Life with MS

The Life of an Artist with MS

By Hannah Celeste Garrison

I'm here to give you a little bit of insight into my own life as an artist who just happens to have MS. I currently live with RRMS and was diagnosed in the summer of 2017. I enjoy teaching art to people, in addition to using the arts as a tool for my own mental health management. As someone who has experienced various symptoms, to various degrees, I like to believe that I'm pretty well-rounded when it comes to my ability to relate to people's struggles with hobbies and fun activities. That's what I tell myself, anyway.

I volunteer as a support group leader as well, so being able to emphathize has been extremely helpful. It's already hard enough to live life to the fullest without an MS diagnosis, so the struggle is certainly far too real. I cope and deal with it as best as I can, and I never want to give in to the MonSter that lives inside my head and body.

I have dealt with a plethora of things that have quite literally stopped me in my tracks. My sense of time had been distorted, probably due to all of the symptoms that were increasing in severity and number over half of the year. Sometimes two weeks felt like two months. Fatigue and dizziness would prevent me from driving. Optic neuritis would distort the colors in my vision. It was such a startling thing for someone who took so much pride in being able to precisely recreate colors. Balance problems and motor function issues had me thinking I was just crazy. The MS hug literally took my breath away. (Yes, pun intended!)

Luckily for me, I am doing so much better. It is my belief that, to some small degree, a regular practice in art and helping others in similar predicaments has been important to my healing. In the months following my diagnosis, I had done as much reading as my brain could stand to do. I had read here and there that mindfulness and meditation were helpful to some people.

For others, practicing a hobby to the best of their ability, was important. I had read everywhere that a support system was important. All of this was easy to read, but at the time, I needed to figure out how to cope with my new predicament. My way of life was disrupted. Living life on my own terms seemed next to impossible at the time. How in the world is a fledgling artist supposed to navigate this and her career?

After all of that reading and pondering, I came to the conclusion that if I looked at the bigger picture, it would seem that taking life a little bit more easily, and with intention, was the core issue. Maybe an intentional way of living life was what my brain needed in order to calm down. I'd also read that the brain was capable of creating new neural pathways through practice and repitition. If there's something that I've learned over the years about making art, it's that practice and experiementation are paramount to progress. Maybe there was hope after all. 

I was finding that, in general, more and more people are looking to alternative, complementary therapies. Some people find solace in their spirituality. For some, their form of relief can be yoga, music, journaling, and so much more. A 2017 scientific publication states that "Previous research has demonstrated the benefits of the therapeutic arts (art therpay, dance and movement therapy, and music therapy) in addressing some of the physiological, cognitive, social, and spiritual needs of patients facing a variety of chronic illnesses." 

The act of making and doing art on a regular basis has lead me to feel some sense of accomplishment - even if the thing I am making doesn't initially look "good" or professional in any way. It's the fact that I did this. I made this. As long as I keep pushing through the longing to stop and give up, this thing I am making is contributing to my sense of control over my body and over my life. My life is now an abstraction of who I used to be before my diagnosis. My art needed to reflect that for my own sanity's sake. 

Here I will try to explain a little bit about what goes on in my mind when I am creating something. This, of course, all depends on my state of mind. If I have lately been feeling more of the cognitive issues like anxiety, lack of focus, or overall "haziness" in my brain, then I try to use more water-based mediums in which I can rely heavily on the medium to do the work for me. Watercolors and alcohol inks usually look so beautiful and lovely all on their own without too much effort when I first put color to paper. 

The first step is always the hardest.

Sometimes the anxiety takes over, and leaves me with more questions than action. Where do I start? What color should I use first? Do I use a brush, and should I scribble today? At that point, the best thing to do is just to do. Just do it. Put the color on the paper. Watch and see what happens next if you let your hand go. Play with a brushstroke, or a scribble with a crayon, and see where it lands on the paper. From there, take a deep breath and keep going.

You're here and this art project is part of your health journey. What if, at the end of it, you feel like the colors didn't match or didn't make sense? At that moment in time when you were making it, you needed that color. You needed that brushstroke. So let it be. These are the kinds of things I tell myself. 

So much of the art-making process requires your full attention. One needs to be able to pay attention to everything that your hand is doing. If using a crayon, how hard should you press down? If using a brush, can you blend two colors together? What happens when you water down your water colors? Be present with your tools and ask yourself questions in the process. One can even say that doing art is an act of mindfulness. By doing art, you are being mindful with your project and with the use of your time. 

Furthermore, if there's too much numbness or hand shakiness going on, then let it be. There were times when I had to tell myself that my hand will do what it wants, but that doesn't mean I should stop. I didn't want to give up or give in. Perhaps I was being stubborn, but I just couldn't let the MonSter win and have its way with me. I had to believe that over time my brain would make some more neuropathways and that, with practice, I would relearn what I had lost.

I'm still working towards it, but I can happily say that I do feel like I gained some new ways of doing what used to come so easily to me. A lot of my artwork involves repitition and repeating the same kind of thing again and again. I have a little secret, actually. A lot of times, I will just repeat a simple pattern, or a simple type of flower. I have a small arsenal of line types and pattern types that I use many, many times. This prevents me from inventing the wheel every single time I sit down to make art, all while allowing me creative freedom to mix and match lines and colors as I please. 

I mention specifically cognitive issues and hand issues for a reason. These are very often the symptoms that patients find to be a roadblock for their enjoyment of the arts. Oftentimes when I work with a patient in the hospital, they might mention that they have a trembling hand that just won't work for them. It's a frustrating experience for these individuals.

I often like to consider these things when trying to come up with project ideas for people with different abilities. I don't have any kind of professional traning with regards to occupational therapies, physical therapies, or the like. I do, however, have the experience of being a person with MS that tried so hard to take back a sense of normalcy.

When working with a patient on an art project, I will always choose a project that I think they may enjoy based on their ability and then be the best advocate possible for them. So much of what goes on in my head requires me to be my own cheerleader. Nobody is going to cure me. MS will make you feel all alone in your diagnosis, simply for the fact that everyone responds differently to their disease, their treatments, etc. So, at a certain point, one absolutely needs to become their own advocate. 

I needed to do what was right for me. The same applies for art-making. An artist needs to be their own cheerleader, and truly needs to do the work they feel is necessary for them. You won't really find my artwork in galleries these days. At least not the regular artist's galleries, and I'm far too interested in healing myself at the present moment. I'm also much more intrested in seeing what I can bring to the table as someone with a skill that I have been able to turn around and use to help other people. 

Many people with MS may be able to relate to me when I say that, I felt entirely useless as a once-productive member of society. Like so many others, I would work 40-50-hour work weeks. Because of art, I have been able to find suitable-for-now balance in life, in which I can make a living off of my own disease. You can even say that this is my own way of flipping the bird directly at my MS. It makes me so happy to do so. 

Join Hannah Garrison for virtual, interactive workshops and be ready to your own art with simple supplies you have on hand. Her workshops are held on Zoom every Monday at 7 p.m., Eastern, 6 p.m. Central, 5 p.m. Mountain, and 4 p.m. Pacific. To register, visit, select the 'health & wellness' category, and pick a class!