What I’m about to tell you is deeply personal, and I’ve avoided writing this column for a few years. But I’m at the point where I feel the need to write about the ways in which pain has come to shape and dominate my every waking moment so my friends know why they rarely see me in public anymore.
I take a shitload of painkillers every day, not because they’re fun, but simply because I can’t stand or walk without them. I’ve been in pain on a 24/7/365 basis since 2003, and recently I’ve been experiencing new pain in my left side ass, hip, and leg. The physical pain is one thing, but its effect on my psychology is by far the hardest part of daily life.
I’ve come to dread waking up each day, despite the fact that I have my dream job and a loving family. When I open my eyes, I begin the process of assessing my physical state to see what kind of day it’s going to be. On a good day, I experience pain in the 3-4 range (on a scale of 1 to 10), and that’s with taking painkillers. On the majority of my days. that level ranges from 6-8.
What is my 3-4 level like? It’s the equivalent of being kicked in the thigh or having my foot stomped on. My 6-8 feels like that stomping and kicking has resulted in a fracture.
I used to love my physicality and what my body was capable of doing. I enjoyed running and working out, playing hockey and making love. Painting was fun back then, and on a good day it remains so, but in order to “get there”, I have to take a double dose of painkillers every three hours, which means my next day is shot due to simple math–if I take enough painkillers to paint, I have none left for the following day.
So that pain in the ass I mentioned is literal. Far more importantly, it’s also a pain in my mind.
Pain wears you down over time, and after fifteen years, I feel worn out. I’m tired all of the time, as pain affects my ability to sleep. I wake up every two or three hours because the pain doesn’t recede when I’m asleep. Added to this is the worry that any new pain could be a sign that cancer is recurring. I’m currently being tested to find out if the new pain I’m experiencing is cancer related, or if it’s just more fallout from my previous cancers. Either way, it’s just that much more to deal with.
Depression has become a part of my daily life, too. Ironically, depression just ramps up the physical pain, because it weakens my ability to fight through the physical aspect, and vice versa. It’s a nasty loop, one that has narrowed my world to dog walks and painting.
This isn’t a cry for help or sympathy, but rather an update to explain my reticence to make firm plans for any kind of social life with friends. It’s also not an invitation for people to come over for a visit, because I’m not up for a visit unless I ask you over. Again, think of this column as an update. Writing about it helps me get my frustrations out of my system for a while, and hopefully it will help explain my hermit-like lifestyle.
Now it’s time to walk the dog and get back to painting. Thanks for listening.
My journey through art and life has been marked by many “interruptions”. Between my battles with alcoholism, drug addictions, a couple of encounters with cancer, and a few heart attacks, it’s been a bumpy road, and it has impacted my life and my career in many direct and indirect ways. As a result, I arrived at the half century mark last year very much as an outlier in the world of art and in life itself. If it weren’t for the internet, I could easily be seen to be a hermit by now.
The fallout from those interruptions coninues to not only affect my life, but to shape it–and it does so to a larger degree than I like to admit. Each morning, I awake and begin to take stock of how my body feels. That’s because of the constant, chronic pain I experience throughout my lower body as a result of the spinal cord injury I was left with from my second battle with cancer. That pain fluctuates, sometimes to the point that I’m incapacitated from it even with the industrial sized dosages of pain medications I rely on just to be able to walk. On those occassions, the fear of relapse that lurks in the back of all cancer survivors kicks in, too. Needless to say, this combination plays havoc with my mental state, as does the delicate dance I perform with my pain medications.
As someone who has addictions issues, I’m constantly engaged in a balancing act when it comes to the small arsenal of meds I have at my disposal for dulling the various sensations I experience in my hips, legs, and feet. I take gabapentin and cyclobenzeprene on a daily basis without worry, but when I have elevated levels of pain, I have to rely on codeine and hydromorphone (morphine in pill form). And that’s where things can get tricky if I let my guard down. To help you understand this issue, a short history of my personal background is needed.
