Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain

1 Comment

The Broken Column

Art can be something you do to express yourself, or something you view to move your soul. Art has always been a passion of mine, I love viewing art, and I used to draw much more to help deal with sadness, especially during my years in high school and college. Recently, I have been drawn to looking at a painting by a personal heroine of mine, the Broken Column by Frida Kahlo.

Says so much doesn’t it?

When I was in high school, I had the extreme luck of having a Spanish teacher that was full of passion about a lot of things, and a fantastic outlook on life. Her intense love of art, music, and the general beauty in things was so strong, that you could not help catching the bug too. She probably doesn’t know what a huge influence to my life she was, and probably will continue to be because of her introducing me to Frida. The way she spoke about Frida, hearing her sad life story, and then seeing her art moved me deeply. Frida has been one of my favorite artists ever since.

Back then I didn’t care as much for her “weirder” stuff like the Broken Column. I liked the self-portraits, they were safe and comfortable, didn’t make you feel too much, unless they made you feel good. I was a teenager much more concerned with other things to get too deep about art expressing such deep sorrow and pain.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Frida’s self portraits I always found very serene looking, and her depiction of flora and fauna surrounding her always seemed so beautiful. She paints her self critically, but also is proud of her heritage and loves to show that through her art. As a Texan you can sort of connect culturally with this deeply Mexican artist that struggled with her mixed roots.

Her more tortured art, I understand far better now. When you look at the Broken Column, you see the cracked spine represented by the broken and seeming unstable column, that seems to be close to the collapsing point. I feel this is exactly the image that describes the best how it feels to have a serious back injury, like your main support is now shaken and the rest of the body is now a shell and a shadow hung around the faulty core. The landscape is barren, she is alone in the desert. Pain is isolating, you spend so much time alone.

“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

The surgical brace, her physical jail, the thing that holds this now injured body together. The nails, only someone with neurological pain can understand this, the sharp stabs that seem able to appear all over the body. The pain in her face you don’t see at first, a quick glance will not catch it. Once you notice the tears, you realize her expression is not what it first seemed. These tears are not the tears of sadness, they are the tears of overwhelming pain, the pain crying where you have no say in the matter and the body simply weeps because it knows nothing else to do. All of these things I have felt, and I do feel. This painting reflects in a single image what a life of pain from an accident is like.

When she was about 18 she was on a bus that collided with a trolley car, she suffered serious injuries to her bones and spine, and was pierced by a handrail through her abdomen. This rendered her unable to conceive, which was a major blow to her, and her back and other places were broken. Injuries this significant even now would be a life sentence of pain, and  it was for her. She had 35 surgeries over her life. She spent a lot of time in a body cast and would paint them, and portraits of herself. No matter where she was, or how bad off she was, she was always creating. She was traveling in her mind where her body could not.

Frida painting her body cast in bed with a hand mirror.

Her life was pain physically and emotionally, she had a stormy relationship with Diego Rivera, and both influenced her art. The most poignant paintings I find that move me now, are her paintings that speak of her immense physical pain. I feel that on a very deep level I understand them much more than I did as a young teen that only knew emotional pain as the deepest. I also admire that despite all the pain and isolation, she stayed strong and was a powerful and opinionated woman. She would not let anything stop her. I think her stubbornness like mine was the thing that kept her going. The woman that says –

“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” 

Knows and accepts that this is the way things will be, but that she will not let it ruin her life. She will not live an unhappy life. So she found a way to be happy, and she uses this as powerful inspiration to create some of the most moving art.

No matter what comes her way, she is able to overcome it due to her strength of will, before a surgery to amputate her foot she said –

Pies, para qué los quiero
Si tengo alas para volar

Which translates as “Feet, what do I need them for[,] I have wings to fly.” Everyone has something that can transport them like this, and even if you can’t paint you can enjoy looking at a painting and knowing that person felt as bad as you, but still saw all this beauty in the world.

“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

You are never alone, pain can be isolating but it can only take your life away if you let it. All of this is why I dearly love Frida and her art, and I think she should be a symbol to all pain sufferers just what can happen if you don’t let your pain stop you.

We all have wings, you just have to get out there and use them.