Word Medicine

Writing and Healing: exploring the art of healing and the healing of art

After The Boston Marathon April 17, 2013

 

 

Whose war is this?

 

Evening,

an ordinary spring day

and my husband comes through

the kitchen door,

“Did you hear what happened

in Boston—at the Marathon?” he asks.

For a moment, the sunshine,

the birdsong, the forsythia in the vase

all stay the same,

before dissolving into black.

 

I call my sister.

Her daughter and boyfriend,

his family, yes, they are all

accounted for.  She was in her

garden, feeding the chickens, and

just found out herself.

“They are shaken, she says,

“in shock, but whole,”

she reports.  Lucky,

they were lucky, unlike

 

Martin Richard, eight.

A neighbor’s homey

Dorchester  accent

describes him

“an ordinary little boy,

freckles, y’know,

an imp.”  She is crying now,

can’t go on. Later,

the boy’s father, his voice

unsteady, old, thanks

all the people who helped them—

those who prayed for them,

those known and unknown.

His wife and daughter

will survive, he says.

Is surviving

our new art form?

 

Lucky, they were lucky.

Unlike Krystal Campbell,

Whose mother can barely

speak through her tears

“Krystle Marie, she was

a wonderful person;

she had a heart of gold;

this doesn’t make sense,”

The pain in her voice is

too raw,  I squirm, barely

breaking before I hit

the car in front of me,

the one with the vanity

plates, “GAGURL.”

 

The victims talk of anger

that cannot find a target,

no faces to picture, no

human enemy, no sense.

Who? Who? The

newly legless want to know.

I can barely read the

descriptions of amputations,

of shredded flesh, of limbs

ripped off, of nails embedded in

flesh, and I feel my own flesh

exposed, vulnerable. I don’t

want to feel this

 

or watch the mayhem, over

and over, and yet I do, I

watch the runners fall,

the blood spill, the man

clawing the air,

the smoke ascending

like a burnt offering.  I want

to disregard the now eerily

familiar images, just as I tried

to disregard the images

over there, to not let them in.

Over there is here now.

We are in it now,

in someone’s,

persons unknown’s,

senseless war.

 

 

 

 

Longing for the Light December 9, 2011

In the choir room, we practice our Christmas hymns.  “Let thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin, Our nature all shall feel eternal day, In fellowship with thee, transforming day to souls erewhile unclean…”  The longing in the hymns for the coming of Emmanuel, for the coming of light into our darkness, never fails to move me.  More now, than in the simple faith of my childhood.  Because now I know how dark our darkness can be.

In the paper yesterday, the headlines included the death of a seven-year old Hispanic child, who had been raped, beaten and stabbed to death as she returned to her apartment from the apartment playground.  The younger two children were taken from the traumatized mother  because she was under suspicion of neglegting her child by allowing her to play in the complex playground.  I also read about the certain pain my daughter’s beloved friend endured when she was murdered at UNC, taken from her home where she was studying, and shot.  I heard about the troubled homes of the children my son goes to school with, one father so drunk he couldn’t pick up his child who was suspended from school for selling drugs and alcohol. A dear friend is still looking for work two years after being laid off.   She has to choose between food and medicine.  It is hard if not impossible to keep from giving up oneself to whole-hearted despair, or cynicism.

What can we do? How can we live?  our hearts ask us.

Christmas is for children, we think.  For the rest of us, it might be a respite or chance to “get” whatever the latest gadget might be, the one that promises to transform our life.  It might be precious time with overworked family members.  We keep our expectations modest.  And if the yearning for that elusive something rears up in us, we dismiss it as childish nonsense.  We are realists, we are adults, after all.

We can’t go back to childish ways, nor should we want to.  We know the world for what it is.  We know that wishes often don’t come true.  We know that precious children are wantonly destroyed.  It is hard-won knowledge.  And yet to dismiss our yearnings for the light, for transformation within ourselves and in our worlds, is equally as  foolish as indulging  a childlike fantasy that the world is a large Disneyland.  The high Holy Days of winter, in whatever tradition, honor both the inky darkness, and the light that often does shine in our lives, despite all.  And they ask us to live in the tension of knowledge of the dark, and the heart’s yearning for wholeness.

