Productivity and Pain

Artist: Rebecca Watkins

Guest post by Rebecca Watkins, artist.


I was looking straight at the face of one of my favorite students and I couldn’t recall her name. “¡Excelente, señorita!” Once again, I successfully hid my memory issues from my students and coworkers by referring to students as señor or señorita when a name escaped me.


I was in pain all day every day.


It was devastating my mind and my stamina.


I perched on a stool while teaching to hide my hip pain. I asked my high school Spanish students to write answers on the board because my hands hurt. Many days I raced home after the final bell at work just to take a nap. I felt guilty for being short-tempered with my students – and my own family – as my patience wore thin at the end of every day.


What was wrong with me?


I had always been an overachiever! As a career educator for almost twenty years, working as a high school Spanish teacher and school administrator, I suddenly felt like I was barely keeping my head above water at work. At home, I was napping my life away.


I saw my doctor, and a few months later, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease which creates chronic inflammation throughout the body.


When I was first diagnosed, I was flooded with so many thoughts and emotions.


Relief! I am not crazy…I’m just sick.


Wait! I don’t have time to be sick…I’m a busy woman.


Panic! I need to fix this…but this can’t be cured, just managed.


Getting sick forced me to face some hard truths. My definition of success and self-worth had always been tied to a career that I no longer had the stamina to do.


Who was I if I couldn’t teach?


That was four years ago.


Today, I am a small business owner with an art studio in my hometown, selling my paintings across the country. How did I manage to start a successful art business despite my diagnosis?


I had to listen to my body.



Here are some tips that helped me change careers and still be productive while managing my pain.



1. Find a reason to get out of bed.


The first few months of being home after leaving teaching were spent resting, cleaning, and watching too much TV. I felt guilty about not working.


I needed a reason to get out of bed each day, and it had to be something better than doing laundry and reorganizing closets!


I thought about my favorite hobby…art.  I was the kid who was always doodling and drawing. I took art classes in high school and college to help me relax while juggling a rigorous course load.  I even earned enough credits for an art minor while in college.


When I thought about my future, I wanted it to include art.


I needed a space in the house to call my own so I could paint. My husband moved the furniture out of the dining room and set me up with a new desk and an easel.


I had my first “official” studio.


Over the next few months, I painted several small portraits of dogs and cats for my friends and family. It made me so happy to see people smile when I gave them a painting.


Painting became my reason for getting out of bed.



2. Set small, manageable goals with a specific time frame


As more people began to see my art at friends’ homes and on my social media pages, they began to reach out to me to purchase and commission pieces.


At first, the thought of committing to all these projects overwhelmed me. As an overachiever, I wanted to do everything right away! How could I make promises to all these people if I didn’t feel well and couldn’t paint eight hours a day?


I took a deep breath and recalled the advice I often gave my son when he was overwhelmed by schoolwork. I’d ask him, “How do you eat an elephant?”  He’d respond, “One bite at a time.”


So, I took this new hobby of mine and turned it into an art career…one bite at a time.


Not only did I set goals, but I also allowed myself a reasonable time frame to achieve each goal.


Here are just a few of the goals that I set and accomplished over the past four years.


  • Post at least one piece of new art on my social media page each week.
  • Take an art class within the next three months.
  • Find an art show in which to sell my work within the next six months.
  • Learn about collecting sales tax and small business rules for North Carolina next month.
  • Hire a housekeeper (with my newfound “fortune”) to clean the house so I can paint more by Christmas.
  • Create a professional looking website,, in the next three months.
  • Investigate renting studio space in the downtown arts center (Bel Air Art Center) in the next month.



3. Work smarter, not harder.


One of the things that I initially found challenging about painting was that my hands would cramp up if I worked too long. Often, we “overachievers” forget to take breaks.


The key to being productive while managing pain is to work smarter, not harder. I use the time I need to rest my body to do mental work instead. Mental work IS productive!


Sitting outside with a cup of coffee allows me to observe how the sunlight affects shadows or think about how to best approach my next commission.


I am always looking to learn new things and the internet is full of great video lessons that I can watch from the comfort of my couch.


Websites and social media can be updated while wearing pajamas.


And finally,



4. Do something related to your passion every day.


Another artist told me that I should paint every day if I wanted to grow artistically.


I think that is applicable to life in general.


When dealing with pain, it is easy to focus on the things you can’t do. Instead, find the things you CAN do every day. I’m always observing, learning, taking pictures, reading small business articles, working on my website, selling art online, making connections with other artists, or thinking about my next art project.


Are you living and working with pain?


Don’t let pain convince you that you can’t lead a productive life. You may not be able to do everything you used to do, but you can be successful and find your self-worth again.


