Paul Cézanne famously wrote: “Don’t be an art critic, but paint, there lies salvation.” How I wish that I could paint my pain away to save me from repetitive prayers to the Almighty for salvation.
Dr Lamb, whom I met quarterly at the internal medicine out-patient ward of Princess Margaret Hospital, is one of a million doctors I admire. On one occasion, she held my hands and prayed for God’s mercy in my recovery. She encouraged me to try painting which she thought would help my rehabilitation. The last time I painted was when in High School, nothing serious, just a few oil paintings on canvas for fun and during art lessons. I have never had much experience and passion for the pictures of any sort. However, I do love art history, galleries and museums.
After the consultation that day, my fifth or sixth month after my operation, I took the tube home rather than taking the cab or calling uber as I wasn’t in a hurry. There weren’t too many medications to carry then, so I should be fine. It was already six-ish when I was back in my neighbourhood, so I stopped by one of the restaurants where I would get my dinner takeout. While waiting, something caught my attention from the little shop right next to it, which I never paid attention to. The window displays were full of paintings and little ornaments, then I realised that it was an art studio. I saw a young guy in there teaching kids. I walked in there out of curiosity and asked if he would mind teaching a middle-aged man without any experience in painting. To my surprise, “Why not?” he said. Considering my situation, thirty pounds for a session was a bit extravagant. Still, I decided to try because of Dr Lamb’s encouragement.
Kenji asked what sort of paintings I would like to start with, which I had absolutely no idea. He’s introducing me to acrylic painting, which is easier to manage than oil painting. I could use some colours in my life, so “Something colourful, and how about trees?” I said. The first session lasted almost three hours. I thought I could never make it because of my pain, especially sitting down for so long, but I made it without knowing. During the class, I could sense every part of my body complaining, asking for attention, “Hey, look here, it’s hurting. Do something!” I ignored them and focused on the colours instead. After a while, I began to enjoy the process of exploring the mixing of colours and the skills of projecting an image onto the canvas. It wasn’t easy for a layperson to paint, let alone my relentless body pain. I managed to finish my first painting after two sessions. Success, and I loved it – autographed at the corner of it and named it “Winter Blossoms” to go with the colourful theme of it.
I read from some articles and journals that Art therapy helps lower pain perception by moving your mental focus away from the painful stimulus. It is not simply a distraction but rather a way to teach you how to relax and alter your mood so the pain doesn’t control your emotional state, though it cannot replace physical therapy and medications. Moreover, visual arts can be a valuable tool in conveying aspects of an illness that are often too difﬁcult to verbalise. When used as a means of communication, arts have the potential to improve the medical assessment process, thereby enhancing the overall quality and accuracy of treatment. That’s interesting as I literally drawed out how my pain was like on my body and showed it to my surgeon while I was in St. Paul’s. It’s a baggy T-shirt with printed barbed wires all over the place to symbolise how I was feeling. You might need a little bit imagination on how it’s like having barbed wires wrapped around all over your body, inside out, and they get tighter and tighter, particularly around my chest wall and on the abdomen as if someone were trying to squeeze me to death with the wires, with ribs turning into dagger knives stabbing inwards and outwards, let alone the rest of the sensations from my eyes to feet. I showed it to him, and he said, “Oh awesome! Have it printed out, find a tailor and have it franchised.” – not the kind of response that I expected obviously.
Months have gone by ever since I finished my first painting at that studio. I have been cancelling my lessons again and again as my pain has been so overwhelming that I could not simply manage that three hours sitting down, or even standing, without attending to my pain. My injections by anaesthetist all failed. She’s not offering more injections of any sort, and warned me not to go for any surgery. All she could do for me was to to raise the dosage of my medications, and I wouldn’t get to see her again until February next year. I talked to nurses Tse and Cheung , reminding them to ring me every now and then as I doubted very much that I could last that long. There’s not much I could do apart from following the instructions on raising the dosage and frequencies of my medications, reluctantly. Until then, I am all on my own to find ways to manage my pain, unless I am willing to pay a fortune to see private practitioners, again. I have scheduled myself for an GI endoscopy and an appointment to see a rheumatologist for the first time though, to eliminate and discover possibilities. And if my pain becomes unbearable again, I would have no choice but to consult pain specialists at private settings.
I texted Kenji the other day, saying that I would like to continue whenever I could manage. He’s very understanding and patient, knowing about my situation. I wanted to use colours and layering to deliver a message, and showed a few samples to him. We picked one to try on and it’s in progress. The first session turned out more difficult than I could manage – far too much skills involved. He promised that he would help me to get it finished though. Hopefully I could show you my second acrylic painting in the near future – wishful thinking.