Arts·Point of View

What it's like trying to make art when you've had a migraine for three months straight

Doctors don't know when Heather Buchanan's migraine will end — so she's learning to live and create with it.

Doctors don't know when Heather Buchanan's migraine will end — so she's learning to live and create with it

(Heather Buchanan)

In the spring, as the weather warmed and restrictions eased, people flocked outside to be with each other. Social media flooded with hikes and picnics and patios, budding flowers and re-budding friendships.

But I stayed inside. In the dark. In the quiet. Trying to figure out how to make art, a living, and a life with constant searing pain.

On April 26th, I got what felt like a regular migraine. I expected it to just go away, as all migraines eventually do. But it didn't. The pain persisted day after day, through Tylenol, triptans, edibles, and IV drips.

A few weeks later, I had a neurologist and a diagnosis: Status Migrainosus with intermittent Hemiplegia. It's basically a single migraine that forgets to end, and can last for weeks or even years. The auras are severe, blazing through my vision like a laser light show, never giving me a clear look at the world. Hemiplegia means that sometimes the right side of my body goes numb, and my mind gets fuzzy. I'll forget my own phone number and lose to my husband at Jeopardy.

It's not great.

(Heather Buchanan)

For the first few weeks I didn't make much art. I avoided my studio. I was anxious and mourning my health. And heck, it felt like there was a demolition derby in my head.

When you're sick, time gets sucked into the vortex of treatment. I'd have all these appointments on top of a daily pain-management routine, and all the time spent researching, commuting, and waiting outside the pharmacy for yet another ineffective drug, wearing dark sunglasses and a grimace. It doesn't leave much room for an expansive art practice.

The few things I made were quick and lazy, low-commitment drawings in front of the TV. I suppose anything you can make with a migraine is a win. It was a hard time, and these perfunctory scraps were the best I could do.

Somewhere under the laziness, there was a growing craving to get back in the studio, to a real practice. Mixed into the throbbing pain was a deeper desire for real creative fulfilment.

It wasn't about needing to make "serious" art. But there's value in giving space and attention to even the silliest idea. And slouching on the couch between appointments, with Too Hot to Handle in the background, isn't exactly honouring the process.

So I started tapering off treatment and taking back my life. If this migraine won't leave, I can't spend all my time trying to evict it. I have to learn to live with my unruly tenant.

(Heather Buchanan)

When I finally got back in the little 70-square-foot bedroom I use as a studio — about two months after the migraine started — it was a stagnant mess. Oil paint was dried to my palette, half-finished paintings leaned all around, and my studio plant sulked by the window refusing to make eye contact. And who could blame it?

So I eased back in. I bought a diffuser to fill the air with peppermint oil. I tidied. I swept. I watered the plant, and apologized to it profusely. I tucked away all the paintings I'd started before the migraine. I scraped the crusty paint off my palette, and squeezed on fresh oily globs.

Now all I had to do was remember how to make art.

And decide what to make.

And figure out how to make it with a pounding head.

(Heather Buchanan)

I'm no stranger to tackling these questions, but this was different. The part of my body I rely on to come up with these answers is the exact part of my body that isn't working: my dang brains.

That's absolutely the toughest part: how much it hurts to think. No matter what painkillers I take, trying to force a thought through my mind feels like trying to swallow a porcupine whole. Even writing this sentence is like gently massaging my cerebral cortex with a belt sander.

I hadn't realized how blessed I was before this. My mind playfully riffed and schemed, offering me juicy little threads to pull on. Now, it's like the ideas are still in there — they're just far away and limping.

But I have managed, at last, to spend a little time sitting at my easel smooshing paint around. I haven't made anything of consequence, but I've lovingly completed a couple small and tender failures that the world will mercifully never see.

And thankfully, in the process, I've figured a couple things out.

(Heather Buchanan)

I know that whatever I make, I have to keep it loose. Tension only increases the pain. When something's not working, I've got to let it go. I literally cannot stress. And honestly, I'm not mad about that.

I know that I can't overthink. Heck, I can't even medium-think. Thoughts hurt. I have to make art from places other than my brain. It's got to come from my guts, my heart, my spleen, who knows. I have to trust whatever emerges without doubting myself. I'm not mad about that, either.

I know that I can't waste time anymore. My capacity is so reduced with fatigue, I can't muck about with perfectionism. I've got to paint something once and move on. And you know what, usually it's good enough the first time.

I also know that I will figure this out. I've already learned to do things with a migraine I never thought possible. With pain and auras so intense that I used to cower in the dark, I can now carry on simple conversations, go for short walks, and write semi-coherent articles for CBC Arts. And that's pretty nifty.

So even if I don't have many answers yet, I'll keep on smooshing paint around, and slowly, something will come of it. Because that's just what happens when you keep going.


Heather Buchanan is an artist in Calgary whose work jogs through mediums to explore ways of coping with the odd world around us. Companies such as Simon and Schuster, Virgin, and Netflix have hired Heather for various artistic projects, and she has illustrated an award-winning cover for the Globe and Mail. But most of the time she’s just on her own, drawing pictures and writing stories, trying to make herself smile. You can follow her on Instagram @heatherbuchanan, TikTok @heatherpaints, and Twitter @heatherfuture.

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