We live in strange and difficult times. When the Covid-19 pandemic made its debut, our world was rocked by devastating loss of life. Our schools, businesses, and essential services were shut-down. Even still, both travel and the distribution of goods has been disrupted. Our medical system is being inundated with those fighting COVID-19 along with other illnesses. Though we are in the process of re-opening some of these things, the reality is setting in; Covid-19 has radically changed every fiber of our society. I wonder, how can art inspire us, and be a force for resilience in the time of COVID-19?
While social distancing requirements have forced the cancellation and suspension of many social, cultural, and artistic events and services, the arts have always been and continue to be a way to illustrate the resilience in our society, foster self-reflection and connection with others in profound ways. The role of artists and the arts is not just to record, commemorate, or comment on socio-cultural events, but to uplift, encourage and give hope to all those who see experience it.
It’s no surprise, then, that this health crisis has inspired artists to create. At this time in history, artists are illuminating the world around us. All around us, we can see a wide range of COVID-19 inspired artistic endeavours.
Examples of Art Emerging During COVID-19
Painted Posters and Rocks
Early on in this pandemic, many participated in the communal effort to cheer on frontline and essential service works with posters and scripted messages of hope and love to isolated populations, such as seniors in care facilities. With children home from school, painted rocks also became one way for youngsters to express their gratitude and connect with a seemingly intangible concept of a pandemic and quarantine. Placed discretely around town, happening upon these gems still reminds us that we are all in this together.
Across the Lower Mainland, street murals have been springing up everywhere. Murals adorn exterior walls of elementary and high-schools, under over-passes, downtown buildings, and malls. Locally, a mural was recently completed at Tsawwassen Mills Mall by artists Jan Rankin and a Natalie Way. Its beach scene reminds us of the connection we have to the nature around us. In downtown Ladner Village, a recently-completed mural done by artist Gary Nay helps depict the vibrancy of Ladner and the region.
What do these murals do? They help to create a sense of community, offer messages of hope, and add cheer, all of which we need during this time!
Across the Lower Mainland, “Open Air” art galleries are expanding. There is a new-found vigour as artists respond to the issues of today and the fight against COVID-19. Over 200 public art pieces in and around Vancouver are part of The Vancouver Mural Festival and range in subject matter, but they provide overall messages of love, community, strength and resilience. All art pieces are accessible online if you can’t get out to see them.
Online and Social Media Platforms
From the comfort of our homes, we can tour the world’s greatest museums, historical sites, and have access to online exhibitions. The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, for instance, gives you digital access to their collections, and a range of podcasts, stories, and research.
Instagram and Facebook have some interesting links to innovative and timely art. On Instagram, the account @covidartmuseum consists of themes and art work related to Covid-19 and shows how, in tough times, art can be used for serious contemplation but also offer comic relief. On Facebook, “Dr. Bonnie Henry Fan Club” tells us of a tribute art show at the Ministry of Health showcasing artwork, such as paintings, signs, mosaics and fibre arts, sent to Dr. Bonnie Henry from people all over the province and world.
We can also peek inside the life of an ER nurse, Anna Trowbridge, who sketches the scenes at work and posts them to her Instagram account. Her drawings show us how things really are on the front lines. Though this may be hard for some to take in, it captures the human side of the pandemic and highlights the heroic nature of our health care workers.
The Importance of Art Through COVID-19
Making art is one way we can practice self-care and learn positive coping strategies, both of which builds resilience
Viewing, and even more so, making art can be an important part of your self-care routine. Setting aside time to do something creative has been shown to reduce stress, protect against depression and anxiety, and can improve self-confidence and problem solving skills. Enjoying the mindful process of creating can help in pain-management, and it offers positive distraction tools and healing. Whether it is journaling, painting, singing, dancing, or knitting, our chosen activities helps to shore up our defences and learn healthy habits that we can use to sustain us during tough times. As we head into Fall, with the possibility of further shut-downs, we need the arts now more than ever. Its times like these where art can make all the different to keep our spirits up.
