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Saturday, January 01, 2000

Art Therapy for Invisible Illnesses

Why Art Therapy?
The thing about invisible illnesses is that they're invisible. It's harder to fight what you can't see, and this site, primarily, is about uncovering and soothing the invisibility. Art therapy is the perfect way to gain visibility of your problems, and to start understanding your state of living. Why is seeing it so important? We're very visual creatures, and seeing things, or even touching them if you take it one step further and want to create a sculpture, tapestry, etc, makes thing more real - more understandable. It's the tangible that gives more control. More of our senses can play with the ideas and problems, and come up with solutions and uses. Our brain is a magnificent machine capable of thinking subconscious and unconsciously, and creative representations of our problems can REALLY help with your inner brains to work things out.
I was recently inspired to do the art therapy page via Lisa Sweet's digital Art as some of her pictures hit my disease right on the nail. It triggered the Art Therapy gene in me and I have since then done a lot of art therapy.
I wasn't ready yet to put it into words, as I wanted to explore the mode of this therapy more. I needed to BE art therapy before I could pass it on to you.

This series will be focusing on issues that groups of illnesses face, not just one illness. I hope it can be used by just about anyone, and you don't need a lot to start off. Pencil and paper, pen and paper, canvas, digital paint programs, whatever you have at your disposal.


Power comes from knowledge of the self, and what better way to understand an invisible illness than by exploring its character. For each of our personal disease/symptom profile, we have the ability to give a face or a shape to it, thereby giving that tangible extra cut to the jigsaw puzzle. I won't deeper into the value of characterizing your symptom, because I deeply believe that the value is personal, individual to each case and each symptom.

I hope you find this exercise valuable, for that is what I strive for. I will go through each step using myself as an example, as I have full and constant access to myself ;)

(This part will be important in future posts:)

Identification and Exploration: Symptom Synopsis
1) Pick a symptom. For this, I will pick carpal tunnel.
2) Describe the symptom, not as you would in a medical journal, but describe what it does to you personally. What does it feel like? Wrist, hand, and arm pain. Tingling jolts. Paralysis of fingers. Disfiguring of joints. Intense electrical bursts of burning sharp pain. Aches.
3) What brings on the symptom? (If the symptom is just there and nothing causes it, jot that down). Using hands, bad weather changes, bad hand posture.
4) What alleviates or at least helps the symptom? (if nothing helps, just put nothing) Wearing braces on the hands and wrists, anti-inflammatory, pain relief rub.
5) What feelings do you have about this symptom? Anger, resentment, frustration, exasperation, impatience, ignoring, sadness.
6) What are your fears about this symptom? That I will one day completely lose the use of my hands, that I will have to be operated upon, that the pain will get too intense for my mentality to uphold.
7) How does this primarily alter your life? I am not able to use my hands in many ways anymore. It makes me feel more disabled, I can't use the computer as much as want or sometimes as much as I need to, in order to stay social, productive, and connected.

Hold on to these notes, as you may want to further explore this symptom in another mode.

You may feel like you're in complaining mode, but this is a good kind of complaining. We're exploring, not complaining. Be as honest as possible and you'll get more out of this exercise. Now the next parts come in different flavours: abstract, symbolic, and realism. Today's post is all about abstract expression! More specifically, today's post is the first in the abstract series:

-Simplified Abstract Project-
You can go wild on the design of an abstract work, it's so much fun and you don't have to worry about making it "good" or "pretty". It can be a scribble, a coloured shape, a big mess of blotches.. This is but ONE technique of abstract, as I am not about to write them all down.. Remember the carpal tunnel???? ;) Be patient, and if anyone is interested, I will eventually get more posting out there.

1) Reread your synopsis of your symptom, and jot down any further notes you have about it. Include any feelings, any themes you find, etc, and really study it for a while longer. Take a day to think about it, or sleep on it. Sometimes dreams will activate the most amazing insights.

2) Get out your piece of paper, or paint program, and first figure out what shape this symptom is.. is it a triangle of sharp pain? Is it a square, like a cage? Is it a thin rectangle like a cruel confining dog run in which you pace? Is it a circular cycle of repetition? Or is it something more complex? Try to limit your first try with a single shape, then as you further develop your style, move onto multiple shapes. You can go wild with shape selection, you can even do blobs or slashes or holes or whatever you want. In my example (below left) I have made a blob/spike shape to represent dull aches and intense sharp pains.