Please accept this offering of a poem, and the wish that light will come to you this winter solstice, and you will recognize it.

Hodie Christus Natus Est

Solstice Song in Four Parts

HODIE

Today.

Not tomorrow.

Not yesterday.

This night.

Not some perfected end time.

   Tonight.

Here on earth,

this earth,

this fire,

this hearth.

These clinking glasses

these voices ringing.

Our voices.  Not angels’.

Our voices, cracked and sweet, tired,

but singing.

CHRISTUS

The light in us

all.

We, like winter stars,

alone in the night sky,

constellations dancing together,

then apart,

circling this earth.

Our fires finite,

our fires bright.

NATUS

Born to us.

Born of dust in cattle and rank hay,

dust enlivened with breath.

Born of breaking waters,

born of blood and old enmities.

Out of this

a new thing.

A child.

Mild,

tender,

new light to walk the earth.

This earth.  Our earth.

EST

Is.

Not was

or will be.

But is.

Now.

Here.

To us,

this night.  Out of our darkness

of broken bodies, broken dreams, losses,

failures, sins,

we light candles

to

what

is.

 

Miracle Cure October 7, 2011

Last week, one of the participants in my class asked me if writing really did heal.  Well, that brought me up short.  If  it did, I suppose, I should be the healthiest gal on the planet, with the amount of scribbling I do.  But I’m not, I’m really quite sick, and have been going through a “bad” patch for quite a few months now, so that the bad patch is looking like the bottom line.

“Well,” I answered her, ” it is not a magic bullet, clearly, and you need to get physical things checked out, but finding your voice really is empowering…”  I went on to quote research, etc. She looked at me a bit dubiously.  I drove home rather dispritedly.  Was I fooling myself?

I went home to find an email from a long lost friend from the back of beyond, from what my son might call my “hippie” days.  She has started a restaurant in Baja California, and sent pictures, and it looked so beautiful that I immediately wanted to hop a plane and just disappear into that lush oasis by the Pacific.  Maybe there I could be healthy.  My friend, who is deeply spiritual and deeply a free spirit, emailed me when she heard I was struggling with my health, with a “Miracle Cure.”  I absolutely had to try it, she said, and I was back to our free wheeling days as waitresses, where she often wanted me to try substances.  I knew she sent it out of love, and for a nano second, I was tempted.  But I’ve been around the block too many times, I know the chemistry of my body and what is and isn’t working, and I know there is no miracle cure.  Just a long slow process of doing the best I can with the best docs I can find, keeping up with the research and accepting the reality of my life.

The confluence of these two events together got me to thinking.  I’ve been reading Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.  She is a psychologist and a practicing Buddhist, and her work speaks to the same issues of healing underlying issues of self-judgement, shame, anger and fear that often surface in our classes.  No matter what the reason people come to the classes–grief, pain, suffering, these emotions are the ones that often surface.  How does writing help heal the ways in which people deal with these often overwhelming emotions?  One way can be to create an open inquiry into our feelings–both as sensations and emotions.

Emotions are a combination of physical sensations and the stories we tell ourselves….they can cause suffering until we experience them where they live in our bodies.  If we can mentally note unfolding experience, the sensations and feelings, layers of historic hurt, fear and anger may begin to play themselves out in the light of awareness.  (Adapted from Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance)

This is not an easy process, nor a one time process, but a process of learning to sit with feelings.  How can writing help?  We can begin by naming sensations and feeling them in our bodies.  Here is one way to go about doing this:

Do a body scan.  Where is the tension?  Is it in your stomach?  In your journal, can you describe the sensation?  Can you make an image of it?  Now, what emotion do you associate with that sensation?  Does it signal danger, fear or anxiety?   Now, what story do you habitually put with such a feeling?  Notice that there are three parts to this process.  After you write about the sensation/feeling/story, take a deep breath and check yourself again?  Has it intensified?  Passed?  Could you withstand it?  Are you able to perhaps address it?  Treat it as an old enemy or friend?  Ask it what it wants to tell you?

