Sunday, September 29, 2013

Clean and Simple Stamping

After spending so much time being messy on my last project, it was very breath of fresh air to create this Clean and Simple ATC for the latest Fun With ATCs challenge.

I used Rangers' Specialty Stamping Paper for my surface and chose a stamp for my focal image from one of Tim Holtz's Visual Artistry Collections.  To give the piece some depth, I used another one of Tim's stamps, a lovely swirl, for a background image.  I stamped the swirl using Clearly Better Ink in Aqua once on a piece of scrap specialty stamping paper and then the background images as a second stamping on the ATC.  I then stamped my focal image in the middle of the card using Versa Fine Ink in Onyx Black.  I framed the card using a 7 Gypsies stamp at the top and black band at the bottom made with an alcohol ink marker.  Finally, I stamped my sentiment (also a stamp from one of Tim Holtz's Visual Artistry Collections), one of my favorites, at the bottom of the card.

Clean and Simple may be a bit of a misnomer.  It wasn't so simple to do.  I went through several  cards because I kept smudging ink somewhere!  Maybe that's why most of my projects are messy:)   I really love the use of the vintage-look stamps.  You still get the "imperfections" like the double characters on the sentiment and the slight rough edges on the swirls, but the overall look is clean and simple.

I really love this ATC, but it really isn't that fabulous when you look at the other talented entries at the Fun with ATC Clean and Simple Challenge.  Check them out!  Really fabulous images and colors.  Time to go.  Enjoy a very blessed and restful Sunday.  -- Mary Elizabeth

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Chiari Awareness Month

Ok ... I don't know what is going on today, but it seems like I am destined to spend all day on this blog post.  I've been trying to carefully consider the words I want to use on my final post of 2013's Chiari Awareness Month.  And in the process, I have actually inadvertently published my page twice already.  That is so bizarre.  So I've deleted it twice (changing the title along the way) and here I am for a third time.  Hopefully this will be my last attempt at this post :)

I was inspired to create one more Chiari-related art piece to go along with the end of my Chiari Journey story.  This piece honors all of those Chiari patients who came before me and have endured hours of surgery and months of recovery.  Historically, Chiari surgery has been extremely traumatic.  Brain surgery usually is.  This one requires the patients to have a large section of hair on the back of their head shaved and a minimum of a 6-inch vertical incision down the center of the back of their head and neck.  As they recover, the scar looks very much like a zipper.  Thus, Chiari surgery patients often refer to themselves as "Zipperheads".  Today's project features a zipper I recently found in my local craft store's clearance aisle and a stamp that simply states "You leave me in stitches".  Here's to you, my fellow Chiarians!!

I got a little carried away with my crafting on this project.  I tried a little bit of everything on this piece ... sewing, stenciling, painting, inking, stamping, sanding, buttons, zippers, paper, flowers, taping, tearing, ... ok you get the picture.  The whole piece began with that clearance aisle zipper.  I knew I wanted it to hold the entire piece together.  So I grabbed some of my Tim Holtz Kraft resist paper, cut off a 5-inch strip and then cut that strip in half.  I glued the edges of the zipper to my two strips of paper.  I then used a Martha Stewart punch that creates an border with a zig-zag pattern made out of tiny holes.  This created holes for my stitches (sewn with black embroidery thread).  To bring out the resist words and numbers on the paper, I covered the paper with Pumice Stone and Walnut Stain Distress Stains.  I sanded the border.  The zipper almost disappeared because it started off its life as a brown zipper.  So, I took some silver alcohol ink additive and painted the zipper silver.  You can actually see the zipper now in the pic to the right.  Stamped the left side with a Tim Holtz ruler stamp (thinking about how long those zipper scars are) in Aged Mahogany Distress Ink and then clear embossed the stamped image.  I also stamped some splatters on both sides of the paper to grunge it up a bit more.  I added some distressed scissors tape on the left side and outlined it with Black Soot Distress Markers and a waterbrush.  I grunged and stamped a grosgrain ribbon and put it on the right side.  A couple of Recollections button embellishments were attached to the ribbon at the top.  Part of a wrinkled, grunged Websters Pages ribbon was layered underneath the kraft paper and then a strip of torn, grunged patterned paper was layered underneath that. 

I backed all of these layers with a piece of mint green cardstock.  I mixed some Picket Fence Distress Paint with Old Paper Distress Ink on my craft sheet.  I dipped some large swirled stamps in this mixture and did some "sloppy" stamping on the card stock.  I then used an ink blending tool and added Weathered Wood, Iced Spruce, and Pumice Stone Distress Ink over the paper to bring out the stamped images.  The swirls turned out a little too "white" for such a grungy piece, so I took my Antique Linen Distress Marker and colored over the stamped images a couple of times.  It seemed to tone the swirls down nicely.  I stamped some splatters in archival ink and then I stamped around the edges with a cross stitch stamp in Distress Embossing Ink (embossed the stitches with a black embossing powder).  Then ... my Tim Holtz Splatters Stencil arrived and I had to use it!!!  Yes, I'm getting ready for Creative Chemistry 102 (hope to see many of you there on Oct 7th) and I went in debt a little more to add this stencil to my list of supplies.  I used an ink blending tool and added the rings to the background with Walnut Stain Distress Paint.  I then went back over the edges with my Walnut Stain Distress Marker.  I thought it looked very much like the coffee I spilled on some papers a few days ago.  Sand paper, some serious creasing, and Pumice Stone ink were used to distress the edges.

