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Artsy Escapes from Pain

Artsy Escapes from Pain

Several adult coloring books are currently ranked in the top sellers on Amazon. Those of us engaged in artistic work are silently smiling that folks are “getting it”. Getting that working creatively is rewarding. Getting that the arts allow you to process life. Getting that slowing down and focusing is a way of de-stressing.

I have always connected with the arts. At a young age I realized that it functioned as a pain management tool. It allowed me to purposefully navigate painful years. It even laid the roadmap to me eventually becoming an artist.

Landscape at dusk

Here is an excerpt from my published memoir, Silent Courage. This chapter details some of the ways I employed creative activities to help build self esteem and manage pain. My pain was from hip dysplasia and  not relieved until I reached the age of 40.

 

Chapter 6: Artsy Escapes

I never complained to my neighborhood friends about my legs in the same way that our fathers never talked about trading in their high school graduation caps for military-issued uniforms and guns to fight in World War II. There were certain things no one talked about when I was growing up. We called these the “unmentionables.”

As a group of almost one hundred kids in our neighborhood, we always played together. These were the baby boom years. (Our family of five kids would eventually include seven children with the additions of my sister, Rose, and brother, Joe, a few years later.) Playmates were plentiful. I did, however, dread the days when as a group we ran back and forth from one end of the block to the other, in search of a seemingly precious bat or ball. Some days when my legs would begin to hurt, I decided to forego whatever fun might be in store for the gang in order to rest my legs. This became my primary focus. I would often make up an excuse about my mom needing help with one of the babies. I just wanted an acceptable reason to sit down and rest. I am not sure anyone ever saw through my fabricated lies. Often, I wished I could trade my body for a new one so I could do everything my friends did.

Aside from school, my days were spent playing amid gangs of neighborhood kids. My life changed the day I discovered there were other options to fill the day. One playmate was enough. This made it easy to maintain control, voice your opinion, and choose whether to sit or stand. When I sat rather than stood, I avoided discomfort. I had as much fun sitting down while dressing up dolls and playing board games as I did running around in a game of tag or kick ball. I gradually learned that I could replace pain with pleasure by actively deciding how I spent my time. I could be in control—and that was revolutionary for me.

From a very young age, I loved using crayons and colored pencils to draw and color. I can still smell the crisp, slightly textured, manila newsprint in coloring books and recall the satisfaction of coloring inside a black outlined shape. Building up waxy, shiny, flawless layers of color delighted me. I brought something to life on a page. This creativity empowered me and gave me self-worth, as I proudly showed off every completed page to Mom and Dad for their praise.

I nourished this desire to make beautiful things with my hands while using the simplest of materials. Whether it was sculpting, helping Mom cook, or drawing, I did it all. I built detailed sandcastles with just sand and water. I helped Mom bake and marveled at filling up measuring spoons with flour and carefully dumping out perfectly domed shapes. The repetition of performing these activities was soothing in contrast to my pain. I may have begun by coloring inside the lines, but I would revel in going outside of them, exploring the possibilities of any and all available media.

My mother, like her mother, was very talented when it came to sewing and knitting. I watched her press the foot pedal on her gold-edged, black, electric sewing machine for what seemed like hours. She fed huge lengths of material under its needle and eventually produced a finished product. She creatively turned scraps of material into little outfits for our dolls. Long before I was old enough to reach the foot pedal, she would place it on the kitchen table, allowing me to press it with my hand and sew straight rows on doll blankets. I also loved hanging over the stuffed upholstered arm of the living room chair while she knitted. The rhythm of her clicking needles captivated me. I am thankful she had patience to deal with my questions.

“Mom, how do you do that?”

“Sit down and I’ll show you. Let me see your hands. Hold this needle in your right hand and this one in your left. Now start with this piece of yarn,” she said beginning her impromptu art lessons.