This practice of noticing, describing, befriending, can begin to slowly to quiet us.  We can gradually begin to inquire lovingly into ourselves, into our felt experience of being in the world.  We can begin to notice stories which have had a hold on us which may not be true.  We may begin to notice areas of our lives which we habitually neglect.  Our journals can be the safe arms within which we can pour out our feelings, even the emotions we are most ashamed of.  This process can free the energy we use to resist our feelings to instead move through them, and thus have more energy to meet life.

Is it a “Miracle Cure?”  No.  But it is a way, one way, to help us heal.

 

 

 

 

The Body’s Story April 15, 2011

I’ve written before about my involvement with the Karen refugees that my church is helping to settle here.  I backed into this responsibility reluctantly.  I really only got on board because my son, Adam, 14, just loves these kids.  He has a knack with kids and with people from other cultures, maybe because he is such a good communicator and such a warm person.  At any rate,  our family responsibilities include me taking the mother, whom I’ll call Sunny, to the health department every few months to get her Depo shot.  She is thirty and has four boys, 3-11.  She also had a baby girl who died, either in Burma or in the refugee camp in  Thailand–that part of the story isn’t clear.

Sunny’s English is getting better, but is still very minimal.  Working with her I realize how much of language is body language, facial expressions, and idioms.  I often feel that she has much more to say, but is frustrated.  It is frustrating for us both.  But recently, it has gotten better, which I think has to do with simply with the fact that we have spent more time together.  The reason being, Sunny seems to be having heart problems.

The second time we went for the Depo shot,  she complained again–in a soft voice that dropped the consonants–that she had pain in her chest, tiredness, heavy arms and legs, sweating.  I had to urge her on to tell the nurse, and luckily we got a nurse who listened.  We also got a phone translator who eased communications.  The nurse concluded that Sunny couldn’t have her shot until she had seen the GP and been given the OK.

The  doctor was way out in the country.  “Teacher,” Sunny said, her hand on her chest, “Sometime I feel heavy, full.  Sometimes I feel empty.”  There were tears in her eyes.  “My husband say, maybe I’m sad.”  Although Sunny is warm and loving, in her thirty years she has lost a mother at three, lost a father, lost a husband, buried a child, lost a homeland, and a  language.  I believe perhaps her father and or husband may have fought for the Karen  cause.  She tells me, “I never forget them.  I never forget.”  Her siblings are scattered around Burma, Thailand and one in St. Louis.

She tells me that she loves America, that she will never go back.  She tells me that in her village, a quiet village away from  the police, the children all played freely, the mothers doing their chores. One day the police came. “Rattatat, rattatat,” she goes, and then motions with her arms a sweeping motion.   “Mother’s look for babies,” she pantomimes, “go into trees, police get closer, babies cry.”  I stare at her, wondering if she was a child or a mother, wondering if maybe that little daughter didn’t die of natural causes.  “No, she shakes her head,”  I never go back.  “Rice, I carry, walk all day,”  and she pats the top of her head.  “No Piggly Wiggly!”  she makes a joke and we giggle and then she says it again, “Piggly Wiggly.”  I’ve taken her to Piggly Wiggly, and seen the amazed look on her face at all the food, which she buys in bulk to feed those five men of hers.  She shakes her head again, “No Burma. No chicken plant. No DVDs!”  Her second husband, twenty-five, works sometimes seven days a week at the chicken plant, a job you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, but for them  it is the key to the kingdom.

We get to the clinic, and there is an hour filling out forms, getting approved for the sliding fee scale.  At first they don’t want to treat her without a translator–they don’t have the phone translator service.  They are about to turn us away, but I convince them that we can communicate “enough.”  It is urgent–she is frightened as it is.  “All right, but you’ll have to see the nurse practitioner.”  Fine, I say.  We wait and wait.  Then we are called in.  The nurse who takes her vitals is lovely and gentle.  She has to wire her for an EKG, and I try to explain to Sunny what is going on.  Sunny is holding her breath in fear.  Her eyes are panicked.  The nurse says, “Tell her it won’t hurt.”  And I do, stroking her forehead.  And it doesn’t hurt, but it is invasive to have your body touched and taped and to be in a prone position, to be totally vulnerable.  It is for me.  It is for anyone, no matter how hard we rationalize it.