Making art together feeds our needs as social beings
Making art with others brings with it social benefits; it allows a space for relationships to be built, fosters a sense of belonging, and provides an outlet for self-expression. As we face COVID-19 fatigue and social distancing measures, doing something together with others is becoming more and more important for our mental health. It is not the art itself that has true value, it’s the ideas, conversations, choices, and connections we have made with ourselves and with others as we create that matters. Whether it’s connecting with a small group of people in person or online, the social nature of art helps us to not only to share our stories or voice our own opinions, but to listen to others with a compassionate ear.
Self-expression through mindful making helps us make sense of the uncertain world around us
This pandemic has compelled us to look at what matters to us, what we deem as essential, and to reflect on our lifestyle. Tuning into the present moment with self-compassion allows us to stop, breathe, observe, acknowledge, contemplate, and respond to our current state. Approaching the art making process in a mindful way can be very relaxing as well as restorative. Thoughtful experimentation can help us cope with the chaos around us and help us to express our beliefs and opinions and be open to new ways of thinking and doing. Giving yourself permission to question your own thoughts carefully, and without judgment, is an effective way to learn more about yourself and to rest and regroup.
How Can We Infuse Art Into Our Lives During COVID-19?
Art can be a major benefit for all of us as we head into the the Fall season, and into further unknowns. With school starting up, work shifting, and all that comes with this, we need now more than ever to take care of ourselves. Here are a few ideas on how we can use art to manage through this challenging time:
Check in with your local community centres, artists’ guild, or private classes in the arts. There are so many wonderful artists in our communities and many are offering classes or experiences you can take part in.
Create or buy art for your loved ones. Whether you make something yourself, or buy from a local artist, your gift can show others you are thinking of them. Supporting local businesses and donating to local causes also creates a stronger community! At Alongside You, sales of our jewelry, cards, and art help to fund our Step Forward Program, a program that has become increasingly important in subsidizing services for those in need of financial assistance.
Learn a new skill online. How we do art has changed, and with many programs facing shut downs, artists and organizations are finding ways to adapt their art making offerings. Online learning tools and YouTube videos are a great way to try something new. Finding a live class can also help connect those who may feel isolated. Learning to dance, paint, draw, sing, knit, write poetry, or play an instrument with the help of online tools is a great way to pass the time as we stay home!
What we’ve learned over time is that the creative arts are essential. They enrich our lives, they help us practice self-care, encourage connection, embrace challenges, share our stories and knit our community together. Creative connection is crucial, especially now. May you be safe, be calm, and be kind.
EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT! Open Studios are Back! COVID-Style.
After long last, we are excited to announce the opening of Open Studio Sessions, COVID-Style. We’ve made some changes to our operations and programming to keep people safe and healthy while being able to open the studio back up! We can not express how excited we are to welcome you into the studio again!
Click here to read about some of the changes and how to register for Open Studios again. We look forward to seeing you!
Herring, Daniel. Mindfulness-Based Expressive Therapy for People with Severe and Persistent Mental Ilness. P.171. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 168-179.
Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. & Burney, R. J The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Behave Med (1985) 8: 163.
McNiff, Shaun. Chapter 2: The Role of Witnessing and Immersion in the Moment of Arts Therapy Experience. P. 40-41. In In Mindfulness and the Arts Therapies: Theory and Practice. Laury Rappaport ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 2014: 38-50.
“Properly practiced, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.”
― Elizabeth Zimmerman
For the past few years, we’ve hosted a Friday Night Knitting Club at Alongside You. Held once a month at our art studio from September to June, we’ve had people of different ages, stages and abilities gathered together to share in a common interest. The idea grew out of community interest and was borne out of a reading of the novel The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs. What’s been fascinating about knitting groups is that everyone has a story of how they came to knit. Some of us have been knitting from a young age, taught by a family member or friend; others have taken up knitting to cope with chronic pain or illness, or have used it as a way to help those less fortunate. Some knit more regularly while others pick it up after long periods of rest.
