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Art Therapy: Working Through Chronic Pain

Recently in reviewing an art book, "The Colorful Art of Pain: The Tanzanian Works,”  I was taken back to a very painful time in my own life.  The pain filled lessons I learned from those darkest moments were life altering.  However, before I share that story and why the message of this book hit a deeply felt responsive place that lays hidden within my psyche -- let’s savor a quote from the man behind the art, Daniel Quinlan.

“There are no words to describe pain, sometimes it is best to use pictures.”

That quote and this beautiful book filled with the finger painted art of Daniel Quinlan, and expertly narrated by author Cindy Vine.  While it could be described as an adult art book, that descriptor would not even come close to doing it justice.  Working through chronic pain (regardless of the cause) is a harrowing journey for those who must do it.  No one willingly wants to be a tortured artist or suffering artist.

"The mind fog descended on me, making it difficult to distinguish between dream and reality....." by Daniel Quinlan, narrated by Cindy Vine.

"The mind fog descended on me, making it difficult to distinguish between dream and reality....." by Daniel Quinlan, narrated by Cindy Vine.

While most of us are aware that art has been used as a tool in pain management in recent years, at a deeper level the majority of us remember that throughout history personal pain (whether physical or emotional) was often the driving force of many a famous artists.  After all, emotion in art allows those who appreciate the art and the artist to connect with the art.  Very often through intense pain, the resulting intense emotions can and do produce great art.  Countless examples of this exist, among them -- Edward Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, and Frida Kahlo.  These artists didn't need a rehab specialist to introduce themselves to pain management through art.  Art for them became a matter of sheer-willed survival.  Such was also the case for Dan Quinlan.

“What is art?  Art grows from joy and sorrow, but mostly from sorrow.  It grows from human lives.”  -- Edward Munch

The Physical Side of Pain Management

"My body had become a riot zone as the pain warriors moved in en masse and by force.  Beating and bruising my body into sublimation." Art by Dan Quinlan, narrated by Cindy Vine.

"My body had become a riot zone as the pain warriors moved in en masse and by force.  Beating and bruising my body into sublimation." Art by Dan Quinlan, narrated by Cindy Vine.

One of the reasons this art book is so dynamic, is that pain can’t easily be measured by those who are not experiencing it.  Art gives a face to pain.   It’s far too easy to dismiss the pain of others as something less than it is.  People think: “Oh stop whining – it’s not that bad.  Take a pill.  You just want attention."  Still pain is real for the one trying to express their pain. Pain is less real for those watching it from the outside.  There is a disconnect, especially if the other person has never truly experienced intense pain of their own.  After all, pain is invisible to everyone who isn't wearing it.  


Inspirational Insights Found Through Chronic Pain

A life time ago, long before today's better drugs and approaches to pain management, I spent a number of months in a hospital following an experimental surgery to correct a birth defect and subsequent complications.  The facility lacked the amenities of today.  For lack of bed space and pain management, I was put on in an open ward filled with terminally ill women who were dying from cancer.  These women knew they were not going home and they were in obvious great physical and emotional pain.   Morphine was the drug of choice for the physicians in charge in those years.  In between carefully monitored and spaced shots, this ward was filled with women in waiting.  Some would sleep their days away.  Still other women would beg for more relief in between doses.  And then, there were the women who would spend their days crying out in pain and begging for death to come.      

"The crowds gathered as I washed away my sins and pain. . . . " Art by Daniel Quinlan, narrated by Cindy Vine.

"The crowds gathered as I washed away my sins and pain. . . . " Art by Daniel Quinlan, narrated by Cindy Vine.

The one exception on that ward, was a young single mom.  She alone refused medication during the day, only relenting at night, so that she could get some sleep.  Each day her mother who was at home raising her young son for her, would call on the phone.  He needed to talk to his mommy before he could go to bed.  Waiting for that daily phone call from her little boy was everything to her.   She spent her days drawing hundreds of pictures that she wanted given to her two-year-old son when she died.  

Day after day, I was horrified at this spectacle of a parade of pain from my vantage point in that ward.  I was twenty years old, alone, scared, and in great physical pain for the very first time in my life.  However, I was quite content to bide out my time between shots by reading and sleeping, despite the ineffectiveness in truly blocking out the pain. One woman after screaming for several weeks whenever she was awake and writhing in pain, begging for death, finally got her wish.   

A couple days later, the young single mom and I talked heart-to-heart for the first time.  Both of us had found ourselves awake in the wee hours of the morning.  I asked if she was an artist? No.  She just drew pictures of the things she wanted to show her son and knew she wouldn't be able to do that in person.  I asked why she refused the pain meds.  Her explanation was simple, "I want to not have the few minutes I can talk to my baby to be a foggy memory."  Then, she went on to explain something I'd never considered, "Our minds are wonderful machines if we let them be.  While the pain will still there, your mind has the ability to control the intensity of the level of your pain.  You can do that by completely focusing on something that interests you or something you love.  I can do that by reading a good book, thinking about my son, or drawing."  By morning, she had lost her battle with ovarian cancer and left me with a piece of  wisdom that has served me well through a number of later surgeries and breast cancer.  

Chronic pain, the kind that does not go away, is often something not everyone can entirely escape.  Surely good drugs can put you in a place where you get relief, often in the form of sleep.  However, that comes at the risk of long term cost in terms of living a normal life.  You also gamble falling into the trap of addiction to pain medications.   Pain is often a journey of fright,  anger, and a feeling of helplessness.   It's easy to surrender to it.  It keeps you from doing not only what you need to, but those all important things that you live (or at least long) to do. 

The Art of Pain Management South African Style

Artist: Dan Quinlan

Artist: Dan Quinlan

"The Colorful Art of Pain: The Tanzanian Works,” is the perfect way to raise awareness about the problem of chronic pain.  The story line combined with the art allows those who have never really experienced pain to see what they can’t see.  It represents the kind of art produced by someone who has walked the crooked road pain created and speaks volumes about how pain changes lives.

Narrator of "The Finger Painter: the Colorful Art of Pain - The Tanzanian Works -- Author -- Cindy Vine

Narrator of "The Finger Painter: the Colorful Art of Pain - The Tanzanian Works -- Author -- Cindy Vine

It’s difficult to put pain into words that others will understand.  Some people turn to art, painting, drawing, sculpting in an effort to depict their pain -- this is what artist Dan Quinlan did with his finger painting.   It is the reason why this book is so important and profound.  Quinlan's story deserves to be told to you through reading and personally owning the book.  I would give anything to own one of those one hundred and twenty-five canvases he finger painted in a three year journey of pain.  Since that won't be happening, I'll settle for saying, "This book deserves to go viral and I wish that everyone owned a copy."