We  await and wait again to be seen.  Then a knock and a woman comes in the door.  She has a disapproving frown on her face and a very loud, brusque manner.  “Her EKG is abnormal.  She is not cleared for Depo.  She needs to see a cardiologist.  Any questions?”  We both just stare at her.  That’s it?  I take the records and thank her.  We silently leave.   We get in the car and I tell her she is going to have to see another doctor.  She nods, frowning.  I know that getting her to see a cardiologist will be an uphill battle.  I know that many doctors will just see a small brown asian woman who is a nuisance, a free-loader.  I wonder who will take the time to see or hear her, who will take the time to hear the story her body is telling.

 

The Long Way Home January 5, 2011

Yesterday, I took our Karen refugee mother and her two youngest children to the county health department.  Our church is involved in resettling Karen refugees.  I had known nothing about the Karen, their long battle for independence in Myanmar, their brutal experiences at the hands of the Burmese, or their lives in Thai refugee camps until my son met this family of six through our youth group.  I’m not sure who adopted who, but Adam loved the warm, lively children and when the church asked for volunteers to help refugees transition to life in America, in Athens, we signed up.  The mother, whom I will call Rose, is thirty, only five years older than my daughter, Hannah.  Over the past several weeks, although her English is rudimentary, she has shared with me stories and photos of her life lived mostly in a Thai camp: she has buried one husband, one infant daughter, and both parents.  She has two older boys by her first husband, and two by her second husband.  She is very proud of her husband–he speaks English fairly well and went through eleventh grade.  She herself has no schooling, but she is quick-witted and exudes such warmth that Adam calls her “A bundle of love.”  She loves America, because she has a floor, warmth, safety.  In the camps, her children were always dirty because of the dirt floors.  They were cold because of the bamboo huts. They were hungry because of lack of food.  They had no hope for the future, no possibilities.

So, the health department.  I had to take her for her birth control, which meant that I left Adam in the waiting room with the four and two-year old children.  Using pantomime and simple English, I had to ask some very personal questions, like “When was the last time you and your husband had sex?” which I demonstrated with my hands coming together. She got it, answering with great dignity, looking straight ahead.  She is so gentle and soft-spoken, I just winced at this invasion of her privacy.  As we waited in the women’s waiting room, there was some conversation, but much silence.  At one point, she turned to me, and said, “Teacher, I no like fat.”  She gestured to her belly, her face sorrowful.  In the photos she had shared, she had been very thin and youthful.  Still pretty, she has put on a lot of weight with all the food and kinds of food available here.  I asked her if she exercised, or walked.  She shook her head, no, she said “Eat, sleep, children.  Sometime walk to Piggly Wiggly with Sunny.”  She giggled when she said Piggly Wiggly and I did too.  We talked about getting a stroller so she could walk the youngest one.  Her comment was a small glimpse into her world, her feelings, something that made her an individual, not merely a “refugee mother.”  I hated it for her, this so American struggle with weight, this estrangement from our bodies.

We waited and waited for her to be seen .  We both stared at the video monitor, featuring a documentary on the Rockdale County sex scandals.  The video showed people in church, at prayer.  Rose said, “praying!” in her soft, lilting voice.  I nodded, but what the video showed was how a certain kind of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity had failed this Southern community, and maybe contributed to the incredibly depraved sexual behaviour of the county’s teens.  It showed how there was an emptiness at the core, a kind of ennui, which pulled the children into extreme sex and drug experimentation.  The experts also commented on the parents’ complete disconnect with their children, their disbelief, their denial that such things could happen to their children.  The children interviewed talked about long hours alone at home, free to do what they liked.  The camera panned on the upper middle class suburb, the large brick McMansions with their huge yards, the SUVs and Hummers parked in the drives, everything pristine, perfect, shiny.  But no people.  Big bright suburban emptiness.

I thought back to the birthday party/prayer meeting I had attended at one of the Karen homes.  The whole community seated on the floor, listening respectfully to the preacher, even the youngest child attentive, well-behaved.  Their beautiful singing, the openness and generosity between them.  I didn’t understand the words, but I understood that this was something special.  Their strong and vital faith has seen them through years of deprivation, but will it survive our materialistic culture?  How will their community handle our emphasis on the individual?  Already the children are becoming more fluent, not only in English, but in the culture.  Adam told me the four-year old is so smart, he even knows the mother of all curse words, which he picked up from the older boys.  I think of how Rose is with her kids, naturally authoritative, never raising her voice, gentle but firm.  It is enviable, her naturalness.  I don’t want that to change for them.  How will she find her way in this new world as a mother, as a woman?

