the gallery in downtown Peoria from 1-3 p.m. Saturday, November 19. You'll also find display cases filled with examples of assistive devices on loan from Retreat & Refresh Stroke Camp.


This exhibit and reception are made possible by the generous support of sponsors FIDELITY ON CALL and SPOON RIVER HOME HEALTH. 

Here are just a few samples of the many photos I've shot at camps in the last nine years that you can see at the display.