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An Interview with Dan Rhema on Trauma and Art

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 30th 2011

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Dan Rhema Author Dan Rhema talks in this podcast about a brain infection that unlocked an amazing spiritual and artistic journey in his life. Dan's degree's is in geology. He spent a lot of time as a building contractor, while his wife had a background in social work. He used to teach building techniques in developing countries and lived in Africa and South America with his wife and three children. They were working in Mexico 20 years ago helping to set up a retreat and training center for people who wanted to work in other countries when his whole family ended up getting caught in an epidemic of dengue fever. Following his life-threatening illness, he become an artist, writer and film maker that lives in historic old Louisville, Kentucky. His art has been exhibited nationally in solo and group shows for the past 15 years. His picture books include The Day the Animals Lost Their True Colors, One Tiny Twig, and Bluegrass Breeze. His most recent book, I Close My Eyes to See: the Dan Rhema Story as Told to Kevin Wilson, documents Dan's transformation into an artist after surviving a deadly combination of three different strains of dengue fever. A documentary about Dan's story is scheduled for completion in 2012.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with author Dan Rhema about a brain infection that unlocked an amazing spiritual and artistic journey. Dan Rhema, artist, writer and film maker, lives in historic old Louisville, Kentucky. His art has been exhibited nationally in solo and group shows for the past 15 years. Dan's picture books include The Day the Animals Lost Their True Colors, One Tiny Twig, and Bluegrass Breeze. His most recent book, I Close My Eyes to See: the Dan Rhema Story as Told to Kevin Wilson, documents Dan's transformation into an artist after surviving a deadly combination of three different strains of dengue fever. A documentary about Dan's story is scheduled for completion in 2012.

Now here's the interview:

Dan Rhema, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Dan Rhema: Oh, thank you very much, David.

David: Well, I've been reading your new book, I Close My Eyes to See, which is a fascinating title. I really like that title. So tell us a bit about the book. I notice that you have a coauthor, Kevin Wilson, or it says, "as told to Kevin Wilson." So tell us a bit about the background of the book itself before we get into your story, into the whole story behind it. But what about the book?

Dan Rhema: We decided to do the book as an e-book, just mainly because of cost. Doing four-color print is extremely expensive, and this is basically an art book. And Kevin Wilson, he has degrees in history, psychology, and theology, and his specialty is in the mystical element of religion. And so he had heard about my story and said, "I would like to work on a book about this." And a year and a half later of interviews, he started putting the book together, and it wasn't working for him.

And he showed it to a few people, and they said, well, "The quotes are saying what you're trying to say." And he just had this little stroke of genius where he said let's make this a travelogue. And so we ended up creating the book as kind of a travelogue of my healing journey, and so every page will have a piece of art on it and a piece of text. And the text and the art accompany each other. The art is what I call biographic art, so it follows my journey as well, through my healing process.

David: Yes, and I think that format works wonderfully well. It makes for a perfect kind of art coffee-table book, if you will, although the reader will have to have either a Kindle or an iPad or something like that laying on their coffee table. But it is a delightful way to both present your story and to reveal the art. And, you know, the art comes across - I read it on my iPad - and the art comes across in that format with really blazing color. So it's a wonderful format.

Dan Rhema: Well, and that was just - it was one of those serendipitous things, because we didn't know. I mean, we were kind of on the cutting edge of this several years ago, putting this book together, and we didn't realize how nice it would look on these devices, and so we were very pleased once we popped it up on an iPad and were able to look at it for the first time.

David: Okay. Well, let's get into the story itself. Let's start at the beginning, where you and your wife, I guess, had done a lot of international development work. And so give us that background.

Dan Rhema: My wife has a background in social work, and my background is in - my degree's in geology, and I spent a lot of time as a building contractor, and I used to teach building techniques in developing countries. And so we lived in Africa. We lived in South America and Peru. And it was while we were working in Mexico; we were setting up a retreat center and a training center for people who wanted to work in other countries. And we ended up getting caught in an epidemic of dengue fever while we were down there [crosstalk].

David: Now, when I think of dengue fever, I think of Africa. So, in a way, I'm surprised to hear that it was in Mexico.

