Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

Healing from Chronic Pain or Injury: My 3 Rules for playing the Mind Game

Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

Body Drawing: An art therapy approach to healing from chronic pain.

This week I sliced my finger. I was cleaning our ceiling fan blades, something I’d been trying to do for months. In the first instance, I fell into a pit of anger and frustration because I couldn’t finish the job. Ruminating, I stared at the ceiling, clasping a bunch of tissues which filled up with blood over my painful little pinkie. To the distracting but somewhat comforting beat of my throbbing pulse, I eventually pulled myself off the sulky road I was heading down, and contemplated how I might now constructively fill in the rest of my day.   I decided to do something I enjoyed – some drawing or painting or both. Half an hour later, I consulted the first aid book locked away in my brain and decided a dose of Betadine and a couple of strong bandaids was all that was required.

Ironically, this is the same process I went through when I popped a disc sweeping up the floor in January. However this injury was much more serious and I haven’t yet fully recovered. I lead an active lifestyle and see the glass half full most of the time, but this pushed me to my absolute limits. The mental anguish of being bed bound is much worse than physical pain and I could have easily slipped into depression, if anger and frustration had gotten hold.  I began thinking about the things I consciously do to give myself the best chance of healing without letting the world crumble down around me. Here are my 3 tips for healing from chronic pain, keeping your spirit intact!

  1. Listen to what your body is telling you to do.

The voices of ‘experts’ in treatment have valuable things to offer but not the only answer. My doctor, physio and chiropractor all had different opinions about my back injury and how it should be treated. The conflicting advice I received was confusing and my back seemed to get worse. Eventually, I refused to do some of the exercises because it didn’t feel right. I had to force my doctor to refer me for an “unnecessary” MRI which revealed a type of degenerative disc disease that he knew nothing about it. I ended up doing my own research to find a path of recovery for myself. In desperation for pain relief, I found an acupuncturist/physio who confirmed what I suspected all along. Don’t do any exercise that causes pain! He cut me back to one exercise and that was the beginning of my recovery, five months after my initial injury.   I know if I ever do this kind of injury again, I have a first aid plan, based pretty much on “Treat Your Own Back”. I also know I have a really strong gut instinct which steers me in the right direction.

  1. Put your mind on a leash.

This is the hardest thing to do when you are in constant pain. Give it some slack and your mind will take off, leaving you feeling powerless. Worry and self doubt tried to convince me that I might never be healthy and strong again. I was also plagued with guilt for lying around and not contributing to the functioning of our family household. A turning point for me came when I created a Body Drawing. On one of my worst days, I lay down and quietly meditated on how my body felt for a few minutes, noticing the pain, tension, and other sensations. Then I took a piece of paper and drew what I had noticed.  Looking objectively at what I had drawn, I knew I had to take positive action to not let my mind dominate, as it was contributing to avoidable tension in my body and inhibiting recovery. The Body Drawing is a good exercise to repeat several times over the course of recovery, so that you can appreciate the positive steps forward you are taking and that change however slight, is happening.

  1. Find creative ways to keep doing things you enjoy.

One of the most difficult things with chronic pain is not being able to do things you love. For three months, I wasn’t able to sit. I either had to lie on my back or stand. And standing for long periods of time wasn’t good either. I became teary and upset at not being able to do the things I normally enjoy like gardening and bike riding (I had just bought a new mountain bike).

Now when I look back, I am grateful for the down time I was forced to take. I taught myself how to set up a business and website and even went to some free business seminars, standing on my feet throughout the whole training.   I wrote my first blog flat out on my back because my thoughtful hubby bought me a bed desk.

It’s important to stay connected to the things you are passionate about, within your limitations. I couldn’t work in the community garden, but I still went along and chatted to the gardeners doing all the hard yakka. I took up new pursuits like Universal Healing Meditation and Playback Theatre which have added value to my healing process. Think creatively and you can find a way, perhaps with a little help from some painkillers now and again!

The Mind Game of healing from chronic pain or injury is a constant challenge. Just keep strong hold of that leash, and breathe.

