The Creative Wellness Project 2.0: LaTreice V. Branson
Last fall I launched The Creative Wellness Project as a way to bring attention to the many ways we can improve our health. I interviewed a range of people committed to taking personal responsibility for their well being. This fall, the project continues by introducing you to more amazing people with multiple and refreshing perspectives on what it takes to live well and be well. This round of interviews opens with an introduction to someone who shared a very personal journey to wellness with me. Here's LaTreice Branson's story.
1. Tell us about your background and what inspired you to start writing or practicing yoga.
I’ve been an artist since I was about 5 years old. I vividly remember asking my mother for Crayola Crayons because the other ones were “too waxy and didn’t make the colors look right.” Even at this young age, I was very clear about my artistic needs.
I must have been nine or ten years old when I first noticed that my legs weren’t “nomal”. I would watch children run and want to keep up, but my legs would hurt. It was like they didn’t work after a while. I would tell my parents about my pains, and as a result, I would be taken to the doctor, who always seemed to believe that I was simply a “big girl experiencing growing pains.”
In middle school, my most exciting pastime was playing basketball. I would wake up early in the morning, sometimes before the sun would rise, to challenge my baby sister in games of one-on-one. During those competitive, morning matches, I’d try my best to work on my game and increase stamina. Wrapping my ankles and knees in bandages before most games, my grandfather encouraged me to also try his preventive technique – wearing two pairs of socks. I tried everything and anything people suggested, but most basketball games left me limping and in terrible pain. During high school, my teammates would joke that I “smelled like an old person” before games. Only a choice few knew that the smell came from the creams that I was applying to my feet and legs to help ease my pain. When my high school basketball coach sat me down and asked which schools I wanted to apply to for basketball scholarships, I just dropped my head and cried. I will never forget having to tell her, “Thanks for the opportunity, but I know I can’t do that.” That was the first time in my life that I remember having to admit to myself that I could NOT do something because of Pain.
My relationship with Pain intensified throughout college. I was experiencing violent spasms and pains that felt so deep in my body that my only response was to weep. The doctors couldn’t explain it, so my family didn’t believe it, and I began to feel like no one cared. Through it all, I never lost my love of creating and began creating art about my intimate relationship with Pain. Plagued with insomnia, I would lay awake with Pain and draw, and write, and sing, and exercise. I would only exercise alone, either late at night or before sunrise. This way no one would judge me if for some sudden reason my leg gave out and I tripped; no one would see the ankle and knee braces anymore; no one would smell the Bengay. Pain and I were such close friends that there was little room for anyone else. We were a co-dependent mess. We were each other’s truth, creating lies to protect our sacred bond. During this time I wrote my first one-woman production, “A Woman’s Work, Never Done”.
It wasn’t until graduate school that Pain and I had to re-evaluate our relationship. I was in a car accident that forced my knees into the dashboard, and caused such intense whiplash that the frames to my eyeglasses were still on my face, but the lenses had popped out. I endured all types of treatments, at all kinds of hospitals for months, and became exhausted with doctor’s appointments, medications and therapies. Something had to change, but I didn’t have the time to be concerned with my wellness; I had degrees to earn. And that I did! By the age of 23, I had completed a Bachelor of Fine Art, Bachelor of Communications, Master of Fine Art, and a Graduate Interdisciplinary Specialization in Fine Art. My thesis was titled, “Face-to-Face: Mirrored Self-Portraiture”. It was an investigation into how one visualizes “self” and altered identity, post-trauma. At 24, I was an Adjunct Professor at two colleges and an exhibited artist, with works in several collections. Pain and I were living the dream. Then at 26, I had a fall on ice that left me home alone with Pain for almost a month. As a result of this accident, I developed neuropathy in both legs and began to experience severe depression. The art created during this time was called, “Black Out”, a collection of black paintings that were placed over poetry about pain and abuse.
At 27, after receiving my first tenure-tract professorship, I lost feeling in my legs. I was admitted to the hospital and spent almost a month in a senior’s living facility as I regained mobility. During my stay, I was also treated for depression and anxiety and given medication to help “regulate” my mood. Pain had formally introduced me to Crazy, or so I believed. I was unable to work for months, and soon wouldn’t be able to work at all. Depression and Pain convinced me that they were the only two who fully understood me, and I believed them for years.