Dan Rhema: Yeah. Years ago dengue came into Brazil with the mosquitoes. It's a mosquito-borne brain infection, and it was a shipment of tires came over from Southeast Asia, where they had dengue as well, and it ended up starting in Brazil and just kind of working its way up. And we've had a few instances of dengue now in Texas and in Florida.

David: Wow. And I gather it's a really terrible disease. What can you tell us about dengue fever?

Dan Rhema: Yeah, it's pretty horrible. You know, in Africa we had malaria. It's part and parcel of working internationally - dysentery, malaria, things like that. But dengue is in just a world of its own. It begins with these bloody, horrible nightmares, and then over the period of time it's incubating, then your fever goes up; you develop a rash on your chest and arms. But the other name for dengue fever is break-bone fever, and so when you're at the height of this fever, it feels as if your bones are breaking, and if anybody touches you, it feels like they're hitting you with a hammer.

David: Oh, my goodness. Do your bones feel like they're breaking because you're undergoing spasms or contractions?

Dan Rhema: No, I think it's just a function of this type of virus that you have that your skin is hypersensitive, and so every touch feels as if it's magnified.

David: Okay. So how did it start for you? When did you first begin to feel this, and what were your initial symptoms, and how did it develop?

Dan Rhema: Well, when we were in Mexico, I was not feeling well and, at one point, I was starting to hallucinate. That's another part of dengue, is hallucinations and delusions. And so I actually thought my head was separating into two, and I was lying on my bed just trying to hold my head together, and I was actually convinced that was happening.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Dan Rhema: And when we all realized what was going on - we went to the doctors and we realized it was dengue - we decided to leave the country. We were a day-and-a-half drive away from the US border where we were living, and my wife -

David: Your whole family got infected, though. Is that right?

Dan Rhema: Exactly. Susan, my wife, had the fever. My three children had the fever. And when we were driving out of Mexico, whichever one of us wasn't hallucinating would drive.

David: Oh, my God.

Dan Rhema: And we got back across the border into Texas, and I took a turn for the worse. I mean everybody - we were all sick, but mine just kind of went to a really bad spot. And my wife called the Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta. We had worked with the people there for years. And they put me on a flight, and I was off to Atlanta.

By the time I got to the hospital, I couldn't speak, my teeth were chattering. I had written down on a piece of paper where I was supposed to go, and this guy put me in a cab at the airport and sent me off to the hospital. I got there, and by then I was - you're also photosensitive, and I couldn't take light, so they had me in a special room with the lights down low, and one person was working on one arm, and I thought they were torturing me. And so I'm saying, "I don't know anything," and I thought she was hitting me the hammer again.

David: Oh, my goodness.

David: And then the other person on my other side, I thought she was skinning my hand and I'm not sure of - because I had no real understanding of what was going on. And later, the next day, I found out that the one woman was tapping my hand to put an IV in, and the other woman was trying to comfort me by stroking the back of my other hand because I was yelling so much about what was going on with my other arm.

But I was completely delusional. I had no idea what was going on, and terrific pain. And they rolled me over on my side to do a spinal, and when the doctor went back there and put the needle in, my sensation was I shot out of my body and I was up in the corner of the room looking down at my back, and I could - and drawing the liquid off my spine. And then when he pulled the needle out, the sensation again for me was I shot back into my body and out the other side, and I was just floating away in this blackness - very, very peaceful, very calming, and no sense of time. Just floating and floating.

And then at one point I heard a voice said, "Do you understand you're dying now?" And Susan and my girls were still on the border of Texas, and for me it just didn't feel right for me to go ahead and die without them being there, and so that sensation of floating away stopped, and I started coming backward, floating back.

And I would get to a point and I'd feel like I was resting a little bit then. I would move up to another level, another level, and then I got to where I could hear voices again. And then after the next level was, I could see lights, and then I came to. And everybody's kind of frantic and they're all saying, "Do you know who you are? Do you know where you're at? Do you know who the President is?" And I couldn't even speak. I couldn't even get my mouth to work at that time.

David: And do I understand that you were actually clinically dead for a period there?

Dan Rhema: When we went back for my checkup a few weeks later, the doctor said all she kept thinking was, "Oh, my God. I've got to call Susan and tell her that Dan died." But they didn't do any like heart resuscitation or anything like that. I came back on my own.