I then grabbed some coordinating paper from my Paper Studio paper stash to create my "you leave me in stitches" sentiment.  I distressed the papers, stamped the sentiment, stitches and buttons, then embellished them with some flowers, pearls and a safety pin that colored with red alcohol ink.

The bottom left hand corner was emblished with some floral elements and a button that I alcohol inked.  And I added a great little sticker that I found in A Splash of Color Mixed Media 101 Journey stickers.  Thought it was perfect for this blog entry.  Another sticker from this set decorates the burlap canvas heart that you can see in the first picture at the top of this post.  I used a small wooded spool and needle to wrapped with black embroidery floss to finish up the embellishment on this project.  Here's another view of the complete project:

Well, that completes my description of my latest project.  It's a mess ... but it's my mess :)

The rest of this post will bring you up to speed on my own Chiari Journey.  If you aren't interested, thanks for dropping and checking out this piece.  I hope to see you later.

For those who have been following my story, here we go ...

Mary Elizabeth's Chiari Story ... continued:

I saw my neurologist before going to NY for my Chiari Institute (TCI) appointment.  He conducted an EMG and nerve study to rule out carpal tunnel.  We were both surprised that I couldn’t feel anything when the needle went into the muscles on my upper left arm and shoulder.  My neurologist said I seemed to have a classic Chiari “cape” of sensation loss.  This was somewhat of a revelation for him.  All of the tests indicated that my problems were not with the muscles or nerves in my arms, but seemed to be coming from my spinal cord.

Meeting with Dr Bolognese at TCI was a bit of a shock.  As usual, I had a headache, so it took some time to process everything.  Fortunately I had one of my best friends with me (my roommate from college who had been diagnosed with a Chiari Malformation a few years earlier) to make sense of everything.  Dr Bolognese confirmed that I also had a Chiari I Malformation.  It almost felt as if he was clairvoyant.  He told me things about myself that he couldn’t have known (like the fact that my headaches were one-sided) because I didn’t report it to anyone at TCI and things I didn’t even know myself (like the fact that I had problems swallowing and it had come on so slowly that I wasn’t even aware of it).  He said that my Chiari was “bear-hugging” my spinal cord (blocking CSF flow) and that it was asymmetric (longer on the left side than on the right  -- hence the headaches on the left side of my head).  I felt such relief to finally have an explanation!

Then there were those fateful words … “ but that’s not all”.  I had another problem.  On the back side of my spinal cord was the Chiari.  On the opposite side, I have a retroflexed odontoid.  Dr Bolognese explained that this normally vertical bone supports the skull on a person’s neck, but mine was leaning backwards and sometimes it wobbles and rubs against my spinal cord.  So, this also was also causing some of my problems.    Dr Bolognese said that my spinal cord was “literally between a rock and hard place”.  That little piece of information sent me into a tailspin.   I was not prepared for this new weirdo thing that was wrong with me or for the next discussion that we had about possible surgery.

Dr B said that we had two surgical treatment options.  The first option would be to do two operations at one time: a decompression for the Chiari (making more room for spinal fluid flow) and craniocervical fusion (where he would support the skull on my neck with two metal rods, one on each side of my spine, which would be screwed into several vertebrae and into my skull).  That really sounded terrifying.  He said that the fusion surgery would limit the range of motion of my head by 50% in all directions. Or … our second option would be to do just the decompression surgery and wait to see if the spinal cord moves away from the odontoid as a result of having more room after the Chiari was removed.

As I mentioned earlier in this post, traditional Chiari decompression surgery is quite a big deal.  The reason there is such a big incision is because the surgeon usually removes a piece bone at the base of the skull to make more room in the skull for all of the brain tissue.  The back of the brain usually moves back up into the skull and cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) flow improves. Dr. Bolognese went on to say that a traditional decompression surgery really was not an option for me.  If he went in and removed the bones to make room for the back of my brain (as the NC neurosurgeon described to me earlier), he would have to make a fairly large incision that would disrupt the neck muscles and connective tissues that were currently keeping my skull stable on my neck (they were taking up the slack left by the retroflexed odontoid).  In that case, I would probably be back in the hospital within a couple of months because I would not be able to lift my head.  So, he was planned to do a relatively new type of Posterior Fossa Decompression surgery that would be minimally invasive, meaning that he would disrupt those supporting structures as little as possible in getting access to the Chiari Malformation. 

