Alison's story: life and art after a brain injury

After an accident 13 years ago, the country NSW art teacher was told she would never walk or work again.

Alison Packwood in the garden with her dog Ponyo.

Alison is in her early 40s and lives on the outskirts of Young with her 9-year-old French bulldog, Ponyo. Alison is a Lifetime Care participant.

Teaching in the family

Alison grew up in nearby Cowra where her parents both taught at the local high school.

Her mum taught French and English while her dad taught metalwork and woodwork. They had met while teaching and still live in the house her father built in town with his father. They both liked art and theatre so there were lots of trips to Sydney to see relatives but also to visit galleries and go to plays.

Alison's two brothers were a lot older and had left home before she started high school, so in some ways Alison grew up almost as a single child. She describes a lovely upbringing, and perhaps spoiled at times. Her parents always told her teaching was a great career. They worked hard during term and then enjoyed their holidays so it's not that surprising Alison followed their footsteps.

Alison's favourite subject at school was art, and when she went to university in Wagga Wagga, she studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts followed by a Diploma of Education. After some short-term and casual teaching positions, Alison landed her "dream job" in 2007 – a permanent position teaching visual arts and design at Boorowa Central School near Young.

It looked like rain

Her dream was rudely interrupted during the 2008 April school holidays.

Heading home from Sydney, Alison was pulling out from The Fruit Bowl in Bilpin on Bells Line of Road, and the last thing she remembered was that it looked like it was going to rain.

On a bend, Alison met a rush of water coming across the road, crossed the centre line and hit another car head on.

After being cut out of her vehicle she was transferred to Westmead Hospital and placed in an induced coma for a week. She had multiple fractures, a collapsed lung, lacerated liver and a traumatic brain injury. When Alison first looked into a mirror, she didn't recognise herself. She was told she would never walk or work again.

"That image still haunts me to this day. I said to myself that I would show them all. I would show them what I could do," says Alison.

After five weeks at Westmead, Alison spent another three months in rehab in Young. She learnt to walk again although she still gets pain in her legs and back.

"I still walk with a slight limp, especially when I’m tired. I will have that for the rest of my life."

"Before the accident I was much more social and spontaneous, then afterwards I became a recluse and always exhausted, sometimes sleeping up to 17 hours a day. I felt lonely and hopeless and saw a string of psychiatrists and had a number of hospital admissions."

But the main legacy of the accident is Alison's brain injury.

Staying connected

Alison was diagnosed with a form of chronic depression called dysthymia, which includes a constant low mood. She has regular treatment for that, and for the last few years has been relatively good. Relationships with her family have gotten better and she has a good circle of friends. She doesn't travel that much, but keeps in regular contact with friends. Jane, an old school friend, now lives in Mittagong and comes to visit, which Alison really loves.

Room for a dog

One of Alison's brothers moved to Young four years ago. Alison wanted a pet so needed to move out of her unit in town. Her brother helped find a wonderful house for her.

"He has mental health issues himself so we keep each other in check and watch each other's back."

Returning to work 

Alison's main goal and focus for her rehab was to get back to work.

"The school was keen to have me back and I loved my career and I loved the school but I just wasn’t sure I could cope."

"Returning to teaching really was the hardest thing I've done in my life."

Alison started back at Boorowa two days a week. Over a couple of years she got back to four days. She tried five days but it was wearing her out. To allow her time to recover, she remained working at four days.

"Despite the tiredness, I love the teaching. I love the school. The staff are so caring and supportive, and the executive have really gone out of their way to be flexible and meet my needs."

Four things

Alison says that the four things that keep her together are family, friends, teaching and art.

"I actually think my art got better after the accident. Before, I only worked in black and white and now I work in rainbow colours – it just happened that way. Also, instead of painting things that were pretty or pleasing, I do more emotional, expressive work. I guess I’m using it as therapy. I get things out of my head and onto paper – it helps me deal with them in some way."

Alison has done several art commissions for icare. She designed two Christmas cards, and when icare announced their inaugural Shine Art Prize last year she was really keen to enter. Her entry "April is still the cruelest month", referencing the physical and emotional changes following a car accident, was the prize's overall winner.

Alison's Shine Art Prize entry

Rewarding work

"I think my teaching has got better too," says Alison.

"My empathy and understanding of people's difficulties and how they want to express hard and uneasy things. I love the kids and the ideas they have, seeing the lightbulbs go on and getting them to think bigger and enjoy art like I did at school. It's hard work but it's so rewarding and makes me so happy when it goes well."