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Being sick helped me learn to paint

Oil paint became my companion in 2019. I had no goal in mind other than to give myself something else to think about. I didn’t want to think about why I was housebound, mostly, and frustrated that my regular life had dissolved.

I forgot how to swallow. Honestly, I didn’t know you could forget. Swallowing is like breathing, right? Automatic. You’re hungry so you eat. And so many of us do that.

There were lots of tests over two years. Xrays, swallow studies, cameras down my throat while I was knocked out. No one could really tell me why I couldn’t eat.

When I take a sip of water, I have to stop and think about it. I consciously hold the water in my mouth, check in with all the systems, and ping my tongue and my muscles for a response. Are we good? Can we do this? If the answer is yes, then I move forward. Sometimes, despite moving forward, nothing happens. The team doesn’t get the signal and water trickles down my throat without an escort, wandering like a lost child into my airway or up my nose.

A good six months of this struggle, where food became my enemy, weight loss was inevitable. On the plus side, I saved a lot of money by no longer supporting my local restaurants. My struggle to swallow involved facial grimaces and weird noises I couldn’t control. But my bones were becoming more prominent, age and wrinkles set in, and getting calories became a downright desperate effort. I was dehydrated and starving to death.

By September 2019 I was back in the hospital to get a feeding tube put in. Apparently this is fairly common protocol for preemie babies who can’t swallow, cancer patients, and stroke victims. But I was none of these.

Don’t read this part if you are squeamish:

While I was having a lovely nap thanks to an IV with propofol, they cut a small hole in my stomach and popped in a piece of clear hose held on by a button on the outside and a balloon on the inside to keep it secure. It allowed me to bypass the swallowing fiasco and deliver food directly into the tube as long as it is liquid.

Meanwhile I have been in training to get the team back on board again so I could eat like a normal human being. We dialed in a speech therapist to help me relearn and rewire my brain. And I started taking a small dose of an anti-anxiety med to turn down the volume on my fear. I’m not sure it’s helping, but it’s not hurting either.

It was during this time that I picked up a brush to paint. I had zero brains for paying work, which normally includes website design and managing real estate investments.  These are things I love, actually, but I just couldn’t concentrate. Instead I stocked up on oil paints and canvases, set up an easel, and started to work, using my stock of photographs from my travels as inspiration.

Every day I learn something new with oil paint. What are the best brushes for fine detail? How should I highlight or add shadows? What medium is best? Which materials are good for impasto? So far, I have broken rules and learned new ones, soaking up a good portion of online intelligence from the art community. I’m grateful for that.

And so I decided to share what I’ve been doing with a website.

As of this writing, I was able to get the tube out, thanks in part to the meditative affect of painting. I can report that my brain is doing a reasonable job of rewiring itself – with some amount of effort –  and I can eat and drink in public without too much humiliation. I In fact, I don’t care anymore if I look funny when I’m eating because it’s better than the alternative. Being stricken with a mystery illness has given me the gift of painting, which I spend time at daily, whether good or bad.



Nancy Conrad

Nancy Conrad