Painting Through Chronic Nerve Pain: Annika Connor's Journey

For this Brooklyn-based artist who fell in love with paint as a child, the key to her chronic pain recovery has been to harness her creativity.

The moment she fell, Annika Connor knew that it was no ordinary slip of her skis. “As I was falling, something in my head said, ‘That’s not right,’ and I knew right away that something was wrong,” she says. As a longtime skier and former instructor, she could tell this time was different. Her skiing accident, which occurred in February 2019, caused multiple fractures, a badly sprained ankle, and chronic nerve pain in her left leg that continues today.

I Hurt All the Time, by Annika Connor

Treating Unexplained Neuropathic Pain

Immediately after her accident, Annika needed surgery for tibial plateau fractures, which included the application of metal screws and a plate. She began to heal from her injuries and the surgery but soon found that the worst was yet to come.

“I don’t mean to minimize that, but the pain from that was so small in comparison to what happened about 10 days later when this insane nerve pain kicked in,” she says. “My leg felt like someone was holding a blow torch to it and never let it go.”

Although the pain is less intense now, more than a year later, it’s something that Annika lives with every day. Her doctors are not sure whether the lingering neuropathic pain comes from nerve damage as a result of the accident, the surgery, scar tissue at the incision, or if it’s her body rejecting the metals used to stabilize the bone.

In the meantime, she has tried many different medications, including gabapentin (an anticonvulsant drug that is also used to treat nerve pain), pregablain (brand name Lyrica, a treatment for nerve pain and some types of seizures), acupuncture (which worsened her pain), a topical ketamine compound, antidepressants, and other antiseizure medications.

Annika describes the difficulties of trying so many different treatments and the side effects that came with them. “I was on so much medication that for a long time I couldn’t read or focus on emails,” she says. “I felt like my brain was on a balloon elsewhere. But I was able to paint.” Spending time in her studio was a welcome distraction. “That was one of the few places where I could just put my mind on something else and become engrossed in it."

The plan was to remove the hardware from her leg after one year, which was scheduled to happen this past March (2020). But because that was when the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly hit New York City, Annika’s procedure has been postponed.

Reach for the Stars, by Annika Connor

Painting the Pain Away

Several months after her surgery and the onset of the nerve pain, Annika had a new idea for dealing with her chronic pain.

“I do live in my imagination a bit, and I do have a very imaginative approach to a lot of different things, but I honestly thought—I genuinely believed it—I thought that maybe it just wants me to paint it, just to put it on the canvas,” she says.

In June 2019, a gallery that she frequently works with, The Untitled Space in Tribeca, New York, held a group exhibition called “IRL: Investigating Reality,” in which artists shared their interpretations of “real life” in contrast to a fictional or idealized account of life.

“At the time, my reality was pain; I was in the heat of it all,” Annika says. “I thought that maybe my pain just wants to be painted and once it gets painted it will go away. So, I went into the studio and did this pain painting that was very much like a self-portrait of me feeling pain.”

Annika took the opportunity to showcase her pain through her art and created I Hurt All the Time (pictured at top). “I wanted to paint it in a way that the viewer could decide whether it was physical pain or emotional pain that the subject in the painting was experiencing,” she says.

And when the painting was completed, did her pain diminish?

“It didn’t work, it didn’t go away,” she laughs, “but I got a good painting.”

During the opening reception, Annika was still recovering from her injuries and could not stand for long periods of time, so the gallerist provided a chair. As she sat next to her displayed painting, with her leg brace and cane, she says that the reception became an unintended performative experience as friends and acquaintances began to reveal very personal stories about their own pain, such as ailments, car accidents, depression, and addiction, as they viewed her work.

“There must have been something about me being seated, and the piece being about pain, and the vulnerability that I was feeling by admitting the pain, that made people get really candid with me,” she says. “It was so beautiful, in a way—that rawness—and it spoke to another person. All the masks that people in the art world in New York City wear just faded away.”

After hearing intimate stories from so many others, Annika says that her own pain felt more manageable because she knew she was not alone in her suffering. “It ended up being a cathartic piece, even though it didn’t have the immediate intended effect that I had hoped that it would have,” she says. “It was very authentic and touching; I really appreciated it. I think I needed it at the time, and I think they needed it, too. It ended up being cathartic for other people.”

Twist of Fate, by Anikka Connor

 

Coping with Chronic Pain Using Creativity

The studio has been a place of solace for Annika where she is able to use the power of her imagination and creativity to help manage her chronic pain. “Painting through the pain was an obvious answer for me because I’m a painter,” she says. But she notes that “it might be a little harder door for some people to open because they’re not comfortable in that space all the time.”

Annika encourages people to tap into their creativity in any way that comes naturally for them, perhaps through music, art, crafts, etc., and suggests to not fear being an amateur in a field. She believes that even if you never share or look at your creations again, the effort is worthwhile because “just focusing on something else and taking it seriously in its moment—it’s served its purpose by giving you that time.”

Seeking happiness and making it a priority is important, too. “I think that happiness is something that you have to work for, and you have to seek it out, and you have to nourish it, and you have to create structures where you flourish,” she says.

This attitude toward positivity and harnessing creativity can help not only with chronic pain, but through any hard times. During the current stay-at-home orders, Annika gives as an example, when people are trying to cope with uncertainty and the daily “cold, hard, scary, facts” in the news about the COVID-19 pandemic, “you don’t get a break from it, and I think pain will do that, too—you keep getting hit with it and it doesn’t stop.” At these times, using your creative mind can be an indispensable step in coping.

“Giving yourself a moment to step away, to have a calm space to focus on something entirely different, is not only a valid use of your time, but I believe it’s an essential one, too,” she says.

Annika emphasizes the importance of the creative process over the result. It is the exploration of imagination and creativity that helps her manage her chronic pain, and this is the habit that she hopes to inspire in others.

“I think that the creative path for each individual is unique and no way is more valid than another,” she says. “Sometimes people think something isn’t worth their time or attention if it doesn’t have monetary significance or if it doesn’t have a point. I don’t think that creativity works that way. You have to let it be what it is. The point or the value of it is to be determined at a later time and inconsequential to the act of creating.

 

About Annika Connor

Primarily known as a Contemporary Romantic painter, Annika Connor her work uses strong symbolism and passionate imagery to ignite the imagination. Connor received a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Since then she has worked professionally as a painter in New York, London, and Stockholm while participating in numerous national and international exhibitions. Annika is Swedish-American and resides in Brooklyn, where she maintains an active studio. As a vocal activist and advocate for women’s rights, Annika Connor’s paintings often explore female identity and sexuality. In the studio, Annika Connor uses beauty as a hook to lure the viewer's eye while depicting imagery that can be either narrative or allegorical in nature. Annika Connor frequently exhibits in NYC’s The Untitled Space where she presents paintings that can vary in subject matter ranging from the confrontational and political to the sublime and seductive. See more of Annika Connor's paintings at: www.annikaconnor.com.

 
Updated on: 10/01/20
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