Sixteen years ago, Angie Bryant’s life changed.
The then-19-year-old woman was diagnosed with epilepsy. The change shocked Bryant and her family, leaving them unsure how to cope with the news.
Then five years ago, Bryant’s life changed again when she discovered a program called Studio E.
Studio E came to Atlanta as a part of a pilot art therapy program created by the Epilepsy Foundation and the global pharmaceutical company Lundbeck as a resource for patients. And when Bryant became aware of the group, she had no expectations upon applying for entrance.
“I had never met anyone else with epilepsy,” she said. “I started not to go the first time, but it was the best decision I ever made.”
Not the average epilepsy
When Bryant first became ill, doctors were confused by her condition. They thought she had a severe thyroid problem or other disorder, but when Bryant’s doctor sent her to a neurologist, she was told she had epilepsy.
“The kinds of epilepsy weren’t specific at that time,” she said. “The knowledge was limited; I just knew my life was going to change.”
When Bryant was first diagnosed with epilepsy, the Arkansas high school track runner worried about the side effects, including weight gain from her medication.
Other logistical concerns arose. She was restricted from driving for six months.
But the 19-year-old refused to let her disorder slow her down.
“I went to Barnes & Noble, and I got the only two books they had (about epilepsy),” Bryant said. “It was really dry information. The information available in the ‘E’ community has changed drastically.”
But Bryant eventually realized her form of the disease was rare with some unusual triggers.
“My epilepsy happens when I sleep, or during high-stress situations or hormone changes,” Bryant said. “When I moved to Georgia later that year (1999), I had to go to the ER to find a new doctor for my condition.
“After that, I was seizure-free for almost 10 years.”
She managed her condition with medicine, leading to an active lifestyle for a while.
She spent her days working in sales, human resources and other corporate positions, traveling and climbing up the career ladder.
“I didn’t want to be a stereotypical epileptic,” she said. “I still had to be under neurological care, but I was very fortunate to have my job.”
Shift in seizures and life
Five years ago, however, Bryant’s seizures returned suddenly and violently, forcing her life to change once again.
“My triggers changed,” she said. “I was under more stress, and the first seizure then was very severe. It took almost five hours with a team of paramedics to get it under control.”
The following seizures were more subtle, triggered by heat or stress or hormones. But with each seizure came a six-month driving restriction and a period of pure exhaustion.
After a few groupings, Bryant and her employer spoke about her career option. They mutually decided Bryant would take medical leave.
Her short leave turned into a five-year absence as her seizures occurred more frequently. But Bryant would not allow herself to wallow in self-pity or simply watching TV to pass the time.
“I’ve always been very optimistic,” she said. “Sitting at home was not going to be an option for me. Within the first six months of my leave, I was doing lots of research, and Studio E happened to come up in my search.”
The program was in its infancy with only four cities participating in the first years — Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles.
“The program started out in Chicago with two art therapists who were connected with the epilepsy foundation,” said Phoebe Whisnant, an art therapist with Studio E. “We were selected by the national chapter to try it out in Atlanta, and now it’s in almost 50 cities.”
The program meets for six to eight weeks during the summer. Instructors facilitate classes and meetings for epilepsy patients, but art instruction is not the ultimate goal. Studio E offers a unique group experience.
“We don’t have support groups for people with epilepsy in the greater Atlanta area,” Whisnant said.
The open setting, however, facilitates discussion and expression among those affected by epilepsy. And art is a proven therapy method.
“It helps with reducing feelings of isolation,” Whisnant said. “In a group format, peers support each other. They have had similar struggles. They feel heard and understood. The art is a common ground where they utilize the materials to express their thoughts and feelings.
“They say it has helped improve their self-esteem and anxiety. A lot talk about how they felt depressed before Studio E.”
Affected by art, others
Bryant is one of the many whose lives have been improved by art and the camaraderie of Studio E.
The now-35-year-old admits she was interested in art prior to her experience but did not consider herself an artist. Now, her works have been featured in exhibits all across the country.
“We do have a lot of members who have had no prior experience with art,” Whisnant said. “We see an increased freedom of expression in their willingness to be brave and express their feelings. In the beginning they will ask for technical instruction and assistance. But after a few weeks, they don’t ask for any help at all.”
The increased ability to express emotion and communicate feelings is one of the most visible benefits Bryant has seen since she began. She also enjoys meeting others who are diagnosed with epilepsy. They talk about coping mechanisms, inspirations and experiences.
“It’s hard to express yourself sometimes among the online ‘E’ community,” Bryant said. “Going to a group, meeting people, hanging out and enjoying their company helps. Studio E has changed my perception of myself. Before, I had low self-esteem. I was ashamed of being sick and disappointed that I had to be on medical leave.”
Now, Bryant has friends in other states she has met through Studio E. She has traveled to various conventions and spoken on behalf of the epilepsy community. She works as an advocate for epilepsy patients and is writing a book while still creating art in her free time.
“I was in a medical documentary in Chicago over the summer,” Bryant said. “I’ve been in an exhibit called ‘Hidden Truth,’ which is epilepsy affiliated, for two years running.”
Her pieces are on display in Washington, D.C. , including one titled “Halos, Auras and Angels Among Us,” which shows an abstracted version of her experience when she has a seizure.
Bryant mentioned her inspiration does not come from her disorder but from music, meditation, prayer and other aspects of her life.
“All of my inspiration comes from some of my own experiences,” Bryant said. “Sometimes I pray, too. And I have an art buddy in another state and we will bounce ideas off each other.”
Community of care
The sense of community among the members of Studio E is unlike anything else Bryant has experienced. What was once a group of strangers is a close-knit circle.
“I really see it as an experience of growth with them,” Whisnant said. “I can look back and see where we started in 2011 with a room full of strangers that were very timid and had never experienced art therapy before or any kind of support group.”
Now, the Studio E participants from Atlanta have improved their physical condition, mental state and artistic ability while making friends, expressing their emotions and learning new things.
Each meeting, participants work with the array of materials given to them while conversing and discussing progress, challenges and everyday life.
“They can come up with their own scene if they have an idea for that day,” Whisnant said. “Or I will suggest an open-ended theme, like ‘create an image that expresses courage for you.’”
Acrylic oil is Bryant’s favorite medium, but she is always eager to learn new techniques to tell her story.
“I love experiencing new mediums and mixing media,” she said. “Right now, I’m into a very vintage, new pop style with heavy black lines, big eyes, that look.”
At the moment, Bryant is an environmental science major at the University of North Georgia , but her experiences with Studio E have influenced her to change her direction.
“I’m planning to switch my major to art,” she said. “I’m thinking about becoming an art therapist.”
Her goals are to simply help others with epilepsy, increase knowledge of the disorder and manage her own condition. But she also plans to stay involved with Studio E as long as she can.
“It has touched me in such a deep way, if they asked me (to be an art therapist one day) I would say yes,” Bryant said.