I fit somewhere in the middle. Knitting has always been in and out of my life. My twin sister and I learned how to knit from a family friend in our neighbourhood when we around 6 or 7 years old. Because of my sisters’ short stature, a lady from my parent’s church handmade and measured custom knitted outfits for her to wear. Though both of us began knitting at the same time, my sister has kept it up more consistently. She is a little more skilled and comes to my rescue. Though I liked the idea of knitting my first-born a blanket, I had a difficult time finishing it. During the early stages of labour, I thought it was a good idea to attempted to knit. I put so many holes in it that my sister took all the stitches out and refinished the blanket just in time to wrap our daughter in the blanket. She has made both of our girls’ blankets that they cannot, I repeat, cannot live without. That’s the beauty of a knitted item. So much time and effort are laced into a piece that is well treasured. Since then, we have been the happy recipients of well-loved knitted baby clothes, children’s sweaters and blankets by friends and family that are true keepsakes.
How Can Knitting Help Us?
Here are a few things I have learned about knitting over the years.
1. Knitting has a long history all over the world.
Whether the piece is from England, Ireland, Scotland, Latvia, Japan, Australia or Peru, only to name a few possibilities, each is derived with their own styles and techniques. The history behind each garment and each stitch made makes my head swirl!
2. Knitting has major health benefits.
Because of its repetitive nature, knitting keeps your hands busy, produces relaxation, and teaches mindfulness as you tune into each stitch. It can also provide tangible results and garner a sense of accomplishment. It is these very attributes that have increased the use of knitting as therapy in addictions and recovery programs, and dealing with things such as eating disorders, drug and alcohol addictions, and chronic pain and illness management. Knitting is not simply a creative activity, it is constructive as well; activities using both your body and brain, like knitting or crocheting, actually promote the development of neuropathways that aid in memory retention and stave off symptoms of Dementia, strengthen hand-eye coordination, and offer exercise in joint movement, decreasing symptoms of arthritis. Knitting may as well be known as the “new super craft” just as cauliflower is known for being the “new superfood!”
3. Knitting requires skill.
Because knitting requires a certain amount of knowledge on everything from how to make yarn, dye it and craft it into something using an array of colours, yarn types, stitches and patterns, you need to learn it from an experienced teacher, relative, friend, or nowadays, YouTube! Knitting is truly a skilled art form that embraces the efforts of knitters with a variety of skill levels. I’m still at the square dishcloth, or scarf stage and hope to move into creating large blankets or shawls! Though historically a woman’s craft, knitting is now being accepted as an activity suitable to all.
4. Knitting for others in need has been and continues to be a huge part of knitting.
Knitting, for the most part, is made to be functional. Knitted items such as socks, sweaters, scarves and even undergarments are made for regular use and warmth. Historically, hand knitted socks, scarves, sweaters, hats and mitts have warmed soldiers, farmers, the elderly, children, and even those in hospital.
For instance, last year, our Friday Night Knitting Club received over 70 knitted scarves to be distributed at the Union Gospel Mission’s Women’s Shelter. This year, we received over 60 knitted items (hat, scarves, socks, mitts) and over $300 of grocery cards to be donated to Azure House, Delta’s new transition for women and children seeking refuge from domestic violence. This is run by W.I.N.G.S. (Women in Need of Gaining Strength). Similarly, The Knitting Sisters, a local group made up from women in both South Delta and Richmond, have made it their mission to support local and international charities with their knitting. Whether it is knitting items for a friend or family member, infants in the Neonatal Care Unit, the homeless, or even women’s shelters, many knitters carry on that sense of purpose.
Want to infuse knitting into your life?
Here are some ideas on where you can start:
Alongside You hosts a Friday Night Knitting Club once a month for those of any age and ability. We share stories, skills, knitting projects and refreshments. Basic instruction is available. The evening is by donation to raise funds for our Step Forward Program, that helps subsidize our services for those needing financial assistance. Everyone brings their own supplies but we also sell a selection of yarn and needles on site. So far, donations and yarn sales have raised over $2000 for the Step Forward Program and have donated numerous items to women’s shelters. The next one is February 22nd from 7 – 9:30 pm. To register, please visit our Facebook Page.
