I thought it might be interesting for people to get an insight into what it means to work as a disabled and chronically ill jeweller.
You never know, if and when it hits you. Old age is creeping up, and eventually catching up with all of us.
Disability and chronic illness often come unexpected and as a surprise. At least, that was the case for me. Suffering from depression and anxiety all my life, the first 2 years of my goldsmith apprenticeship was sheer hell, to be honest. 30 years ago, there was very little awareness about mental health issues and I just soldiered through. It got better in the last 1.5 years of my training and I attended 2 years of college to become a metal designer. Then I moved to England and, apart from keeping up with training, I had little opportunity to work in this field.
Then I worked a few years as jewellery teacher, which I really enjoyed. In 2016, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which got worse over the years, and between 2018 and 2019, I had a heart operation, skin cancer, and surgery for a dog attack. From Summer 2019, I needed a wheelchair because I now also had osteoarthritis and problems walking.
As a result, I had to give up full time work and so I thought, let me dabble back in jewellery making.
Where other people can work for hours, I am limited due to pain and fatigue, and progress is slow.
Sitting in a normal office chair is difficult and even a wheelchair is not too comfy for my leg.
So, my bed became my office space, workshop, and sanctuary.
Creating is a joy and I organised my bedroom in such a way that I can reach tools easily. Another room has things I don’t want in my bedroom like my drill and pickle.
I can do pretty much anything you do on a normal bench from my bed, including piercing and soldering.
So why do I share this with you apart from just talking about disability?
Because it would have been easy to give up, feel sorry for myself and do nothing. But how lucky are we as creative people, that we can always do something?
As a child I enjoyed polymer clay and I thought, let me add this to my list of materials. When I checked what other people were doing with polymer clay, I was amazed because it seemed to have very little to do with what I enjoyed doing as a teenager.
It took a while until I really got all the tools organised to work in bed. You cannot envisage and plan everything.
I sat down and noticed that the table would tilt too much because the mattress was too soft, so I had to add a piece of wood.
I needed to sort lighting out and find something that would filter the air. Slowly but surely, the workshop grew, and I think, I am pretty much sorted now.
Chronic pain and fatigue can be really boring and distracting.
Before I became physically disabled, I never thought about disabled jewellers. I never met anyone and I was so good in hiding my mental health issues.
I still don’t know how many jewellers there are that struggle with physical and/or mental disabilities or issues.
I find it important to share my experience because I want to spread the message that becoming disabled doesn’t mean the end of your career or hobby.
Making jewellery requires very little space to be honest. As long as you maintain health-and-safety rules, even soldering is not a problem.
If money is an issue, work in copper. I use recycled copper, which is really cheap. My reasoning is that I was never interested in using gold. I am more of a mixed-media jewellery artist.
Add other materials, try different things out. There is even coloured air-dry clay if your hands hurt and you can’t grip anything.
Often the amount of pain varies so be kind to yourself. I think, that is the most important message here. Do not compare yourself to others, or what you were able to do, before you became ill.
Be OK with feeling sad. I sometimes look with a feeling of envy and sadness at people sharing their work who sat all day on the bench and have something to show for it; it doesn’t change my situation and I don’t know what they struggle with.
We are so used to just sharing the shiny bits of our lives but hardly share what feels icky, heavy, and what sometimes reduces us to tears.
Take the pressure off yourself because you already have enough on your plate through your illness and disability. Create because it adds joy to your life.
You don’t have to explain yourself to anyone. There is no competition, no failure.
What I really enjoy about the jewellery groups I am in, is that no one cares that I am disabled. I can share stuff just like other people, and they might ask how I did it, or answer my questions.
I am a creator first and foremost, and a whole lot of other things. Being disabled is at the bottom of the list.
They only difference between me and others, is the level of skill I have, the time I can dedicate to creating, and the fact that I had to find new ways to work.
Giving up, was not an option.
Author: Teresa Mack