Art Therapy For Chronic Pain

Chapter 4 showed how art helped people find calm in the storm of chronic pain. But art therapy can also stimulate creativity in a broader sense—a creative bent you might not even realize you possess.

One of my patients, Brandon, an enthusiastic motorcycle racer, crashed “a few too many times” as he put it, and had undergone several surgeries to repair the damage. “My entire left side is titanium,” he joked. But he wasn’t bothered by chronic pain until he suffered an on-the-job injury. An electrician, Brandon was standing on a ladder installing overhead piping when he suddenly felt a tremendous pain in his left shoulder. Recoiling, he lost his balance, and fell off the ladder, hitting his back on a metal desk, then flipping over and landing face-first on the concrete. Brandon ended up with a dislocated left shoulder that caused him terrible pain.

“I went to physical therapy,” he told me, “and was slowly but surely getting better.” But then a physical therapy manipulation of his left arm sent waves of unimaginable pain ricocheting through his arm and body.

“It felt way worse than the initial injury,” he said. “I was on a vinyl-covered table and I grabbed that vinyl so hard, I ripped it off the cushion!”

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After that, Brandon was in constant pain. He soon ran through all the physical therapy sessions allowed by his HMO, and was referred to my center. When he arrived, Brandon’s pain was so intense he was unable to hold a glass with his left hand or open a door with his left arm And he had to lie down every so often to relieve the pain caused by his shoulder supporting the weight of his arm.

When our art therapist, Christine Hirabayashi, first discussed art therapy with Brandon, he was unimpressed. He couldn’t see how expressing himself in such a way could do anything to relieve his pain. So Brandon didn’t participate in any therapeutic art activities, except for the expression mask exercise.

“That piqued my interest a little bit. I knew I had a lot of stuff to work on and I wanted to go down the rabbit hole and see where it would take me.”

It didn’t take long before Brandon threw himself wholeheartedly in the art program

“It really helped me get in touch with my feelings,” he said later. “And the nonjudgmental environment helped me curb my self-critic, the thing that screams in your ear when you do something you think you don’t have an aptitude for, but you want to try anyway.”

After graduating from the program, he came to a special Friday night class that was open to all, where people can paint, sculpt, draw, or try other forms of art. Lots of materials are available, and everyone is encouraged to do whatever seems appealing. Brandon didn’t know what to do, but he knew he wanted to create. Still feeling that a paint brush or pencil was beyond his skill level, he happened to notice a motorized drill sitting on a shelf. It had nothing to do with art; the studio was in the process of being remodeled and the workers had left a drill behind. But it gave him an idea.

Brandon asked Christine for a canvas, then rigged it up so the canvas was suspended from the drill, and when he turned the drill on, the canvas spun round and round. Once he got the canvas spinning, Brandon began pouring acrylic paints on its surface.

“It was a mess!” he said. “But it was a tipping point for me. I liked choosing the colors and pouring them on, depending on how I was feeling at the moment. Right then, I went from being curious about art to wanting to pursue it.”

Brandon progressed from his color-spun art to a more formalized version, and today he uses a rake to create large-scale beach art.

“It’s my moving meditation around my condition,” he explains. Dragging a rake behind him, he walks in circles or other patterns, nothing pre-determined—just going whichever direction his body wants to take at the moment.

“Once I start moving like this, I get into a different head space. The movement becomes more like a meditation. It’s a total cathartic experience. When I’m in the process of creating, I’m not cognizant of what’s happening around me. But afterwards, I feel like I’ve moved negative things out of my body. I’ll go out here, drag a rake behind me, and let things happen. The art tells me what it wants.”

This, however, doesn’t mean that Brandon’s pain is completely gone.

“A lot of times I have to stop and lie on the beach, or leave because of the pain. I try to be honest with myself, my body, my emotions, and my state of being. But as long as I’m present with all of those, I can learn something every time I do this.”

The art has allowed Brandon to help others as well. He liked it when others in the art therapy program began to use his spinning machine to create their own art. Now, when he’s creating on the beach, he says, “People see me create something, and it has an impact on them They come talk to me and tell me how my art affects them. It pulls them out of their automated state, makes them think about themselves. Maybe I’m thinking of things in my life that are not so nice, but I’m pulling in people who are impacted in a positive way!”

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