I recall walking into the bedroom that my brothers shared and seeing the blue curtains with white edges she had just designed, sewn, and mounted on rods. She followed no pattern—the entire project conceived inside her mind’s eye. I envied her talent. I fed off her desire to beautify the world. Inhaling the confidence with which she attacked projects, I willingly gave new things a try, believing that I was also competent.

Every once in a while Dad got creative, as well.

“What’s in the bag, Dad?” I asked him as he walked in one night after work.

“I stopped at the art store today and picked up some fresh tubes of cobalt blue and burnt sienna. The guy who worked there suggested I buy this new brush, too. They’re selling like hotcakes! Think I’ll go down after dinner and work awhile. Want to join me, MT?” He referred to me by my initials for Mary Theresa, which was his nickname of choice.

“Sure, let me go get my shoes.” I bypassed nagging mental reminders that I had a spelling test to study for—that could wait.

In the back of our unfinished, concrete basement, Dad set up a modest studio for his painting supplies on an old office desk. He reproduced his favorite paintings from the small postcard versions he had purchased at the Art Institute of Chicago. I would sit on a wooden stool next to his chair and watch him squeeze out snakes of oil paint onto a parchment palette. He drenched them with smelly oil and mixed it all together with a bent knife. A secret he had not shared with me was that he had a form of color blindness. Sometimes his colors were wide of the mark. I would have to shake my head and tell him, “No, that’s not it.” He relied on me to suggest what colors to mix to achieve a match. When we got a color correct, he said, “Yeah, that’s the ticket!” That was my favorite reply of his, which made me feel like an expert artist. I know these precious times spent with each of my parents inspired my interest in art later in life. I often wished we talked about my leg pain with the same ease with which we mixed paint and stitched material.

As I grew, my parents never asked me about my legs. In fact, they avoided answering any questions I raised. My father, more than my mother, displayed a strong denial about anything painful. When I complained about my legs feeling tired and heavy, my mother frequently replied, “You should tell your father.” He would respond late in the evening returning from work with, “No, that’s not possible, MT. Why would your legs hurt?”

How would I know why my legs hurt? At that young age, when all I knew was to trust my parents, having my hips and my feelings hurt at the same time felt overwhelming. When my questions got bounced back at me from my parents, I began to feel that I did something, unbeknownst to them, to cause my pain. Perhaps that was their way of giving me a normal childhood. Or one that seemed like it. The Irish have a knack for painting over the harshness of reality to make it more palatable.

I am sure my parents received the assurance that everything that could be done for my hips had been done. I am not sure whether they ever heard I might encounter pain, which would gradually worsen as my bones matured. Or maybe they were warned. That might explain their unwillingness to hear me complain. It would validate a reality they hoped to avoid.

About this time I began reading children’s mystery books to escape my discomfort. Much like my favorite characters in these novels, I began mentally recording situations that seemed unusual. The things that I noticed and recorded were: having to skip to keep up with the walking pace of friends; always being the last one to finish a race; wanting to sit when others comfortably stood; choosing to walk around rather than climb a fence; struggling to jump rope double-dutch style; overhearing muffled conversations mentioning my name that ended when I approached. I sensed something unique about my pain experiences, but how could I be sure? I only possessed those clues, which added up as I grew taller. No one wanted to accept what I so desperately wanted to share. Is there something wrong with me wanting to share my feelings?

My parents continuously failed to acknowledge my complaints and their silence began to surround me. Their avoidance, dismissive nature, and lack of communication crystallized my secret. As my legs were getting longer, my pain increased proportionally in size alongside my shame and guilt. I knew what I felt, I just did not know why. No one ever told me about my hip dysplasia diagnosis or that I wore a corrective cast as an infant. I just knew the aches and fatigue that came from walking or standing for long periods of time. In addition to the physical pain, the discomfort that no one understood my complaints gave my pain a harsher edge.

I deeply regretted my hip pain being an unspeakable topic. My pain was an “unmentionable.” The lack of understanding, conversation, and acknowledgment only heightened my anger and frustration, allowing my secret to get darker and deeper. A chasm grew between what I knew to be true, that my legs always hurt, and what my parents would not validate, that there was a problem. I knew of only one thing that might provide some relief. But I needed my parents to agree on it first.

