Using Creativity to Cope with Chronic Illness

Patient Expert

Art has been my therapy since I was a child living with undiagnosed and untreated arthritis. My escape from not just the outside world, but my physical and mental feelings of living with arthritis.

As a child, I wanted to be an artist, then a doctor, and then an artist. I first wanted to be an artist so I could express my darkest feelings of growing up with undiagnosed and untreated arthritis. I then wanted to fix others like me, so I was determined to be a doctor when I grew up. The kind of doctor I couldn’t seem to find. But at the end of the day I would lock myself in my room and, as my mom would say, “push paint around on canvas."

I would sometimes start by flooding the canvas with black paint, and literally try to paint my way out of that darkness. I learned just how much color it took to mute out the black; a lesson that has served me well as I continue to learn to live with multiple autoimmune conditions.

The color black is powerful. Darkness is powerful. The ability to escape that black darkness is even more powerful. Through art, I discovered abilities I didn’t know I had.

Art has allowed me to work out my feelings in a way that no other activity could.

Somewhere along the way I began to get pretty decent at pushing paint around the canvas and began putting ridiculous pressure on myself. I would proudly show my paintings off to my family and hang them on my bedroom walls. So naturally, I felt they needed to exhibit some sort of artistic progression. When they failed to improve in my eyes, I retreated from painting.

For several years my paints and brushes have moved from my childhood home, to dorm rooms and houses filled with roommates, now to the bungalow I share with my husband.  Yet they would rarely make an appearance. Mostly because I had pressured myself into believing that if I pulled them out, my creation sure as hell better be worthy of a gallery.

I had stopped painting for myself.

This summer I went home to spend some time with my family, a couple of them also living with various chronic illnesses. Knowing that we needed quiet activities at home, my Mom wisely set out canvases and tempting colors. We all sat down to push paint around. I was determined to be the next Jackson Pollock of abstract art. What I created (to me) was the epic failure seen here:

Britt Johnson's painting: Red Failure #5

I wanted to quit again. But I realized that for me the act of creating art is less about the end result, than it is about the process. I decided I wanted to make art for me again. I decided to paint the Milky Way. Living in the city, it is rare that I get the opportunity to glimpse it. So when I have seen it as I did at my parents’ house this summer, it has been a special moment for me.  I lost myself in placing happy memories on the canvas, and before I knew it I had created something that was both meaningful to me and that I was proud of. I had created the art for me.

Creativity can be a powerful tool to distract from pain, to ease anxiety, to work out difficult thoughts and frustration, to calm us.

Challenging our brains to think beyond the usual and embrace creativity can help us discover things we didn’t know about ourselves.

So I present to you a few tips to incorporate creativity into your life:

Decide you want to be creative

This may sound silly, but starting is the first hurdle. Do you need help getting your supplies set up or organized? Ask for that help. Don’t have a creative hobby yet? Think about colors, textures, and processes that speak to you. How might you put those together in a creative way? Don’t have a lot of extra cash lying around for a new hobby? Try writing, storytelling, or download a free app on your phone or computer to play with color and design. What might you repurpose around your house in a fun new way? Reorganizing the furniture in your livingroom is creative. Just have someone else do the heavy lifting!

Prepare to suck

You will make mistakes, but who cares?! There’s this thing called the trash, use it. Or if you’re like me, just leave your disappointing painting high on the mantle where no one can see it. Getting over your fear of failure will allow you to enjoy the moment, that’s exactly why I have shared “Red Abstract Failure #5” with you in this article!

Keep it basic

Start small. Don’t overwhelm yourself. If you want to write for the first time, start with a poem or short story. If you want to learn to crochet, start with a potholder, not a holiday sweater for your dog. You will be prouder of the potholder than you can imagine!

Take a class

Ask someone to teach you their craft! This can be a fun occasion to have social interaction, and get pointers when you get stuck in creation. YouTube videos are a great resource as well. That’s how I taught myself to knit.

Get messy

My advice to new writers? “Word vomit on the page.” Meaning, just let it out, let it flow, and don’t stop your thoughts. Embrace the mess. Let quilting scraps decorate your workspace—let ink get on your hands. Trust me, it’s a little exciting when someone asks you about the weird smudges on your skin and you can just say, “I was being creative!”

This month, our new initiative #ChronicLifeClub is about being creative. We encourage you to show the results of your creativity on Twitter and the RA site Facebook page. Don’t forget to include the hashtag #ChronicClub!