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How Accepting My Limits With Chronic Illness Made Me More Creative

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I am an exponentially “greater” artist today than I was before becoming chronically ill and invisibly disabled. But how can this be? I have significantly more physical limitations now than I ever had before. (I have trouble holding a fork, let alone a paintbrush, a pencil or a guitar pick.) How is it possible that I consider myself to be a stronger creator now, amid a seeming onslaught of intense “limitations”?

As a psychotherapist specializing in drama therapy with a private practice situated in the creative epicenter of Brooklyn, New York, I’ve had the unusual and extraordinary privilege of working with professional artists of all crafts and modalities. Some at the very top of their fields and influence and others at the fresh and exciting beginnings of their careers.

Yet no matter where my client is situated on their professional path, one permeating challenge tends to be consistent with the majority of my caseload across the board: chronic procrastination.

Though often downplayed or ignored all together, chronic procrastination is a serious, multifaceted, misaligned (and often unconscious) coping strategy that can consume weeks, months, years, even decades of a person’s life. Certainly, it impacts one’s ability to complete their work with ease but can expand outward, affecting all parts of their lives: physiologically, emotionally, relationally, environmentally, spiritually and of course, creatively.

As a psychotherapist steeped in creative arts therapy, I thought I knew quite bit about procrastination within the artist’s life. Though it wasn’t until I experienced the upheaval of chronic illness that my lens shifted, not just toward creativity, but chronic procrastination. And not just in the lives of others, but for myself.

For the past six years, I have been living with invisible disability due to severe rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  As the name implies, RA impacts the joints, deforming structural integrity over time, though it has a systemic inflammatory effect throughout the entire body.  In my case, my mobility and fine motor skills have been significantly compromised, as well as inflamed circulatory, fascia and lymphatic systems. It also impacts my vision, my ability to keep weight and muscle on my body, as well as chronic fatigue and persistently elevated pain levels. Sometimes having a bed sheet on top of me feels akin to a concrete slab.

This all started in my shoulders. Hellish, pointed pain stopping me from pulling a shirt over my head, a purse across my body or a phone to my ear. Soon, the pain was spreading everywhere and though I was hoping it would just go away, I knew I was in pretty deep trouble when my left hand ballooned up so much that I had to get my wedding ring sawed off at an urgent care.

An RA diagnosis came soon after and this started a wild journey of incessant researching, investing in every treatment, healing modality and supplement I could find and hearing over and over again from health care providers that I looked “young and healthy.”

Needless to say, this aggressive disease turned my world upside down and forced my hand in making some pretty massive life changes, pretty quickly.

I had no idea that a side effect of this topsy-turvy ride would be a deepening and expansion of the artist role within me, like I had never experienced before. And more surprisingly, I would establish (and later develop for others to experience) a means of “partnering procrastination” that would lead to sustainable, repeatable, enjoyable ways of finding satiating progress throughout all parts of life.

Here are three morsels of how chronic illness and invisible disability led me to a relationship shift with chronic procrastination and an explosion within my creativity:

1. Limitations as Simplification

As my body started to rapidly change with the onset of RA, I began losing creative abilities that previously came pretty naturally at what felt like breakneck speed. I had so many art forms that I engaged in regularly (many of which I had performed in a professional capacity) and they all seemed to be direly limited all at once.

Not only was I noticing strict fence posts around my art forms, but my energy, too. I used to pride myself on my seemingly boundless energetic capabilities. I loved being involved in every juicy project I encountered, along with pitching in as much as I could with my professional and creative skill sets and talents. I can remember once traveling to four out of five New York boroughs by train all in one day for different jobs and responsibilities and feeling great accomplishment. (And if you’re a New Yorker, you know the gravity of that statement.) Energetically, I felt unstoppable.

Peers, colleagues and fellow artists enjoyed this too, often calling on me for assistance. I liked being a person who could lend a hand above and beyond, contributing to other’s successes.

In many ways, I was overperforming for others, sometimes to the chagrin of my personal creative interests and goals. Very often, this behavior is congruent with chronic procrastination: working incredibly hard for the successes of others while overlooking one’s personal creative vision.

At the point where I literally lost my ability to walk more than a half block (let alone traversing across four boroughs) I realized it was time to work with my limits, rather than trying to barrel through them.

