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Coping With Chronic Illness: 101 Days of Creativity

Updated on April 19, 2017
Gina Welds-Hulse profile image

Chronic Illness Warrior and Natural Health Coach and Advocate, Gina helps others thrive beyond the challenges of chronic illness.

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Creativity and Happiness Are More Closely Linked Than We Think

We all have pain buried inside. Whatever our upbringing or status in life, we have experienced some form of hurt, disappointment, guilt, fear, anger, rejection, insecurity, or grief. If this emotional pain is ignored, it can cause disharmony within ourselves, it can cause stress in our relationships, and in turn, it may cause physical problems that disrupt our lives.

It’s not hard to see, then, why living with a chronic illness can be so debilitating at times.

It can:

  • isolate you from friends and family
  • render your body and mind fit for nothing but bed rest
  • make you extremely tired
  • cause stress, anxiety and anger
  • affect your appearance
  • make you unsure of the future

Your self-esteem can take a hit as you are forced into a different pace of life than others your age and it can ramp up anxiety levels because when you do go out, you are thinking about the worst case scenarios of your pain kicking in, letting people down and how you will cope if, and when a flare happens.

From my own experience, there are certain self-help tools that help to cultivate peace of mind, a sense of accomplishment and happiness. One creative practice I took to recently has had many benefits for me, and a new study reports that creativity and happiness are more closely linked than we think.

The study had hundreds of volunteers keep a daily diary for two weeks, describing their mood and rating how creative they had been. When they analyzed the diaries, the authors found that people who engaged in creative pursuits one day felt significantly more energetic, enthusiastic and excited the next.

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

— Pablo Picasso
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Source

For those of us who have suffered a sudden loss or illness, coming to terms with the new reality can be difficult.

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Art Does Heal

Artists have known for years that art making is therapeutic. The process of mixing colors and applying layers of paint to a surface is so soothing, and I believe that we can all benefit from the healing aspects of painting regardless of our artistic ability.

The whole idea of Art as therapy stems from the theory that creativity and healing come from the same place in the mind. As chronic pain is recognized as not only a physical condition, but as having psychological and social aspects, it makes sense that mental health care providers would utilize art therapy as a potential intervention within a comprehensive treatment plan for patients suffering for chronic pain.

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican Surrealist painter who suffered from some form of chronic pain due to an unfortunate bus accident. many of her paintings and other art works are an expression are an expression of this pain.

Frida Kahlo has inspired many artists, myself included, to express, as well as cope with, our physical pain in a creative manner.

At the Frida Kahlo exhibit, Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, April 2017
At the Frida Kahlo exhibit, Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, April 2017 | Source
Broken Column, by Frida Kahlo, at the Frida Kahlo exhibit, Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, April 2017
Broken Column, by Frida Kahlo, at the Frida Kahlo exhibit, Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, April 2017 | Source
Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait, shortly after cutting his ear off
Vincent van Gogh, self-portrait, shortly after cutting his ear off | Source

Creating Art as a Distraction From Pain

Pain doesn't show up on a body scan and can't be measured in a test. As a result many people who suffer from chronic pain turn to some form of art to depict their pain or to help them cope with the pain.

One example is the Pain Exhibit , an online 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 silence.

Recently I had the opportunity to see Frida Kahlo's work in person at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Pain and suffering is a constant topic in Frida Kahlo's paintings. By distilling and depicting the emotions surrounding her traumatic accident and subsequent medical complications, Frida Kahlo painted experiences that people could recognize and relate to—feeling pain, being hospitalized, and fearing isolation. In the iconic painting Broken Column (1944), Frida Kahlo portrays the effect on her body of the injuries sustained in the streetcar accident. She offers her body for study by exposing her bare breasts and uncovering her spinal column. With metal construction nails sticking into her body, moreover, she conveys the sharp and diffuse nature of her pain.

When I first saw Frida Kahlo’s painting The Broken Column I stared in awe. My health issues are, of course, different from Frida Kahlo’s, but I can relate to the constant pain, a few surgeries and the feeling that your body isn’t normal.

In The Broken Column, Frida Kahlo expressed her anguish and suffering in a most straightforward and horrifying way. The nails are stuck into her face and whole body. A split in her torso which looks like an earthquake fissure. A broken column is put in place of her spine.

Despite all the pain depicted in the painting, Frida Kahlo looks pretty and strong. Although her whole body is supported by the corset, she is conveying a message of spiritual triumph. She has tears on her face but she look straight ahead and is challenging both herself and her audience to face her situation.

Another artist that I have always admired is Vincent van Gogh.

Plagued by psychiatric illness throughout his life, van Gogh committed suicide in 1890. Evidence suggests that he had manic depression, a chronic mental illness thought affects many creative people. Many people believe that artists overcome suffering with their creative acts. Van Gogh might have defeated his manic depression, avoided his tragic fate, and grown further as an artist. “If I could have worked without this accursed disease, what things I might have done,” he wrote in one of his last letters.

A painting that I created based on neuropathy pain that I experience.
A painting that I created based on neuropathy pain that I experience. | Source

Chronic illness is a foreign country, a lunar outpost, and an experience no one else fully understands if they’ve been lucky enough to avoid it.

There are days when I spend a lot of time in bed.
There are days when I spend a lot of time in bed. | Source

Lessons Learned From Chronic Pain Experience

I am tenacious. There are days when I am in too much pain to do anything other than lie down, but I still paint or do something creative.