Knit and Stitch is a knitting group that meets at the Ladner and Tsawwassen Libraries. Bring your own projects and share ideas. For more details, contact your local library.
The Knitting Sisters are a group that meets at McKee House. They also focus on knitting for others. Here’s a great story about them.
Check out Meetup, a popular site devoted to connecting people with similar hobbies and interests. Look by location or by craft.
Where can I find knitting supplies and inspiration?
There are shops all over the Lower Mainland that have beautifully crafted fibre arts for sale. Fibre Art Studio on Granville Island offers classes and have an extensive collection of yarn in vibrant colours and textures. You can also visit stores in Vancouver such as Three Bags Full, Wet Coast Wools, and in Delta, Crafty Fibre.
Want more inspiration? Check out Etsy for knitted items and patterns.
What Is The Takeaway?
Knitting is fun. It’s good for your health. It can be used to help others.
Meet the new take on graffiti or street art…YARN BOMBING! Public spaces are adorned with knitted and crocket items: Trees, statues, lamp posts, and even fire hydrants. You never know where you’ll see knitting coming into your life…it may be just around the corner!
You wake up and it’s still there; that dull pain in your body that reminds you of your chronic condition. You feel like staying in bed all day, but you know that would leave you in even worse shape. So, what can you do to get through the day? Here are five ways to manage daily chronic pain:
Begin to breathe – with intention.
Yes, breathing is essential to live, but doing mindful breathing can calm our body, focus our mind, and alleviate stress. Sit comfortably with your eyes open or closed. Start by breathing in and out, noticing the rise and fall of your breath, and the sensations in your body (shoulders, stomach, nostrils). Notice all the sensations all around you (smells, sounds, presence). Take deep breaths through your nose as slow and controlled as possible, and exhale through your mouth as slow and controlled as possible. Try to make this process of breathing in and out last for a total of 7 seconds or more. Refocus your gaze to end the exercise.
Be realistic of daily goals.
The busyness of life doesn’t stop for someone who has chronic pain. Those of us who have daily pain, however, need to prioritize daily activities and goals based on how we are feeling on any given day. It’s a hard pill to swallow realizing that we can’t do it all. Start with having just one or two things on your “to do,” list for the day, week, or month. Empty the dishwasher, check. Pick up library books, check. Starting small and completing a short list of manageable goals will reward you with a great sense of accomplishment.
Even though our natural tendency is to want to curl up in a ball when we are in pain, staying stationary is one of the worst things we can do. Our brain and body need stimulation and range of motion to heal and to cope with pain. Staying active may look different to people based on their pain. For some, a successful active session can be as simple as walking down the block and back each day and for others, doing moderate cardio activity for 20 mins a couple times of week is right for them. Change it up every once in a while to make exercise fun and interesting. Don’t forget to add some intensity or to lengthen the duration of your exercise sessions every now and then. Doing too much too soon may backfire, but test your limits – you never know if you can do something until you try!
Alternate your day between periods of activity and periods of rest. Start by setting aside just 30 mins of your day to rest your body and mind well. By well, I mean ‘set the stage’ to help you have the best rest possible. Based on your pain, find a comfortable place to rest with some of the following: low light, heat pack, ice packs, eye patches, soft music, a mindfulness meditation app or even have a hot bath. Maximize your time of rest and it will help get you through other parts of your day!
Tap into your spiritual side
Yes, this may be uncharted territory for some, but reading, journaling, praying, making art, or listening to something meaningful can help you to self-reflect, manage your emotions, set goals, and can really put things in perspective. There are times in your chronic pain experiences where you will need to draw inner strength, so make sure to build it up!
For many of us, chronic pain is here to stay so we might as well learn how to cope….HAVE HOPE.
Meg Neufeld, (MA) is the co-founder of Alongside You, an integrated health clinic that offers yoga, pelvic rehab, registered dietitian services, clinical counselling, group therapy, and therapeutic arts. As a cultural anthropologist and an artist herself, Meg seeks to make art accessible to people of different abilities, diagnosis and age. She is trained in Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy practices and has a particular interest in using art as a pain-management strategy in her own life.
