Jennifer Walker, of San Antonio, Texas, lives with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and axial spondyloarthritis. She’s a computer software engineer by day, but her passion is her art — a medium through which she can uniquely convey what it’s like to physically and emotionally cope with chronic pain.
We asked Jennifer, who is also a Patient Governor adviser to our ArthritisPower research registry, to share some of her most poignant pieces in a series we’re publishing called Arthritis Through Art.
The piece below is part of a project Jennifer is doing on fatigue in chronic illness, after a series of health mishaps led her to experience debilitating fatigue earlier this year.
Piece: ‘The Black Drain’
Medium: Digital art
What aspect of fatigue were you trying to capture in this specific piece of art?
Fatigue often feels like a black, murky substance that flows in and out of me. It sucks me down to the ground. It drains me of any energy to get things accomplished. It pulls on my ability to think clearly. When it fills me up, it becomes the dominant force in my body. But it also drains me of who I am because all I can do is barely manage it until I can get some rest. I wanted to portray the fluidity of fatigue in this piece. The level of fatigue in my body rises and falls. I cannot predict it or guarantee it from day to day.
Can you describe what’s happening in this piece of art?
This non-gendered person is lying down — almost like a rag doll thrown on the ground. They are looking up to the sky for mercy that does not come, while the black substance of fatigue sucks them to the ground, making it impossible to move or do anything else but be vulnerable. The black liquid is filling up the person but also draining them as it rolls away from the body as if it were a shadow so that no one would recognize it without close inspection.
The figure portrayed is inspired by Charis Hill, a friend of mine who has ankylosing spondylitis (a type of arthritis that is related to axial spondyloarthritis). Charis, who is an important AS advocate, was my muse throughout this whole process. I used photos of Charis’s body and chose poses to express the pieces I was working.
How do you feel when you see this piece now?
I feel the dark days of fatigue I have experienced for several months now. I remember the long hours lying in bed in a dark room with the light of the TV shining on my body and bringing my only human connection. I remember the inability to even get on social media because typing with my fingers took too much physical and mental response. I remember thinking and wondering and asking if it would ever end.
How do you hope other people (chronic illness patients or not) respond to this piece?
I just wanted to show what that dark pit of exhaustion felt like for me. I think each person’s response will be automatic and visceral. The black and white will be striking and evocative in a different way for each person.
What has creating this piece taught you about coping with fatigue?
To give in and rest when my body demands it. It is okay to be sad and in a dark place. Depression and sadness come with this level of exhaustion. It helped me to admit how much I need help and that I need to better communicate that when I am in such a dark place. Recognizing that will help me in the future.