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Shannon Rincker, a former teacher at Hellgate Elementary School who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accidental collision with a student on the playground, sits in the waiting room of her therapist, Anne Gordon, where the walls are decorated with the art she has been making since the injury. Rincker and Gordon use Rincker’s art during their meetings to help discuss the emotional issues the brain injury has brought on.

Over the past year, Shannon Rincker's life has mimicked her watercolor and ink landscapes. Everything symbolized something else, connections between her paintings and her life became clear, and she regained a sense of purpose she thought she lost on March 12, 2015.

Rincker taught English, art and drama to grades 6-8 at Hellgate Elementary. During lunch that day, she stepped outside to supervise the boys playing football to make sure no one got hurt. The sun was shining, it was near the end of the quarter and Rincker had just finished teaching watercolor to her art class.

Rincker had started a drama program at the school that year, and the students had just finished their first production. That fall she was going to teach seventh-grade English – her dream. 

“It was just like things were really going my way,” she said.

In seconds, her life changed dramatically.

One of the middle-school boys was running down the field, looking back to catch the football. Not seeing where he was going, and Rincker facing the other direction, he accidentally slammed into her, his forehead connecting with her head right behind her left ear.

It was as if lightning struck. In the months to come, a darkness fell over her.

***

"At first we thought it was a mild concussion," she said last week in therapist Anne Gordon’s waiting room where several of Rincker's paintings adorn the walls. "I went home afterward and just knew that if things got worse, I was supposed to go to Now Care or the emergency room.

"It definitely got worse very quickly."

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Therapist Anne Gordon, left, and Rincker interpret a set of Rincker's latest paintings during a meeting between the two last week.

Within 24 hours, her headache became excruciating, she was sick to her stomach, had double-vision, short-term memory loss, eye pain, anxiety and irritability. She and her husband, Dylan, rushed to Now Care and it became clear something was wrong when she couldn't remember her age.

"I'm 26," she insisted. But when the doctors looked to Dylan, he shook his head. She was 29.

That led her to the ER, where they officially said she was concussed. Get some rest, they told her, and check in with your doctor in a couple of days.

But she continued to deteriorate. She couldn't walk a straight line. She threw up every day, and lost 30 pounds by the end of the summer. She was confused, disoriented and easily frustrated.

In a photo from a wedding last June, Rincker's head tilts to her right. That wasn't a cute, pose-for-the-picture head tilt, she said. It was her brain trying to make up for then-undiagnosed visual midline shift syndrome.

"Basically, the hit was so hard that it knocked my center line of vision off," she said. "My head was trying to adjust, so it was slowly but surely tilting to make up for that."

A team of doctors came together to help, and during the past several months have uncovered several traumatic brain injuries. To date, her diagnoses include concussion, post-concussion syndrome, occipital neuralgia, chronic post-traumatic headaches, migraines, visual midline shift syndrome, polyopia, convergence insufficiency, accommodative insufficiency, and ocular motor dysfunction.

She had 20/20 vision before the accident. Now, she has to wear glasses all the time.

"They like to say that with a brain injury, if you see one brain injury, you see one brain injury – because they're all so different, they're all so complicated. You can't treat every brain injury the same," she said. "Which, as a person with a brain injury, that was really difficult to hear and kind of frustrating."

She was sensitive to light and sound and easily overstimulated. So, she was prescribed isolation: limited contact with friends and family, no reading, no screen time, limited light and sound.

It was a dark place, literally and figuratively.

Loneliness and depression became overwhelming. Dylan told her she should try painting to cope, and they recognized she needed to seek out a therapist (Dylan is a therapist, too, so it was a natural conclusion).

***

That's when Gordon came into frame: July 13, 2015.

Gordon said it was clear that day that Rincker was not well. A friend brought her to the appointment, and she was shaky and wearing sunglasses. She asked Gordon if she could shut the blinds and warned that she might throw up.

“Clearly, you could tell she did not feel well at all, so it was impressive that she could sit through an hour when it was moment to moment whether she was going to get sick,” Gordon said.

That’s simply part of Rincker’s inherent resilience, Gordon said.

“Her whole life was turned upside down within a few seconds,” Gordon said. “To be able to readjust to that is extremely challenging, but she has done this with such grace and optimism and hope.

“She is an individual with such tremendous depth and character and wit ... she’s just one of those amazing people you come across once in a lifetime.”