Most of us have felt physical pain before: we’ve pulled a muscle, had a headache or bumped our funny bone (which really isn’t very funny at all!). The pain we experience is our body telling us something is wrong and after a period of rest and healing (up to three months), we can typically go back to normal activities. Chronic pain is when our brain is in an ongoing state pain and heightened sensitivity that persists longer than 3-6 months. Despite common understandings of pain as being a purely physical reaction, pain is actually directly linked to our brain and nervous system. This video highlights the complexities of our brain and nervous system and identifies the ways in which medication, exercise, diet, medical procedures and emotional processing can help retrain the brain and improve the quality of life for those who suffer from chronic pain.
Whether persistent pain takes the form of back pain, migraines, arthritis, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, lupus, other invisible illnesses, the chronic pain experience affects the body, mind, and soul. While each person’s experience with pain is different, there is a range of common threads:
Everyone has their own definition of a good day and a bad day. Simple tasks may be manageable one day and not the other.
In order to “self-manage” daily symptoms, there is a constant need to balance or carefully plan periods of rest, work, exercise, social activities, diet, sleep, and spiritual connectedness.
It is challenging to talk to family and friends about our pain. The impact on family and friends can be devastating as roles, expectations, and relationships change because of the pain.
Pain is challenging to treat. The constant rotation of medical appointments, medications and medical procedures can be exhausting and what may work for one person, may not for another.
Chronic pain goes hand-in-hand with mental health and evokes strong emotions as attempts are made to cope with a loss of purpose, former abilities and relationships.
How can we tackle chronic pain?
The chronic pain experience is riddled with complexities; it has both physiological and psychological components, making a holistic approach in tackling chronic pain the most effective way to approach treatment planning. This video highlights the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach. As a result, we need to find ways to reboot our nervous system, learn productive skills to manage our symptoms, help educate others on chronic pain experiences, and strive to have a better quality of life.
HOW MINDFULNESS-BASED ART ACTIVITIES CAN HELP PEOPLE WITH CHRONIC PAIN
“Art gives a face to the ambiguity of chronic pain …
it gives a visual expression to something that is often elusive.”
–Dr. Steve Feinberg, American Chronic Pain Association
What are the overall health benefits of making art?
Using art for its health benefits is widely becoming a critical component of healthcare. Art helps us explore, practice and develop our creativity as a means to promote health and well-being. Making art has several benefits in key areas:
Mental Health: Making art reduces stress, protects against depression and anxiety, can improve self-confidence[i] and encourages positive self-care. Doing something creative in a supportive and safe environment encourages experimentation and risk-taking, two essential qualities of the art-making process.[ii]
Social Health: Those that participate in creative activities are more likely to have wider social networks with people from different backgrounds, have a sense of belonging, and are less likely to be socially isolated and lonely.
Brain Health: Art making is an effective preventative tool in managing symptoms of diseases such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other chronic conditions. It also improves memory processing, problem solving, and helps to maintain neuro-spatial functions as we age.
Emotional Health: Creative engagement can provide a healthy outlet or path to healing for those who have suffered trauma, abuse, or significant life changes. Doing something creative can act as a distraction tool and is another way to preserve self-identity and move forward.
Using Mindfulness-Based Art Therapy (MBAT) techniques to tackle chronic conditions
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading researcher on mindfulness-based programs, mindfulness is, “the ability to become fully present in this moment, in a particular way, with a non-judgmental attitude.”[iii] Combining mindfulness skills while making art can be an effective way to manage symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve pain tolerance, and elevate the quality of life of people with chronic pain [iv][v] and illness,[vi] including those with arthritis[vii], Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease[viii], and cancer.[ix]
Why does MBAT work for chronic pain management?
