“What Happened to Your Ankle?”

I broke my ankle on November 3, 2019.  It’s late January now, I am still unable to bear weight on it.  I wrote a blog post for my Dad’s site regarding the lessons I learned from the pain:  https://wendellbjohnson.com/painting-as-pain-control  I made the decision to publish it on his site because his spinal injury was such a major part of his story.   There are a lot of people who go to his site looking for solace and answers about pain and traumatic injury, so I thought it a more fitting place to publish the lessons I learned about pain control and limits on mobility.  I went into more detail there about his methods of working and how my own work habits changed to more closely match his.  I won’t be posting the entire article again here, but I do want to place excerpts here.  This was truly a life lesson.  I hope anyone who is in pain can be helped by distraction techniques in the same way I was helped by others who told me these truths about managing pain:


Here’s the key to managing long-term pain: the brain can only process one thing at a time with perfect clarity. It doesn’t focus on both pleasure and pain at the same time well. You can exploit this to escape from pain. The trick is to find something that requires a lot of brain function – following the plot of a book or TV show, sudoku, crosswords, puzzles, video games, guided hypnosis where your brain is absorbed in imagining relaxing and pain relieving scenarios, or best of all for me…painting!

Recently, I broke both bones in my ankle plus the malleus, and also, I tore the ligament on the back. It’s a bad injury that required surgery to set and it will take months to heal, so in the meantime, I am in a wheelchair. My situation isn’t nearly as serious or permanent as my Dad’s but I am learning a lot about the effect painting has on the control of pain, and the effect that pain and physical constraints have on painting. I want to share what I have learned firsthand so clearly now.

Wendy Roberts Kailua beautification project

Photo taken a few minutes before I broke my ankle.  The dropcloth of doom is visible, the small curb is obscuring my shoes that had no traction.  Don’t use plastic dropcloths and always wear shows with some grip! 
Photo by Jennifer Noel

The next two paragraphs are all about my injury, so you can skip it and take my word for it that my ankle has been a horrible experience, or you can delve into some specifics if you want the injury story. I will not regale you with the goriest play by play, but I was working on a mural, and I made the mistake of using a plastic dropcloth outdoors. Don’t ever do that because it turns into a slip and slide with the slightest rain! Furthermore, I had bad slippery shoes on that were worn and loved to the point of being totally smooth on the bottom – don’t wear shoes like that either! My left foot slid so fast as I stepped off the curb, that it took me a moment to figure out why my viewpoint had just dropped by 3 feet. I heard and felt the snap of my right leg which was folded under my body and I knew the ankle was broken. That was a terrible moment.  I cannot wait until the memory of it fades so that it will stop replaying in my head and in my nightmares!  I took a quick look at my leg to try to ascertain the amount of damage, and as I slightly lifted my right leg, the ankle flopped sickeningly at an unnatural angle. I had the presence of mind to not look any further at my leg. I focused on getting help. There were some unlucky witnesses that became essential to my rescue and I am so grateful for their help! I could tell the sight of my ankle really bothered a couple of the people who helped me. I am sorry for that! I don’t know everyone who helped that day, but a nurse, Cynthia Bartlett, was one of the most involved. I appreciate her calm in the storm! My husband arrived on the scene very rapidly – he beat the ambulance by what seemed to be about ten minutes, but it took a team to move me and my unmoored ankle from the cement to the gurney.  After an ambulance ride, it took about 5 – 6 grueling hours to hobble out of the ER in a splint and crutches.

In the early days of my ankle, nothing was really keeping the bones in place, so they would shift, and the pain level was the worst sustained pain I have ever experienced.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being uncontrollable barely conscious, and 1 being completely fine, I was constantly shifting between 5 – 9 pain in those days before surgery, usually I felt like it was around a 7. After the initial splint that lasted 3 days, I was given a walking boot for the sake of ease – not because I was ready to put any weight on my foot, but because theoretically it can be adjusted to accommodate swelling. I hated the boot.  It felt like a rock on my leg as if it had no padding at all.  Because of my impending surgery, the doctor only wanted me to take Tylenol. It isn’t very effective for me.  I had to wait 11 days for surgery. The first couple of days I couldn’t do much of anything, but after the initial devastation, I was able to fit a chair with a pillow behind my easel. I could finally prop up my leg to work on painting, and it was only for an hour or two per day, but it was the best pain control of the day. Only painting could drop my pain to a level where I almost didn’t notice it.

Painting became a refuge from the flames of pain. I have never experienced more of “the zone” than in those intense pain days. The zone is that state of mind where an artist is so fully processing the visual information and busy making choices of rendering that it almost feels directed by a creative spirit outside yourself. It’s an intense focus that makes the rest of the world outside the painting disappear. Hours can go by and feel like nothing. Every seductive detail of the paint was such a pleasure during this state of escape. I would listen to music (which I normally don’t do, but it helped me immerse into painting during this time), and I would paint the most elaborate parts of my current painting without the usual mental fatigue I get when depicting fussy details like grass or ferns….

…The lesson I have taken from this experience is the added dimension of pain control that art gives to those who spend time making it.  I love painting even more than before, and I see the passion my Dad had for it and the relief from pain it granted him.  I highly recommend painting as a pursuit during painful times. If you are facing a long recovery, finding a way to sit at an easel or table, or buying a portable sketchbook to draw or paint while reclining is a great way to take your mind off your troubles and escape the pain.

If you want to read the paragraphs I removed that deal more with my Dad’s situation, please feel free to pop on over to his blog to read the rest.  https://wendellbjohnson.com/painting-as-pain-control 




There is one more really important thing I must say here though, and it is Thank you!!!I am very grateful to be able to heal from this injury.  I hope that the lessons I have learned during this time will stay with me, especially the examples of thoughtful, practical ways to to be compassionate from my friends and family that I want to emulate. To these many loved ones, I say thank you for the shopping trips, the visits, the lunches, the dinners, the tea, the plants, the phone calls, emails, bouquets (both edible and floral), the chocolate, the texts/posts/messages to check in and say hello, help with art shows, and even the wheelchair I am borrowing.  These kind gestures have made all the difference in the world to how this recovery has been, and it is going to take me many years to pay it all forward, but I want to make an earnest effort!  You are all a good influence on me! I hope I can be more like you and take the initiative to seek out these types of clever, concrete ways to be supportive. I have been inundated with excellent ideas these past three months, and I look forward to the second chance I have to look around me and see who needs help. I will be plagarizing many of the things you all did for me while I was cooped up and unable to drive (or even go outside on my own). Thank you for all your kindness!