 

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Can You Miss Your Pain?

My forty-year journey with chronic pain ended with the total replacement of both of my hip joints. I was free from the shackles of physical pain. This should have been a good thing, right?

Wrong. I now faced the biggest contradiction of my life. I was filled with gratitude. My pain was gone. Why was I conflicted about its absence? I felt like someone was trying to lure me out of the protective confines of my self-imposed cave, but I had no way of knowing if it was a smart move.

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 4.02.00 PM

I had never known my body without pain. Pain and I had been in a long-term relationship. We conversed every day, all day. And when the surgeons physically removed my pain, I missed my pain.

How was this even possible?

How could I miss something that had been so brutal, so cruel and so endlessly tormenting? I don’t know why I missed my pain, but I did. No one warned me, nor did I anticipate, that the removal of my pain would cause such mental turmoil.

I was thrilled to be without it. It allowed me to imagine myself doing things that had previously been unimaginable, like touring major cities in Europe. I longed to begin this new chapter of my life. But in the quiet of my thoughts, I was confused.

Was my pain really gone, or was this just another one of the mental games we played? I felt like I had been violated and knew that my perpetrator still lived somewhere in my neighborhood. I wanted a guarantee that I was safe from harm.

This dilemma prompted me to write my memoir Silent Courage.

Telling my story means I no longer carry it. I travel lighter in this world. Taking time to write allowed me to process my experience and properly say “good riddance” to my pain.

An unanticipated gift the book has brought to me has been the opportunity to travel and help others mine the story their souls long to tell.

I would love to have you join me. Powerful truths and self revelations have been uncovered.

“I write but want to go deeper. I am leaving here with tools that I can continue to work with.”

“I am surprised at the images and thoughts that have surfaced for me. I am anxious to explore where they might lead.”

My next workshop will be March 14th in Chicago at Equilibrium . This link will take you to my website and future events.

Contact me if you would like to host a workshop. I’d love to help you mine the gold of your own story.

Digesting “Cake” the movie

The movie “Cake” starring Jennifer Aniston allows us to journey into the life of a chronic pain patient. I anticipated the movie providing the transformational energy of a watershed moment. I anticipated hundreds of people commenting on relevant articles about the movie. I anticipated people and conversations would stir with insight.

The Pain community is doing a great job of getting the word out through media sources. But I am left wondering “Why is “Cake” not stirring more conversation?”

Statistics cite over 100 million Americans have been diagnosed with chronic pain. We all know someone or have been that someone who is included in these numbers. I spent over 40 years with this unwelcome bedfellow.

Maybe I should not be so surprised. Pain has its own unique set of dynamics.

Pain patients are often their own worst enemy. Many of us go years denying what we are experiencing, fearing it may require lengthy, expensive and inconvenient measures to correct. Or we spend years frustratingly going from doctor to doctor, procedure to procedure, medication to medication searching for relief or proper diagnosis. In both cases, we struggle to find the words to truly explain how we feel.

“Cake” exposes some raw truths that perhaps we would rather not know. It is disturbing to think that a friend or loved one might be undergoing the same tortured life as Claire, the main character.

It is unpleasant to be on a plane with a crying baby. It makes us uncomfortable. We need the baby to be soothed. It disturbs our comfort when we are aware of someone who is unconsolable.

Does the movie “Cake” touch on something deep within us that is too difficult to consider? We live in a world where we have the tools to fix a lot of medical problems. Does the fact that chronic pain is no easy fix seem incomprehensible? Is it to costly to imagine that there are many Claire’s in this world trying to make it through each day?

The movie provides an opportunity to engage in conversation. I pray it increases awareness and moves us closer to identifying causes, cures and resources. I pray it broadens understanding of the multi-faceted complexity of pain. I pray it minimizes the gap between patients and those who love and care for them.

