The Green Room is a new blog series from the research community at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It’s both a response to the impact of Covid 19 on the arts, and a way of starting new conversations about the future. Each week colleagues will share their personal reflections, insights, challenges and hopes as we begin to map out our next steps together.
One of the great strengths of the research team at RCS is its diversity in terms of areas of research, demographics and life experiences. In some ways the move to online communication has meant that members of the team have been able to connect with each other more regularly than ever before, discovering new connections and developing new ideas. Two of us (Elaine Hook, administrator, and Dr Sarah Hopfinger, researcher) have been reflecting on how our experiences of chronic illness and pain have helped prepare us for the current situation in some ways and presented fresh challenges.
When the rest of Scotland entered “lockdown” I had already been self-isolating at home for almost two weeks; travelling on public transport was making me nervous. Soon, as more colleagues and friends joined me in working from home, almost every conversation began with a now genuinely-meant “How are you?”, closely followed by “How are you coping?”. I always answered that the transition from being able to travel to work and to shop, from the freedom to go out for a coffee or a drive, did not feel like a huge deal to me. I felt I’d been through it before, in those periods when my disability (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) had forced me to take months (even years) away from work.
The fortunate thing is that through those long months spent at home I learnt to take joy in the smallest of experiences. I particularly remember a day when I could make it no further than the window seat but once there I spent 20 minutes watching a robin dart about the front garden, in and out of hedges, onto the bird table, into the birdbath”¦ I had never been interested in birds before and it opened a new world to me. I live in a very different location now, but watching spring unfold here has been a source of fascination.
However, as the weeks have passed I have become more and more aware of the huge differences between this restriction on the movements and activities of a whole nation, and the seclusion I’ve experienced in the past. My enjoyment of the garden and hobbies cannot disguise the fact that this is a very different situation, a type of universal pain; as time has passed I have become more attuned to that general anxiety, not less. This is in part because we have had a traumatic time of it (husband with the virus, bereavements), but also because I’m not cocooned while life goes on as normal outside. The streets are unnaturally quiet, my husband is here all the time, I can’t get my hair cut; there are constant reminders that this caesura is not limited to my four walls. For some, the restriction on movements has triggered episodes of anxiety and depression, and my daily routine includes a list of check-ins.
It is probably far too early to be thinking of “when we put all this behind us”, but if there’s something I would like to see carried on it would be the general wider awareness of other people’s pain, of whatever kind, and a gentle understanding. For me, this has been a time when I’ve finally learnt to extend that understanding to myself. I had always felt that I had to protect others from any negative feelings I had about my illness; I read What Katy Did as a child and clearly adopted Cousin Helen as a role model. As I have told others when I’ve checked in with them, “it’s OK to be not-OK”. In fact, this is an opportunity to explore how I feel about my own chronic illness, to see how owning up to being less than completely well and happy doesn’t lessen my value as a person or a colleague.
I have lived with chronic back and nerve pain for 18 years. I have, up until recently, related to my pain solely as a hindrance and barrier to my life and work. Over the past two years, I have been exploring how I might turn towards my pain differently and work creatively with it. This has led to a new research project, Ecologies of Pain, which is funded by a Carnegie Research Incentive Grant. Through practice-led research, the project uses performance and dance to explore how lived experiences of chronic pain might offer insights and knowledge about what it means to live with, and relate to, wider ecological pain. In our current crisis which could be understood as a form of pain what understandings and insights might living with chronic pain offer?
Something I have noticed when I have a pain flare-up is that part of the difficulty of the experience is that I inadvertently start to see my perspective, voice, opinions and experience as something that is less valid and valuable than when I am not in pain. I view this chronic pain body and mind as having less worth, less relevance, less right to speak, as less useful than when I am not in so much pain. The restrictions on my body that the pain enacts can also perform restrictions on my mind I become stiffened in my muscles and thoughts. I can think that what comes from this hard painful place is not going to be something I should share I worry it might depress others, cause them to feel sorry for me, add a weight on their shoulders. I do not want to share my experience as that feels like asking others to dwell on difficulty and pain. Each time I have another pain flare up I find that I must go on a process of re-making friends with my body, of reconnecting to my body as it is now rather than how I wish it was. I have noticed that during lockdown I have been experiencing similar thought processes as when I experience long periods of pain: I feel that I should be coping better, that I should be more productive, and that I should (by now) be able to move on from these difficult feelings.
But what if the very thing that is needed right now is to become more aware of our own and others’ pain? What if the most useful thing we could do right now is to cultivate patience and care with ourselves and others qualities that I find time and time again emerge from living with chronic pain? What if the world needs us to share, speak, write, create art, and do research from those vulnerable soft places of pain and hardship? What if one of the lessons of this crisis we are in is about learning to acknowledge, relate to, and work with pain?
We would like to invite ourselves and others to consider how those parts of ourselves, our bodies, our minds, that we might find unworthy, not valuable, even painful, might offer opportunities for learning to live with more care and appreciation of ourselves and each other.
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