Focus on what you CAN do!


Rebecca Watkins is an artist living in Rocky Mount, NC. After a long career as a Spanish teacher, Rebecca returned to her love for painting and began a second career as an artist at the Bel Air Art Center (Rocky Mount, NC). Her most recent work can be viewed at She earned her B.A from Wake Forest University and an M.S.A from NC State.



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  1. Mary Edith Watkins (family)

    Excellent words and feelings spoken from your heart! I love you! ❤

  2. Ellen Winston

    You are an amazing women……you handled your situation so well.
    Wishing you the best.

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you so much! I have had my share of good days and bad ones, but it certainly helps me to keep my focus on what I CAN do.

  3. Dianne Simonelli

    That was a wonderful, informative, and instructive way to live with pain successfully!
    I don’t know if you realize it, but you just used your first career of teaching to help us understand how you transitioned to another career with a major obstacle. Rheumatoid Society needs to publish your article! Then you can also transition to counselor!

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you! I’m still a teacher at heart, but I have found great joy and fulfillment in painting and helping others through my art. Thank you for your kind words!

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Art allows me to teach in different ways, now. I think I’ll stick with painting, though. My teenage son might disagree on a career change to a counselor…as he never seems to want my advice…ha!

  4. Ellen Kelley

    What a wonderful goal to remain positive and productive through pain!

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you for your kind words and encouragement!

  5. Susan Cromer

    So inspiring! My mom had arthritis and was also a painter.
    I credit her passion and the physical act of painting for keeping her hands (and mind) limber for many years!
    Best wishes Rebecca!

    • Rebecca Watkins

      I love that painting keeps me physically and mentally active, too! Thank you so much for reaching out!

  6. Martha Lamm

    We are so fortunate to have you with us, you are full of Sunshine everyday ???

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thanks for encouraging me to be a part of the art studio!

  7. Alice DeHart

    Rebecca, I am so impressed with your story of success! I did not know that you had found out you had rheumatoid arthritis recently. I am sorry that you are dealing with so much pain but happy that you have found a way to move on with your life in a productive way that you enjoy.

    Alice DeHart
    Teacher friend of your mother

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you, Alice! I am fortunate to manage my pain much better these days. I think listening to my body made all the difference!

  8. Maria

    Rebecca, your mother, Carol, is my dearest neighbor. She and I share a love of and respect for nature. I am blessed to have her around me. She sent me a link to your article. Believe me when I say your article arrived at the right time for me. Your circumstances and mine are very different, but your counsel/advice/recommendations are spot on for me. Your views are helping me greatly. I printed the article and will keep it next to me – on my desk. Thank you and keep your inspirational work.

    • Rebecca Watkins

      I’m so sorry you are dealing with difficult circumstances, but I am glad that you found my thoughts and suggestions helpful! I think setting those small, manageable goals has helped me feel so much better about the things I can do. Reaching a goal, no matter how small, is worth celebrating!

  9. Sharon L Hensley

    Wow, Rebecca! I knew about the RA, but didn’t realize how debilitating it was for you. Both my niece and her husband have RA (among other things), but neither has the pain to the extent you do. All I can say is YOU GO, GIRL!!

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you! Listening to my body has helped me slow down and get the care I needed. My new medications and treatments make me feel so much better, but I still rest and listen to my body. I appreciate your kind words!

  10. Julie Bestry

    What a motivating, inspiring, and action-oriented post. Thank you, Rebecca, for sharing your thoughts with us at Melissa’s page.

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you, Julie! I’m so glad Melissa reached out to me. It was a great exercise for me to reflect on my efforts to be productive despite the pain of RA. Looking back, I can see how much I have really done over the last four years by just “taking one bite at a time.” I hope my thoughts help someone else struggling with pain or something in their life that is holding them back.

  11. Carol Clemens

    A very well-written and uplifting article. I hope others are inspired by it to live life to the fullest as you do. Very proud of you!
    Love, Mom

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thanks! You taught me to look for the positive ?

  12. Melissa Gratias, Ph.D.

    Rebecca, thank you so much for choosing to share your story here. You have touched so many people, including me!

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story!

  13. Jen Dangelo

    As someone who lives with chronic pain, this post hit so close to home. Thank you so much for sharing your story!!

    • Rebecca Watkins

      Thank you and I hope that you feel better soon! Chronic pain is so hard, but focusing on what I can do helped me find my purpose again! Gentle hugs and enjoy the process of finding your new purpose. Focus on what you enjoy and what you CAN do each day!

  14. Janet Barclay

    It’s so inspiring to read how Rebecca didn’t let a new disability keep her from moving forward with her life or taking on a brand new career! Thank you, Melissa, for introducing her to us.


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