David: Okay. And so then what happened from there?

Dan Rhema: Well, from there - we were all very sick - but what ended up coming out for me at the time was a slow realization that I had a brain injury. I was so ill. I was pretty much dysfunctional. I had lost big chunks of my long-term memory. You know, I don't remember my kids when they were little. I don't remember most of when I was in school. I don't even remember getting married. I know I'm married, but I don't have any memory of actually the marriage ceremony or the day of the marriage.

David: Even still today? This is about, what, 10 years later?

Dan Rhema: Ten years later. Well, actually it's 20 years later now.

David: Oh, my goodness.

Dan Rhema: Because we just celebrated my anniversary of the near-death experience last month.

David: And I suppose we should also add that, in addition to the dengue fever or because of it - I'm not sure what the relationship was - but you actually ended up getting more than one infection in your brain, getting meningitis.

Dan Rhema: Yeah. I ended up - it was called meningoencephalitis, so I had meningitis and encephalitis at the same time. And when we went to the doctors for that checkup, we said, "What can we expect from this?" My wife Susan asked the doctor, and they said, "We don't know. We can't find any literature on anyone that has survived this." And so I was kind of a test case. I ended up having papers written about me by the doctors later on. But I had no short-term memory the first five to seven years after this. If I would put something on the stove and turned it on, if I turned away I had no memory that I just turned the stove on.

David: Wow. Did you ever see the film Memento, where this guy -? It's an amazing movie. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. And the guy - it's sort of told chronologically backwards, and he has to write notes to himself on his body so that he can remember what happened. Have you seen that film?

Dan Rhema: Yes, I have, and that is very much what my first five years or so out of the hospital was like.

David: Amazing.

Dan Rhema: You know, I live now with notes. I have a notepad right next to my computer that I have to check every day, and I have to do a list of everything that I need to do that day. And then when I go in the car, I have another list that I take and tape to the dashboard so that I know where I'm going, and it's just part of who I am now. I'll never get back those long-term memories, and -

David: Wow. What about during the period when you were having difficulty with the short-term memories, which I think you just said lasted five years? Did you have difficulty recognizing people that you had just been in contact with?

Dan Rhema: No. One of the things that happened with me is I could recognize people, but I could never remember a name or a title. Like I could read a book, and if I saw the book again, I would get the book and start reading it again and then realize, oh, I've already read this, because some of the places in my brain that were damaged were the ones that held that. And then I had kind of like an aphasia thing, where I couldn't find the words for things, and so a pen would be a writey thing, you know, because you just can't pull those things out.

David: Yes. So tell us more about how this began to unfold for you.

Dan Rhema: Well, almost immediately, within just two weeks of when I got out of the hospital, I was able to stand up and move around on my own. And we were living in south Georgia on a farm, and I went out into the woods and just ripped up these vines out there, these thorny vines, and I wove it into this sculptural thing. And this was very unlike me - I didn't do this kind of stuff - and it was just a really powerful compulsion to do these things.

We moved from Georgia as soon as I was able to kind of be reasonably healthy. We moved to Arizona and the Tucson area, out into the desert, and I would just start collecting things. I started sculpting the area behind our house into these sculptural forms in the trees and with rocks and very much like Close Encounters of the Third Kind when everybody's sculpting that devil's tower. And that's what it was like. And it was very close to my time coming out of the hospital that the compulsion to make art came on me.

David: Yes, and so we should reveal to listeners - 'cause we haven't really said this - but that you've actually become a successful artist and well known for your art. And so it's fascinating that this was a compulsion that followed this brain infection. And you say that it changed your perception of the world, and that you felt that you had entered into the realm of primal experience and into the time of shamans. Maybe you can tell us something about that.

Dan Rhema: Yeah, it was very strange. I mean I thought I was going crazy. My wife's a therapist. As part of her social work practice she does therapeutic work with people, and her specialty is trauma - which I think I helped her quite a bit with. But I just started collecting things. I would be going down alleys and picking up things out of alleys and bringing them into the house into the basement, and I just kept collecting and collecting and collecting. We were people who spent years living out of suitcases, just traveling, and here I was filling up the basement of our house with just all of this old glass, old wood, old metal. And then I had this like critical mass of junk in the basement -

David: Critical mass.