Rose is finally seen. We pick up the boys and go into the children’s vaccination room for another long wait.  The room is crowded with a Chinese family and several Hispanic families.  There is a huge National Geographic map on

the wall, and we show Rose and the children were Burma is.  Rose tells how it took four planes to get to Georgia–one to Japan, from there to California, then to Colorado, then to Georgia.  “Long way,” she says, smiling wearily at the map.  Her youngest has fallen asleep in her arms. The four-year old is speaking and gesturing rapidly in Karen, pointing to places on the map and making up stories.  Maybe he is making up the story of their plane ride, or of the adventures he will have in the world as a Power Ranger.  I look around the room at the weary parents, at the dark-eyed children shyly smiling,  at my tired, bored fair-haired boy.  I wonder–what maps, what stories will lead us–all of us– home?

 

After a Long Absence October 6, 2010

Dear Readers,

I hope you are still out there.  I guess I needed a long hiatus to swim, relax, just be.  But fall is finally here and I’m half-way through my fall writing class at the cancer center, and as always, I marvel at what a privilege it is to be witness to the richness of so many lives and so much courage.  Because it takes courage to face the empty page, to face, as one of the participants said yesterday, “my demons.”

That particular writer wrote a short, spine-tingling impressionistic piece about spousal abuse, using the image of being put into a rotten, rat and snake infested well, of calling and pleading for help, only to have her husband stand at the top of the well, laughing at her.  The visceral images and strong verbs: rotting, slithering, pleading, had the group by the neck.  We felt the terror, without the word terror needing to be used.  In the reflection she wrote about the act of writing that piece,  she said that even though it was hard to go back to that experience, once she got it on paper she felt better, more at peace.

I am reading another friend’s fascinating and lengthy memoir.  On our morning walks she has described how she had to write this tome, to put the chaos of her young experience into some kind of order.  She has for years gone home after work and written, often times feeling guilt at not being more accessible to her children.  Yet, she maintains, she had to write this to be a whole person, and she feels that she is a more authentic parent for it.

The poet Karl Shapiro has this to say about writing and pathology: “The prevalence of the tragic and the pathological in great works of literature has misled many theorists ino the belief that art is symptomatic of psychic disorder, whereas it is the opposite.  Art is a way of reaching for wholeness by way of the assimilation of the pathic into the joyousness of the unified being….”  (Foreward, Life on the Line: selections on words and healing).

Another writer of breathtaking courage I have the honor of having in our class, wrote a long piece about years of being stuck, of facing the feeling of not making a difference, and yet also of affirming that it has only been

through her suffering that she has become “real.”   She ends her lament about “time  (that) cannot be regained,” though, with the observation that it is “time to change how I see…..time to love.”

For those of us attending to these works, we borrow courage to look at our own demons, to know that we can face them and know that we too can survive.  For the writers sharing their work with us, those demons b

ecome less potent because the writers are no longer alone with them.  It is this sharing which I think brings the process of healing to another level.  We are meant not only to create art, but to share it, for our own good and the good of all.

So here we all are, imperfect, striving for wholeness, facing our demons, becoming, slowly, more “real.”  It is time.

 

The Rest of the Story July 5, 2010

Filed under: Spirituality,trauma,Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 5:57 pm
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I am trying to find the woman who saved my life a year ago.

Just when you think you have “processed” a trauma, you find out, you’ve only just begun.

I called the EMT unit on Duck, N. C.  I thought they might have her name as she was a witness.  The fellow said it was unlikely, and it would take about a week, but he’d look it up.  He said they try to keep all that information confidential. I said I understood, and I would give them permission to give the woman my name, but that I very much wanted to tell her the rest of the story.  That seems important to me.  If she hadn’t seen me, if she hadn’t run into the water with her clothes on, if she hadn’t sent her mother to get the lifeguard, another large wave would have taken me out and that would have been that.  Instead–out of all the hundreds of people partying on that beach last July Fourth–she saw me and saved my life.  Not only that, but she allowed herself into my pain.  When she came to me, I grabbed her hard and cried, “please don’t leave me.”    She looked right into my eyes and said she wouldn’t leave me.  And she didn’t

My daughter said that when they loaded me into the ambulance, a woman who matched her description  had been at the ambulance door, weeping.  As terrible as it was for me, it was also painful for her to be wrenched out of her celebrations, her relaxing beach vacation, her sense of  “all’s right with the world.”  I hope she had a good stiff drink that night.