 

Chronic Pain Conversation

MaryByrneEigel-Event

Recently, our local YMCA branch asked me to speak at a community luncheon about Chronic Pain. They know I have a book coming out on the subject and thought chronic pain management would be of interest to their clients.

I agreed. A date was set. Then I began to worry.

Who really wants to hear about chronic pain? Folks who are in chronic pain often want to deny that they are there. Doctors get frustrated when their patients don’t follow their medical reasoning and advice about it.

The next question I had for myself was – who will attend? The Y is doing the advertising. Members will see the posters. But these people already come for wellness/exercise programs. Won’t this be like preaching to the choir?

Friday came, and I arrived early. The staff was setting up tables and food. People began to stream in from exercise classes and the parking lot. The audience ranged in age from 40ish to 80ish, filling almost 40 chairs.

An older lady who sat in the front commented, “You can just look in someone’s eyes and know they are in pain.” I told her that was only half true. Those of us who know what the experience is like can read the subtle signs. But if someone has never been in long-term pain how can they be expected to understand?

It was special to be together, engaged in a group and validating that pain is real.  That pain is often an uninvited guest requiring special accommodations. That only those who have shared a painful experience can really understand. And that using every available resource to be the best version of yourself requires access to information and opportunities.

I shared my experiences, current research findings and both Internet and local resources. Our sharing was beneficial. Being able to intelligently converse, not just complain about pain, gave people permission to find their voice and speak their truth. I may have been preaching to the choir but it allowed me to see that even they enjoyed adding to their repertoire.

Chronic Pain Conversations

EIGEL_oneWAYBut Why?

I remember hearing this question from each of my daughters when they were young, resisting what they were asked to do. The question is both innocent and wise.

I am nearing the completion of writing a book that chronicles my lifelong journey and triumph over chronic pain. There were many mornings I could have hung it all up because I did not have a definitive answer as to “why” I was taking all this time to write. Is it going to be of value? Will it lead to another career path? All I had was an intuitive hunch that folks did not understand some things I shared regarding the mind, body and spirit aspects of pain and maybe that was reason enough to want to put pen to paper.

It was not until now, when I am in a position to get feedback from friends and professionals I respect, that I realize the journey was worth taking. That it was of value to allow myself to be vulnerable and put my story out there.

I am thankful that I was innocent enough to keep going and not demand an answer.

And now I look forward to the publication of my book in the near future with the hope it can expand the conversation about the experience of pain and successfully dealing managing it.

Artists Reaching beyond Limitations

I read this article in the September 21st issue of the news magazine, American Profile, in the Hometown Hero section, about a vision-impared artist, Jeff Hanson. He is helping the world one painting at a time. A childhood optic tumor damaged his vision but has not let it define what he can or cannot do. To date he has contributed $1 million dollars to charity.

My friend Mike Wasserman is doing the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale with his monthly Facebook auctions. 100% of the proceeds benefit a nonprofit of your choice working to enhance the quality of life for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. The Winner picks the nonprofit and pays direct to group selected. He includes FREE shipping! Here is one of his latest pieces up for auction entitled “La Jolla Flowers”.

La Jolla FlowersI am in awe of both of these gentlemen. They inspire and remind us we never need to let our limitations define us.  Their reaching out has made the world a more beautiful place. May you keep gifting us with your work and your charities with money. And may you serve to inspire us to consider how we, too, can reach out.

Happy Painting!

Facing our Fears: Chronic Pain Management

Anxiously driving to my doctor’s office yesterday, to have a small skin cancer removed, I heard this program on our local NPR station. The focus was on a group of compromised veterans who were challenging themselves to climb Halfdome in  Yosemite Park. I was gathering courage to face a small knife and here they were mustering courage to trust their prosthetic limbs on the face of a mountain.

As they passed the microphone around, they spoke of the importance of challenging yourself and building your confidence and trust.

What a marvelous way to think about dealing with chronic pain management. Finding those things that can reinforce our mental and emotional ability to deal is as important as our physical strength.

Check it out. They inspired me!