Mindfulness is a frame of mind; a decision is made to intentionally pay attention to the present moment when doing an activity. It is an effective way for the brain to concentrate on surrounding senses other than the pain itself. It involves resting the physical body (doing body scans) and the psychological mind. Art therapist and facilitator Margaret Jones Callahan describes mindfulness-based art therapy (MBAT) as the “appreciative inquiry mindfully applied to the empty page or the open space. The practice of holding one’s awake attention fully in the present moment, non-judgmentally, while in the act of creating and expressing,[x] acknowledges the presence of pain and helps to get through it, moment by moment. While mindfulness is the lens in which to approach a particular moment, making art is the vehicle with which you experience it. Mindfulness-based art therapy:
Promotes both the healing and rehabilitation process and is a way for chronic pain sufferers to “’lose themselves’ in the moment,”[xi] (also known as “being in the flow”) giving the nervous system a break.
Provides temporary respite from physical symptoms of pain (headache, nausea)
Is an effective method of distraction and promotes positive self-management skills to filter emotions and is a way to express suffering.
Can build social alliances, companionship, and social affirmation, creating a wider support system with family, friends, and peers. Making art with others lends another way to talk about or communicate with others about pain experiences.
Allows space to be self-reflective and helps monitor growth and progress in a visual manor.
Affirms a sense of control over surroundings in the decision-making process of selecting colour, shape, and images.
At its core, MBAT, strives to create a peaceful environment where one can be completely absorbed in the moment while immersed in the process of creation. Along with healthy changes to our diet, sleep, and exercise regimes and with attentiveness on empathy, intentionally putting time aside to do something creative (read, write, paint, knit, sing, do yoga[xii], or dance) can help lower stress levels, give our nervous system a rest, and helps to promote self-care habits. By using a variety of creative processes, health difficulties can be better expressed, understood, accepted, and transformed.[xiii]
If you’d like to experience how MBAT can help you manage your chronic condition, please feel free to give me a call, or email, or come to our Open Studio Sessions where we go through many of these techniques! Give art a try!
[vii] Reynolds, Frances and Sara Prior. Strategies of Adapting and Replacing Artistic Leisure Occupations to Maintain Participation and Identity: A Qualitative Study of Women with Arthritis. Journal of Activities and Adaption and Aging, March 2011. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01924788.2010.545970?journalCode=waaa20
[ix] Monti, Daniel W., Caroline Peterson, et al. A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT) for Women with Cancer. Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA, Psycho-Oncology 15:363–373 (2006)
[x] Callahan, Margaret Jones. Mindfulness Based Art: The Sparks Guide for Educators and Counselors. Friesen Press. 2016.
Just because you have a hard life, it doesn’t mean you have to have a bad life. With challenges or disabilities, you can still have a great life. – Ava Neufeld, age 9
When my husband Andrew and I began to conceptualize Alongside You, we wanted to serve the needs of our communities in different ways. While it was our goal to build an interdisciplinary clinic, we sought to create a place where I could use some of my skills as an artist and anthropologist to design an environment where I could work at my own pace. You see, 6 years ago, a car accident on a raining day left me with daily chronic pain.
It’s not something I like to bring up, but because it affects my daily life, I am learning to talk about it more as well as raise awareness of invisible chronic conditions. Just like mental health issues, chronic pain is an invisible illness. I don’t have any visible scars, a cast, a cane, or even a service dog to alert others about my condition. In the last six years, I have struggled with constant and never ceasing pain. Every. Single. Day. For me and so many others with chronic illness and pain, persistent pain makes normal activities excruciatingly difficult. For some, every movement or breath takes effort and every day choices are made based on a delicate balance between periods of rest and activity. Every day begins with the struggle to keep up with those around us.