As I explained to the EMT what happened and why I wanted to contact her, I started crying.  It all came back, that feeling of vulnerability, of pain, of complete and utter helplessness.  Everything I haven’t allowed myself to feel as I focused on each small step of my recovery. Every time I’ve mentioned it this week, the same thing happens.  It is as though, as a friend suggested, my body had to heal and become strong enough to experience all these emotions.  I write about trauma, for pete’s sake, I should know what to expect.  But it is taking me by surprise.  What I had taken as strength seems to have been postponed grief.  But this feels like good grief, as if my tears are finally re-hydrating me, the way a summer storm revives the earth, clears the air.

If I find her, this is what I will tell her: that on the one-year anniversary of my accident, I sang in the choir, and that the psalm for the day was Psalm 30,

“O LORD my God, I called to you for help
and you healed me.

3 O LORD, you brought me up from the grave [b] ;
you spared me from going down into the pit….

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy…”

I will tell her that my son asked me to play tennis after church, and I was able to do it.  I will tell her that after our tennis game we went swimming. I will tell her that I am taking the tango lessons I’ve always dreamed of taking.  I will tell her that I went to a cook-out last night surrounded by old friends.  I will tell her that I’m beginning to write again.  And yes, it was a hard year, wearing a body brace for six months, unmitigated pain, that I was often  impatient with the slow process, that I sickened of the color of our bedroom wall, of having to sleep in a hospital bed.  I will tell her it isn’t over, the pain is still there, but it is nothing compared to the joys that surround me.  Nothing compared to the knowledge I have of how precious each day is, of how deeply I am loved.

I hope I find her. I have so much to thank her for.                 madeira beach

 

An Abundance of Need January 21, 2010

In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank quotes Nancy Mairs, poet and essayist, as saying that “all persons have abundances and all have lacks….your abundance may fill someone’s lack, which you are moved to fill….”  I remembered this the other night after my first meeting with my winter class at the cancer center.  I had not taught for almost 6 months.  In those months, my life revolved around therapy for my broken back, and it has been less than a month since I shed my body brace and have been able to drive. In the months of rehabilitation I lived a twilight life of sleep and physical therapy. Slowly the more normal rhythm of life claimed me: church on Sundays, lunch with friends, short forays of shopping, longer walks with my dog.  But I still feel fragile and tired. So when I drove to work Tuesday afternoon, I was more aware of that fragility than my competence.

This class was a mixture of women who had taken the class before and several newbies.  That is always a challenge because I need to bring in new material instead of relying on the tried and true, and perhaps more importantly, I need to make sure that the newbies were made  to feel part of a group that has already forged its own dynamics.

So, the first thing I asked of the group was to tell their stories.  They didn’t need to be coaxed.  A new, lovely, quiet lady opened up with a harrowing tale of  family members felled by breast cancer, gene testing, prophylactic mastectomies, and then finding that she had a rare form of cancer in her abdominal lining.  Another woman told  how she rejected implants and instead had flowers tatooed on her flat chest. Each story was like that, trauma upon trauma, terrifying diagnosis and painful treatments, including stories of loneliness and heartbreak.  By the time they were done, I realized I was the only woman at the table with breasts.  The storytelling, though, had brought the women into a deeper connection with each other, an almost palpable feeling of sisterhood.

Yet fragile myself, I felt in danger of being swamped by the sheer concentration of pain.  I was tired and in pain myself, and stressed by my wish to hide those facts. How could I offer anything to counter the pain of these brave women?

