When I was 21, I was finally on the brink of “making it”.
After developing an injury in my hand that made it too painful for me to draw, I had to let my illustration dreams go. Although I’ve never been a sporty girl, I could suddenly relate to the elite athletes who had to quit their profession after an unexpected injury.
It was devastating, because ever since I could remember my identity and future had been built around becoming Carla The Illustrator.
Art wasn’t something I did on the side; it was my life and obsession. My bedroom was overflowing with sketchbooks, loose drawing paper and art supplies. I always had bits of paint and ink on my clothes and hands.
That’s why it was so hard to let it all go. Even now, almost 10 years after I stopped illustrating, it still bothers me that I’m not drawing any more.
Watch: Aussie celebrities reveal their secret talent. (Post continues after video.)
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve planned to “make a comeback” and optimistically purchased a sketchbook, only to panic once I saw all the blank pages. I’ve tried everything – digital illustration, drawing exercises, life drawing classes, creativity courses – but nothing can bring back the excitement, peace and love I used to feel while drawing.
I was in my final year of design school when I first realised something was wrong with my drawing hand, my precious right hand. I was working on my final major project and often spent up to 18 hours a day illustrating. It was normal for my hand to hurt a bit after drawing, but this time around the pain wouldn’t go away.
By the time I graduated and began freelancing, drawing for even a couple of minutes would hurt. I began to get other symptoms, too – numbness in some fingers, a tingling in my hand, a searing pain that shot up my arm and into my shoulder. I started to drop things, because my grip had become so poor. Ordinary activities like doing the dishes and washing my hair began to hurt.
It was hurting too much to draw so I decided to stop. Illustration work was hard to come by, so it all seemed a bit too convenient for me to give up my passion. Maybe I was just sick of it, and wanted a change. The doubt that had always niggled away at me loomed larger: maybe I just wasn’t very good.
Two physiotherapists diagnosed me with carpal tunnel syndrome, a form of repetitive stress injury. The compression of a major nerve in my wrist was causing my painful symptoms, and they prescribed me with a series of exercises for my hand. One made me wear a bandage, which did nothing. I even took to wearing a wrist brace constantly for several months.
Eventually I visited a hand surgeon, and during our first consultation she refused to believe I could have carpal tunnel syndrome. “You’re too young,” she told me. “Most people don’t get it until they’re in their 40s.” (Post continues after gallery.)
I knew this, but I’d done my research and I knew I had the specific symptoms. I begged her to consider me seriously. The surgeon relented, and sent me for some nerve testing. When the results came in, she was astounded: I had carpal tunnel syndrome.
Months later, I underwent a carpal tunnel release. My post-recovery plan was to re-train as an art teacher and work on my illustration career on the side. I hoped that by the time my degree ended, I would have built up enough paid work that I could be a full-time illustrator. Teaching was only a back-up plan.
The surgery had rid me of the extreme pain. My surgeon told me my hand would never be completely pain-free, and so if I try to draw for more than an hour, my hand will start hurting.
Yet while my hand had been fixed, something else wasn’t working properly: both my motivation to draw, and my love for it, were gone.
I'd assumed that if the surgery fixed the pain in my hand, I could go back to happily drawing and painting and imagining. It was with sinking dread that I realised it wasn’t going to be like that at all.
I had plenty of opportunities to pick up a pencil, paintbrush or even use Photoshop, but I procrastinated. Whenever I got around to making an artwork, I’d be seized with a feeling of panic and fear. I couldn’t get into a state of “flow” while making art. I wasn’t interested, and I didn’t enjoy it any more.
I desperately wanted to do something, but for some reason I couldn’t. Sometimes I wonder if, deep down, I didn’t want to be an illustrator any more and my injury had become a convenient excuse.
Whatever the reason, I’m still trying to regain the fervour I had for illustration. I still love visiting galleries and I adore looking at and reading about art. Carla The Illustrator must be in there somewhere.
Watching my creative, toddler daughter create artworks with abandon has inspired me to be the creative person I know I am inside.
The only thing I’ve ever done consistently in my adult life is blogging but I always feel like more of an artist, despite the fact that I haven’t made art in a dedicated manner for almost a decade.
When you’ve had the same focus, love and identity from childhood, it’s impossible to shake, no matter how many injuries or changes of heart may come your way.
Have you ever felt blocked from fulfilling your dreams? Why?