A Pained Life: The Art of Pain

By Carol Levy, Columnist

There was a gigantic painting in the dining room of my parents house. My mother was the artist. It was beautiful, captivating and very, very unsettling.

Dead center she had painted a person crouched down in a tight position. It has been many years since I last saw it, but as I recall one hand was held outstretched towards the viewer. This person was surrounded by triangles, each one a different color, all pointing downward towards the person in the middle.

I did not like to look at it, but I never thought through what bothered me so much about it -- until I became involved with Susanne Main's research into creative depictions of life with chronic pain.

Susanne is an associate lecturer and PhD candidate at the Open University in the United Kingdom. Using online platforms, she is exhibiting artistic renderings by chronic pain patients.

Some are in your face: this is my pain, my life. LISTEN TO ME!

Some are explanatory: this is what arthritis does to my body. Some show the emotional effects of living with daily pain.

The goal of the Exhibiting Pain project is to find new ways of communicating to each other and the medical community what our pain is, how it feels, how it effects and affects us.

The meaning behind the picture I contributed, Trigeminal Neuralgia Strikes, was obvious, even the double meaning of the title: the lightning-like strike of pain and the fact that trigeminal neuralgia strikes out of the blue.

I was very surprised by the response. One commenter felt using red for the pain made it seem “superficial," the picture not indicative of how painful the disorder can be.

But the picture also got my point across. He said it made him want to know more about a condition of which he had been unaware.

"trigeminal neurlagia strikes"

"trigeminal neurlagia strikes"

So it was successful. To me.

We often lament how people don't “get” our pain no matter how many times and ways we try to explain it. We know what we are saying. We assume that that is what is being heard.

I drew the picture some time back to denote the pain for both Trigeminal Neuralgia Awareness Day and for Women in Pain Awareness month. It never occurred to me that what I drew was not  what people were seeing. 

So often we say, "They refuse to understand." I explain and explain until I'm blue in the face and they still say, “It's not so bad” or “I had a headache like that once.” 

The one thing I rarely hear, or to be honest even thought, is maybe I am not explaining it in a way they can understand. Instead of getting frustrated or angry, maybe I need to ask, “What exactly is it you don't understand?”

Sometimes we think we are speaking the same language, but the language of pain is often so very person specific. It's like the old break- up line: “It's not you, It's me.”

I regret never talking with my mother about what she had painted. I knew her life had been hard, and that she retained a disability from her bout with polio. I did not want to truly know her sadness and suffering. I now realize her picture spoke, very clearly and with no doubt, of her own pain.

But when it does not speak, like with my picture, it may just be me. And I may need to learn the language of the listener, so what I say is what is being heard.

Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.” 

Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.