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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Tami Hennessy uses art to showcase struggles, beauty behind functional neurological disorder

By Rachel Baker For The Spokesman-Review

When Tami Hennessy finished assembling her tree inside Shotgun Studios, it was much larger than expected. Carefully constructed of the moldable, easy-to-carve polyethylene foam found cheap in the form of pool noodles, the tree stands nearly 8 feet and its arms span over 12. Sharp words are etched in its bark, and black-brown oozes from its ridges. In its middle is a purple-rimmed pit that looks like it could only be described as the knots in your stomach. But clumped about the trunk and barren branches are patches of bright green moss, showing that life still abounds on this blackened, twisted tree.

Hennessy’s tree is the standout piece of her exhibit, “Unraveling My Mind.” It hangs on the walls of the surprisingly large end of the modest Peaceful Valley studio owned and run by John and Kathy Thamm. Nestled along the bank of the Spokane River, Shotgun Studios is home to Hennessy’s exhibit through late May.

The exhibit is a combination of expression and information, detailing Hennessy’s journey with functional neurological disorder (FND). She has been diagnosed for nearly 12 years and created the bulk of the exhibit’s work in the last year and a half.

FND isn’t well known, and it took Hennessy many years of medical testing to nail down the diagnosis.

“It’s both a mental health and a physiological disorder,” Hennessy said. “… so we call it a hardware problem on a software problem.”

FND is described by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke as referring to “a group of common neurological movement disorders caused by an abnormality in how the brain functions.” It can cause loss of movement, involuntary movement, fatigue, speech difficulties, cognition and sensory issues.

Hennessy has had episodes throughout the years that temporarily impacted her ability to walk or, at times, left her immobile from the neck down. Some FND episodes caused her muscles to involuntarily contract and seize, causing contortion and stiffness that can last for up to eight hours. Others gave her nonepileptic seizures.

“I can blink and grunt and those are scary because you’re trapped, and my mind gets confused, and I can’t move, and I’m wanting to move, and I can’t do anything about it. They’re scary, and it strips you of who you are and your autonomy and your independence,” Hennessy said.

The exact cause is still unknown, but the symptoms are real. The condition is caused by the brain’s inability to properly send and receive signals and it is often triggered by a stressful event that results in emotional or physical trauma.

Episodes came and went. With information and treatment, and eliminating stress or excitement, eventually her condition went into remission for two years. Then it came back in 2020.

That was the year Hennessy drove her son cross-state to begin college. She had just ushered him into a new life when the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded.

“It was like, here, send him off. He’s never left. He’s never been this far away from you and it’s COVID, and you can’t help him,” Hennessy said.

This marked the beginning of an intense, new FND episode. Hennessy tried to cut out stress by quitting her job, but it wasn’t enough. Several tragic family events over the next few years exacerbated her symptoms.

“I was trapped inside of myself on the couch for over a year basically, and in a very dark place,” Hennessy said.

As time went on, Hennessy slowly regained her health and independence. A lifelong creative, she was finally able to start working on projects again. Her husband, local filmmaker Jesse James Hennessy, suggested she apply for a grant through the Spokane Arts Grant Awards (SAGA).

On her second submission in 2023, Hennessy got the grant. She bought materials with the funds and set off to complete all the pieces for her exhibition.

“I didn’t want to go through all of that and not do something with it,” Hennessy said.

“I feel really proud of myself because I didn’t know if I would make this happen, especially with everything that was happening and how bad my FND was getting … It’s a lot to put that out there and share something that’s a very integral part of who I am,” Hennessy said.

Her mixed-media exhibition showcases canvases painted purple, teal blue, red and black, some housing poetry and others with charged, dark imagery. In the back of the room, a film of her seizure video recordings grounds the experience in its somber reality. Hung directly across from the tree is a contrasting piece, “Love and Understanding.” It’s a bright mosaic of a woman made of multicolored pieces. It isn’t an expression of trauma, but an expression of healing.

“The ‘Love and Understanding’ piece is how basically, no matter how many times you break apart, you can still put yourself together and be a piece of art,” Hennessy said.

Hennessy says her future projects will be inspired by this one, centered on a visual motif of stained glass and thematically focused on healing.

“Unraveling My Mind” opened April 5 for FND Awareness Month and will be available until May 25. It is open noon to 5 p.m. Fridays and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Hennessy is also the author of the book “Dashboard Jesus Confessionals,” and appears on the podcast “Bloody Married Podcast,” with her husband where they discuss horror movies over a Bloody Mary cocktail.