Artist and filmmaker Jon Aley explains his approach to pain and depression in the following article. He also discusses his short film, Moving in You (shown above), and how the process of making the film helped him to examine his pain experience. “At the core,” he says, was the “idea of forgetting myself and becoming a part of everything that was moving, which allowed me to leave my body and pain behind momentarily.”
Confronting Pain and Depression Through Art and Movement
BY JON ALEY
I have lived with pain for most of my life and have been to a number of doctors, but I still don’t have a diagnosis. My pain may have been the result of a traumatic head injury I had as a child. Growing up in a farming community, the doctors there knew how to fix broken bones and such, but they were baffled by my condition(s). When I started college, in addition to the pain and other conditions I had, I realized that I was also suffering from depression.
From the outside, people with pain, like me, often appear to be absolutely normal, so others frequently misinterpret what is happening and believe that the pain problem is “just in the mind.” Once, an old friend said to me, “Yes, of course you are depressed and filled with anxiety. Your body is in pain.” It was the first time I heard this and it changed my life. I began looking at my depression as a way that my body was slowing me down to deal with a situation that was beyond my ability to control. I used it as a time to rest and prepare for the work that needed to be done to begin my healing process.
When I was at my sickest, I went to counselors, saw many different types of doctors, learned several healing arts, studied diet and medicine, and listened to much advice. I learned a great deal in this period of my life and feel richer for it. Although I feel no regrets for the learning experiences along the way, in hindsight, I realize that I spent too much time looking for answers outside of myself. I was not focusing directly on the real problem, which was my inability to accept my pain, and the responsibility I had to confront and address it. One of the most important things I had to learn was how to develop the vocabulary to communicate what I was experiencing, particularly to healthcare professionals who were not willing to spend much time listening to me.
My first breakthrough in managing and addressing my pain and depression came when I began separating myself from the societal ideas and the judgments of others. I had to start looking inward at who I was and what I needed— and not be influenced by what others thought I should be or do. I had to accept my pain, the limitations of my lifestyle, and take responsibility for whatever my body was experiencing. I had to stop struggling against myself— and that was the hardest part.
My healing journey began when I realized that I had skills and talents that could be drawn upon to confront my pain. When I was in my early twenties, I began to paint and make films. I also began to explore ‘movement.’ I had always been a tactile person. There were times that I would put on a blindfold and experience the world through touch. I would feel my posture and other sensations changing in my body. Then, I met people doing dance and contact improvisation. Through them, my understanding of movement evolved. After that, I began studying the Feldenkrais method and took classes in cranial sacral therapy. From these methods, I gained an understanding of the liquid intelligence of my body and found that I was standing, holding my spine, and breathing wrong. I began working on correcting those things.
Creating and moving gave me a sense of freedom from the daily pain and anxiety I had been experiencing. You can call it focus, love, or connection with the self. Whatever you call it (and I still to this day don’t know exactly what to call it or where it comes from), the experience of this quality released me from the pain—sometimes only for a moment—but it gave me hope for something better. In those moments of relief, I remembered what it was like to just be normal. And normal felt amazing to me and was definitely something worth fighting and living for—even if the fight was much slower and much less dramatic than I wanted it to be.
Through my paintings, I was able to express stories of hope, possibilities of better places, and brighter futures. Through my film, Moving In You, I was able to look directly at what was happening to me. It helped me make some kind of sense out of the pain experience, in the present, no matter how hard it was to deal with. At the core, was the idea of forgetting myself and becoming a part of everything that was moving, which allowed me to leave my body and pain behind momentarily. I really think it helped. I am far healthier now than I was when I made the film. Looking at all of my struggles made me own them and truly incorporate them into my life, rather than hoping and praying that those pieces could just be miraculously cured and go away.
My message to others who suffer with pain is: relax, gain perspective and a clear understanding of what is going on in your body (even if it is several things), accept it, be patient with yourself, and work to find a vocabulary that others can understand even if the words do not yet exist. As people with pain, we need to shine the light on exactly what is happening to us so that others can understand that pain problems cannot, and should not, be generalized (even if the condition has a name), and that each person should be treated as an individual.
For the people on the outside, including clinicians, friends, and families of those in pain, try to look on with compassion and listen to what we pain sufferers are trying to communicate—even if it is scary reminder that we are all fragile and not immortal—because that is where the real understanding begins.
Jon Aley’s article is reprinted here with permission of the the author. It was originally published in The Pain Practitioner (2008), vol. 18. No. 2, p. 59.