Dan Rhema: And the dreams just - yeah, the dreams just triggered, and it just was like pouring out of me, and I just couldn't stop making - I would make these real primal looking masks or these sculptures using glass, wood, and metal. But it was just so intense. I felt like I just could not not do this, and it was almost like a purging. And then I would do maybe 8 or 10 pieces, and then I would stop and 6 months would go by. And I don't doodle; I don't draw or anything like that. And then the anxiety would build up again, and then I'd start on this another purging of this art.

And I'd done maybe 15, 16 pieces when I really felt like these dreams were so intense I wanted to try to paint them, to get this sense of floating that everything I do has. And so I had to come up with a way to paint to show this sense of floating, but I didn't know how to paint. I hadn't painted since probably elementary school. And by the time I did my fourth painting, I had hit on how to do it, and I paint - no one else paints like I do. You've seen the images in the book.

But what a lot of people don't realize is I paint these with my hands. It's a very primal feel of me putting the paint on with my finger just wrapped in a rag and just dipping into the paint. And when you look at them in person, they're three-dimensional; they appear three-dimensional even though they're a two-dimensional form. You feel like you can stick your hand into the painting about 10 inches, or wherever the suns are it's like they jump off the painting several inches. People will actually go up -

David: Wow, that makes me want to see them in person somehow. And we've all done finger painting as children, but looking at your - and generally they're kind of formless. You can see the tracks where fingers have been. Your paintings don't have that quality at all. One would think that you had used a brush or some other kind of tool.

Dan Rhema: And if I would have known how to paint, I would never have figured this out. It was one of those serendipitous things where it was just all intuitive. And I approach my painting - because I had been a builder, a carpenter, I knew how to work with wood and how to finish wood, and that's kind of the approach I took with my painting, was more as if I was finishing a piece of wood. And so my paintings are - every color is maybe 8 or 10 colors just put on real micro-thin layers, one over top of the other.

David: Which I imagine gives that three-dimensional effect.

Dan Rhema: Yeah. And I had done a couple dozen paintings, and one day my kids said, "Dad, look at this," and they had this pair of 3D glasses that they got in a box of Sugar Smacks cereal. And they're like, "Look at this." And I put them on and I'm looking at the boxes like, "Oh, wow. I wonder if this will work on my paintings." And I ran down to the studio and stood in front of my paintings, and it's like that's what the dreams are like. And so it even heightens the effect that I already have on the 3D effect as well.

David: Now, you've referred to the dreams several times here. What's the relationship between the dreams and the art? And what can you tell us about your dreams?

Dan Rhema: Well, I'm a lucid dreamer, and I was before this, the experience. But when I had these two - I can only call them vision state things. And part of my vocabulary is incorrect here. My wife was the metaphysical one in our family, and I was the scientist, and then in this one night it switched for me, and I end up becoming this very metaphysical kind of life, whether I wanted it or not.

But I'd had these two really intense vision state things in Tucson and, on the one night, I was out in the universe, and I could just go anywhere in the universe I wanted just by thinking about it, in like a quantum mechanics kind of movement. And I could just go anywhere I wanted, and I was just zipping across the universe. And when I'm saying these are vision states, I mean I feel like I'm in there, that it's actually happening.

And then a couple nights later I had one where I was this primitive figure running through a forest, and I can feel the breeze on my face and the trees whipping against me. And I get to the edge of this escarpment, and I look down, and there's other figures like me running through this high grass down below. And those two really intense experiences just drove a lot of this art. I do these primal figures with stars on their bodies, and all of the figures I do have masks on them.

And I didn't understand that until a psychologist from New Zealand did a piece on me, and he told me that oftentimes people's brain injuries, when they do art, tend not to do faces. And so I either have no face in my pieces, where it's just a black void, or the faces are actually masks. But I couldn't have told you why I was doing that. I just did it. And several times over the years people have come to me and said, oh, this - an art therapist will say this is possibly why you're doing this, or a psychologist will say something like that as well.

David: I'm wondering if any of the figures - when you're in this dream landscape, have any figures come and given you messages? You heard that voice during your near-death experience. Have there been other voices speaking to you?