Here is how he described this new technique to me.  He would start by making a small incision just long enough to get access to the bottom of my skull and the top of my C1 vertebrae.  Then he would shave off about a millimeter of bone at the bottom of my skull and a millimeter of bone at the top of C1.  He then planned to work in that small window between the skull and C1 to burn out the offending Chiari and amputate the burned tissue. (Dr B did later say that this brain tissue really wasn’t used for anything.  Honestly!  He could have said that 15 minutes earlier before he ever used the term “amputate” in regard to my brain!)  Anyway, this would be quite a tedious surgery.  There was a major artery to avoid and it’s a very small space to work in.  It would take a significant amount of time to do this surgery. 

At the end of our conversation, (which took about an hour – I have never had a doctor take that much time with me), Dr. Bolognese said that he really couldn’t recommend one surgical option over the other at this point.  I had to make the decision.  I went back home to think.  I knew I had to do something. That was a no-brainer (no pun intended).  I was becoming incapacitated by my headaches and that is never good when one is a teacher.  And the numbness in my arms was alarming.   We finally decided that we would just go with the decompression surgery and see how things pan out later with the odontoid.

My Posterior Fossa Decompression surgery on January 10, 2012 took 7.5 hours to complete.  I had several blood vessels intertwined around my Chiari that had to be systematically moved.  My incision was about 2 inches long.  I'm not a true zipperhead like so many of fellow Chiarians.  My family said it was so good to see me after the surgery, but it was hard to recognize me with all the swelling around my neck and face (as a result of lying face-down all that time and the surgical trauma around my neck area).  In less than twelve hours, I was out of Neuro ICU.  I was up walking the halls the very next day.  On the second day after surgery, Dr. B had me running (well … not really … it was more like slowly shuffling) up and down a flight of stairs.  I spent a total of five days in the hospital and another two at the Variety House across the street from hospital.  I was on a plane home to NC seven days after surgery.

I have felt the best in the last two years that I have in decades.   I have not had a single bad “migraine”-like headache since the surgery.  I’m completely amazed. I truly realized the extent of this miracle when my brother asked me if I had anything that he could take for a headache.  I reached for my purse and suddenly realized that I did not have any pain relievers in my purse.  In fact, I had stopped carrying my ever-present Excedrin Migraine bottle months earlier

Dr Bolognese was elated at my 3-month follow-up appointment.  The odontoid bone did not move much as a result of the surgery.  I need to point out that I do not seem to have one of the connective tissue disorders known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) that can make the odontoid bone very unstable. 

However, I am afraid that I may have to have the fusion surgery in the near future.  In March of this year, I started losing feeling in both of my hands.  I have some decreased sensation in my fingers.  Functionally, they are fine.  I drop things occasionally and I hurt myself without knowing it every once in a while.  I could live with that.  However, a couple of weeks ago, I lost feeling in my right foot.  It terrified me.  I've got most of my feeling back, but the right side (just under my ankle is still completely numb.  I went for another brain MRI on Monday.  I meet with my neurologist this Friday to see if I need to make an appointment with Dr B again.  Sigh.  It's ok.  It is what it is.  I'd just like to stay away from surgery for awhile longer. :)

So, there’s my story.  Even without the issues from the Retroflexed Odontoid, I know I will always have symptoms.  There is no “cure” for a Chiari Malformation.  Damage has already been done.  But I am so much better now!!!  I now know the source of all my strange ailments; that in itself is priceless.

I hope you haven't been too bored.  Thanks for letting me get this out of my system.  Now ... back to my craft room.  I have more images swimming around in my imagination that are dying to be let out!  Wishing you all a fabulous weekend.  -- Mary Elizabeth

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Two tags in One!

Today, I just enjoyed playing with ink and paints down in my craft room.  Ok, this week is a Stamping on Anything but Plain Paper Challenge at Simon Says Stamp Monday Challenge.  So, I decided to stamp on ... a tag that I had just made.  Here is the tag in its first incarnation:

I made masks using Tim Holtz Tattered Leaves die and used some techniques from a Ranger Ink video on using Dylusions that was posted on their website this week to create the background colors.  I used Distress Markers and a water brush to color the interior of the leaves.

Here is the tag after I painted over it with Picket Fence Distress Paint.  I let it dry a little, then misted parts of the tag with water.  Some of the Dylusions ink came through and you can see some of the leaf images in the back ground.  I used gesso to stamp the leaves and wheat stamps and then did some shading with Distress Markers.  I used an ink blending tool and Distress Ink to ink around the entire tag (Walnut Stain, Fired Brick, Spiced Marmalade and Wild Honey).  I stamped a paragraph on Nature and leaf veins in black archival ink. I topped it with a small tag that I stamped and a bow.

