My weekend, pretty much, and proof positive I need to have my eyes tested because painting fine details on paper that small (somewhere between an A6 and A5) is fast becoming hit and miss, and much more often miss. Also I am impatient and abandon them too early, but let’s pretend otherwise for the sake of my ego. On our top row, from left to right, we have Thomasina (Tommy to her friends) and Stephanie; bottom row, left to right, is Calista, Frankie and Catherine (not Kate or Cathy, always Catherine).
I’m pretty sure the main reason I keep painting these folksy (cartoony?) women is so I can give them names, and in giving them names endowing them with a character, a history, a story. Thomasina, for instance, wears sensible shoes, has unshaven armpits, and gives zero fucks; Stephanie – well, to be fair, I don’t really understand Stephanie at all and I am not sure we’d ever be very good friends. Calista has a cat and sews her own clothes (she’s a biologist, I think – something science-y, I forget). Frankie is an actress but doesn’t make enough to earn a living so she also works as an office temp to pay the rent (people keep offering her permanent work because she has become very good at acting her way into any role in any office and I am also a little bit in love with her). Catherine likes the ballet, is on the board of a children’s charity that she genuinely believes does good in the world, though is becoming increasingly weary of the political games she needs to play to do her job well. I think she’s something of a repressed time-bomb waiting to blow, actually. If I had to guess, I would say that the death of a loved one at some future point will cause her to reconsider her entire life and she will leave her stable (if perhaps not entirely happy) marriage, return to school and become a nurse, eventually specialising in paediatric oncology. She just seems the type. She’ll probably write a book about it.
I’ll leave it to you to decide why I enjoy personifying these tiny painted faces so much, but I know I’m not alone. The Greeks personified everything, the Romans too. I know this because (Classics minor as an undergrad and) medical terminology is full, absolutely chocka-to-the-top full of the symbols handed down from these civilisations to ours. Achos, for instance, was the Greek personification of pain; Morbus, the Latin daemon of sickness and disease. These spirits personified feelings and states of being, took an abstract internal experience and gave us all something to point at; pain is this, disease is that.
One article I read estimated the amount of medical terminology that originated in this ancient Greek and Roman symbolism to be at 90% (I quote from memory, and I have an unreliable memory, but it was very high). As another article argued, these ancient concepts don’t change very much, we reinvent the same idea of Pain every generation as if it is something new, something identifiable, something we can understand and perhaps in the understanding find a means to conquer, when all we are doing is turning the same wheel around over and over and over. And over. We might standardise and refine the wheel, develop technologies in regards to the wheel, but we forget, or never even notice, that it is indeed always the same old wheel.
I think it’s very important to understand difference between the experience of pain (disease, love, ageing, name your favourite Greek or Roman daemon here) and the abstract personification of it, to understand the symbolism so deeply embedded in medical language. I think it’s very important because where we mistake the abstraction for the experience, we mistake a shared symbol for an individual reality. Pain becomes about nerves and analgesics and posture and muscle strength, and outside of that it is not something a medical professional can, or should have to, deal with. Outside of that, there is non-compliance, there are the difficult to treat, the malingerers, the psychologically wounded. Outside of that the tools offered become about acceptance of ‘pain’, adaptation to ‘pain’, and protection of energy and physical resources to cope with ‘pain’. Outside of that we are often judged and usually abandoned.
I’m very grateful for anaesthetics and anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, and lord knows I will bow down and worship at the feet of whoever invented rizatriptan, god bless you and the womb that bore you. I’m a big fan of the scientific method in general, true story. But you know when the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus by asking him to condemn his disciples for breaking religious ‘law’ by picking grain on the Sabbath? (Mark 2, 23-27 for the people who did not spend their childhoods at church). He told them the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, i.e. if it’s more helpful for a hungry person to pick some grain than it is for them have a rest, they should pick the bloody grain.
The scientific method was made for man, not man for the scientific method; also medicine, mythologies, all of the constructs. If a particular way of understanding and dealing with chronic pain is only partially helpful to me, that is not a repudiation of that way, nor is it a fault in me. It just is. I think acknowledging chronic pain as a subjective experience, and not reifying the abstract concepts we use to communicate that experience, would go a long way to finding imaginative and useful ways of living with it on an individual level. Maybe I need someone to come clean the house for me more than I need a physiotherapist. And maybe that says absolutely nothing about my compliance or my motivation.
I usually paint these tiny gouache faces after a gruelling night (week or two of nights) of cluster headaches, when the pain has gone but the resulting exhaustion remains. They lighten things, mentally, physically. Not in the painting – that’s more distraction – but in the stories I make up later. The paintings and the stories have nothing to do with a cure, but they are oddly curative, and if I don’t understand why they are curative, then I also don’t believe the why needs understanding. They hurt no-one, they help me. Double thumbs up.
On thinking about it, maybe Catherine will run away with the much younger pool boy and go live in a villa off the coast of Italy to find herself instead. She’ll write a book about that too.