Victims of Brain Trauma Driven to Create

Victims of brain trauma say they have insatiable urges to write, draw and paint.

September 9, 2008, 6:23 AM

Sept. 9, 2008— -- This is not a sentimental journey into the mind. It is a story about people whose brains were jolted and re-engineered by trauma, leaving them with curious new talents.

A chiropractor, an ex-convict and a neurologist were all linked to the same medical mystery. How could a common occurrence like a stroke unleash an unceasing and uncontrollable outpouring of creativity in two regular people? And what became of the people they used to be?

In Liverpool, England, Tommy McHugh painted. And carved. From wall to wall, from ceiling to carpet, he covered everything in his home after a stroke caused by aneurysms on both sides of his brain.

It was a creative obsession that began a few days after he returned from the hospital. He began talking in rhyme and filling notebook pages with poetry.

"Line after line, all the time it was in rhyme," McHugh said. "Cup of tea, just for me, nice and sweet, just be neat."

Eventually, his then-wife Jan McHugh handed him a sketch pad.

"And he'd filled a page with these little alien heads," she said. "There was hundreds on the page and every one of them had a different expression."

The old Tommy McHugh was no artist or poet. Early in his life, he was wild and hot-tempered. He got in trouble for fighting, theft and heroin addiction.

When he suffered a stroke at 51, it was as if this man who once had been processed in and out of prisons had now been processed into a new existence and doctors were no help in attempting to explain it.

"It was just awful," Jan McHugh said. "And I was constantly on the phone to people, trying to get help. Or an understanding of what was going on. I thought he was ... going insane."

Tommy McHugh was convinced that he had two brains and he confronted his wife by claiming to be Vincent Van Gogh.

"At this point I was getting really scared," she said. "And he said, 'You just don't know me at all.' And I thought, well, I don't. I don't know you at all, really."

The pair eventually divorced, but remain friends.

"I wasn't the person they were telling me who I was," McHugh said. "I wasn't the Tommy McHugh they knew."

Kindred Spirits After Strokes

Unknown to him there was a man across the ocean who knew exactly what was going on, because years earlier he also had experienced a kind of creative metamorphosis after a stroke.

Jon Sarkin, who in his old life was a successful chiropractor in Gloucester, Mass., was stricken at the age of 35, as he prepared to tee off during a golf game.

"I felt this intense explosive flood in my head, you know, and it just changed everything," he said. "Sounds were different, things looked different. I knew that something had cataclysmically changed."

Surgery led to a stroke that necessitated more surgery. And after months of difficult rehabilitation, his creative compulsions also began with multiple drawings of the same object.

"I remember I came home from the hospital and I started to draw a picture of a cactus over and over and over again," Sarkin said.

If the world suddenly seemed inhospitable to Sarkin, the tempest in his brain flung out words and images in such a raw and unrestrained way that his drawings now fill an entire storage room in Gloucester.

His wife, who preferred not to be interviewed, has stayed with him all these years, and aided by his disability income, they have raised three children. In the outside world, there was a recognition that some of Sarkin's better pieces were marketable.

His works have sold for as much as $20,000 and have been published in the New Yorker magazine and displayed in galleries in New York and Boston. But one of the key after-effects of Sarkin's new personality was also the feeling that no one else could truly understand his changes, or the demons he faced.

And that is where a third person enters this extraordinary story. In an act of desperation, Tommy McHugh, the artist living in Liverpool, began writing letter after letter to doctors whose names he found in articles and books.

In the winter of 2005, a letter from McHugh arrived on the desk of Dr. Alice Flaherty, one of the country's leading neurologists, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"I just thought, here's a live one," Flaherty said. "He just burst out of the envelope."

Compulsive Creativity

Flaherty had more than the usual empathy for a person in Tommy McHugh's circumstance, because she, too, once had been under the sway of a creative compulsion in the form of hypergraphia-- a need to write that is intense and overpowering.

"I wrote on my arm, I wrote on toilet paper in the bathroom when I couldn't find anything else. I tried to write on my arm once when I was bicycling," she said.

Her compulsion was not caused by a stroke. The onset of Flaherty's hypergraphia followed a tragic event -- the premature birth of twin boys, neither of whom survived.

"At the time everyone interpreted this as a grief reaction, and I sort of did too. But it felt so much different from that," she said. "I just had to write all the time, I had to write everything down because I didn't want to forget it, it was so important."

Flaherty believes the origins of her hypergraphia were both biochemical and emotional, and she has treated them with medications. In an attempt to help herself and others, she also wrote a book about it called "The Midnight Disease."

So when Tommy McHugh's letter arrived on her desk, she not only was uniquely qualified to explain his brain trauma, but also to befriend him.

Because of McHugh's criminal past, he couldn't get a visa to come to the United States to see Flaherty so she arranged to go to Liverpool for a meeting of the minds. They connected with each other instantly and went straight to work, discussing how McHugh's brain had been altered.

McHugh had said that he was haunted by the feeling that he had two brains and that he saw faces everywhere. Flaherty could offer some of the reasons why.

"After his stroke he had a kind of neurological problem called left-sided neglect," she said. "So that, stuff on the left side of his world just kind of didn't exist. He would be looking straight at you, but he'd only see the right side of your face. You can see that a lot in his art, faces that are divided in half, paintings that are divided in half."

Bound by Trauma

The insights that Flaherty offered McHugh included an additional bonus. She was also helpful in encouraging a friendship between him and someone else who had experienced similar compulsions -- Jon Sarkin, the former chiropractor from Gloucester.

"Jon and Tommy are sort of in a permanently heightened state of emotionality," Flaherty said.

In that regard, she was able to offer both men a simple diagnosis that stemmed from her own experience: Sarkin and McHugh were not crazy. Their strokes created lesions that, in rare circumstances, appear to give trauma victims a new ability.

"Jon's was back far in his brain and in an area that affects basic functions," she said. "His head is full of ideas and they just spill out in his art. It's packed with words and ideas ... his poetry, his paintings. Tommy had a ruptured brain aneurysm. And it really bathed his brain with blood, but not in any way that caused permanent big scars."

In a joint effort worthy of the kinds of quirky plots you see in buddy movies, Sarkin and McHugh mounted a joint exhibition of their works at the Novas Gallery in Liverpool.

"The guy [McHugh] talks non-stop," Sarkin said. "I just looked at him and I said, 'You know, like, you're crazy but you make a lot of sense, my friend.' It was cool."

There is no name for the rare condition that resulted from their strokes, but if you're looking for the key element in this medical mystery, it may have less to do with creative inspiration than it has to do with the furious drives that were unleashed in these two men by their brain traumas -- drives that essentially forced them to create.

For Sarkin, though, his artistic drive merely revealed the person he feels he was always meant to be.

"I'm really lucky," he said, "because I understand the sense of my life now."

For more information on Jon Sarkin's story, visit his Web site and for more information on Tommy McHugh's story, click here.