At one of the early sessions, Rincker mentioned offhand that she had been painting the same scene over and over, using different colors and focuses. That caught Gordon’s attention. Bring in your paintings every week, she said, and we’ll talk about them and what they mean.

“That seemed to be a major turning point for her, bringing it in and talking therapeutically about what it had meant to her,” Gordon said.

“I think art ultimately saved her.”

Without a plan, Rincker would start painting. To date, she’s created more than 75 paintings.

“The process itself, it starts with watercolor and it ends with ink,” she said. “That idea of creating something soft and beautiful and then kind of attacking it with ink was therapeutic in itself. The colors don’t matter to me, the straight lines don’t matter to me. It’s the feeling. I could paint in the dark if I needed to because it’s not about what it looks like.”

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In one of her first paintings, Rincker uses a tipi to represent herself and the surrounding landscape, all of the support she was feeling early after the injury.

***

The paintings reveal how Rincker has felt during the ups and downs of the past year.

Her first painting was of a campfire, when she was sure she’d be better in a couple of weeks. When she realized she wasn’t getting better, the flames in her paintings went out.

When she’s not feeling well, the ink “gets a little bit crazier." Next, she painted a tent in the middle of a beautiful landscape.

“I love that idea of you have this terrible, gross old tent but it doesn’t matter because you’re in this beautiful scene,” she said. “We can all relate to how good that feels.”

That’s essentially become a reflection of her life: After being trapped in a dark, terrible place, Rincker found art and began working with Gordon – rays of sunlight – that made her realize life was worth living.

“It was like the only piece of myself that remained intact, and I just kind of held onto it for dear life,” Rincker said of her art. “It was my way of communicating.

“I was looking for a light at the end of the tunnel, but Anne offered me something better: a torch.”

And then there’s the shockingly golden painting, a bright forest scene that Rincker painted “when I realized I could get through this.”

“There were some really dark hours when things weren’t going our way and I was really sick and it didn’t seem like there was any hope left. I would get in this office and I would be able to go on a couple more days,” Rincker said, starting to cry.

“These two” – she said, pointing to Gordon’s office door and Dylan – "are the reason why I know that ... I’m going to get back. I will. In whatever capacity that is.”

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Rincker made this painting after an especially dark period after the accident.

***

Rincker had to grieve what she lost that day.

“I was in my element when I was teaching, I was in my element when I was inspiring those kids ... and giving them an authentic education experience,” she said. “Part of the reason I was so knocked down was to have that feeling of not being useful in our community, not being able to be a part of the community anymore. Just very recently I realized that if my students see that I’m pulling through and using my art to heal, trying to get better so I can get back to them, I think that sets a very good example for them not to give up. So I need to remember that.”

Having a support system has been huge: Dylan, their family and friends.

“It’s been unbelievably stressful because I can’t fix it,” Dylan said. “I guess you want to say it’s brought us closer together, but we were already really tight to begin with. This is just what we do.”

Dylan’s parents, who live in Ninemile, drive Rincker to appointments and help out with her and Dylan’s year-and-a-half-old baby, Ruby. People who hear about Rincker’s injury immediately offer to help.

“Part of Missoula’s nature is it’s a community that takes care of each other and we’ve really felt that,” she said. “I think that’s a pretty unique thing.”

But with all that support, it’s still been difficult. You lose a sense of control with traumatic brain injuries, and the recovery process is slow.

“With a brain injury, it’s very common to have both depression and anxiety be co-occurring with that ... because you lose so much of your functioning and identity,” Gordon said. “It’s so hard to know what the ultimate prognosis will be and what level of functioning you will return to, so you have to readjust to your function and where you’re going to be, how you’re going to move through the world differently.”

Rincker’s identity lay in teaching.

“I love teaching with every ounce of my being,” she said. “Those middle school kids are just the best thing. To have that taken away from me was kind of like to have everything that brought joy in my life taken from me, everything that made me feel like I had purpose. I just felt like I was an empty shell without those kids. And I still do on a lot of levels, but I hope to get back to them as soon as possible.

“I came in to her (Gordon) broken. I came in to her thinking that I could never be the person I was again, that that person was lost, that I had nothing to live for. And she has restored hope in me that there is a lot to live for, that I can have a very fulfilling life still, that the paintings that I’ve done are meaningful and helpful and beautiful.”

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