2. What does your art events aim to do?
Pain, Depression, and I were just taking a palm full of medication daily, trying not to be an eyesore, until I met Jamila Hadiya. She taught me how to give voice to what Pain and Depression were doing to me, encouraging me to share what I had so conveniently hid. I had been singing and drumming for years, but not like this! There was as fire ignited in me that gave me the desire to not only share my story through my drumming and singing, but to create an event that would motivate me to survive my most sad time-winter. So Jamila and I became proactive, planning an inspired jam session series that would be open to all and featuring female drummers. Inspired by my gracious, drumming mother, Rev. Paula Y. Branson, I called it “Drum Like a Lady”.
Drum Like a Lady is an organization whose mission is to provide a safe space for women of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs and lifestyles to express their uniqueness through collective drumming, dance, music education and mental health advocacy. Started in 2014, in response to the discriminatory and sexist practices observed in the drumming community, Drum Like a Lady encourages women, and young girls alike, to see the drum as a healing instrument, a community tool, and one of the most powerful and effective methods of non-verbal communication known to humanity. Unfortunately, Western culture has indoctrinated us (women) to see the drum as masculine, loud, dominant, and aggressive, all of which is anti-female. Through the Drum Like a Lady jam sessions, musicians at all skills levels, ranging from the novice to the world traveler, are invited to share in the creation and celebration of a new soundscape – rooted in improvisation and inspired by the beauty of femininity.
3. What has been your biggest challenge and how do you overcome it?
My biggest challenge in life is preserving myself to drum for the jam every month, for it is one of my greatest joys. If I don’t stretch and practice yoga for a combined 2 hours a day, I can immobilize within a week’s time. I must also maintain a very consistent prayer life, combined with fruitful meditation and a health and wellness routine that I’ve developed to balance the side-effects of the many medications that I have.
Over the years, I’ve taught myself to eat vibrantly colored foods to aid with my depression. I prepare my salads and wraps as if I’m painting; I need all the right colors, in just the right hue, paired with just the right complementary colors. I’ve also learned that root vegetables are best for my neuropathy, bursitis and sciatic pain. My must-haves are beets, ginger, turmeric, and carrots, - anything that grows downward into the soil. Oh, and I absolutely love purple potatoes!
4.What book would you recommend everyone to read?
Every single person on the planet must read “The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music” by Victor L. Wooten. This book has transformed my life not only as a musician, but as a community servant and educator.
5. Who’s your favorite writer ? yogi and why?
My favorite Yogi on the planet is Arthur Boorman. He’s a former Gulf War paratrooper that suffered with severe back and knee pain as a result of jumping out of planes. For more than 10 years, he could only walk with the assistance of leg braces and crutches. He found a yoga video online, and it changed his life. He can walk unassisted and can even run now! Someone’s video inspired him to start his yoga journey despite the limitations that his doctors suggested would be a never-ending part of his life, and his video was the life-changing story that I needed to inspire my journey toward wellness…braces, cane and all.
6. Do you have a creative wellness practice?Something creative you do to encourage yourself to take better care of yourself?
My wellness practice begins with prayer. Without a strong personal relationship with God, I was bound to repeat the same behaviors/habits that allowed Pain and Depression to become such vivid, intimate confidants. These two are conditions, and I had to learn to view ALL my diagnoses as such. The more intimately acquainted I became with my conditions, the less likely I was to commit myself to trusting God’s plan for my life. Wellness comes through a relationship with the One that made you.
I remember my grandmother, Lillie May Browne, once told me that Jesus was telling her which exercises to do after a surgery. I thought it was a precious statement for my grandmother to say, that was, until I tried it. These days, I ask the Lord for guidance in all things, no matter how small.
Maintaining wellness, while also surviving with both mental and physical illness takes a village. First, I had to tell my friends to remind me that I do NOT have “bad legs”. I am not allowed to say it; if I do, I am immediately corrected. I need this affirmation. Second, I had to accept my cane, my braces, my creams, and my medications, learning to humbly ask for help when I am in need. Third, I must maintain my wellness schedule before I make any other plans. My wellness – spiritual, mental, and physical – comes before anything else. The truth is, God has a plan that is beyond my comprehension and greater than ALL my limitations. Through my drum, my voice, my tears and my pain, I remain His humble servant.
“Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” – 2 Cor 12:9
7. Is there anything else you’d like to add regarding your work?
This year, Drum Like a Lady will celebrated its 1-year anniversary of the Drum Like a Lady Jam Session Series. We are also excited to have partnered with PEEA (Project Elijah Empowering Autism), offering weekly drum workshops to youth with autism. We are also developing our first series of outreach music programs, serving youth and adults that have survived abuse and those living with mental illness.
LaTreice V. Branson, MFA, GISFA
Founder/Creator of Drum Like a Lady
YouTube: Drum Like a Lady
Facebook: Drum Like a Lady
Photos by: Jamila Hadiya