Aphasia is a language disorder where people have problems speaking and writing and also understanding both the spoken and written word.
Aphasia is not a condition in itself, rather it is a symptom caused by pre-existing brain damage. Strokes, head injuries, and conditions that can damage the brain over time, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or a brain tumour, can all lead to aphasia.
Aphasia is a common complication of stroke. It is estimated that 1 in 5 of all stroke sufferers will experience some degree of aphasia after their stroke and every year in the UK 11,400 people become aphasic due to stroke.
The effects of aphasia can vary widely; some experience only mild effects, perhaps being unable to think of certain words, whereas some are unable to read, write or speak at all. Some can speak fluently but may be unaware that what they are saying doesn’t make sense.
Aphasia does not mean that a person with aphasia necessarily has reduced intelligence or has any learning disability. Indeed, many people with aphasia can remain entirely rational, but the fact that they can’t express themselves, makes aphasia such a traumatic and frustrating experience them and their families. Even everyday tasks can become impossible, such as making telephone calls, shopping, or having a conversation.
I found I could not speak. In my head I was completely lucid but the words kept flapping about like fish out of water. I could not get hold of them enough to speak them.
All the words were there, but it was like a library after vandals have got in and have thrown all the books on to the floor: you know the book you want is there somewhere - but WHERE?
I didn’t know that I would ever be able to speak again, but very gradually it started to come back. First came ‘yes’ and ‘no’, but I did not always get it right and had to correct it with hand gestures. Later on my call-button didn’t work, and it took me three days to work out that I had to find the word ‘bell’. It was all a great effort.
I did not always understand what was being said to me, and processing the words was very slow. If a question was repeated too quickly or using different words, I did not recognise it as the same question and had to go back to the beginning to understand it. I was also very easily distracted by other conversations and extraneous noises.
This all took huge amounts of energy and I could not speak above a whisper. As for reading or writing …
The whole thing was exhausting - and frightening.
Aphasia 1 (detail) (2007), breeze block and lettering
There was a coherent thought and all the words were there but they were all jumbled up.
Aphasia 2 (2008), digitally manipulated photograph
Words marched across the inside of my head but they were indistinguishable.
Aphasia 4 (2007), multi media
The words spill beyond the frame of the photograph (or is it the head?) but make no sense.
Aphasia 5 (2007), multi media
Words spill beyond the frame of the photograph (or is it the head?) and out onto the wall (the real world?). I can make no sense.
Once my call button didn’t work. It took me three days – and then a painful bladder infection - to retrieve the word ‘bell’, so that someone would know when I needed help.
Aphasia 6 (2009), multi media
The words were all there but I couldn’t find the ones I wanted, because the ‘filing system’ in my head was mangled up.
In my head . . . 1 (2009), multi media
In the context of aphasia, words - whether spoken or written or read - seem to me to be a two-way communication between the brain and the outside world. The series of images, ‘In my head …’, explores ways to develop a visual language to explore this idea. Maybe the hole cut in the mount board is the interface between inside and outside – and between back and front.
In my head . . . 2 (detail) (2009), multi media
Because she knew I couldn’t speak, a kind visitor brought me a book to read ‘to while away the time’. I could see that there were words on the page but they made absolutely no sense. I gave up.
In my head . . . 3 (detail) (2009), multi media
In my head I was completely lucid, but the words kept thrashing about like fish out of water and I couldn’t trap them long enough to speak them.
In my head . . . 5 (detail) (2009), multi media
When I was regaining consciousness, I wanted people to know I was all there – but I how?