Dan Rhema: Yeah. I have these - my nights are just like the shamanic dream worlds. I have, oh, figures come to me and take me on walks and talk to me as they're taking me on walks. I oftentimes will dream I'm shooting through - like they even come out into another place, and animals will talk to me. And depending on where I'm at and who I'm talking to, I can talk about things like this. Some people will get a little - look at me a little strange, but this is what my world is like, and so I have a - and sometimes in my dreams I'm the animal, and I transform.

But there are just - and I couldn't even have told you what a shamanic dream was when this first started happening to me. And enough people would see my art and say, "This has a shamanic feel about it." And then finally I had to do some research to figure out what they were talking about.

And that's why I feel like when my brain rewired - you know, after people have brain injuries, your brain rewires. It finds a way to work as best as it can. And for me, I feel like it wired through the part of our brain that we're not usually in touch with, the subconscious. And so all these primal things that I think are universal to all of us as humans, I just have a kind of like a cracked-open door where I feel like when these images just pour out is when I close my eyes.

David: Yeah, and certainly I'm comfortable hearing about this and have a kind of shamanic view of the world, although I haven't had the experiences that you've had. Sometimes the opening of the unconscious - you know, the unconscious can have sublime experiences in there, but also very frightening ones. And what's been your experience with that? Have there been any frightening experiences, or did it take some time to come to terms with it, where you felt more comfortable? Or how did that go?

Dan Rhema: That's a good question because I try to explain that to people, and this is one of the hardest concepts for people to grasp. I always described it like I was on a chessboard and someone moved me in a way you're not allowed to be moved, but moves me like all the way across the board. And I just had to play catch-up all this time, because people that had these dream states normally, that tried to obtain these states, they work 20, 30 years to get to the point where they can have these kind of experiences. And, for me, I wasn't looking for it; it just happened because of my brain getting fried by the fever, and it's been very difficult.

But when I do these paintings, it's almost as if I'm - I don't feel like I'm doing them. And so when I'm having the dreams, I'm having a dream and I'm in the dream, but they're never what I perceive to be scary or negative in any way, but they're not good either. They just are, and that's been kind of bizarre for me because I can have the normal dreams that everyone has, that we're just processing our day. But every night or every other night I have these shamanic type dreams, and it's kind of like this gift where I'm just - I'm along for the ride, and I participate but they always just have been - for me, they're neutral. It's an experience, and I just have this experience.

And when the dreams get really intense - again, it cycles through - and when I get anxious, like I said, then I'll start painting and I'll paint maybe six paintings at a time until I can get that out of my system. And then I feel calm again, and I don't do any art for possibly six months. But the dreams are still there.

David: It's interesting that doing the art is part of your healing process or a self-regulatory process. And it reminds me of a quote that I heard years and years ago when I was a student of creative writing, and it was attributed to D.H. Lawrence, that supposedly he said the writer suffers from a disease which he periodically needs to shed through his writing. And that sounds like what you're doing.

Dan Rhema: That's exactly what it sounds like. And I do a lot of shows, and I just did a California show in Joshua Tree end of last year, beginning of this year. And there's a documentary being filmed about my story now, and the director was with me. And the night of the opening there, people would come up and they see the art, and I do something a lot of artists don't do: I put a label under every piece of art I do that tells what the story or the dream was that - where the art came from. And people, within just a few minutes - and I have done enough of these shows; I know what's going to happen - and people are crying and they're hugging me, and they're telling, "Oh, I've seen this. I've been here." Or they'll tell me, "When I was 12 years old, I drowned and had a near-death experience, and it was the single greatest thing that ever happened to me."

And the gallery owner was kind of getting a little anxious because all these people are crying and hugging. And, you know, by the time the show's over, I'm crying, by the end of the night there. And the director said it was like an altar call, and that's kind of what my shows are like because I think that I'm touching on what that's common to all of us. All of us experience trauma, and all of us have to work through it, and I end up - I just did my art almost like a biography, and so it's just the images that come through me, through my healing process. And so you get to see this narrative, and it's not just in written form; it's also in the visual form.

David: Would your website have a list of upcoming shows. I'm thinking that if you were ever doing one in the San Francisco Bay area, I want to go.

