Drawing Pains

I’ve been drawing since I was a child, from the moment I first held a fat color crayon in my small hand. As I got older I drew constantly, doodling on every scrap of paper I could find. Art classes in middle and high school, then college, refined and honed my skills and pushed me to expand into new mediums. For me, being an artist was as natural as drawing breath. I dreamed of one day illustrating children’s books.

But as a young adult it became quite clear that my talent couldn’t pay the rent.

So I found work as a graphic artist, then later as a journalist who occasionally got to paint with her words. I married and had a daughter. I became a newspaper editor and often did my own graphic page design, layout, and production. It kept my old artistic talent alive, but just barely. In the meantime I had a mortgage to pay, groceries to buy, and the never-ending monthly expenses all families everywhere face. Journalism paid the bills. Sure, I still doodled compulsively--and aimlessly--on scrap paper, napkins, on sticky notes, and in the margins of bills, envelopes, and calendars, I hadn't the time nor the inclination necessary to create real art.

Thirty-some years have passed since then. Today, I’m a part-time freelance writer. I blog about living well with rheumatoid disease and I'm an active advocate for those of us who live with RD and other chronic illnesses/chronic pain conditions. My daughter is a grown-up and I live with my elderly mother as her companion and caretaker. My life is full, but for the first time since I was a teen-ager I actually have time to spare. To my delight--and wonderment!--that old, soft but insistent urge to draw and create images and worlds on paper has returned.

Reintroducing drawing after 30 years

A few months ago I got myself a drawing table and a good chair. I purchased quality drawing and watercolor paper, along with paint brushes and watercolors, drawing pens, and colored pencils. And then, with my breath caught in my throat and my tongue caught between my teeth, I started creating visual art again.

My first attempts were clumsy, but I forgave myself. After all, it had been, what, more than three decades?  And really, the drawings weren’t bad. I kept at it, playing with the different papers, mediums, styles, and that natural gift I’d abandoned and left dormant for so long. After a while, I stopped trying to make Fine Art and just drew what came naturally. I got better at it. My lines went from tentative to assertive as my eye-hand coordination improved. To my delight, my imagination--which, unlike me, hadn’t aged at all!--flexed its figurative muscles and learned to crawl, then walk, and then run all over again.

Since then I’ve done many new drawings and paintings. They’re mostly small. I’m experimenting with mediums and styles, practicing, reading, and studying the work of other artists. My hands and wrists, always stiff and sore from rheumatoid disease, do slow me down some. I have to take frequent breaks to rest them as I draw and paint, and there are days when I can’t grasp a pencil at all. Nevertheless, I’m overjoyed at my progress. And I still want to be an illustrator.

Developing neck pain

But what about the title of this post? What are “drawing pains?”

They started in late October. When I turned my head to the right, my neck hurt. It wasn’t bad, and as those of us who cope frequently with chronic pain do, I tried to ignore it. Must have slept wrong, I told myself.

Famous last words. It was much worse a week later. I was attending an RD blogger’s summit conference, and because of my neck, other painful joints, and a hotel bed I couldn’t get comfortable in, I wasn’t sleeping very well. I blamed my increasing neck pain on the bed and lack of sleep, but I was becoming a little uneasy. Might the rheuma-dragon, that old bugger, be gnawing on my cervical spine now, too?

I told myself my neck would get better once I was home and sleeping on my own mattress and pillows. But the pain remained--and worsened--throughout November, sometimes seriously hindering my ability to turn my head to the right and making movements in the other directions distinctly uncomfortable.

In December I took part in a fun art event created by the artist/illustrator community on Twitter. Called #illo_advent, the challenge was to create and tweet one original holiday-themed illustration or piece of art for each of the 24 days of Advent. By the time I did my 12th drawing, I was struggling because of my neck pain, but I was determined to continue to the end. Creating the illustrations was fun, and I really enjoyed tweeting them and getting comments from my Twitter friends in the RD/chronic pain/chronic illness communities and from other artists and illustrators. I didn’t want to stop.

ER visit for neck pain

But as I finished my piece for Day 19, I knew I had to. My neck pain was just too overwhelming. I also had a new theory about what might be causing it. ("Sleeping wrong" was off the list.) As I drew and painted at my drawing table, I'd been leaning forward over my work, my head supported by my extended neck for four to six hours, every single day. A forgotten experience I’d had as a very young adult came back to me: I’d come down with a sudden, monstrous headache one day that was so painful I could barely move my head. It was so frighteningly agonizing that my Dad rushed me to the local ER, both of us terrified that I’d suddenly developed a brain tumor. Thankfully, the doctor gave me a much less fearful diagnosis: my neck and shoulder muscles had gone into spasm. He asked what I’d been doing lately. Along with my day job, I told him I’d been spending several hours-worth of freelance graphic art after work, using a small drawing table I'd gotten for that purpose.

Bingo! He explained that the spasms were caused by the hours of strain I’d put on my neck. The spasms had caused the horrific headache.

The treatment? At the ER, an injection of an opioid painkiller. Once home, it was long soaks in the hottest bathwater I could stand and moist, heated towels applied to my neck and shoulders several times a day. He prescribed muscle relaxers and told me to stay away from my drawing table for a week, at least. It took three full days, but my muscles finally relaxed and the blinding headache finally faded away. I’ve been careful ever since not to let my neck and shoulder muscles get that tense ever again.

Until now.

I gave up the #illo-advent Twitter challenge on Day 19 and backed away from my drawing table. I spoke with my doctor when my neck didn’t improve after several days, and she prescribed a muscle relaxer. I took it. I used moist heat on my neck and shoulders, too. I’d like to say my neck is better now, and that I’ve learned another lesson about self-awareness and self-care, but I can’t. My neck is still stiff and painful.

Visting rheumatologist for neck pain

Next up? I’ll see my rheumatologist soon. If the pain is RD-related--and not caused simply by poor positioning and overuse--she may have some new ideas for treating it. I hope so, because I want desperately to get back to my artwork. Now that I’ve rediscovered it, I don’t want to give it up again.


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