One of the first activities we always do is collaging our journals.  It is a relaxing, fun exercise, allowing for easy exchanges in the group.  More importantly, the images we are drawn to often are potent symbols for healing.  While we were collaging, one of the participants turned to me and said, “I noticed you were moving as if you were in pain. May I do some Reiki on you?”  I told her yes, I was in pain, and I would appreciate her help. Her hands on my back radiated warmth and I could feel my muscles relax.  And that was when I looked around the table and realized that I was not the helper, but that we all helped each other. We all had something to offer, even if it was an abundance of need.

One of the things I love about this work is that I can’t be anything else but what I am at that moment.  Perhaps the main competency is simply that: authenticity.  Driving home that evening, I turned off the radio, and allowed myself to savor the pink clouds in the west, the faces of the people walking in the warm evening air, the new ease of my body.  My own fragility no longer seemed like an obstacle to be overcome, but the very thing which I offered to others.

 

Ruined October 5, 2009

The small yellow vase was a marvel. I spied it years ago at a local arts fair. It could fit into the palm of your hand, its body a fat perfect sphere, its neck slender, impossibly delicate, giving way to disk-like porcelain collar around an opening for just one tiny stem and bud. The glaze over the body was a delicious pale yellow mottled with white–buttery, happy, the wings of a butterfly.

Over the years, the vase has brought me joy in its tiny self-contained perfection. I treasure it. It, I suppose, became something more for me than an object d’art. Through all the years of illness, it stood in my bedroom as a reminder of something–of beauty, fragility, completeness. It was graceful the way a dancer’s line is –effervescent, hardly there, hardly anything, except sometimes, everything.

The other night, I happened to glance at it and see that something was wrong. To my horror ,the collar now had two jagged triangular gaps. By and large, I”m not too attached to things. Pottery and glasses get broken all the time at our house and I usually take them in stride. All the porcelain lamps have been glued and reglued. But somehow, the damage to the little pot got to me. I felt my heart race and I snatched it up and stomped into the TV room where my innocent husband was sprawled in front of Jay Leno. “Did you know about this!?” I hissed. He looked sheepish. He’d been fixing the blind in the bedroom and knocked it off the shelf. “it had been damaged before,” he said, “I couldn’t find the pieces this time.” I was filled with a seething rage; I felt like throwing the vase on the hearth tiles, smashing it into little pieces. I hated it! What good was it if it was broken? The whole beauty of it had been its perfection. It was ruined. Ruined! I couldn’t be put back together and it would never be the same.

I wept myself to sleep in my hospital bed.

The next morning, walking in the neighborhood, my neighbor Patty stopped and asked how I was. I found myself telling her it that it was a long, slow, hard recovery, and then I heard myself say, “I’ll never be the same; my spine will never be straight.” And I felt my eyes fill, my heart pound. Usually, I emphasize the positive–I’m alive, I’m not paralyzed. I’m not especially close to Patty, but for some reason, it came out. She said, “You know, you have to mourn it, there’s no way around it. You’ll go through all those stages of grief. You can’t hurry it up.”

Her words were a gift.

Well, I’m pretty good at fooling myself, but I guess I’ve worn out denial. I’ve tried bargaining–if I do my exercises, work, be exemplary, if I endure the pain, maybe I can preserve the illusion that I’ll be good as new someday, maybe I won’t have to mourn my losses: my strong back that I always relied on, my waistline, just the wonder of a body that despite CFIDS, despite asthma, would ride a bike, swim, garden,do yoga. All without too much consideration. I will heal, but I’ll never be the same, and I will probably never be pain free.

Geovanna, the woman who helps me with the house and with whom over the years, I’ve shared all the woes and joys of a woman’s heart in a motley but thoroughly lucid Spanglish, came up to me a few days ago holding the vase and two small pieces of white porcelain. “I know you love this,” she said, “maybe Mr. Todd can fix it for you.” She handed them to me, giving me a quick hug. Mr. Todd fixed it and put it on the shelf. You have to look for the cracks. I am very glad I didn’t smash it into pieces.

 

Why are You Crying? July 24, 2009

It was 1 am the third night of my stay in the Trauma Clinic. I’d been weaned off the morphine that had kept the worst pain of my shattered torso at bay, and I had been told that I would leave the clinic the next day or the following day, as soon as the body brace had been made and I could walk in it. My brother, who had stayed with me the first three days, had had to leave. My husband and son were Arizona, trying to drive back East and find a way to get me home. All evening there had been calls back and forth trying to figure out how to get me home. I was still reeling from the accident, from the pain,and now from the stress of trying to figure out the next step. I lay in the sand I’d brought in with me, sweaty and filthy, and I wept. Not sobbing or groaning, just weeping.