I am passionate. Pain and fatigue can dominate my life to the exclusion of everything else that interests, but if I am committed to my art, I will create despite the pain.

I need community. There are times that I feel isolated and misunderstood (as can brilliant artists). I've struggled for a long time with the idea that I did not fit in. At the same time, I still try to build a strong community of friends and supporters that believe in me and what I am trying to do.

I have hope and find comfort in my work.

I hope you enjoy the videos depicting the 101 paintings created during this journey.

My paintings are the most frank expression of myself

— Frida Kahlo

101 Days of Creativity: Days 1-25

Art as Therapy

In the therapy of chronic disease and functional disorders, art therapy is considered to be of increasing importance. The idea behind this type of therapy is that the stimulation of creative activities promotes the healing process and rehabilitation.

Art therapy is a creative outlet of expression used as a therapeutic tool. It’s a form of psychotherapy that utilizes art media as its fundamental mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic technique but as a way to address emotional stuff which may be confusing and distressing.

The different types of art therapies that are regulated include:

  • Dance movement therapy
  • Drama therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Visual art therapy

Studies have found art therapy can help with the following:

  • Reduce Stress
  • Increase Self-Esteem
  • Enhance Self-Awareness
  • Develop Interpersonal Skills

Creativity is the essential 21st century skill.

A painting I created to depict what pain might look like on the human body.
A painting I created to depict what pain might look like on the human body. | Source

101 Days of Creativity: Days 26-50

What I found out about myself on my journey with chronic illness

When I was first diagnosed with lupus, and the many other ailments, I truly felt that life as I knew it was over. I did give up at one point. It took me a long time before I was physically able to pick up a paint brush again. Depression gripped me. However, I found out a lot about myself on this journey with chronic illness.

  • I discovered that I have a relentless will to live. Yes, I have to dig deep into my reservoir of strength to mine more of it every single day.
  • I don’t give up, despite the debilitating symptoms that I might experience.
  • I push through and grab hold of what they can to findjoy and fulfillment in every day.
  • I have an astute awareness of other people’s pain.
  • I have a deep understanding of adversity and hardship, so I can truly appreciate someone else’s struggles.
  • I have a unique perspective on life.
  • I am constantly challenged to find meaning and fulfillment within my own limitations.
  • I celebrate simple things that others take for granted.
  • I tend to live a secret life of struggling, although I am getting better at reaching out for help when I need it.

I am bent, but not broken; challenged, but not defeated.

101 Days of Creativity: Days 51-75

I am stronger than chronic illness

No hardship or hurt I have ever experienced in my life has been as bad as this one. Nothing I have faced could have prepared me for the utter pain and destruction this disease has given me.

Don't be ashamed of your story. It will inspire others.

101 Days of Creativity: Days 76-101

This Journey Has Helped Me

I am still able to do great work and to achieve a lot. Over the years I have figured out how to do it in different ways. This journey has helped me, and I hope my story helps you.

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    • threekeys profile image

      ThreeKeys 7 days ago from Australia

      I felt for you Gina. You are brave and warm. The post was creative and beautiful. I wish you health and healing.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 7 days ago from Southern Illinois

      Your creativity is evident in your beautiful artwork. I find writing releases any stress that I am feeling. I have a family member with Lupus, so I know of your good and bad day's. Wishing you peace, wellness and happiness. Thank you for sharing a very informative and personal hub.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 days ago from Hyderabad, India

      This is a touching story of the victims going through it. You have been bold to face and struggle with it. Even going through a minor surgery for some ulcer in my foot made me depressed and tense for 10 days. And, you have faced so much torture and endured it for so many days.

      I wish for your full recovery and happy days. Your creativity is your moral support. Keep up your spirit. And, be optimistic always without getting depressed.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 21 hours ago from london

      Art therapy can and does help, as you so rightly point out. Another aspect is that it enhances the focus, the concentration or energies, necessary for meditation. Goya was a bit like Van Gogh, perhaps, in a more passionate and darker sense.

      No, no. Chronic illness is not a foreign country. You would probably be the first to admit that it has brought you where you are ... in a realm of progress, of growth. It is a friend of yours and work with it as such. It will go, either in this life or the next, when its purpose is fulfilled. Pray over it.

      "Nothing I have faced could have prepared me for the utter pain and destruction this disease has given me."- Gina

      All comes from God and there is nothing outside of the Divine. My empathies for such intense pain for you, but change your angle of vision when you can. All the Seers including the Christ, Buddha and others, teach that God Loves us more than we'll ever know.We are being prepared for something higher.

      I'm a bit long here, but maybe this will help you. I saw a person who was extremely irritable and lamented the fact that she's been in hospital for 14 days. She also wanted to jump the queue of much older patients.

      I did not have the heart to tell her that some had been there three months, six months ... some were seriously ill with little hope and that their moods were better than hers.

      So sorry, Gina, it may be hard to believe that I wish you Love when I write this way. You're doing fine in terms of some of the Hubs you write and you keep going. Excellent! My sister has stage 4 cancer and she works like an 18 year old.

      God has not seen it fit to make me as bad as you, perhaps, but I have had chronic fatigue for 23 years and sometimes I really feel it. Strive to continue the happiness in the face of aridity and trials. I embrace you with all my Heart and wish you God's continual Light.

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