Read about Chronic Pain in Focus, my new community photography project and about my experience in the One Project’s online photography course, “Overcome Depression and Anxiety with Photographic Storytelling.”
Six years ago if you had told me that drawing or music could assist me in dealing with my pain I would have said, “no way, I am not an artist and I need medical treatment not art or music”. Interestingly as the years passed and my pain and disability increased, I opened up to the idea of utilizing the Arts to help me deal with the pain. I realized that the Arts can be an excellent form of distraction from pain and, on a deeper level, a way to explore and express my feelings about living with chronic pain.
Art Therapy brought the tears forth…
I remember the first time my counsellor suggested that I use art to explore my feelings regarding chronic pain. I said “oh no, I am not artistic”. He persevered though and convinced me to go home and try drawing with pastels and just see what would happen. Let’s just say I was EXTREMELY reluctant and very skeptical as for one, I “couldn’t” draw and two I didn’t understand how art could possibly help with the suffering my chronic pain was causing me. I had been doing traditional counselling for some time, including the highly-touted cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as well as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and felt I had reached a plateau with these more mainstream types of therapy. I knew I needed to try something different.
So after my session that day I pulled out a some paper and pastels and sat there staring down blankly for what seemed like an eternity. I finally starting drawing the only thing I knew how to, a daisy. Hmmm I thought that didn’t reveal anything knew to me. I turned the page over and stared at its blankness. Before, I knew it, I grabbed a dark brown pastel and started to draw a circle over and over in the centre of the page. I added black to it. A deep dark pit that transformed into an eye. I drew tears falling from it. There were so many tears falling from the eye that they created an ocean that I drew over the entire bottom two-thirds of the page. I stared at the drawing, stunned that my hand had just created the image. Soon, real tears were falling from my eyes and falling into the ocean on the page below. I allowed the sadness to pour out of me. I wailed, I cried, I yelled. I did this for about half an hour until I was tired and exhausted but a whole lot lighter. I realized that I had been holding an ocean full of tears inside me for quite a while now. Drawing had allowed me to access my feelings again, which lately I held in tightly as I was trying so hard to be strong and to hold myself together.
Music Therapy brought joy… Next my therapist suggested I try exploring music. Well this prompted more anxiety than when he had suggested drawing. Flashbacks of skipping out of high school band class flooded my mind as I remembered how I would do anything to avoid playing my flute. I came back to the present moment and reminded myself of how helpful drawing had turned out to be. I agreed to go home and play a recorder. Yes, a recorder…that funny plastic instrument we had to play in elementary school. I called up my best friend and asked her 8-year old daughter if I could borrow hers. They arrived on my doorstep a few minutes later with the recorder in hand ready to witness my musical talents! I must say recorders have improved in appearance…no longer brown and cream coloured, this one was all colours of the rainbow! I was immediately inspired and in giggles before I even touched my lips to the mouthpiece. Once I regained a little composure, my fingers quickly found their places over the holes and I immediately remembered how to play “Hot Cross Buns”. What fun! I absolutely howled with laughter each time I finished playing the song. It was seriously the most fun I had had and the hardest I had laughed in so long.
While drawing had provided me with a way to release my tears, the recorder allowed me to let go, be in the moment, laugh, reconnect with my inner child, and escape the reeling thoughts about pain.
I then brought art and music to my Chronic Pain Support Group…
After personally experiencing the benefits of drawing and music, I decided both would make great topics for the chronic pain support group I was facilitating.
I coordinated with one of the members and we organized a meeting where all the members sat and drew their own mandala (just google if you want the details on what a mandala actually is). It was fascinating to see how each person’s mandala was unique in colour and design. As we sat working on our creations, the group members shared personal examples of how engaging in making art allowed them to escape feelings of pain, even if only briefly.
For another meeting, I collaborated with a member who was a piano teacher. I shared the story about my recorder therapy session and talked about the numerous studies I had read showing that just listening to music can ease the level of pain one feels. Our resident piano player provided her own testimony of how music was her main escape from pain. She handed us each a cd of her beautiful music. Her classical piano cd has helped me many times, to calm down when the a pain flare has occurred, and I am on the verge of panic. Other days I put on my “Fun” playlist on my iPod and crank it up. Even if I am bedridden, I can’t help but feel uplifted. It has become clear to me that music can be very powerful for those of us struggling with chronic pain.
My favourite artistic outlet though is photography…
Prior to being disabled with chronic pain, I travelled the world taking photos of sites around the globe. When my disability prevented me from ever travelling again, I put down my camera too. A couple of years later, I picked it back up when I started Susannah Conway‘s online course, “Unravelling”. The class was about exploring your inner self through the use of photography. As I worked through each of the “assignments” I was shocked by how taking pictures of my reflection and even my feet could be transformative experiences. Sharing and explaining these photos with fellow course participants further increased the positive impact.
I learned how powerful photos of “everyday” things could be. Since that course, I have rarely put my camera down. Even when I am bedridden I take photos of my cats on the bed or I open up my computer, edit photos from the past and share them on the Internet. These various processes allow me to escape my current circumstances, provide an outlet for my feelings, offer me a way to share my reality and a avenue to connect with others. This past year I even created a daily theme photography group on Facebook, called “Life in Focus“.
Next, I plan on starting a project called “Pain in Focus“. My mission for this project is that it will encourage individuals to use photography to express and share their feelings about, and the reality of, living with chronic pain. I hope to have the project “live” by November for National Pain Awareness Week. Please check my blog for updates or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My favourite links about the Arts and Chronic Pain… Pain Exhibit – the PAIN Exhibit is an educational, visual arts exhibit from artists with chronic pain with their art expressing some facet of the pain experience. The mission is to educate healthcare providers and the public about chronic pain through art, and to give voice to the many who suffer in abject silence.
Para las fridas (for the Fridas) – my favourite blog about chronic pain. Like me this blogger is an appreciator of the amazing artist and chronic pain sufferer, Frida Kahlo.