Whitehot Magazine

Herstory Of Being An Artist Living With An Incurable Disease

Vancouver based artist and activist Holly Marie Armishaw


As I worked at my computer preparing for my upcoming artist’s talk for my solo show “A Feminist and a Francophile” at Vancouver's Monica Reyes Gallery one day last November, I suddenly felt weak, dizzy and lightheaded as numbness spread down my arms. My blood pressure rapidly dropped; my fingers left the keyboard and my head hit my desk. I was struggling to breathe and uncontrollably drowsy when just minutes earlier I was in full-on work mode. In the past hour I’d taken two prescription painkillers to quell the horrific pain I was feeling, which consumed half my body. This was the fifth type of painkiller I’d been prescribed - an opioid with caffeine which, combined with three cups of coffee and no food yet that day, had made for a dangerous reaction that caused respiratory depression. And yet, I was still in agony and my deadline wasn’t going away. By lunch time I was in the hospital undergoing diagnostics and treatment, while texting my gallerist about the possibility of postponing my talk, which was just three days away.

 Holly Marie Armishaw, Painkillers, 2015-16, 24x24 inch C-Print with Pills, courtesy of the artist and Monica Reyes Gallery, Vancouver

This wasn’t the first time that I had nearly over-dosed or experienced an adverse reaction to medication, nor the worst. Walking the fine line between obscuring agonizing pain and over-dosing is something I experience at least once a month, afraid to go to sleep for fear that I won’t wake up. With pain originating in the pelvic region, usually in one ovary or the other, it spreads throughout my abdomen, hips, lower back, buttocks, into my thighs and sometimes even all the way down to my feet when inflammation applies pressure to the sciatic nerve. In these states, even lying down is unbearable. The pain is debilitating and all-consuming, to the point of inducing nausea, vomiting and fainting.

I first began having symptoms of severe pelvic pain in 2013, following an incident of acute emotional trauma causing stress so severe that when I got my period in November of 2012, I didn’t stop bleeding until January. After bouncing from specialist to specialist, finally, a bright, young female GP figured it out. Since endometriosis cannot be seen on an ultrasound, women, including myself, are often told that the pain is in their heads. The only way that it can truly be diagnosed is thorough laparoscopic surgery, and so I gladly went under the knife in the late summer of 2017 and was finally vindicated when the surgeon found that I had stage 2 endometriosis. And while it is estimated that 10% of women suffer from it, the average time it takes to be diagnosed is nine years because there is so little awareness of it in the medical community, it is often misdiagnosed and left untreated. If there were a similar disease that affected 10% of men, you can bet that there would be a lot more awareness and research for a cure; this is something that the Women’s Movement can and should address.

Holly Marie Armishaw, Painkillers, 2015-16, Detail of 24 x 24 inch C-Print with Pills, courtesy of the artist and Monica Reyes Gallery, Vancouver

Although the surgeon removed the invasive tissue that had formed in my body, I learned that it would keep returning and eventually strangle my other organs if I didn’t undergo repeated surgeries. And while there is an array of options to decrease its evolution and manage the pain, each one of them comes with a host of other terrible side effects and risks. Because I’m a migraine sufferer and have had two blood clots already, I am unwilling to take hormone therapies to mitigate this disease, which would put me at high risk for a stroke or pulmonary embolism. Nothing, not even a complete hysterectomy, presents a cure.

One side effect of treatment has been the damage that the painkillers and iron have done to my stomach, causing me to spend the last 5 years simultaneously battling a secondary disease. How does this affect my art career? Imagine going out to an opening, sipping a glass of wine while chatting with your friends, or worse, an important collector, when suddenly hydrochloric acid splashes up through your esophagus and into your larynx. You start choking and every inhalation makes it worse. People ask you if you’re okay, but you can’t speak. As you try to breathe gently through your nose and every cough sounds like you’re going to puke, you make your way to the washroom, your face bright red. Just as you close the bathroom door and let yourself cough again, you vomit. Now imagine that this happened when a curator from the NYC MoMA arrived to see your solo show in Miami during Art Basel week. Before you could breath and speak again, she’d given up and left. This is my life!

The work that best expresses the experience of being an artist and a woman living with a chronic illness is my Repressions series from 2015-16. This work speaks to the challenges that we as women face that don’t reveal themselves on the surface. Most everyone is aware of issues like gender pay disparity, putting one’s career on hold for maternity leave, the imposing need for childcare, the physical and psychological factors that sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence burden us with in shamed silence cutting into our education and careers, the constant insult that when a woman says something it carries little weight until a man says the exact same thing, and a thousand other cuts to our integrity and self-worth. But have we considered how something like a disease, that is only visible through surgery, affects the ability of a woman to match her ambitions with her attainments? “You look great!” I often hear. Silently I think of the irony of having just spent the last few days in bed in too much pain to do anything physical and too doped-up on painkillers to do any truly productive mental work. I think of the previous days spent in cozy clothes with messy hair, no makeup, no showering nor eating properly, focused only on surviving the pain. I think of how it is so ingrained in me to never leave the house without being properly “ready” after decades of having my value determined by how I look, all carefully designed to hide any underlying issues, no matter how serious. I think of the grinding fatigue that follows each episode, the fact that it takes all my strength to push myself to an art event because, let’s face it, this is a social industry. I think of how many peer events I’ve had to forego because every moment when I’m feeling well is precious and is best spent towards my own art production; without the production I cease to be an artist, and that is not an option for me.

Holly Marie Armishaw, Invisible Barriers, 2015-16, 24 x 24 inch C-Print

Endometriosis was originally dubbed “the career woman’s disease” because it typically struck career women who had never given birth. Decades ago I decided that I would never have children, both to end the cycle of violence and abuse in my family and to focus my life as wholly as possible on my creative and intellectual endeavors without compromise. I have always thought about legacy and immortality and it has been my agenda to secure both through my art career, not through DNA. As endometriosis frequently causes infertility, I would gladly accept that oncoming fate, but not the impact on my quality of life – the excruciating pain, the debilitating fatigue, the brain fog, and the countless doctors visits, all robbing me of my time. I struggle to push my body to keep up with my very lofty ambitions, painfully aware that the next chapter could become cancer, and so every day I work to produce art and meaning before it’s too late. This is just one of the many invisible barriers that women in the art industry, in every industry in fact, face in silence. WM


Holly Marie Armishaw

Holly Marie Armishaw is an artist and writer in Vancouver BC, Canada

view all articles from this author