Darwin Playback Theatre

My Introduction to the Healing Power of Playback Theatre

In February, I was fortunate to hear about some Playback Workshops designed to introduce new and old improvisational actors to the art of PlayBack Theatre. My motivation for attending was personal. I wanted a creative outlet for the rollercoaster of emotions I was carrying from my work.  It was all about me and my needs. If there was some way of expressing the tension that had built up over the past 5 years from listening to other people’s stories of trauma and abuse, in a fun and releasing kind of way, then this was enough. I didn’t really know what I was in for. I didn’t realise I would be the vehicle through which I would hear more potentially traumatic stories and have to literally jump into the storytellers shoes in a physical way. I didn’t realise how much courage I would need to muster to expose the introspective parts of my vulnerable self, while the self critic tried to talk me out of it. That is the journey I am now on.

Jonathan Fox introduced Playback Theatre in 1972 as a vehicle for ordinary people to act out the stories of their community. Although not intentionally a therapy, drama therapists and psychodramatists recognised Playback’s potential as a therapeutic approach. “It is theatre with the power and intention to heal and transform individuals and social groups” (Salas 2009). It has been used with trauma survivors, couples and families, adolescents, people in recovery from addictions or mental illness and other groups.

Darwin Playback Theatre

Darwin Playback Theatre

So how does it work? Well, the stage is set with two chairs to one side for the Conductor and Teller (a volunteer from the audience who is invited to share a story). In the middle of the stage are four boxes (seating and potential props) for four Actors. To the other side, a musician is accompanied by a wide variety of instruments to add musical content to the story. And upstage is a rack of cloth of various colours, for use as costumes or props. The Conductor invites a volunteer from the audience to tell a story. This Teller chooses an Actor to play themselves and for any other key figures in the story. The Actors listen as the Conductor interviews the Teller about the details of the story and most importantly, what emotions were present at the time of the event. The conductor invites the Teller and audience to “Let’s Watch” as the Actors and Musician play back the story as creatively and accurately as they can. The Actors finish their final scene by pausing and looking back at the Teller, anticipating their feedback. If the Teller is troubled by the way their story ends, there is an opportunity for Transformation, as the Conductor invites the Teller to imagine a new outcome and the Actors play back this preferred ending.

The potential healing effects for Tellers may seem obvious but when played out in front of a group of strangers in public, take on a life all of their own. There is the personal sense of affirmation and validation as they tell, hear and watch stories that are significant for them; the feeling of being fully heard and understood by the Actors and through the clapping of the audience; a sense of mastery over an experience that has been hanging around in the background for some time; new insight gained into an issue that has been presented back in a new and creative way; and the cathartic experience of joining in laughter or tears with the audience.

In the short time I have been practising the skills and art of Playback, I have been struck by the potential healing effects for Actors too. In my paid work as a counsellor, my attentive, listening ear was the only tool I could use to acknowledge and validate a story of trauma. With Playback, I can use my whole body, mind and voice in acknowledgement of the courage shown for sharing a personal story amidst strangers. It feels like presenting their story as a gift bound in a bright coloured ribbon, which is unwrapped with gentle curiosity, utter delight or immense relief and profound insight.

To date, I have only witnessed this amongst the cosy and comfortable confines of my PlayBack colleagues, where we share our inner-most personal stories with each other. My inner self critic has successfully sobataged any attempt I might make to step onto the public stage.   But that is a story for another time; perhaps the PlayBack stage? I’ve certainly achieved more than I imaged when I set out on this creative adventure six months ago. Any vicarious trauma or pent up frustrations I carry about the state of the world is unleashed amongst the laughter, silliness and security of my fellow Actors each week during Practice. Playback presents an abundance of other healing opportunities for Actors most of which I’m yet to experience, if I can pluck up the courage to go public.

If this article has inspired you to share a story of Tragic Love or other unresolved Earthly Delights, you might like to come along to our company’s next Fringe Festival performance tomorrow night. I won’t be on stage, but you can experience the healing power of Playback for yourself…..because it’s not all about me.

playback flyer _nReferences:  Salas, J. (2009) ‘Playback Theatre: A Frame for Healing’ in Current Approaches in Drama Therapy, 2nd edn., edited by Johnson D. R. & Emunah R., Charles Thomas, Illinois.