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From Strawberry Shortcake to the Secret Garden: The Pleasures of Coloring

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By Donna Gregory Burch

Every time I visit my local arts and crafts store, I stop by the display of adult coloring books and pencils near the front door. I pick up several of the books and flip through the pages, looking for one that wouldn’t put my obsessive compulsive tendencies into overdrive. (I admit I’m completely intimidated by some of the more intricate patterns.) I look at the packages of colored pencils and markers and wonder if they flow smoothly or do they grab the page.

I think about how 10 years ago I used to secretly keep a Strawberry Shortcake coloring book and tattered box of Crayola crayons in my desk drawer. There was something soothing about pulling out that coloring book, turning to a random page and distilling life’s choices down to blue or purple.

I haven’t colored in years now, but I know one day I’ll walk out of that store with my first adult coloring book and a set of pencils, and my lifelong love affair with coloring – in fact, one of my earliest memories is finding coloring supplies in my Christmas stocking as a young child – will resume.

I won’t be alone in my new interest.

One of childhood’s favorite pastimes has become a beloved hobby for thousands of us who live with chronic illness. Of course, the healthy also love adult coloring. In fact, earlier this year, five of Amazon’s top 15 best-selling books were adult coloring books. According to the New York Post, two of the genre’s biggest sellers, “Secret Garden” and “Enchanted Forest” from Johanna Basford, have sold more than 13 million copies in 50 countries. That’s a lot of mandalas and flowers!

It’s no surprise that adult coloring has caught on in the chronic illness community. 

“I think it comes down to accessibility,” says Wendy Piersall, professional coloring book designer. “Not only is it affordable, but people of every skill level can find success with adult coloring books. Being bedridden or differently abled has zero impact on one’s ability to enjoy coloring.”

Since many of us with chronic illness live on fixed budgets, adult coloring is an affordable creative outlet.

“Many other craft or creative hobbies require a big investment in supplies and materials, making it cost prohibitive for many people to enjoy,” Piersall says. “A person can get started coloring with a $10 set of pencils and a $4 book or even find free samples of adult coloring pages on the web.”

Free coloring pages!

Artist Wendy Piersall’s free coloring pages

“Unique spring and Easter holiday adult coloring page designs”

Crayola’s free coloring pages (kids and adults)

“Love adult coloring books, but hate the price? Get them for free”

“The best sites for adult coloring pages”

“25+ free coloring pages on Red Ted Art”

Adult coloring is also something that many of us with chronic illness can actually do.

“Coloring has given me back a purpose,” says Lisa Kabalu from England. Kabalu was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and ME/CFS four years ago.

“When you get so that you can’t work, clean your house or be a proper mom, you lose your purpose in life,” she says. “Coloring gives me a sense of achievement as well as relaxing me and distracting from my pain. If I’m feeling a bit low, I tend to color mandalas as the repetitiveness of the circular patterns has a real calming, comforting effect.”

Valorie Snider of Oregon has fibromyalgia and purchased her first adult coloring book – “Secret Garden” from Johanna Basford – from Amazon last September.

“I’m limited with chronic illness and used to be a lot more active,” she says. “Adult coloring is an activity which most people with fibromyalgia still can do. Chronic illness wears on us, and it’s easy to get negative and depressed, which leads to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. Finding things we can do versus focusing on the things we can no longer do is vital to maintaining a healthy mental attitude and living a happy life with chronic illness. And it’s fun!”

Clare Ellwood from England has ME/CFS and started adult coloring last year while recovering from several surgeries.

“Coloring helps me clear my mind and just focus on what I’m doing rather than dwelling on how I’m feeling or other stuff that has dominated my day,” she says. “I think that ME is so all-consuming at times that it is easy to get completely wrapped up in symptoms and how it is making you feel at any given time, and coloring takes you away from how bad you feel and transports you to another place for a few hours.”

As it turns out there is a physical benefit to adult coloring.

“There has been a lot of research on doing art and pain management,” says Unicia Buster, art specialist with the VCU Arts in Healthcare program in Richmond, Virginia. “What happens is there’s something that’s going on in the brain that, because you’re focused on an activity, the pain receptors are minimized. You are so focused on what you’re doing that you’re not concentrating on the pain you’re in.”

For some, adult coloring becomes another form of meditation.

California resident Terry McSweeney was diagnosed with fibromyalgia nine years ago after her recovery from colon cancer. She’d tried different kinds of meditation for stress relief and then heard how some with chronic conditions use adult coloring to relax. She received her first adult coloring book – “Color Me Calm: 100 Coloring Templates for Meditation and Relaxation” by Lacy Mucklow and Angela Porter – from her husband this past Christmas. She says it’s one of the best gifts she’s ever received.

“Coloring makes me happy and helps keep my emotions calm, which in turn helps me keep my pain levels down,” she says. “Coloring takes me into another world, away from the pain. The pain doesn’t just lessen while I am coloring, but transitions through to activities that come after a coloring session.”

There’s also the feeling of achievement once a page is finished. There are even Facebook groups and online galleries where adult colorists share their finished works.

“It gives me a joyous feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment,” McSweeney says. “Sometimes I feel like a child doing a drawing for their parents and showing it to them with a big smile and sense of satisfaction. I feel like that child when I show my finished products to my husband and friends.”

McSweeney plans to frame some of her completed pages and display them in her home office.

“When I color, I know I can do it, and I take it very seriously while having such a good time. It feels good, and for a person with any chronic condition, that is a primary goal – to feel good!”

Donna Gregory Burch was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2014 after several years of unexplained pain, fatigue and other symptoms. She covers news, treatments, research and tips for living better with fibromyalgia on her blog, FedUpwithFatigue.com (www.fedupwithfatigue.com). Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared online and in newspapers and magazines throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.

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