AS MEDICINE? OR MY SHAMANIC OPERATION
always had a lot of trouble with the medical profession.
As a child with an unusual condition, I went
on twice yearly trips to St. Bartholomew's Hospital
in London to see eminent surgeon Sir Somebody-or-Other
and be prodded by his pointer in front of what seemed
like a hundred white-coated medical students.
Afternoon tea with icecream didn't quite make up for
the feeling of being a small and frightened non-person.
At 14, a hundred miles away from home in a plastic surgery
ward full of people seriously mangled by car
crashes and fires, I was given an operation that nobody
had thought to tell me about which I came round
from unable to walk. A couple of years later, a gynaecologist,
while giving me an internal examination,
asked me if I'd "always been so fat". There
were other incidents- by the time I was 20 I'd had it
doctors and since then have avoided the medical profession
like the plague. Apart from having a
baby in hospital, which was more of the same and a big
mistake (not the baby!) I've gone to
alternative health practitioners.
this is the background. Over the years I'd been developing
a lump on my knee: a subcutaneous
cyst, benign, quite squishy and ignorable except that
it kept getting bigger. Since I've been doing
"process drawing" I work on the floor and
in a particularly creative period a couple of years
ago the lump
on my knee really started to hurt. By this time it was
about an inch in diameter. So... I started to draw
what it felt like, something inside seemed to be pressing
to get out. What emerged were lots of strange
creatures, almost snakes and birds, and a porcupine,
enmeshed in viscera and in earthy colours:
yellow ochre, rusty orange, dried blood red, but something
sunny and jolly about them too. While
I was doing it, I wondered if I drew and worked with
it enough, the cyst would disappear of its own
Meanwhile I went to a doctor who sent me to a surgeon,
who reminded me of Sir Somebody-or-Other
who was non-committal when I asked if I could have a
local anaesthetic as I react badly to generals.
When the appointment arrived from hospital, indicating
I was to have a general anaesthetic I thought,
"Sod this, I can live with a lump on my knee,"
and cancelled it.
So I did live with it. Until I moved to Edinburgh and
was recommended a good GP because by this
time with "real" health problems, I needed
blood tests. I was very impressed with this doctor.
me like an intelligent human being and on my first appointment,
noticing on my form that I was an artist,
used the analogy of water-colour painting to explain
something about my symptoms. I had the feeling
that if I'd been a brickie, it would have been mixing
mortar. After another strenuous bout of crawling
around the floor drawing, I mentioned the cyst in passing
to this doctor. He wiggled it about and said,
"I can deal with that in my small operations' clinic
- it doesn't appear to be attached to anything."
A few days before the operation I got out the drawing
of the cyst and got to know it again - working
into some of the figures, making adjustments, pondering
the words: "cut out, cut open, cut away."
than "getting rid of", they seemed to be more
about freeing or letting go of something.
The surgery was strangely quiet when I turned up for
my appointment, everyone appeared to be out
for the afternoon. We went into the nurses' room and
I lay back and put my trust in the doctor.
I liked his quiet, deft manner and the way he explained
what he was doing. The several injections
of local anaesthetic around my kneecap were painful.
After they'd taken, the doctor got busy cutting
and I felt confident that this would be quickly over,
imagining my knee being cleanly sliced open and
this squishy ball popping out intact.
After a while it became apparent that this wasn't to
After an even longer while, I started to sweat and the
doctor explained that, in fact, the cyst was
attached to a large blood vessel and many small capillaries.
I knew the anaesthetic wouldn't last long.
I felt the doctor sweating too - under his reassuring
felt afraid and started to panic. "Relax, relax,"
I was saying to myself, when I remembered my picture.
The atmosphere changed. Suddenly the air was thick with
something else. Strange birds were flying around my
head and a snake was coiled protectively around my leg.
They were both deeply reassuring and
changed. There was infinite time, the anglepoise bathed
us in holy light. There was a deep
velvety silence. Together, my doctor and I, working
in partnership, were cutting out the cyst, he
with his knowledgeable fingers and scalpel and I with
my retinue of shamanic creatures.
cyst was a strange, white and bloody thing that I wanted
to take home and prod - curious about
something that had been living with me for so long but
it was destined for the lab. For some
odd reason I couldn't find a bus or a cab and walked
the one and a half miles home - it seemed
part of the process.
I had wondered if drawing might get rid of the cyst,
which it kind of did but in a surprising way - for it
helped me to have a positive experience with a doctor.
My past experiences had left me feeling
disempowered and unable to stand up for myself - yet
here I was co-operating (!) with
a member of the medical profession in creating my better
Such is the power of art! (And good doctors!)
O'CONNOR - BIOGRAPHY
Kirsty O'Connor is a self-taught artist, activist and
parent living in Edinburgh. She believes in
creativity as an agent of radical change, both inner
and outer. She studies Process Oriented
Psychology in relation to the creative process and is
artist-in-residence on a unique mental
health project at a hospital in southern England. She
works mainly in pastels and charcoal,
exploring altered states, symptoms, sexuality and other
levels of reality. She also creates
books and publications.