My niece and I look across the expanse of the second floor of Marshall’s Dranko Library as we take in the library’s Spring art exhibit: Creation in Confinement. We spot my moon drawings on black paper hanging on the opposite wall. As a new artist, accompanied by my niece artist, I excitedly read: Heavenly Moon and Worldy Skies, and how they are both done with pastels, colored pencils, and gel ink. Tears fill our eyes more for the healing the art represents than for the art itself.
Two years previously, I was driving a dogsled in the Colorado mountains, flew off into the snow, shattering my left-side limbs. Surgeries with lots of hardware, a five-week stay in a nursing home, and the around-the-clock care from this niece’s younger sister, also an artist, did much to put me back together and back to walking and working some.
Three months after the accident, my main activities were getting from the bed to the wheelchair and bathroom and physical and occupational therapy. My niece caretaker got me situated in my wheelchair on the back patio, with colored pencils and a sketch pad giving encouragement with instruction. Pain was my main daily challenge, always distracting and sometimes intrusive. Yet, I experienced escapes from the pain when I focused on drawing. The more I focused on new skills and expressed what I saw, the better the escape. Before this, my adult drawing experience was limited to Pictionary games. I was able to develop drawing as a pain relief strategy because I had the guidance of an artist caretaker who purchased and instructed me on the supplies and skills to the point that I could become engrossed in the activity of drawing.
Now two years on, I make use of many pain management strategies and gadgets. Heating pads, ice packs, and tens units are close by. Yet, when my pain is most intrusive, it is by drawing that I get the best break. From layering the pastel hues, detailing with pencils, and accentuating highlights with gel pens; my intense focus temporarily overrides the pain messages to my brain. That this break in the pain cycle creates beauty is a wonderful side effect, that I am now exploring for art’s own sake. And something I so wish for my patients with similar challenges
As a doctor again seeing patients in the outpatient setting and presently working in Central Appalachia that has been hit so hard by the opioid epidemic, so many of my patients’ main challenges is chronic pain. We utilize the tools of pain management and physical therapy referrals, medicines where indicated, and explore other possible interventions. Many patients notice my limp and limited use of my left arm, and ask me questions, including if I have pain daily. When helpful, I do share my personal strategies and wish many could use drawing like I am able to. Yet, it takes more than telling people to try it for most to be helped by it. How I wish we could prescribe art instruction with artists whose fees could be covered by insurance so that it could be accessible to my patients.
In addition to the stories of how great artists transformed their pain into great works of art, much is written about how art can help with pain by artists as well as in the medical literature. In his blog post, Peter Abaci, MD, describes drawing as an active engagement in a healing art, “Is It Time for a Pain Management Reboot?” Melissa Ayotte describes drawing as therapeutic art-making, which she differentiates from art therapy, when the client is working with a certified art therapist. Unfortunately, there are no art therapists registered in my locality.
I had also used arts and crafts previously in my own experience to help with healing. Including the previous year when I had a breast cancer recurrence did many crochet projects and took classes in mosaics making as I navigated from victim to survivor. However, following my catastrophic accident, I didn’t know how to do these activities until I could again use my left arm. Which now I am a little thankful for, as I might not otherwise have been as open to trying drawing.
As I go forward, I will be taking myself more seriously as an artist and looking to learn how my patients can access actively learning art as a tool to manage pain.
Martha Sommers is a family physician.
Image credit: Martha Sommers