3) What colour is the symptom? Is it red with inflammation? Is it blue like a bruise? Is it dark grey for dull and maddeningly mundane? Is it a festering green? Is it a blossoming green as in it has a life of its own? Is it a rusty colour that's being worn away by the elements? Explore what colour it would be. I used greens and yellows to represent an acidic feeling for the base. More to come on colouration when I talk about details.

NB: It's important that you focus on the symptom and not on how the picture "looks". Use the looks as a bookmark for certain thoughts, but don't use the image alone to make it attractive. It's not supposed to be good or pretty, it's supposed to help you explore. You might be as good as William Waterhouse, but this isn't about "good". If the colours clash, that's okay. If it looks childish, that's okay! Actually, that can be a very good thing, as you are unabashedly and uncaringly expressing! Unconditionally! GO WILD, but stay on track.

4) Now for a background, you can do this step as #3, and switch that one for this one, but I like doing the background next. It helps set the mood for the details, but doesn't colour the subject - the symptom. But again, your choice. For my Simplified Abstract, I have made the background bruise blue and frustration purple, gradated as they feed off each other. I also added a "halo" effect around the bulbous part of the shape, I'm not sure why logically - but it felt like that. Upon further exploration, it feels like a halo of pain, like an area of pain that's not tangible. THESE are the little things, the details, that will come out.. jot these down.

5) Details aren't needed. I give this option for further exploration, but also as an opening to the next abstract project. To add details is to explore the symptom in details, to see the minute connections and conditions important for further inspection. I will go through what I did:

-I added the red veiny marks to show inflammation, and the pulsing pain that comes with it. Some of the shape is lacking in red, because carpal tunnel also restricts circulation to certain parts of the hand... causing tingling and paralysis.

-I added the wiry white squiggly lines to represent sharp nervous electrical pain.

-I added the black spidery mark to represent a growing "Evil" feeling pain, something I fear and hate. The idea that I might not heal from it, the idea that I may have to stop using my computer at some point, or stop painting with my hands.. Although I know that there are other ways of typing. Mouth-Pen typing is possible.

-Lastly, I have added little blue balls at the end of the sharp edges to represent bloated pain, like my fingers are going to pop!

You can even name it, write a short poem about it, or use it in an upcoming art therapy project. I call this: "Tendon Wrangling Gone Wrong." It's not something I'd hang up on my wall, but I learned some things from this experience. For example, I learned that I ignore the pain far too much, and use the computer without pause far too much. I must learn to take more breaks!!!!!

I would LOVE to see what you come up with, so please feel free to add a link to your picture in the comments, or email me your picture, etc. Adding a description of how you came up with it would also help others understand the process. Also, if you learned anything, that would be a bonus to hear!

I can't wait to share the next exercise with you! Stay positive, stay proactive, and productive in your search, and you will find meaning and perhaps overcome something bulky in your way.


This is part two in the series of Art Therapy for Invisible Illnesses. In this part, we will delve into a simplistic (it's best to start simple and build up) symbolic mode of painting. Please refer to the Previous Post which contains the format for symptom exploration. You can use your own method to profile a symptom, and for the purpose of this post, I will profile another one to give you more ideas. I have also simplified the format of the profile, you can copy/paste it to a text file if you wish, in order to fill it out or print it out. Click here for a printable format symptom profile sheet.

Example Symptom Profile
1) Symptom: Fatigue
2) Characteristics: sluggishness, energy draining, sleepiness, foggy mind, slow reaction time, lowered memory function, comprehension skill lower, low stamina...
3) Triggers: stress, weather change, pills, exercise, mental activity, pain, general illness cause.
4) What eases it: good sleep, good diet, exercise (vicious cycle), good stable weather, other pills, happiness, ease, certain non-drug treatments.
5) Feelings associated with it: I feel caged, enslaved by it, frustrated, fearful, stressed, annoyed, alarmed, exhausted emotionally, antisocial, lazy, persecuted, lesser..
6) Relevant Fears: that I will continue to be this tired, that I'll get morbidly fat, that people think it's only because I'm lazy, that people don't understand and won't ever understand, that one day I'll fall asleep in a dangerous place, or faint in a dangerous place or situation..
7) Lifestyle Effects: disabling, can't do a quarter of what I used to when I wasn't so sick, I can't go anywhere alone for long, I sleep a lot, I get faint from it.

Now, we use this profile to seek symbolic parallels, imagery, things we can use to symbolically express the chosen symptom. If you don't want to analyze it long, try to think:

What images are first conjured when you think of the symptom? With fatigue, I think of a heavy-lidded and pink eye, sleepy and wary of the day. That leads me to think of a ball and chain on eyelids.