At the Beginning:
The past 6 years have been a blur. At first, migraines where so intense that they would last 24-36 hours every few days. While life continued beyond my bedroom door, I spent my time with ice packed all over my head, heat on my back, with earplugs in and eye patches on, to rid me of all things sensory. Balance issues, cognitive impairment and physical mobility were so strained that I was in bed for months and months on end, rising only for short periods of time. Impaired cognitive functions such as critical thinking, organizing, memory, emotion regulation, and reasoning made simple tasks such as making lunches or setting the table, impossible. When I was not in bed, I focused on rehabilitation that consisted of physiotherapy, acupuncture, massage, trigger point injections, Botox treatments, and inner ear and concussion testing. I was prescribed neurological medication to treat acute neck, head, and ulnar nerve pain, but each had their own side-effects. After a year of being unable to drive and relying on our friends and family to take care of our children, we came to the realization that things were not going to drastically improve, so we hired a nanny who took over all the childcare while I rested and went to rehab.
It was a couple of years before I felt strong enough to manage the kids on my own. Having been and “absent parent,” for the last few years, taking back the reins of parenthood presented challenges of its own. My children no longer saw me as an authority figure and sought comfort from others. As I got a bit stronger and with a series of medication changes, new and ongoing surgical procedures (nerve blockers, trigger point injections, medial branch cauterizations and Botox injections) I have slowly been able to reclaim my role. I would be in a very different place today if it weren’t for the help of supportive family, friends and rehab therapists and counsellors.
Matters of the Heart
Though my body is adjusting to this new state of pain, my spirit is still trying to digest a complex set of emotions as a result of the motor vehicle accident. Feelings of stress, anger, isolation, disappointment, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness go hand in hand in the journey of someone who lives with chronic pain. There’s anger over lost time with family; grief over the career you once had; frustration with daily physical pain and low energy that prevents the beginning of new ventures; disappointment with not being able to be consistent with family, work and friends; guilt over the burden you place on others with no hope of returning the favour, and so much more.
What keeps me going? My faith. It has sustained me and has played a huge role in my day to day functioning. It has provided me with guidance and has uplifted me in the ways I needed the most. I have also been regaining my sense of self by journaling daily. Reading back over previous entries reminds me of where just how far I’ve actually come. My abilities as a wife, a mother, daughter, twin, and friend have forever been altered. My job not only consists of taking care of my children and home and building Alongside You, it now includes spending time trying to prevent headaches and acute back pain by diligently trying to balance daily rest and activity. This includes a careful regime of exercise, daily rotation of heat and ice, visits to rehabilitation therapists, and has even led us to renovate areas of our house to make them more ergonomically sound. Chronic pain follows me wherever I go and dictates the extent of our plans, where we go, and what we do.
What I’m Learning About Living with Chronic Pain
The importance of approaching everyone with empathy
I have learned that because chronic pain is an invisible illness, others around me may be going through physical or mental health issues that are not immediately apparent. Would I turn back the clock to before my accident? Yes…and no. Of course, I would have liked being spared the pain and suffering caused by our accident, but it is because of it that I have learned so much about the human spirit and how to have more empathy for those with visible and invisible pain and have sensitivity when planning activities that are accessible to all.
“Be Kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. –Toby Mack
This has literally changed how I interact with everyone I encounter.
Try to make peace with your situation
This is the hardest thing I’ve had to learn. With chronic pain, there is no end in sight. You yearn for what you once were able to do and you grieve the things you have not yet done. With good and bad days, your pain is out of your control and there is no real light at the end of the tunnel. This can easily lead you to feel depressed and hopeless. What you can do, however, is to make quality choices. You can make a choice every day of whether or not you are going to let the pain take over or to do something constructive with your time and effort. You can make choices (however small) of the things that give you joy or help you cope with your pain. We will all choose things that are different – for some it could be a pedicure to avoid bending down, for others it may be a soak in the tub, coffee with a friend, or a skill you want to learn. It’s all about managing your symptoms and creating a better quality of life for yourself. It’s about having a life worth living.