Gotta Run.  Deadline looms!!  -- Mary Elizabeth

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Celebrating Autumn

After my marathon post earlier this week, this one is pathetically short.   I have been working on this piece for some time now.  Honestly, I don't think I can remember all the details of this one.  I've been putting my brain on autopilot and letting this piece emerge in an organic way.

It started out with a background of kraft paper and some bold strokes of gesso.  I added some Sizzix die cut pumpkins, used a great deal of Distress Ink, Distress Stain, and Distress Markers that I mixed with Matte Multi Medium.  I did some stamping on a piece of paper from Industrial Chic and added that to the top.  The largest pumpkin die cut was adhered with foam adhesive squares. 

I just want to put this piece up on the blog and look at it.  It makes me happy as I register the chill in the air.  Autumn really is upon us here in the NC mountains.  -- Mary Elizabeth

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Continuing My Chiari Story

Wow!  It has been an amazing couple of weeks.  I really would like to thank the Simon Say Stamp Monday Challenge Design Team (especially Anna-Karin for her lovely comments ) for the Spotlight on my Chiari Canvas.  I would also like to say thanks to those who pinned the Chiari Canvas on Pinterest.  All of you have helped me get this message out and raise awareness about the sometimes hidden and often debilitating condition known as Chiari Malformation.

My tag today celebrates what I'm feeling.  For years, I battled an unnamed and virtually invisible illness. Often I felt very alone.  This month, my art has given me an avenue to reach out to others who have lived this Chiari life and to those who have never heard of such an illness.  I love this Tim Holtz stamp "in dreams we catch glimpses of life larger than our own".  That has been what the last couple of weeks have been for me.

If you take a look at the entire tag, you will see evidence of my Chiari life.  I was trying to use some of my alphabet stamps and my placement got a little wobbily.  I was pretty tired last night but I was determined to get this tag done.   I was too tired to redo it or find a fix, so I'm sort of stuck with the wonky words ;)  The tag's background was made with my favorite color of Distress Stain, Seedless Preserves, purple Perfect Pearls from the Jewels set, and some Dylusions Ink Spray in Crushed Grape.  I spritzed it with water and applied some heat.  Love this color!!  I added a couple of Tim's other stamps to frame out the background.

 My awareness ribbon actually started out as a beautiful cream satin edged with gold.  I used the Seedless Preserves Distress Stain and water to get that pale purple color  The base on which my ribbon lies is a Tim Holtz grungeboard square.  I stained it first with Seedless Preserves Distress Stain and dried it completely.  Then I used a Perfect Medium pen to outline the swirls.  I applied the same purple Perfect Pearls from the tags background to the swirls.  That was heat set.  Then using a small paint brush I applied Broken China Distress Stain over top of the Seedless Preserves to give it a darker, bluer tint. The ribbon was attached with Glossy Accents.  I outlined it with Picket Fence and Black Soot Distress Markers.

I embellished the tag with black trim ribbon and a ring duo charm that emphasizes the hope that I have for my own health and for others out there with Chiari.  It seems that each week physicians and researchers are making major advances in this area. 

For those of you who are interested, I'm going to share a little more my person story with Chiari.  If you would rather not listen to someone else's boring health problems, I'm not offended :)  I hope to see you the next time I share more of my art.

So My Chiari Story Continues ...

Actually, it's the beginning of the story and the background of why I am so passionate about raising awareness for Chiari Malformation and its related illnesses.

Flashback – Fall 1995:  I vividly remember that headache.  I was a somewhat ambitious doctoral student at the University of Georgia.  I already had plans for my dissertation and life was going well.  It was the beginning of the term and I was heading from my office on the first floor to my seminar class on the 6th floor.  Other than adult-onset asthma that I had acquired a couple of years earlier, I was in fairly good shape at the time.  I was late so ended up running up the stairs (faster than our building's elevator).  By the time I reached the 6th floor, I had a headache.  It was on the left side of my head and it pounded!  I was sure it would go away by the time I relaxed, so I went into class.  I was wrong; it got worse. 

I don’t remember much about that class except the pain and trying to keep up with the discussion.  (A couple of days later, I recall telling my advisor that I hoped that I didn’t make a fool of myself during that afternoon’s seminar.  His only reply was “Well … at least you didn’t dance on the table.”  Ugh!)  I definitely do remember getting back down to my office.  Lights were too bright.  Sounds were too loud.  And every step made my head feel like it was going to fall off.  Over the next couple of hours, I took four Advil and then a couple of Tylenol that I had bummed off of someone in our department.  Nothing helped.  I was not able to drive myself home that evening and I was scared. 

I still had a headache the next day and I went directly to the University’s student medical clinic.  I got my first diagnosis of migraines.  After that day, headaches became a way of life for me.   The rest of that year was okay.  I was getting use to the headaches.   I lived by Excedrin Migraine.  At the beginning of summer 1996, I had completed all but one of my comprehensive exams and was working out the details for the dissertation study I hoped to start in the fall.  In the meantime, I managed to work as a volunteer for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.  It was an amazing time, but I remember the headaches intensified during those few weeks.  I thought it was just the pace I was living at during those days. 

