I can’t help it. I have always been magnetically attracted to the stories of those people who are called “survivors.” You know the people I am talking about. Those who have suffered major setbacks that would drown most of us, but somehow against the odds, they kept coming back, refusing to be beaten. This is Real Life.
Enter one Heather Bishop, a talented, hard-working musician who has shared the stage and studio with some of Austin’s more familiar names who has been recuperating from a series of strokes that altered her life and almost ended it. Here is her story. If you have a deep love for music, for musicians, and have a caring heart, dear reader, remember that strokes don’t just happen to older people, they happen to the young, as well. If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms that Heather shares with us, I urge you to get a checkup. If Heather’s story can help to prevent another person, musician or not, from going down this path, then it is the silver lining to a very dark cloud.
AMC- Heather, where were you born, when did you move to Austin?
Heather- I was born in New York to West Indian parents and moved to Texas when I was around 5 years old. I spent a lot of my childhood summers with family back east so I maintained a love of New England, but most of my years were spent in rural parts of Travis County and my heart and feet planted deep into southern soil.
I’m very much a West Indian woman raised in the American South. I know some people will wonder what that means and I would say that to me it means an amalgamation of many cultures- even those that might not appear obviously congruent.
AMC- What is your musical past -to- present? I know you play in Ocean Of Stars now and then.
Heather- Both of my grandmothers played piano and there always seemed to be one around, so I recall tinkering with notes fairly early on. There was always songwriting and singing in the house and I recall a cello in there somewhere but I didn’t formally pick up the viola and music lessons until middle school. I’ve played viola all my life- chamber orchestras, the Austin Civic Orchestra, various trios, quartets, bands and studios.
I picked up guitar in college mostly for songwriting structure- to help write the melodic bones- and have played with a few of my own bands. I personally prefer to play rhythm over lead and am fairly low key in band settings, so you can imagine my experience as a female musician. Even today I’m pretty aware when I’m being discounted, but as a mentor once said- “That ain’t about you. Just play. Make your point with the music.”
In the 90’s days of Steamboat, Black Cat, and Liberty Lunch I saw a lot of mutual support, camaraderie and positivity in the Austin music scene and that was good for a lot of people, including me. There were jams on stages and sidewalks and bars and overall, a lot of mutual respect flowing in many directions. I was fortunate to get referrals for strings and backing vocals with national and international acts although I often didn’t take up the opportunities. I stayed local and tried to write and play with as many folks as I could, including playing percussion with a reggae band.
Around this time Yoggie and Frosty separately kicked me out of their living rooms and forced me to play as a “solo” artist by agreeing to join me. Their belief in me, as well as the encouragement of Jeff Currier and Ray Benson from the Asleep at the Wheel team, was transformative.
I’ve continued to play with various bands and studios since then although no one band in particular.
Danny G, the maestro behind Ocean of Stars, donated music to a spoken word project of mine which I then transformed into a short performance piece for Hyde Park Theater’s Fronterafest. I’d love to add a little violin or viola into one of his compositions, especially since he’s open to experimentation with various effects, so who knows?
First and foremost for me, it has always been about the music. The bulk of my work has been anonymous, and for a long time it was a source of pride to walk into Cheapo Discs or Waterloo Records and be on a half dozen or more releases and have only the band or engineer know. There might be a picture of me or some other coded reference in the liner notes, but that was about it. Do I recommend that? Not necessarily. But that’s what I did for a long time.
AMC – I was reading a few posts recently that indicate you went thru having a stroke. You are not the first musical acquaintance of mine who had a stroke and is recovering. My dear friend Robbie Venturini, all- star bass player, had one and had to relearn playing the bass again. He has bounced back well, but it was not an easy road to come back on. Tell us your story.
Heather- I’m very sorry to hear about your friend. I would not wish a stroke on anyone and hope that he continues to recover well.
Where to start? I woke one morning in April 2015 with a headache and not feeling quite right, but thought it was a migraine coming on (I actually have a migraine variant). I went to my then day job anyway, hoping it might pass.
It became obvious fairly quickly that it wasn’t going to pass, and I was fortunate to get a text out to both my mother and my boyfriend before I lost consciousness. With all of us still thinking it was the migraine variant (which can cause fainting and other symptoms similar to stroke), there was a significant delay before I sought medical care. All of this not surprisingly caused complications with diagnosis and treatment.