I started turning down work offers right and left, which felt wildly counterintuitive in the beginning. I began saying “no” to the people in my sphere (which of course, didn’t always please others, but had to happen).

In accepting that I couldn’t be the Energizer Bunny for myself and the world at large, I slowed way down enough to get curious about my new limits and let them guide me. It was this simplification process, ironically, that allowed my personal creativity to flow more bountifully.

2. Rest First, Always

I needed rest. And bad. I didn’t realize that I was chronically procrastinating in many parts of my life because I was chronically exhausted. In fact, I think it is fair to say I was dangerously teetering on the precipice of burnout, but was too involved to notice.

My illness forced me into a state of rest and this may be the single most impactful shift RA has made on my chronic procrastination and creativity (and survival).

Now, let’s be clear. This tortured me in the beginning. It felt like rest meant I was coming to a screeching stop. It seemed terrifyingly stagnant, like I wasn’t doing enough and falling behind. Quite frankly, I tantrumed against it. (Though, I have to say, I’m not alone on this. When I advocate for the critical need for rest to my clients, I often witness the same type of “tantruming” I myself engaged in.)

Yet, the more my chronic illness insisted…no…demanded I rest, the more I discovered rest was indeed an action state. In fact, “to rest” is a verb. It is the act of engaging in restoration. Not only is it an action state, it needs to be the first action state.

Now, not only do I love resting but I relish in it and embellish on it regularly. I (ironically) work hard toward finding as many ways to rest that delight me as possible, which of course doesn’t always have to be sleep. (My current favorite form of rest is driving through the mountains blasting ’80s ballads!)

By resting, I realign my misguided need for chronic procrastination in my day-to-day, which in many ways was trying to get me to slow down. Though it did it in ineffective ways, I appreciate my procrastination wanting me to restore. Now I do it proactively so the chronic procrastination in my life doesn’t have to over function.

I now know in my bones that I can’t have staying power within my creativity without rest first. Always. And that’s the secret sauce in my continuing to create, prolifically and potently, with an invisible disability.

3. Letting ‘Quiet’ Work

 Being so sick and in such wicked pain, I had to be laying down more than I ever had before in my life. All I could do was just barely travel to my office to work and come home and get in bed.

When I hit a wall watching Netflix and shuffling through endless news cycles, I brazenly turned it all off. I would just lay. In quiet. That’s when my brain started to do something outrageous. Imagine.

In quiet, I actually gave my brain the space to simply wander. And as I began doing this more and more regularly instead of turning to exterior stimulation, I started to notice that my imagination was expanding — and I’m talking like off the charts — in the most vivid ways that I’ve ever experienced as an adult. In fact, it started to remind me of how my imagination would naturally function in childhood: extravagantly, vibrantly, no limitations.

So not only was my brain pouring over with creativity, constantly and consistently, this new quiet world aided my chronic procrastination in two practical ways:

First, in giving my brain time to wander and imagine, it also gave it time to work through and organize my creative approach more efficiently than ever before. I became stealthy in clarifying the steps of a project even before lifting a (pained) finger.

And secondly, it cut a mass amount of guilt out of my life. Rather than spending hours on end pressing the “continue playing” button on a streaming service, I broke the cycle of needing outside stimulus constantly and learned how to become extremely cozy, soothed and entertained for hours by my own imagination.

Instead of swimming in guilt I let my mind get as expansive as possible, which in turn offered insight into how to translate that into real life.

So now, do I occasionally watch a few episodes of a show I love?  Sure, but I do it as a treat I luxuriate in versus an escape route led by chronic procrastination.

Quiet “work” is something that I look forward to and quite frankly crave. I let the brain have what it needed: time to imagine.

There are artists of all kinds navigating disability every moment of every day. To them, I offer my deepest respect and enthusiasm. This experience has hurled at me some monumental challenges, a tidal wave of seeming limitations to my abilities, creative and otherwise.

It could have been tempting to feel like my artist role was being made smaller and closing in on itself. But here’s the surprising truth. Being invisibly disabled has honed, strength trained, made savvy, and exponentially multiplied my creativity like I’ve never experienced before. And it has taught me to shift my relationship with chronic procrastination into satiating progress (which now I get to guide others through too).

Header image via Thiago Barletta on Unsplash

Originally published: December 17, 2020
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