A Dangerous Double Bind: Illness and Creativity

A few weeks ago, stumped on blog ideas, a few people recommended looking into women’s health and how it interacted with creativity. Studies show creative practices can have great benefits for mental and physical health. But it’s often easier said than done.

I loved the idea of exploring this but it also made me nervous. I’m young and relatively pretty healthy. Despite a history of mental illness, I don’t feel like an expert on the subject. Yet, the more I looked into this, I was surprised by the hurdles both women’s illnesses and creatively blocked people have.

Women’s pain ignored

There are harrowing stories, such as the woman whose pain wasn’t believed. If they had, the professionals would have realized she had an ovarian torsion. Sure, you may say, but isn’t that extreme? There are nationwide impacts of disregarding female pain. Men on average wait 49 minutes to receive an analgesic for acute abdominal pain. Women, on the other hand, wait about 65 minutes.

Instead of being heard, their issues are downplayed. In one survey of over 2,000 women, 45% had been told ‘The pain is all in your head.’ Compound gender with race, disability, or transgender and medical professionals are even more likely to dismiss patient symptoms. Their access to medical care becomes even more difficult and potentially life threatening.

Where does this leave women, especially those with chronic illnesses? It leaves many doubting themselves, struggling against their bodies in order to get through the day. Worse, women are hearing messages from professionals that their experience should be ignored. It’s not real. It’s not worthy of being heard.

Fatigue? What fatigue?


Beyond pain, there’s the social expectation of being fine. For many women, we’re expected to do it all flawlessly. With endless articles on boosting productivity and efficiency, we don’t have time to rest or be tired.  For broken bones or a head cold, most people do get better with time. We are ‘healed’.

Yet, for many illnesses that just isn’t true. Some illnesses have flare ups or bad periods. There isn’t a cure all, just a different pace, different ways of dealing. As one friend struggling with a chronic illness put it, “You feel like you’re never doing enough. So you overcompensate and do too much which makes you more exhausted.”

How does this impact creativity?

So much of creativity is noticing and nurturing ideas. Whether you love journaling like I do, or find ideas walking in nature, creativity is about tuning in to find the ideas. Like Julia Cameron, I don’t believe that creativity is something only a few people have. Creativity is a practice. It’s a practice of listening and aligning with imagination. Sometimes it can seem utterly crazy. But that crazy has given us Picasso, Beyoncé, even Artemisia Gentileschi.

However, noticing isn’t a vacuum. You can’t notice just creative ideas. As my own creative practices deepen, I’ve become far more in tune with my own physical and emotional needs. I can’t be creative without that deeply personal listening. Sometimes it’s easy, “Hey! You’re already anxious, so let’s skip the coffee this morning.” Other times, it means facing my own anger and grief over relationships leave me feeling used.

In an ideal world, I’d skip the hard stuff. Sometimes, tuning out isn’t a bad thing. As my therapist likes to remind me, we can’t do the work all the time. Our bodies, minds, and hearts need rest. But I, like too many others, are better at tuning out than tuning in. If we don’t tune in, we also remove access to real creativity.

Perhaps some people can have that split between self and creativity, but I’ve never seen that without a huge cost. Some people resort to alcohol or drugs. Others push out work and their ‘creativity’ devolves into a rote and unauthentic process. While they are very different challenges, people with creative blocks, like those with chronic illness, have more practice in tuning out than in.

The uphill climb


On paper, it sounds like a simple change. Just start listening! Like so many things, so much easier said than done. Tuning into yourself can be deep and perhaps painful work for women and other minorities. It requires facing failures in systems for ignoring or dismissing your experiences. More importantly, it asks you to go against years of social training that told you to ignore your body and pain. It can be hard to realize how you’ve internalized a system that doesn’t look out for you.

Having the time and energy to be creative can be a struggle as well. People assume creativity flows. There must not be that high of a cost because so many people do it without getting paid! Don’t get me wrong: I can’t stop writing. I love and need it in my life. However, writing, whether it’s a blog post or a poem, can be draining. With chronic illness, finding that time and energy isn’t as simple as cutting down on TV or going to sleep an hour earlier.

While everyone can be creative, doing the work to access it takes time. For instance, I started with just noticing how I felt physically. Did I need a glass of water? What about a good shoulder stretch? Over time, I realized my own creative cues. For instance, a restless itch wasn’t just to get up and move, but to write something. I’d had that itch for over a decade before I realized what it was!

Getting started

So what are some ways to start that tuning in process? I’m no medical professional. In regards to dealing with illness, please see a professional that will honor your experiences and help you find solutions that work for you. Instead, all I can do is offer ideas about tuning in to help your creative journey. Here are some ideas:

1. Make time to tune in

bauble musings

Whether you choose meditation or journaling, make time for it every day. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time. It can be a half hour for a morning free write or 15 minutes for a guided meditation. You don’t have to write brilliant treatises or even achieve perfect zen. In the beginning, you just need to create time and space to allow yourself to get in the practice of tuning in.

A few minutes a day will strengthen your ability and help you find more inspiration.

2. Validate your emotional and mental experience

If you’ve had experiences like many women and minorities with chronic illnesses, this one can be tough. Part of the rational for tuning out has been the idea that what’s ‘in your head’ isn’t valid. Owning those feelings and experiences can help you explore them and embrace your own imagination.

So how do you do that? Sometimes it’s as simple as recognizing a feeling and acknowledging it. As a woman, it’s been important for me to acknowledge, for instance, that I’m tired on my period. Instead of getting upset at myself for not being productive, I remember I’m losing blood.

Start with wherever you are. What are you feeling right now? Name it and allow it to be what you’re feeling.  Also, look at the people around you. Do they listen and respect your experiences? If not, it’s time to find people who will.

3. Work with what you have

Everyone has different wants, needs, and abilities. For instance, dance may not be the right medium for you if you’re struggling with muscle or bone issues. Your creative outlet doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Perhaps you do origami because it’s soothing and small enough to carry paper with you. Maybe you start making music on your smartphone.

Your creative practice is yours.  It doesn’t have to be beautiful or genre breaking. It just has to be fun and good for you.

Unlearning anything can be incredibly difficult. The work of tuning in again isn’t done in 30 days. It’s a habit we have to continually show up for. Yet, when we do this work, we not only get more inspiration, we also are better at taking care of ourselves in a world that has demanded we ignore our wants and needs for far too long.

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