Throughout the late 1970s, the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a heavy user of both alcohol and street drugs. My drugs of choice were hashish, LSD, amphetemenes, and anything belonging to the opiate class of narcotics. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-nine, I was on a rollercoater ride through life. The craziest thing about that blurry period is that I pretty much managed to get away with my lifestyle without paying any immediate price for my choices and actions. School came easy for me, and I continued to play sports and music while at school. I was offered a scholarship to study music at Queen’s University, and gradauted with relatively high marks (I think my graduating average was 88%). I was also approached by scouts from the OHL until I told them to fuck off when I was fifteen, ending my prospective hockey career–which was no big loss for the hockey world, as I was valued for my pugilistic skills as much as my work as a defence-oriented right winger.
untitled, ongoing, 2015
I was also readily accepted at the art schools I applied to following high school. In all,, I dropped in and out of three art schools and two other universities before abandoning any further attempts at academia. Throughout this period, I supported myself by working in bars and restaurants, which is a big part of the reason I managed to continue feeding my habits. Back then, a lot of the people who I worked with in the industry mainained habits and a lifestyle similar to my own. In those pre-corporate days, a lot of people I worked with wound up in the business because, like me, they had fallen through a few of the cracks in their suburban upbringing. Bars and restaurants used to be the place many functioning alcoholics and drug dependent/addicted people found employment, because back in the days before celebrity chefs and tv stations dedicated to food and cooking shows, service industry employment was considered to be less a career choice and more the result of academic or career failure. If you bombed out of school, or if you weren’t cut out for a career in one of the traditional professions or trades, you knew you could always find work in a kitchen or behind a bar as long as you could keep your habits to a minimum during working hours.
Which is how I became a lifer in the industry.
From my first shift as a dhiswasher at Chez Piggy during my high school years, I was hooked. In addition to being surrounded by a few people with similar habits, I also found myself in the company of aspiring musicians, artists, and actors, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I had found my own vrsion of home. As I dropped in and out of schools in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Montreal, I continued working in restaurants and bars, until I found my best bartending gig at The Only Cafe, Too, in Peterborough, Ontario in 1990. It’s still going, and is owned by a Jerome and Charon Ackhusrt, a couple who met at acting school in England. They opened The Only (as it is commonly known) around thre weeks before I began working there, and within a couple of weeks, I knew I was going to be working there for the long run. My employers were accomodating of not only my alcohol and drug use, but of everything that came with that territory, in large part because I could work from 8:30 in the morning until closing time at 1:00 (and later, 2:00) a.m. without, for the most part, getting too far out of control.
It was an amazing time in my life. For the first time I was making a lot of money, and I was again surrounded by artists of all kinds. We basically had the run of The Only and of the emerging core of Peterborough’s downtown core. There was an experimental theatre a half block from work, and there was a large and nationally prominent parallel art gallery, ArtSpace (part of a national network of artist run galleries), that granted me a residency during the summer and fall of 1991, kick starting my career as a local artist. Beteen 1990 and 1993, I continued to paint, exhibiting my work in Peterborough and Toronto, while continuing to work at The Only. I also fell in love during that time, becoming engaged in 1992. Yet throughout those years, I continued drinking my face off and doing whatever drugs I could find.
That feeling of home stayed with me when my lifestyle inevitably caught up with me. After losing everything I valued–my fiance, my job, and my self-respect– and hitting bottom, I cleaned myself up with a great deal of help from my friend and colleague Rocky Green and his late partner Bert Thompson. And around a half year later, I managed to get my bartending job at The Only Cafe, Too, back. I was still working there, as a sober husband and father when I was diagnosed with cancer in both 1999 and 2004.
The second encounter with cancer changed everything.
Due to the spinal cord injury caused by the tumor that surrounded my spinal cord within the vertebrae running from my L4 vertebra to the bottom of my spine, I have greatly reduced mobility and chronic neuropathic pain in my lower body, as well as a correspondingly limited time I can remain on my feet at any given time. Because of this, and because my physiotherapy took 2 1/2 years to regain my strength and coordination, I was unable to return to my job at The Only. Between 2007 and 2011, I worked part-time at a small pub that afforded me shorter shifts, but by 2011, I could no longer continue my work as a bartender due to increasing pain. But considering I was expected to lose my left leg back in 2004 even if I could beat very long odds (less than 15%) just to survive, I’m doing ok.
Fortunatly for me, 2011 is when I started selling work on a more or less regular basis, and it’s allowed me to pursue painting on a full time basis. But even so, I have to manage my pain, working with and around it in order to get work done. And part of that includes my dance with codeine and morphine.
I was fortunate to have been referred to a pain management specialist in Kingston a few years ago, and to have been able to address with him the issues that come with my history of drug abuse. Over the course of a couple of years, we settled on my current doses for both drugs. I have just enough of those two drugs to compliment the high doses of gabapentin and cyclobenzeprene I take three times a day, but even so, this means I have a daily prescription 120 mg of codeine and 8mg of morphine available to me. My approach takes into account three main factors.