When the Olympics ended, I went back to UGA and started working on my next comprehensive exam.  I felt exhausted.  I was sure that if I rested enough, I would get better.  Within a week, I started running a low-grade fever, sore throat, and had excruciating pain in several joints, especially my left shoulder.  Within a few more weeks, I could barely get out of bed.  We were very concerned that I may have caught some bug during the Olympics.

It took six months of testing and a trip to a rheumatologist to rule out everything from Lyme’s Disease to AIDS.  The student medical clinic ran so many tests on me that they began taking spare blood taps for future tests since my arms were beginning to look like a Heroin addict’s arms from all the needle marks.  The only thing that they could find beyond the symptoms I was exhibiting was anemia. 

By midterm, I returned to school.  Pain would go from one joint to another:  hips, knees, ankles, jaw, neck, ... no joint was discriminated against.  The worst pain was in my shoulders, vertebrae, wrists and fingers.   I couldn't even hold a pen to sign my own signaure some days. I also would have periods where I would functionally black out.  I would leave my office building to walk to my car in the graduate student parking lot; and the next thing I knew, I was on the other side of a four-lane street and I was half way to my car.  That was extremely scary.  By the end of the six months and all the testing, I had a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. 

I managed to graduate with my doctorate and I started teaching at another university in Fall 1997. In 2000, I found a job closer to my family in North Carolina. I love teaching.  My students are the reason why I get up in the morning, especially when I'm fatigued and suffer with my symptoms.  Fatigue is something different from just being tired.  It’s like someone pulls a plug in the bottom of your feet and all of your energy leaks out onto the ground.  I would lie down to rest and then all of the sudden my heart would start racing.  Then there would be days when I would have vertigo and nausea.  My ribs would slip out of alignment causing a great deal of pain.  There were violent bouts of irritable bowel syndrome.  I couldn’t hear well out of my right ear.  I had cognitive issues like not being able to remember how to get to a friend’s house or a restaurant that I had been to just recently.  Symptoms would come and go.  I had a heart murmur and then I didn’t.  My eyes didn’t track together and then they did.  But the headaches … they were my constant companions.  And they got worse. One lasted for 21 days and another lasted almost a month. These marathon headaches only stopped after large doses of narcotics and muscle relaxers (sometimes multiple rounds) that would knock me out.

Through it all, I never missed a day of work.  I kept going.  The one comment that many Chiari sufferers get from those around them is "but you don't look sick".  Most of our symptoms leave no external signs.  Some of my family, friends and colleagues wondered if it was all in my head.  That hurts as much as the physical suffering.

 I did change my primary care physician about five years ago.  The new doctor believed me when I said that I felt like something else was wrong with me.  My joint pain, fatigue, and headaches were becoming almost unbearable. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep functioning at my current level.  After listening to my history, he was concerned that I might have Myesthenia Gravis.  So we sought out a neurologist.  The neurologist was pretty sure I did not have MG, but he did diagnose me again with classic migraines.  When I went back to my primary care physician, I asked him what was next to explore.  He said that was it.  I asked him about the mind-numbing fatigue and the myriad other nuisance symptoms I had.  He gave me a hug and said, “Some people just have chronic fatigue.” 

Then one spring morning in 2010, I woke up with a severe pain in my neck.  My next new primary care physician thought I had a ruptured disc and sent me for a neck MRI (CSPINE).  That’s when life got very interesting.  The radiologist confirmed the ruptured disc between C6 and C7 and … he also saw a Chiari I Malformation approximately 5 mm long. 

A summer of neck traction took care of the ruptured disc.  But it took a couple of years to take care of the Chiari.  First of all, my neurologist told me, “That’s not a Chiari.”  Evidently, according to his experiences, I just had slightly herniated cerebellar tonsils.  And, since I didn’t have a Chiari, it was highly unlikely that the herniation could be playing a role in my headaches.  He did tell me that I did not exhibit the classic Chiari headache pattern.  That was true.  I later found out that my Chiari was asymmetric (longer on the left side than the right) and that was why my headaches seemed more like left-sided migraines than Chiari headaches. Anyway, we didn't know that at the time so we forgot about the Chiari Malformation note on the radiology report and continued to try to find something that would help me reduce the frequency of my "migraines".  I was seeing my neurologist every three months to discuss the results of the latest prescription or strategy and then discussing what to do next.  Because I really did not have migraines, migraine medications would create bizarre side effects.  That was difficult to deal with as well.

By Fall 2010, I was suffering with headaches on a daily basis.  I developed new symptoms: reactive hypoglycemia, occipital nerve pain that burned the base of my skull, pins and needles in my hands, and something that I call a “brain zap” or “zing”.  This weird "zing" is like having an electric current running through my head.  It feels like sticking your finger in a live light socket.  Sometimes it runs just through my head.  Sometimes it runs through my head and then down to the tip of my fingers.   