Dan Rhema: Yes. I do post it and also on Facebook at Dan Rhema Art on Facebook. People can just go and that's when I update with the shows that I'm doing. I just did two big solo shows last year and then did this year, so I probably won't do another big show until some time in 2012.

David: Yeah. Have you done the San Francisco Bay area yet?

Dan Rhema: No. I've L.A. several times, and then I just did Joshua Tree.

David: Okay, well, we're way cool up here, so you'd find a good audience.

Dan Rhema: Well, I do - it's all word-of-mouth for me, so usually it's someone contacting - I don't do art fairs or things like that. I just do my art, and I have a studio and a gallery of my own. But people just hear about it and invite me to do a show, and that's pretty much how I do that part of the work that I do.

David: And how will we find out about that film when it finally comes out?

Dan Rhema: It'll be on Facebook. And what I'll do is I'll just - like I queried you for the show here - I'll send out queries to people again and notices when the documentary's done.

David: Oh, good. I hope so. Write that on your pad that you have there. I don't want you to forget. [Laughter]

Dan Rhema: I'll put it on my list. But I do that; I try to make sure I'm in touch because, like I said, everything I do is just word-of-mouth. I don't do any advertising other than my website or my web page.

David: Okay, well, let me get back into the interview more. We kind of stepped out a little bit here. What is your experience of art making while you're doing it? What bodily sensations or mental reactions are you having in the process?

Dan Rhema: Well, I had to adapt the way I do the art because of this. When I do the paintings, they're so intense. And I'll back up just a second. When I decided I needed to paint, I didn't know how to paint or what even to use, and I went to a blueprint shop because, like I said, I was a builder, so I went to these guys that I knew that had a blueprint shop, and I just asked them what dries quickest. And they said acrylic on Masonite, and that's how I ended up choosing the materials that I work with.

And that was a good choice for me because these are so intense - you know, my hands are in these things. You've seen my art; there's very few lines on my art. But I'll do like six paintings at a time. I'll just lay them across my dining room table, and I'll work on one, and while that's drying, I go to the next one and work on that one, just keep working my way down the line with the hope that by the time I'm on that last one, I can go back to the first one and start again.

David: Wow. Yeah.

Dan Rhema: And I'll work seven days a week almost every waking hour on these. And I find I'm not breathing, I don't need to eat, and it's almost like a vomiting, purging kind of a feel. It's not pleasant or unpleasant. It's just I got to get this out of me. And the first sculpture I did when I came to Louisville here is a mask called The Night Visitor, and it represents these dreams that I have. And I actually put it together with duct tape in the back because I couldn't wait for the glue to dry, so I always kept it that way to see that, so that I could realize how far I've come.

You know, the sculptures - again, I do multiple sculptures at a time because they're actually more painful, and certainly - because once I have the concept of what the piece is going to be, I have to find the pieces. So I've had sculptures that have taken me six years to finish. In the book, I have the sculptures First Man, First Woman. And people know what I do so they'll like pull up to my house and say, "Hey, Dan. Come on out to the car. I've got a box of junk for you." And one day this woman came up. She said, "I got them out of an alley, and I got them in my trunk, but they're too heavy for me to take out."

And so I went out, and as I was pulling the pieces out of the dark trunk into the light, I was like, "Oh, this is what this is going to be." It's going to be the first man or first woman. And it took me six years to find a matching head piece for that because the dream was - you know, when I had started dreaming about the pieces, I just dreamt that they would have to match. And it was like [sighs], and I finally found them on Craigslist a little over a year ago. And that was [unclear].

David: Fascinating. How do you feel about your success in the art world?

Dan Rhema: Well, it's nice that I can sell and that people respond to it. To me, it's almost like a calling. I'm going to do this whether or not I sell art because I just can't not do it, but it's just been really gratifying that people have responded to it. I do a lot of shows relating to art and healing. I've done near-death experience shows. I've done shows about brain injury. I work with brain-injured patients and survivors. So that's just what I do now.

And the documentary will help out, because then it's hard to get in front of a group of fragile people too, and kind of pick the scab every time. But you were saying earlier that the art kind of helped heal, and that's what it's done for me, because when I accumulated a bit of art, then the person came over - a friend came by and said, "Oh, my gosh - you need to put all this in one room." And they called me and I did, and he came back over and he said, "I'm on the board of an art group, and we need to do a show of this."

