Figure holding comically large paintbrush looking at abstract painting

Art, Pain, and RA

I was diagnosed with rheumatoid disease/arthritis more than 30 years ago. As the disease has progressed, gone into remission and then come back with a snarl over the years, my art—in one form or another-has always been there for me.

I’ve been a graphic designer and illustrator, a journalist, an editor, and a freelance writer, too, painting with words. I still draw today with joy and abandon. But because RD hurts the small joints in my hands, I draw and paint with computer software and a lightly held stylus instead of traditional paper, pencils, pens, ink, and paints. I still write, too, both for fun and for profit. But here’s a personal truth: I honestly can’t imagine coping with rheumatoid disease/arthritis without art.

Art as a distraction from RD

Creating art is good for body, mind, and soul. And there are so many types! Writing and painting are just two. There’s also making music with voice and instruments; dancing in all its various forms; acting; sculpting; potting and woodworking, basketmaking and beading. Then there are the “crafting” arts, like sewing, weaving, embroidery, felting, scrapbooking, and … and … and. Jewelry-making. Designing. It’s all art.

All art is distracting

What makes each of these art forms good for RD is that each requires focus even as it distracts. While we’re distracted, we hardly notice how our physical body feels.

It’s just like when you watch a funny movie or read a good book. Focusing your attention on the movie or book cancels out focusing on (and feeling) your knee pain. When you lose your focus on the movie, your knee starts aching again. So, you refocus. Pain dismissed! It’s temporary, but so are pain pills, right?

While I’m drawing or writing, my consciousness goes to a different place, even another “dimension.” Losing that focus is almost like waking up. Suddenly I notice my painful ankle or throbbing hands, and when I look at the clock, I can hardly believe how much time has passed. I come out of drawing and writing sessions mentally tired, but happy and relaxed. Making art is, I believe, a natural form of meditation.

Art as therapy for RD

It’s easy to mourn the things we’ve lost because of RD. There’s nothing wrong with that, but getting stuck in the past, wishing for things we can’t have anymore, can keep us from moving forward.

Look ahead, not back: try something new

So, here’s a challenge: focus on what you haven’t done yet instead of what you can’t do anymore. And then, do it. Take up knitting! Learn to play a harmonica! Take an acting or a watercolor class. Try creative writing. Try blogging! Learn to compose and take beautiful photographs. Check out Tai Chi—a beautiful, slow, martial art. Maybe you can even learn to dance!

Just do whatever it is you’d like to do with an eye to being brave, and wild, and adventurous, and to being you despite RD. Adjust your art to fit how you feel.

Art, pain, and disability

Nothing stops art. Each of these famous people created their art despite pain and disability:

  • Impressionist artist Pierre-August Renoir painted astoundingly beautiful pictures. He suffered from rheumatoid disease for at least half of his lifetime, painting despite the pain and disability until he died.
  • The master composer and musician Beethoven was hearing-impaired for much of his life but it didn’t keep him from composing a vast collection of music that awes and inspires us even centuries later.
  • The artist Frida Kahlo was disabled as a child with polio, and later was injured in a car crash. Her injuries caused severe chronic pain for the rest of her life. Nevertheless, she was a fiercely prolific painter, often painting from her bed.
  • The great Michelangelo wrote in his diaries that he had pain and stiffness in his hands, perhaps from osteoarthritis or gout.1
  • The poet and writer John Milton had been blind for 20 years when he wrote "Paradise Lost".3
  • Actor Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s disease yet continues his acting career. He’s also become a powerful advocate for Parkinson’s patients and disease research.
  • Musician and singer Stevie Wonder is blind.2

Free your mind and your heart from RD’s painful clutches. Be brave! Try art.

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