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How the Arts Became a Lifeline When Living With Chronic Illness

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A friend of mine once said, “There’s no such thing as good music or bad music, just music you either like or don’t like.”

This is very true. And yet we’re quick to make fun of people for their taste in things, rather than accepting the fact that we all like different stuff.

That’s the thing about the arts – they provide joy, entertainment and distraction. And for those of us with chronic illness, they’re more important than we give them credit for.

Most of my days are spent treading water, trying to stay afloat and keep breathing. I rarely show anyone how difficult it is, nor do I often discuss it out loud. Whenever I’m on social media, I prefer to use it as a fun distraction, to think about something else for a bit and have a laugh. That’s a key word when your life is filled with illness – distraction. So all types of media become incredibly important, and I’m sure others in my situation experience the same thing – you need to have your favorite books, television shows, movies, music, comedy, art and so on, in order to take a break from your every day difficulties.

You have to, otherwise you’ll go under.

Sometimes you’ll obsess over certain artists, books or shows, because you’ve latched onto something in them you need. Sometimes you’re not even sure what that is. All you know is it gives you peace.

I sat and watched “The Fellowship of the Ring” the evening before being admitted to hospital for brain surgery. I had never been so terrified in all my life, and yet, within a short time I was completely absorbed in a story I had seen about fifteen times already (I’ve adored Tolkien since I was 16). “The Return of the King” was released while I was in the hospital. A few weeks after my surgery, a friend came and picked me up to go to the nearest cinema to see it. I was doped up to the eyeballs on morphine and steroids, wearing an eyepatch and barely able to walk on my own. I couldn’t even drink out of a water bottle. I was in so much pain and discomfort, but that movie was the best tonic anyone could have given my soul.

When I’m in a theater watching a play, I forget about my worries for a while. Sometimes they seem to hit me with redoubled strength afterwards, as if a punishment, but they’re worth it all the same. Those precious, snatched moments where, for a brief time, you’re not feeling or aware of your pain.You’ve forgotten about the numerous hospital appointments coming up, and you’re just one of the crowd, living your life and actually enjoying the experience.

If you’re having a particularly bad week and want to watch “Doctor Who” for the ninth time, then put it on. If you feel like re-reading “Harry Potter,” or watching “Notting Hill” on repeat, or lying in the dark listening to your favorite musician for a whole day, then don’t ask for permission. If this is what you need, watch it, read it, listen to it. When every day is spent in pain, sometimes both physical and mental, and you discover something that brings you joy, make sure you grab onto it with both hands. Don’t let go until you feel you can.

Certain things have been almost literal life jackets for me. Especially this year, which has been particularly hard. I’m so, so grateful to the people who created them. They will never know me, I will never meet them, but my gratitude towards and love for them are boundless all the same. If anyone ever teases you over things you enjoy, or rolls their eyes at your obsession with something, then you can ask them directly why they don’t feel you deserve a distraction from your pain. It may seem trivial to them, but quite possibly it’s life-saving for you.

I remember a British actor who once met up with aid workers in the field and told them he felt embarrassed at his own job, when what they did was so important. I’m so glad he was assured that what he did was almost equally important to them. If they had had a particularly bad day, they would gather in the evenings and watch movies, relax and try to forget about the day that had passed and those yet to come. Art in any form can help you remember or forget; it can make you laugh or cry. After all, sometimes it’s good to cry over fictional things that are not happening to you personally.

It can also help you breathe.

Take joy where you can find it if it helps you keep your head above water. Don’t be embarrassed about it, don’t ask permission, just enjoy it if it makes you happy. And if any actors, authors, singers, comedians and artists are reading this – thank you for helping us survive.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Originally published: November 6, 2019
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