For your symptom, it may be harder. Say you have something more abstract, and it's not easy to come up with images. During which times, go through the symptom profile and try finding symbols for the way you FEEL about an illness, what you fear about it, or how it changes your life. For example, in this example profile, I can also get a ball and chain imagery from the trapped feeling of being so fatigued.
Another example would be a digestive disorder, specifically an inflammatory or nervous intestinal disorder may be hard to characterize. Sure you could draw intestines that are red and inflamed... but symbolism is more about comparing it to something else in order to make parallels which offer insight. You could draw a long winding road, along jagged red rocks, with cars whom have spikey tires riding on it.. and if this involves serious constipation - then make those cars in a traffic jam (I am not joking about these disorders so don't get insulted) or if it is more watery - make the road flooded.
More examples? Well let's say you have severe neck pain - perhaps you could draw a church with a broken steeple. If you have a reality disorder (hallucinations) you can show this as a more psychedelic expression, like a magenta dragon blowing white flames that end in humanoid shapes, seen only by one character in the art work but not the others...
Or, if we were to use the last post's ailment of Carpal Tunnel - that can be a hard one. You could show lots of wires that have bunched up and there are little bumps along the tubing. The cables could be hooked up to one of those industrial digging machines.. Okay, so I am not going to get deep into it.. use your wonderful imagination to create your own Art Therapy masterpiece.

Let me explain what I came up with. I call it: "Fatigue in Butter":

I wanted to express the chronic fatigue body as something finite, a weak solid, something that melts under pressure. Butter. The smooth stones represent the weight of fatigue, the stressors that cause the fatigue, and how fatigue wears through a person. The background shows a dirty sunrise, as people with severe insomnia know: sunrise without a sleep-filled night can be a hateful thing. You want more time to sleep, more opportunity to beat the monsters of sleep. If you could only sleep, you could get those damned boulders off your back and get "solid" again. The purple foreground symbolizes bruising, as fatigue hurts. People without severe fatigue might not know this, and so it's another reason I included it: as I want to express. This is what art therapy has done for me: I've been able to make tangible the invisible, so that the invisible thorns become easier to contemplate. I'm a big believer in contemplation, meditation, deliberation... it can really help you deal with things, solve problems, come up with game plans, or solidify something your subconscious and unconscious may be having problems with.

A note about Art Therapy
So many people with invisible illnesses suffer from the thought: what if I'm crazy and I'm not physically sick? Why do they think that? Well because if it's invisible, you're the only one going through it 100%. This may cause doubts in others, or they might just not understand, or you might doubt that they believe you since they can't possibly know what you're going through. One way to help this is to get it on paper, digital or pulpy paper, and show it to loved ones, or just have it around for yourself. Just being able to see something, (or if you can't see - then sculpt it! then you can FEEL it) and solidify it can do wonders for the psyche. Just try it! Get that pencil, that paper, and get your feelings out. It may be hard at first. You may have too much to get out, that's why I'm suggesting you take it one symptom, one step, at a time. And start very simply... cartoonish, childlike, and build up from there. You'll find it a lot easier since you'll be under less pressure to produce the next Mona Lisa or Guernica or Self Portrait with Baked Beans. If you can't do your own art, go through art websites, books, magazines, museums, and try to pick out a few pieces that express your feelings. Get a postcard of this art, order a print, cut it out of the magazine, or whatever, and keep it in a scrapbook of your "symptom similar art works". This can be a touchstone for your feelings without actually having to do the art work... however give your own work a try if you can.

Can't use your hands or one of your hands?
I've learned to use my left hand for many things (my mouse hand is my left, and I do most computing with it, as well as writing with it on some days), and taught myself to be tolerably ambidextrous, and I'm working on learning mouth painting. Why? Fibro-enhanced Carpal Tunnel syndrome! I see it as an opportunity to be a quarter as good at alternative body-part painting as these guys, Mouth and Foot painters. My family and I have long supported these artists, and they send us beautiful calendars, bookmarks, and postcards that BLOW ME AWAY! How cool is it? Mouth painting is darned hard, and if you just take a look at the utter craftsmanship that come from feet and mouths.. well, you'll be motivated to say "get bent" the dreaded hand impairment. Okay, one step at a time!!! Don't put too much pressure on yourself, just know that there are alternatives to using the right or left hand you're so used to ;)

Ok, more to come. Good luck with your paintings, and send 'em in!


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