And that was great, but then after that first show, I was out of commission for three months, just kind of dysfunctional. I have a problem with - not [unclear] - detachment disorder. And then, so that would just overwhelm me when people would grab me and say, "I've been there." And then so I did some therapy. We had a psychologist locally here that was a specialist in EMDR trauma therapy, and it was maybe 10 years ago when this was first coming to the forefront. And she heard my story and said, "You don't have to keep suffering."

But at that point I had just finally gotten to the point where I felt, "Okay, I am this person. I'm doing this artwork." And I thought, "Well, what if I get better?" If I get better and the anxiety stops, then I'll stop the art. And I had gotten to the point where I felt like this is what I would be doing. But she convinced me that it would get better because I wouldn't be so overly anxious, and she was correct. And it really, really helped push my art forward. And then having to go do the talks with people, I had to learn techniques to keep their stories away from mine so that I just didn't get overwhelmed.

David: Fascinating. Now, this question may be a little bit redundant to the other one I just asked you, but I'm wondering where success and having a career as an artist, and an author now, how does that fit into your new cosmology? I assume you've got kind of a sense of a spiritual universe, and how does that all fit together for you?

Dan Rhema: Well, this is just really one of the things that hits me the most about my story, because I can kind of look at it as an outsider, and I'll talk about that in a second here. But I've never had this experience. I mean before the brain injury and before the fever and the near-death experience, I was a seeker just like everyone else. I was always very curious about things, and I would read about spiritual things, even for my own path.

Whatever happened to me triggered this complete uninterest in examining the mystery or trying to decipher the mystery. I mean I do all this artwork that has Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, Native American, African traditional voodoo influences, but I don't have any relationship with any of these groups. It's almost like I separated out, and I'm here and I'm functional, but I don't have that connection any more with any of this.

But it all comes in my dreams, which is one of those bizarre things. And of all the things that I could do, I'm doing all this art that has a spiritual component, but I don't have any drive anymore for that. I don't have any - it really doesn't hold me anymore. I do everything; every religious thing that processes through me ends up coming out as a piece of art.

David: You know, I find that reassuring somehow to hear that. It's kind of like you've gotten off the head trip about spirituality, and you're immersed in it instead of having a bunch of theories about it.

Dan Rhema: And I have a piece of art called The Way, and it has kind of almost a church feel inside this old, antique wooden box, and the crucifix is on top with the corpus on there. And it represents to me is when you take that step out of the box, out of organized religion into this other realm, you can't go back in the box. You can appreciate the box; you can appreciate what goes on there. And, for other people, that's a path that they'll take, but it just doesn't have a hold on you. You can't go back in that box again, and I feel like that's what happened to me.

And as a follow-up to that, once I started getting my brain back I guess if you can call it, I felt like I was two different people. I was the Dan Rhema that I was born as and had did international development work. And then I was this new being that was not Dan Rhema, was just kind of floating there. But I couldn't access all the components or the identity of who I used to be because so much of that is based on your memory. And I knew that had been a builder. I didn't lose certain skills, but I lost other things.

And one of the things I found is that, with my memory, anything that I had ever told as a story, I retained. And everything I tell as a story now I can retain. But all the other stuff is real hard for me to kind of grasp. Ongoing [?] memories, even like the pieces of art - six months, eight months after I've done a piece of art, I don't really retain the memory of actually making that piece of art. So, even though I built [unclear] -

David: It's interesting what you're saying about stories because we know that stories seem to be - you know, some part of our brain really resonates to a story, and people who give public presentations and speeches and so on, and marketers, have learned that to try to address the story part of the brain in their presentation because that's what really resonates for people and seems to stick. I'm wondering, are you familiar at all with savant syndrome?

Dan Rhema: Just like where you're very good at one little thing, but other things aren't so good?

David: Yeah. There are these remarkable people. They used to be referred to as "idiot savants," and we've kind of dropped the word "idiot." It's not very PC. But I suppose some of the most remarkable cases are people who suffer from severe forms of autism but then will have some kind of musical genius or other artistic genius. It tends to settle in either music or math or calculating, calendar calculations and so on.