Then came one of the most pivotal moments of my illness. I had a headache that was so painful, I honestly was aware of nothing else around me.  I was going to see my niece in an end-of-summer-drama-camp production. We were waiting outside the building for the doors to open on a Friday evening.  I felt nauseated and the pain in my head just continued to build.  I took multiple Excedrin Migraine, but it didn’t touch the pain.  I sat down on a bench while everyone else went to get my niece some flowers for her performance.  Anything could have happened to me that evening while I sat there and I would not have even registered it.  I could have been kidnapped, mugged, etc, and I would have been helpless to do anything about it.  All I was aware of was the pain.  I couldn't keep going like this.  I would lose my job and any quality of life that I had.

I called and made an emergency appointment with my neurologist as soon the office opened.  He said that we had done exhausted treatment options.  He recommended that I see a neurosurgeon to see if the escalating headaches had anything to do with the ruptured disc in my neck.  In August, I saw a neurosurgeon in the area.  After an hour of neurological testing (in which I was very surprised to find out that I had decreased sensation in my left arm and the left side of my face), the doctor asked me into his office.  He pointed to an image on my brain MRI and asked me if I had ever heard of a Chiari Malformation.  I just kind of laughed and said that I had.  The neurosurgeon went on to say that he was fairly sure that my headaches were being caused by the Chiari and that I would probably benefit from decompression surgery.  He went on to explain that he would remove some bone for the base of my skull and the top vertebrae to make room for the cerebellum tonsils to move back up into my skull and give room for cerebral spinal fluid to flow.  I was dumb-founded.  I told the surgeon that I wanted to think about it for a little while before I made any decisions.

After discussing the results of this visit with my neurologist, we decided to go for a second opinion.  An appointment was set up with a neurosurgeon at one of the best hospitals in our state.  Before I could go to that appointment, I started losing feeling in my right arm and hand.  I also had some bizarre involuntary movements in my left wrist.  I was given an emergency appointment with the hospital's neurosurgeon on call that day.  After giving me less than five minutes to discuss my symptoms and briefly looking at my MRI’s he told me that I most likely had carpal tunnel in my wrists.  I asked how the carpal tunnel could impact my headaches.  He then said, “Oh those are probably tension headaches.  You are stressed, aren’t you?”  I was furious.  I know what tension headaches are and there was no way that my horrible headaches were tension headaches.   I went out into my car and cried.

I returned to work that afternoon and told one of my colleagues, who incidentally does have carpal tunnel, that there was nothing wrong with me.  I was just going to shut up and be healthy … even if it killed me.  My family could find out what was actually wrong with me when they did the autopsy.  This colleague (and very good friend) told me that I had 24 hours to “be healthy” and not think about my health issues.  But after that, I either had to continue my search for a doctor who could help me find out what was wrong or she was going to kick me in the backside.  I will forever be grateful to her for that.

Twenty-four hours later, I realized that even if I went to every neurosurgeon in NC, I would probably end up with the dichotomy of opinions like before.  There seems to be very few doctors who really have a deep understanding of Chiari Malformations.  So, I decided to find someone who specialized in Chiari.  I spent a few days searching the Internet.  From what I have read, there are great surgeons out there, but it seemed that The Chiari Institute had an entire staff of professionals who could look at my case from a variety of viewpoints and Dr. Bolognese seemed to be one of the best Chiari specialists in the country.  I filled out all of the questionnaires and immediately faxed them to TCI.  When I received an email that my case would be look at by the interdisciplinary group at TCI, I felt like I had won the lottery.  It wasn’t long until I was invited to meet with Dr Bolognese.  I breathed again.

Sorry for the long story, but sixteen years is a long time to suffer and have people think you are an attention-seeking lunatic:)  I'll continue this story later in the month.  I tell it because I want to help people understand this odd illness and hopefully encourage others to keep looking for answers.  They are out there ... even when you really don't believe so yourself.  

Thanks for listening.  -- Mary Elizabeth

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Spooky Stenciling with Tim Holtz ... September Tag of 2013

Before I begin the details of my new tag, I would like to thank all of you who visited my last Chiari Awareness post.  I must admit that I was more than a little nervous when I hit the "Publish" button for that post.  I wasn't sure how the topic of my illness would be perceived and I really wasn't comfortable sharing something so personal in a very public venue.  I am continually amazed and heartened by the support and friendship I have felt from this crafting community.  A very special thank you to all of you who left such kind comments.  You all are the best!!  Now ... on with the show.

As I started thinking about creating my version of Tim Holtz's 12 Tags of 2013 for September, I knew I was going to have to be a little more creative than usual.  Tim's techniques for this month's tag (you can see all of the details here on his blog) involves his new line of layering stencils.  I have not been able to lay my hands on these wonderful stencils yet; so, I had to look through my stash and see what I had that might work.  I laid out the very few The Crafters Workshop stencils and the one Heidi Swapp stencil that I own.  I thought ... "I can work with this."