The first factor is centered on dog walking. We have a two year old husky/German shepherd, which gets me out walking most days, an activity that is good for me in many ways, not the least of which is in helping to regulate my neuropathy while also scheduling and accounting for part of my intake of codeine and morphine. For each walk, I take 30-60mg of codeine and 2 mg of morphine. Following the walk, I go to work in the studio, taking advantage of the added pain relief to get on with painting. Sometimes I have to continue to take codeine and morphine in an affort to extend my working time, sometimes not. The danger I have with taking additional opioids is that they act as both a pain reliever and a stimulant of sorts for me, as I don’t feel the fatigue many people experience when taking such drugs, and if I’m on a particularly good run during one of these sessions, I can easily find myself awake and working for anywhere from 24-60 hurs at a stretch, follwing which I will sleep for up to 16 hours. Though this isn’t my usual working method, it is als not uncommon.
The second factor is simply gauging my pain and deciding whether or not opiods are necessary. As much as is possible, I try to avoid taking opiods for anything more than walking the dog, and I have a rule that I can’t take them for more than four days straight–including dog walks. Even so, there’s a yoyo effect on my mental state that comes with the territory of opiod use for managing my pain. But given that the alternative is to be rendered immobile, I’ll take my chances with the opiods. It’s a calculated risk, but there you go.
The third factor is the knowledge that comes from experience. I know there will be days, sometimes stretching for 3-4 days at a time, during which my pain level will be severe, so I ensure I keep as many doses in reserve as is possible for those occassions.
So why am I telling you all of this?
Mainly to give you an idea of my rather picaresque history, because that history influences my approach to painting by influencing the subjects and technical/formal approaches I choose for my paintings, just as it influences my thinking about the nature of consciousness itself. The people, places, and objects that inhabit my paintings all have personal significance for me, more so now that my mobility is limited, and they help me in my efforts to make paintings that, I hope, encourage and reward repeated exposure.
It’s taken me a long time to become a full time painter.
I spent close to three decades working in the bar business to support my painting habit, during which time I dropped in and out of three art schools before establishing my own studio practice. I have since had numerous gallery and cafe exhibitions in cities and towns across four provinces, but only modest commercial success. My painting (and bartending) career and overall life were interrupted and significantly impacted by two run-ins with cancer during those years, and I continue to be affected by a spinal cord injury related to my second encounter with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I mention these things as background for what’s been going on in my mind lately, for what it is I’m trying to let go of, and for what changes I’m trying to embrace and move toward.
It has now been three years since I left the life of a bartender behind me to concentrate exclusively on painting, during which time I’ve been regularly selling enough work to remain increasingly gainfully self-employed. I’m encouraged by the response my work has received since I began making use of social media to widen and increase my potential and actual commercial audience during the last couple of years, but it’s time to jump back into the world of galleries and social connectivity. More importantly, it’s time to take my show on the road to see what kind of reception it gets from audiences consisting (mostly) of strangers.
This means getting busier, and it means continuing to learn from and challenge myself with each painting I make, building an ongoing body of work that will reflect the standards I have set for myself as I enter what I consider to be the prime and fully mature years of my life and career. I want my work to have greater impact and more substance, to contain birth and death within each drawing and painting I make, and to convey these and other qualities with an elegance born of blunt honesty. And I want it to be beautiful even when it’s not. I want my paintings to outlive me, metaphorically and physically. I want them to matter after I’m gone gone gone.
I want to extend/expand my online presence, and to arrange gallery exhibitions in both Peterborough and Toronto for 2015 and 2016. I want to be pushed by external as well as internal forces. To that end, I’m currently finishing the last few paintings that will go into the updated exhibition proposals I’m putting together for upcoming exhibition seasons. Details will appear later this year as events unfold. Stay tuned!
As I wrote in last week’s column, I find myself entering 2015 with a revived sense of potential and purpose as a result of the ongoing and emotionally fulfilling catharsis that occurred throughout 2014. A good part of this optimism is grounded in the partial but increased relief from chronic pain I have been experiencing as a result of renewing massage therapy following a required ten year cancer related ban on such pain management treatments. The rest of that optimism is the result of what’s been coming out of the studio since I began painting full-time, and of the increased enjoyment I am having with the work and the medium itself. Time is the luxury that has begun infusing my process and work, and that’s an avenue I want to quietly explore in everything I do this year.
And I want to do a lot. More painting, more loving, more living. Having shed so much of the emotional fallout triggered by last year’s journey down the rabbit hole, I look forward to approaching the studio and life in general with a different, positive, and more focussed outlook and energy. I want to continue working in genres ranging from still life and landscapes to portraits and abstracts, but I also want to work toward a new formal approach that is a synthesis of my work in all of those modes. I also want to play with the medium more to find out what it and I are capable of doing together.
It’s go time.