Almost a year later a second stroke occurred as a result of the actual issue not being addressed. I’m glad to be working with one very determined primary care physician and after reviewing where things fell through the cracks with the specialists, we are “kitchen sinking” it, as I like to say, to not only make sure I get the rehab I need now but to prevent further issues. I am very fortunate that this second stroke was not nearly as catastrophic, but Lord knows I don’t want anymore.
AMC- Were there any early symptoms in the past before the Big One?
Heather- Yes, actually, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. My blood pressure would periodically spike for no apparent reason. Although I was otherwise fairly healthy, the spikes were an issue.
AMC- Being an Austin musician, did you get any help thru the local organizations?
Heather- When I lost my speech with the first stroke, a long time music supporter who knew what happened got me in touch with Austin Speech Labs. They were able to get me started on various exercises I could do at home, which truly made a difference when the specialists gave up. Having exercises and activities that I could do made me feel empowered and led to greater recovery than would have been otherwise possible.
Something I did not learn until after the second stroke was that depression is very common among stroke victims. As a perennially positive person, it was unsettling to suddenly feel “not myself” and an immense relief to discover that this was merely “stroke brain”, a medical thing that can happen. I found that speaking to a counselor I met through HAAM/SIMS was helpful, although just being aware of what was happening was enough to bring back a more familiar perspective.
AMC- Your story about the woman recognizing that you had suffered a stroke was pretty touching. Can you tell us that story again, please?
Heather- Standing in line at the Saxon Pub last year, largely too soon to be in public, a young woman approached me and spoke. I didn’t understand her though she spoke plain English, so I nodded. She smiled kindly, put a hand on my arm, leaned in and whispered, “You’ve had a stroke, haven’t you? And you look fine, but you have no idea what I just said.” My eyes filled with tears. She kept going. “Here’s the thing. You don’t feel the same, but you’ll be fine. Do the work, push yourself, do more than they tell you, and you’ll be fine. And when someone thinks you can do more than you can do, or much less than you can do, keep going. It’s not about them.” She leaned in closer and squeezed my arms tightly. Pulling back, she looked me in the face hard. “You will learn a new kind of fear. That’s normal. See it, then let it go.” She was right in many ways, though I would not realize fully until later incidents, another stroke. In the grand scheme of things, her words were not person or circumstance specific. Wise words seldom are. [ Author’s note- When I first read this post , I was so moved by it, I had tears in my eyes. My grandfather LaClieve Abbott died from a stroke. It hit all too close to home.]
AMC – Did you join any support groups? Are there any you are aware of?
Heather- I did not join any groups formally and am not aware of any, though surely there must be some? Informally, however, I have met many people at this point.
I don’t shout my experience from the rooftops, but I do share judiciously, if I think it might be helpful. And people have shared with me. As a result, I now know a small local community of stroke and brain injury victims and exchange tips and ideas as needed on how to cope with and navigate various challenges. As with so many things, keeping a sense of humor and humility really helps.
AMC- What precautions are you under now in order to prevent this from happening again?
Heather- That’s a good question. I guess I only actually think in terms of what I’m supposed to be doing and make sure I do it. From music therapy to physical therapy to LED therapy (see article) and more, I just make sure I get it done. A lot of my rehab is patterned after a case study very similar to mine and while there are no guarantees, I’m hopeful and encouraged. There’s still a lot of great stuff on my To Do list and I intend to do it.
AMC- What are your plans for the future, musically?
Heather- More of it! I recently found a trove of music recorded over the span of about twenty years, including lots of local artists, and I’m slowly listening and enjoying auditory snapshots of the past. Some songs may get released while others will stay in a blissful closet. I’ll keep writing and recording indefinitely, falling in and out of love with various instruments like seasons.
This recent stroke interrupted a new album in process so I’ll be getting back to that as I can, and I have an unreleased album produced by Yoggie and I that I hope to finish and release sooner rather than later as well. That one was recorded a few years ago with him, Phil Redmond, and Jeff Plankenhorn- always a pleasure.
I have enlisted Danny G to co-produce my next single, and I truly look forward to it. Our styles are different but in a way that is complementary, and we work well together.
AMC- Have you written anything from prose to music based on this experience?
Heather- Yes, actually. The poetry book “A Tree Like This” was written in the months following the first stroke and a spoken word album entitled UnSpoken was completed and released last fall, with a performance following at Hyde Park Theater. The music featured was written by Danny G and can be purchased separately as well. At the moment I’m working on a collection of poetry, short stories, and scenes in a book tentatively titled “Mercy” that I hope will be out this Fall. Is it challenging? Definitely. My fatigue is high. But to not write, to not play music? That would be less than who I am…and I’m still here.