Next question ... theme for my tag?  I had planned to do a Chiari Awareness ribbon tag (the ribbon color is purple) this month and thus recently purchased Seedless Preserves Distress Stain.  Oh!  I love this color!!!  I started playing around with different backgrounds using Seedless Preserves with other Distress Stain colors.  I came up with this cool combination of Seedless Preserves, Peeled Paint, Spiced Marmalade and Salty Ocean.  Immediately, I knew it would be perfect for a Halloween tag.  Hmm ... how do I take the limited stencils that I have and make a Halloween tag?  Definitely calls for double dose of creativity.

 I started my stenciling with the stars on Heidi Swapp's Confetti stenciling.  I didn't have any embossing paste (another item at the top of my wish list), so I used some Texture Magic Dimensional Paint with my stencil.  After giving my stars a quick hit with the heat tool, I went on to my next stencil layer.  I grabbed a 12 X 12 TCW stencil that has a variety of clock faces on it.  When I saw this, I thought about the "witching hour" of midnight when all of the spooky monsters come out.  Ah ha!  I had the theme for my tag.  I took some Black Soot Distress Paint on a clean blending tool foam pad and lightly pounced the paint on my stencil (building up color intensity with repeated applications using an almost dry foam pad to keep the paint from bleeding under the stencil ).

Okay ... two stencil layers down.  At this point, I realized that I don't own a lot of Halloween crafting supplies.  I couldn't find a monster or creature stamp in my stash.  So I decided to add my primary image for my tag as a stencil layer.  I made my own stencil by punching out a skull and crossbones embellishment from Tim Holtz Idealogy Grungeboard Elements.  I used the skull shaped hole that remained as my stencil.  Using the same blending tool technique and Picket Fence Distress Paint, I stenciled in my skull and crossbones onto my tag.

Three layers of stenciling behind me (and yes, I went through at least 20 tags to get a finished product that didn't get smeared before it dried or bled through or just looked wrong) and now I was ready for that wonderful stain combination. After drying the stains with my heat tool, I added some details to my stenciled images with my Distress Markers, an archival quality black pen, and a fluorescent orange acid-free gel pen (to bring out the numbers on my clock-face).

I knew I wanted to add another stencil layer.  Originally, I thought I would add some stenciled tree branches with Distress Ink; but, my eyes fell on my TCW flame stencil and a light bulb went off!  I could use the flame stencil to make ghosts on my tag.  I grabbed my Picket Fence Distress Marker and water brush and began tracing some of the flames on my tag with this semitransparent white pigment ink.  I used the water brush to get the flame "ghost" images even more transparent and added "eyes" with a Black Soot Distress Marker.  The ghosts seemed to float up from bottom of the tag over top of all the other images.  Pretty cool!

We finally come to one of my favorite parts of this tag.  As I started to add embellishments, I remembered that I had some of the Tim's enamel number tags and one of them had a 31 on it.  I looked through my brads and found some that had green tops.  Fun!  When I attached the tag, those brads reminded me of eyes.  I took a alcohol ink pen and added the cat eye vertical pupils.  Very creepy looking enamel tag, if I do say so myself.  The clock hand is a metal arrow that I colored with alcohol ink pens and gave a Glossy Accents topcoat.  I added some Making Memories Halloween word stickers and gave Mr Skull a mustache "costume".

I just couldn't stop with "just a tag" for some reason.  I pulled out some chipboard letters and  the Heidi Swapp Confetti stencil again.  I added some stenciled dots with Peeled Paint Distress Paint.  I then stained the letters with Seedless Preserves Distress Stain and edged them with Black Soot.  The letters got a thin coat of Gloss Accents.   I used recycled cardboard packaging strips to attach the letters to the back of the tag.  I embellished the letters with a bat that was die cut with a Tim Holtz Sizzix die out of Core'dinations Distress Colorcore paper in Black Soot (edges sanded), a cool watch embellishment that I colored with alcohol ink pens (to go with my midnight theme), and alphabet stamped "witching hour".

The tag was topped off with a crinkle ribbon that I stained with my background tag colors and then stenciled with the Heidi Swapp Confetti stars in Black Soot Distress Paint.  I added a smoky glass bauble for a little sparkle.

I'm going to leave you with one more shot of the entire tag.  My version of Tim's September tag went in a little different direction than his original make.  However, I really like it.  The colors are so fun and I enjoyed the creative journey that I went on with this tag.  Thanks for joining me on this little trip :)  -- Mary Elizabeth

Friday, September 6, 2013

Crafting with a Cause -- Chiari Awareness Month

During the month of September, I would like to share with you a little more about myself as I share my art with you.  Please bear with me ... this post may be a little longer than usual.