Well, there is a psychologist who is kind of the world authority on this and who studied it for all of his psychological career. His name is Darrell Treffert, M.D. I actually interviewed him on my other podcast series, Shrinkrapradio. You might enjoy listening to that interview. It's number 246 on And he has a directory. He sort of compiled a database of these cases. And the thing I should mention is that he reports a number of cases where people have had artistic abilities open up to them as a result of a blow to the head or some other kind of trauma.

I don't remember if he talked about brain infections or not, but there were examples of people who were leading "ordinary lives," and then something happened and suddenly there was a big transformation similar to what you've described here. So I would encourage you, if you have any desire - sounds like you already have a lot of people putting you under the microscope, in a way - but if you wanted to contact him, I'm sure he would be interested in your story.

Dan Rhema: Well, absolutely. Yeah, and I've come across this. I've come across this in my shows where people come up and say, "I had a near-death experience, and I just started writing poetry." But then it's easier because they can write poetry and they can just put it in a drawer, but when you do - when the compulsion is art, it's out there so everybody can see it because it's big enough that most people can't hide this stuff away after a while. Yes, but I feel the same way.

I mean I went from someone who, if you gave me a plane ticket, I'd go anywhere in the world - I just loved that - to a person who basically couldn't leave my room. I couldn't leave the studio. I would have anxiety attacks every day when I would even just take my kids to school. And, luckily, my wife is just - she's just an angel with that. I mean she just worked through all of that. She just kind of let me go and let me do the art. And when, like I said, I thought I was going crazy, she's actually the one who found me some articles kind of talking about what you're talking about, how people after trauma - something can trigger in their brain to cause them to be a writer or a poet or an artist or a photographer.

David: Well, good for her. It sounds like you're blessed to have a wonderful wife who's been so supportive. You know, as we wind down now, I wonder if there's anything else that you'd like to say?

Dan Rhema: Well, I think just what you said: that it's really important for people that have these kind of experiences to have someone that puts that steady hand on their back and just keep kind of pushing them forward. It's very easy, when you have a brain injury or some kind of significant illness, it's very easy to fall back. And what you need is to have that person behind you, or an organization or something behind you just keeping that steady pressure to push you forward, because the healing goes that way.

And I'm just grateful for the art because, like I said, it was my healer. Every step of the way, the art forced me to move my healing in that forward direction. And even when I was thinking, "Did I make a mistake coming back?" when I was sitting in Tucson and nothing's going on in my brain - and I could just sit there very Zen-like, but not anything that I really was looking for; it was just my brain wasn't working - and thinking, "Oh, did I make a mistake in coming back?" And just Susan, for me, Susan just kind of constantly be pushing me out and pushing me out the door, in effect, to get better.

David: Well, we're glad that you did come back. And, Dan Rhema, I want to thank you so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.

Dan Rhema: Well, thank you very much, David.

David: I hope you are as inspired by Dan Rhema's story as I am. As you heard, you can find him on Facebook and also on his website at And Rhema is spelled R-H-E-M-A. Also, if you haven't heard it, I think you'd find my podcast with Dr. Darrell Treffert, who I mentioned as the world's leading expert on savantism, to be of considerable interest. You'll find that at, and look for number 246, "Exploring Savant Syndrome with Darrell Treffert, M.D." You can listen to that interview or just read the transcript, which is also on the site. According to Dr. Treffert, savants hold out the possibility that science may someday find other ways of unlocking the brain's hidden potential by means other than blows to the head or brain infections. Wouldn't that be something?

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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About Dan Rhema

Dan Rhema Dan Rhema, artist, writer, and filmmaker lives in historic Old Louisville, Kentucky. His art has been exhibited nationally, in solo and group shows, for the past fifteen years. Dan's picture books include The Day the Animals Lost Their True Colors (a 2002 IPPY Awards Finalist), One Tiny Twig, and Bluegrass Breeze. His most recent book, I Close My Eyes to See: The Dan Rhema Story As Told to Kevin Wilson, documents Dan's transformation into an artist after surviving a deadly combination of three different strains of dengue fever. A documentary about Dan's story is scheduled for completion in 2012.

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