Sandra Woods
Art despite pain

In the news

One of my favourite quotations is also among the most misquoted or only partially quoted. You've likely heard Alexander Graham Bell's expression "When one door closes another door opens", but that wasn't his entire statement. His full comment was:
"When one door closes another door opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us."

In early 2016, I had the absolute pleasure of finding my dream job; a role that combined my recently-earned graduate degree in bioethics with healthcare philanthropy, ethical financial and organizational governance, and a good dose of corporate training and development - building on my military experience as an officer-instructor.
Within several months I was diagnosed with a rare disease, Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) as it had previously been known. Both an autoimmune disease a neuro-inflammatory condition, CRPS primarily affected my right hand and arm, causing issues with the bones, joints, and skin. There was localized oedema or swelling, when my fingers would balloon out like giant sausages. The skin over this area would change colour, from almost pale blue to dark purple, while the skin temperature changed from cold to hot. Red stripes would appear on the skin, over each of my finger joints, and the joints or knuckles became rigid as adhesions seemed to form within them.
If this all sounds painful, it was. It still is, really. The scientifically-validated McGill Pain Index (MPI), used in hospitals and healthcare centers around the world, rates CRPS pain as being more severe than childbirth, kidney stones, or even the amputation of a digit - a finger or toe - without anaesthetic.
Unlike those pain-causing events, though, CRPS pain continues; as high-impact of severe chronic pain. I was vomiting from pain at work, several times each day. I'd carry ziploc bags with me, as I couldn't always make it to a washroom before vomiting. I finally began secretly fasting each day, until I got home from work in the evening, to avoid vomiting in our carpeted office space. There were also some full-body effects of CRPS, like extreme fatigue, and other hand and arm problems like spasms and tremors.
All that time, I hadn't wanted anyone to know how badly I was doing, physically, because I didn't want to stop working - I adored my job.
Looking back, I realize that this approach wasn't sustainable, but I never really got the chance to find better ways to adapt to working with CRPS.
By the end of 2018 I'd begun to experience cognitive issues; problems with my memory and speech were most obvious. Like the time I kept saying "congratulations" instead of "condolences" at a funeral, or "elephants of" rather than "elements of" in a presentation that I was giving at work. Once I found myself outside the door of my home, holding a key in my hand, but unable to figure out how to get inside.
Scary stuff, absolutely terrifying to be honest. Soon after that I was diagnosed with a Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), resulting from the neuro-inflammatory aspect of CRPS. At that point I had no choice but to stop working, to abandon the career that I adored and had worked hard to build.

When that door closed, I took Alexander Graham Bell's sentiment to heart and vowed not to look "so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us."
With my background in healthcare I soon found myself involved in chronic pain patient advocacy, volunteering for projects as a Patient Partner, and raising awareness of chronic pain - which affects an estimated one in five adults in Canada.
Although my MCI requires much more time for reading or writing, and frequent 'brain breaks', I'm still able to help others. Instead of only seeing the closed door of my career, I set my sights on finding out what I might still be able to do.
It wasn't easy, and at first I constantly overestimated my abilities and then had to scale back - which was tremendously discouraging.
But I eventually found a level at which I could volunteer without worsening my cognitive issues.

After reading research on the benefits of art and creativity for both pain and the brain in 2021, I chose to tackle my lifelong dream of learning to paint - with watercolours... often described by artists as the most difficult medium to master.
At the tike, to be clear, I couldn't draw a stick-figure! During the pandemic I immersed myself in live-virtual watercolour classes, to the extent that my MCI permitted, many of which I've continued to this day. And I almost immediately began using my artworks & experiments to raise the of chronic pain, through my Art Despite Pain #artdespitepain initiative.

I joined art associations, took in-person classes and workshops once lockdowns ended, and considered my college and university art history classes in a new light.
Three years on, I've won a national art award, first prize in a City of Montréal art contest (amateur watercolour and gouache category), and my paintings have appeared in more than 30 group exhibitions.
Several paintings that I've donated to charity events have been sold, and two are part of the art collection of a health research centre in Québec City.

Tomorrow will mark another milestone in my art adventure, a door that would have remained closed to me had I focused only on what I could no longer do - on the door than had closed.
My first solo art show opens tomorrow! "Watercolours on Two Wheels" features pieces originating from my cycling around western Montréal Island; plein-air paintings using my bike-as-easel set-up, and studio watercolours based on sketches done during my cycling rest breaks.
A mix of florals, landscapes, waterscapes, and wildlife, to reflect the beauty and diversity of this area; farms, historic buildings, lakes, nature parks, rivers, streams, and even a vineyard!

This solo show will continue through June 21, 2024 at the MCLL Lounge in McGill University's School of Continuing Studies, across the street from the University's main campus. The MCLL, by the way, is the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning:
680 Sherbrooke West, Suite 229, Montréal
(next to the McCord Museum)
Mon-Thu 0900 to 1700
Fridays    0900 to 1500
Closed weekends & evenings.