Chronic Illness, Adversity, And Life As An Artist

If you follow me on Instagram you may have seen my recent post addressing my relative absence from social media lately due to illness. I wanted to follow that up with this blog post talking about being an artist who struggles with chronic illness and pain because I know that there are many of us out there.

A long time ago during an emotionally challenging time I was reading a lot of Buddhist writings and saw the teaching that “Everything is suffering”.  At the time I took this to mean that while you are alive you have pain and there’s no escaping it, so just strap in and hold on. But now I think of it like this:

Everything living has its own personal challenges and suffering, and your personal suffering is not precious. You should not define yourself by it, or allow yourself to be isolated by the idea that no one can understand what’s happening inside of you. Suffering is a something we all have in common.

I have no way of knowing what your struggles are, whether they’re chronic pain and illness like mine or if they’re something completely different. But I feel sure that somewhere in life you’ve faced an obstacle that stood between you and what you wanted to do or who you wanted to be. This can make you feel alienated from yourself and others. If you happen to be an artist or creative, it can look like missed opportunities, art that doesn’t get made, connections that are lost, financial stress, and the feeling of being completely untethered from reality.

I’ve found that for me personally, one of the hardest things about facing my personal adversity is how completely invisible my illness is to the outside world. It feels like people can see me flailing and failing, but they can’t see why. It concerns me that they’ll mistake me (the real me) for the person I am when my symptoms and challenges are running the show. That’s part of why I want to write this blog post, and it’s a big part of why I’m teaching myself to speak out, share, and be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is crazy hard and doesn’t come naturally to me (just ask my therapist), but its a weapon I can use in the war against invisibility and complete detachment so here it is.

An advantage of making visual art is that it inherently creates the opportunity to make what is invisible (like illness) take a literally visible form. I’ve realized that until now I have been largely ignoring this potential and I think now that I’ve done myself a disservice in that. Acknowledging your resources is a way of acknowledging your potential, and I know I’m at the point where I need to use everything I have to be okay.

I used to question why I’d ever want to spend one of my “good days” painting a dark art piece about the pain I’ve been in for the past few weeks, or why I’d want to present the world with the part of myself that I like the least. When I feel like illness has taken my voice, why should I give it more chances to speak? So instead I’ve focused my art on traveling as far away from my bedroom as I can on the days I can’t actually go anywhere. I’ve used art as a vehicle to imagine living the life I want to have, rather than reflecting on the life I actually live. And maybe that’s a perfectly valid option. I can say for myself though it hasn’t been helping, and in fact I think it’s made things more painful some fundamental ways.

I’ve recognized that I spend a lot of energy (a preciously finite resource in my case)  on aversion, grief, and anger over what I perceive myself to have lost due to my lack of physical wellbeing. I haven’t worked with my limitations because I’ve hated that they exist so much. But because I don’t have enough energy to just throw half of it out the window being pissed off at no one, I’ve come around to trying to cultivate acceptance of myself, gratitude for the things I can do when I’m able, and thankfulness to the people and resources in my life that support me during the hardest times.

I know that I need to process what’s happening for me in the here and now because I can’t outrun it (trust me I’ve tried), and I want to use my art as a way to do that processing. I am an artist and a creative person, and whether I’m able to make a painting on any given day doesn’t change that. It’s something that illness can’t take away and its how I choose to be known. It often seems like everything is so much harder for me to do than it is for other people, and that never feels fair. But I remind myself that fairness is a construct of language that doesn’t exist in nature. I may not be able to keep up with others, but I can decide to keep going anyway.

Pain, illness, and adversity can be incredibly isolating and its been so important for me to feel connection to others through their creative works. I know I want to be a part of that global outreach. I want to make things that help people who really need help and I want to learn how to help heal myself while I do it. I want to keep talking about this as I learn from myself and others what living a good life alongside adversity looks like.

What do you struggle with and how do you push through it? Are you a creative, and if so does your art relate to your struggles? How do you heal yourself? I want to hear anything you feel comfortable sharing, and I’m sure a lot of other people do too. We don’t have to do this all alone, so let’s do what we can together.

Wishing you much love, support, and wellness in your life.