In January of 2012, I was in a Long Island hospital recovering from brain surgery.  Even as I sit here and look at those words in black and white (ok ... I guess the type is all white on my blog), it still feels a little surreal.   I honestly thought I would probably die without ever knowing what was wrong with me.  I suffered with a variety of debilitating symptoms for over 16 years before I finally had an answer.  In November 2011, I was diagnosed with a Chiari Malformation Type I and a secondary condition called a Retroflexed Odontoid.

The month of September is Chiari Awareness Month.  Many people may suffer with it for years (like me) and never know they have it.  I would like to tell my story over the next few weeks and perhaps help someone else.

My surgery was performed by Dr. Paolo Bolognese, a neurosurgeon at The Chiari Institute (TCI) in NY.  He is one the best Chiari surgeons in the country and I am indebted to him for making my life so much better.  Chiari malformation includes several disorders that are characterized by a herniation of the back of the brain through the large opening at the base of the skull into the spinal canal.  This acts like a stopper in a bottle and blocks the circulation of cerebrospinal fluid.  Most cases, like mine, are congenital.  Although I like to tell everyone that I have "too much brain to contain", I actually have a skull that is too small.

As my canvas indicates, such a condition "puts a spanner in the works" of my brain. Hopefully you can see my token monkey wrench at the base of my skull in the workings of my brain.  According to TCI's website, "The majority of patients complain of severe headache and neck pain. Other common symptoms are dizziness, vertigo, disequilibrium, visual disturbances, ringing in the ears, difficulty swallowing, palpitations, sleep apnea, muscle weakness, impaired fine motor skills, chronic fatigue and painful tingling of the hands and feet. Because of this complex symptomatology, patients with CM1 are frequently misdiagnosed." Yep ... just like me.  And this is why I want to share this with you.  I had so many odd symptoms that my doctor would just treat the symptoms and never put them together as one giant condition.  TCI goes on to say that, "Until recent years, CM1 was regarded as a rare condition. With the increased availability of magnetic resonance imaging, the number of reported cases has risen sharply. Current estimates range from 200,000 to 2 million Americans with the condition. Genetic studies spearheaded by Dr. Milhorat support a hereditary tendency with a transmissibility rate of 12 percent. Women are affected three times more often than men. Approximately 3,500 Chiari operations are performed each year in the United States."

Ok that's enough about that for now.  I'd like to talk a little about my project before I fall asleep at the keyboard.  If you look really carefully at the pictures above, you should be able to see the MRI underneath all of gears, paint and ink.  Yes, that actually is my MRI.  I took a still from my computer and printed it on photo paper.  After adhering it to the gessoed canvas, I started covering it with lots of crafty goodness.

I began by using Tim Holtz's On the Edge Steampunk die to cut out grungeboard pieces to frame the top and bottom of the canvas.  As I thought about representing my brain and the problems that I have, I immediately thought about using gears.  The Steampunk theme for this piece built from there.  I slathered on some more gesso to the grungeboard border at the top, stamped the word CHIARI (using a "1" as the final "i" in the word), added some Tim Holtz tissue tape and covered it all with Pumice Stone and Walnut Stain Distress Ink.  The die cut gears were painted with Tarnished Brass and Broken China Distress Paint.  I then did some shading with alcohol ink. I did a similar treatment to the bottom frame piece.  I added some small grunged metal gears to the corners on both top and bottom of the piece.

The middle evolved over time.  I started by painting the rest of the canvas and everything on the MRI except my brain (ok -- that's just weird to type), spinal cord and outline of my head with Black Soot Distress Paint.  I then went over the outlines with a Martha Stewart white paint pen.  While I tried arranging my variety of "brain" gears, I found the black to be way overwhelming.  For Simon Says Stamp Monday Challenge, I thought I wanted to use my Tim Holtz "all star" flourish stamp on the edges of the piece; however, I thought it might look interesting on the "inside" of my head. So I got out my Moonlight archival ink and randomly started stamping portions of the stamp (without using a stamp block) around the interior.  I didn't mind going outside of the lines because I knew I could repaint the head's exterior with more black paint after I finished.  I did protect my brain with a paper mask as I stamped :)  Anyway, I pretty much loved the end result.

I used the gears stamp from Tim's Time Traveler stamp set on the left and right edges of the canvas.  I stamped it with Distress Embossing Ink and embossed it with chunky clear embossing powder.  I painted over the embossed image with the black paint and came back to stamp over that with black archival ink to pick up more of the gears' details.  I really liked the tone-on-tone texture.  Finally, I used one more of Tim's stamps on a diecut ticket.   It sort of sums up the way things have been for me over the last couple of years -- "Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans."

My brain gears are both of the metal and grungeboard diecut variety.  I painted them with just about anything that I had in front of me on my workspace.  I added some various rusty and tarnished brads (doesn't look like those gears do a lot of spinning, does it?) and called it a day.

I'll leave you with one more look at the finished project.  I hope the length and subject matter has not been too horrible for you.  Thanks for letting me share this with you.  -- Mary Elizabeth