“You either get bitter or you get better. It’s that simple. You either take what has been dealt to you and allow it to make you a better person, or you allow it to tear you down. The choice does not belong to fate, it belongs to you.” – Josh Shipp
The need to educate others
Because chronic pain is invisible, it is sometimes difficult for others to understand what your life is like. Your husband, children, family and friends may have expectations of you that do not align with your abilities. It can be hard to let them know of the kinds of activities you are able to do or not to do, how long you can be active, and when you need to rest. Without people being able to gauge your abilities and tolerances, those around you may have unreasonable expectations of you. Those of us with unseen disabilities such as chronic pain, cancer, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, diabetes and more, know how much effort it takes to walk down the hall or the huge strain it is to complete simple tasks. Share your story with family, friends, and professionals. Describe your struggles. Your willingness to speak about your weakness can make yourself and others stronger. Adjust expectations. Remind your loved ones that some days you may be able to do a certain task, but the next day, you won’t. It may take some time for others to learn about your specific abilities and needs. Be gracious. Look up. Religious teachings or connection to your spiritual side can help us to reflect on our purpose, explore our spiritual existence, and meet like-minded folks who have the potential to be a group of caring people to add your support network.
“Behind every chronic illness is just a person trying to find their way in the world. We want to find love and be loved and be happy just like you. We want to be successful and do something that matters. We’re just dealing with unwanted limitations in our hero’s journey.” – Glenn Schweitzer
Knowing it’s okay to ask for help
Let’s face it, it’s hard to ask for help, especially if you need help frequently. For so many of us, asking for help indicates defeat, stresses helplessness and highlights our deficiencies. Sometimes, people don’t know how to help those with chronic pain. Reaching out to family, friends, and professionals, however, can change your quality of life in a positive way! Do regular check-ins with your doctor or rehabilitation practitioners who can help you at different stages of managing your pain. They are there to help you find strategies and ways to cope. This will not only help you track your progress, it’s a great way to network with other local people and services that can help you in your journey. Stressing about things we can’t control does not help the healing process but hinders it (physically and psychologically). Make choices by asking yourself, “If I do this activity, is it going to add to me in a positive way or can I have someone else do it?” Handing over control may make you feel vulnerable, but get to know your limits so that you can participate in other things.
“At any given moment, you have the power to say this is not how my story is going to end.” – Unknown
To live in the moment and celebrate small victories
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
Mindfulness, or having a heightened sense of awareness to the present moment, can be a tool to use with the management of chronic conditions. Practicing mindfulness has been proven to help decrease stress and anxiety, aid in pain management, increase quality of life in cancer and Alzheimer patients and ease symptoms among those suffering from persistent mental illness. As we refocus our brain to be aware of the sounds, textures, smells, and what we see, we are actually giving our brain time to rest from being focused on pain. When we become more aware of our surroundings we tend to notice details and take pleasure in them. Something as simple as watching leaves fall, the wind blow, kids playing at the park, the crunch of fall leaves underneath you, can help you put your pain on the back burner for a period of time. Even that short amount of time can be restorative. As you relish in these daily experiences and are more mindful of how your body feels, there is an opportunity to take little steps forward. Take note of these small victories. These are little gold nuggets, ones you can look back on and remember them as stepping stones. It could be that you have been able to accomplish tasks that you haven’t been able to do in a long time: ride your bike, follows recipes, taking a new class, walk to the end of your block. Each of those little triumphs are golden nugget moments. Take time to breath, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. When you just can’t keep up, remember your small victories…they can reap huge benefits!
“The reason why people give up so fast is because they tend to look at how far they still have to go, instead of how far they have gotten.” – Unknown
I rolled my eyes at Andrew and others who suggested mindfulness to me because it’s not something that I knew about before, but it is something that has radically changed my wellbeing and I encourage you to try it. I did training in Mindfulness Based Art Therapy (MBAT) techniques as a way to use art in my own journey and now I use it with people in our art studio where I am the creative arts facilitator. I would love to have you at our Open Studio Sessions on Mondays or Wednesdays if you’re interested. Art is a great way of being mindful, and the research shows how effective it can be in our recovery. As an art facilitator, I hope to bring people together so that they can make meaningful connections with others.
Thank you for witnessing a part of my journey in reading this post and I hope it has been helpful for you in your own journey. Join us next week when we will share more posts about chronic illness.
If I, or anyone at Alongside You can be of any help please don’t hesitate to get in touch.