Ailleen O'Leary 

Path with Art choir and classes help Aileen transcend chronic pain, depression, and isolation. 

Aileen at a Path with Art Community Potluck

Aileen at a Path with Art Community Potluck

Aileen started writing songs when she was 13, taught herself to play guitar, sang at open mic nights, and opened for larger shows. She has also written poetry and plays, and taught drama classes. But her artistic endeavors went by the wayside when Aileen was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (THO) and fibromyalgia, which result in chronic pain and the inability to use her hands and arms very much. Before this point, she had been a sign language interpreter – her hands were her livelihood. She had trouble finding work that she could do without experiencing pain, and struggled to do anything that required the use of her hands.

In addition to her physical limitations, Aileen has also struggled with bipolar disorder, which contributed to her isolation and depression throughout her life. A time came where she couldn’t get out of bed at all, leaving her more isolated than ever before.

About two years ago, Aileen found a Path with Art class brochure in the lobby of her Capitol Hill Housing building. She was excited about the prospect of re-engaging with her creativity, but was unsure if she would be able to attend every week and didn’t feel ready to sign up for a class. She decided to join the Path with Art Singers. On her first day, Aileen was overwhelmed – she wasn’t expecting the wonderful, welcoming energy of everyone in the choir, including former choir director Rebekka Goldsmith.

“Part of the reason I was so affected was that I hadn’t been able to do anything musical – it was like coming home to my own heart. It was a really profound moment for me.”

 After spending some time in the choir, Aileen signed up for an 8-week course: Collective Art Relay with Jen Dixon. In this class, students worked together to create images and words. More recently, she took another class with Jen in Mosaics, which was a bit of a challenge for her given the need to use hand tools and her lack of hand mobility. Together, she and Jen figured out how to modify the curriculum so she could participate more easily and with less pain.

Aileen has found a mutual understanding among the people she has met through Path with Art – they understand what it’s like to live with chronic illness, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. She found the environment to be compassionate, inclusive, and non-judgmental, and has made close friends.

“I didn’t show up for choir one week and someone noticed. They said, ‘Oh, where were you? I was worried.’ I’ve made friends who are significant – they care about me and I care about them, too. That has been just as much a pleasure as the singing.”


Want to learn more about the recovery benefits of creative engagement? Explore the research and news articles we’ve collected.