A light knock on the door and a young resident came in, a pleasant looking young man with blond hair and a sprinkling of freckles, he came up to my bed and stood over me. “Why are you crying?” he asked, and there was an edge of irritation in his voice. I looked up at him. “I hurt. I’m being thrown out of the hospital. I don’t know how to get home.” He began with the same spiel the social worker had unleashed on me earlier: “Do you know how lucky you are? Do you know that same night another man died and another came in, paralyzed?” I put up my hand to stop him, but did not stop weeping. “I have thanked God with every breath in my body since I was dragged from that ocean,” I told him, “but I am in pain.” I did not stop weeping, and I looked him straight in the eye. There was a long pause as he seemed to cast around for the right response. Then, suddenly, his whole body seemed to soften, and he leaned towards me, “Oh, I understand,” he said, “you’ve got a broken back, you are in pain, and now you have to deal with the logistics to get home.” I nodded. “Thank you, Doctor. That’s all I needed from you,” I said, noticing that my weeping was abating. What I needed, more desperately than anything else, was someone to simply listen and accept me, in all my pain, at that moment, and by doing so relieve the frightening isolation that attends being so broken, especially in a strange place.

The weeping had begun earlier, and curiously I had not felt ashamed of it. It had seemed true, real, not gratuitous or manipulative, but simply what my body was doing in response to what I had been through. I found real relief in it. The social worker had come earlier and also questioned my weeping, suggesting that I might need anti-depressants. “Are you kidding? ” I said to her, “I don’t need to be drugged. I’ve just been through and am still experiencing a trauma. I’m in a trauma clinic.” She chewed on this a while, “Well, I guess if you were happy that would mean you were in denial,” she agreed. I looked at her, incredulous. What happened to the sense you were born with? I wanted to ask her.

When the doctors had come to tell me I would be leaving the next or following day, I was again incredulous. As unaccommodating as the experience of being in the hospital had been–I had not been bathed or turned, the sheets had not been changed, the nurses all seemed to be running marathons and to ask for a bed pan seemed to put them out–I was overwhelmed at the thought of getting into a body brace and flying 500 miles alone. Oliver Sacks writes of a similar reaction to the news of his release from the hospital after a traumatic injury to his leg. He said he was “dead scared of leaving.” The hospital had been a protected space where he had not only been tended to medically but faced his dissolution. To leave its circumscribed borders was to him to reenter a world that could not understand his dissolution. I too felt the fear of going out into the world in such a fragile state.

Yet the attitude and tone of the staff was to hew to the heroic model. When I took my first faltering steps in the brace, they were there to cheer me on. To smile through your tears, that was being a good patient. To cry or question, however, was frowned upon. Only Emily, my beloved nurse, dared to question the party line, flying into a fury when she heard that they were going to discharge me so early. “You are not ready, this is crazy,” she said, and I could see a few tears of her own. When I confronted the PA, a lovely young woman, about the fact that I had not had any PT or OT, that I was still in tremendous pain, she read me the criteria for “no medical necessity”: pain under control and you walked 120 steps. We both knew this was the formula dictated by the insurance company. “That,” I told her, “is magical thinking.” It was an uncomfortable moment, but not for me. There was almost nothing about this situation I could control, but I could refuse the script of the good patient. I could stay centered in my experience, and not tailor it to make others more comfortable.

Discharge me they did. (Probably with great relief!) I was wheeled up in my wheelchair to the Air Tran desk sporting my new body brace, where the agent, an Indian woman of about sixty stared at me incredulously. “You don’t look in any shape to travel,” she said. “I’m not,” I said, “but that is the system.” “A cold system,” she said. On the plane, I was the object of an almost overwhelming amount of sympathy; here there was no adherence to the heroic model.

The story has a good ending: I arrived home, was welcomed by a loving family and community, and will evenutally mend. But I recount it here for several reasons. It is my story, and by telling it, I am able to find my voice and my humanity in a system that pressures a patient to give up her voice. I share it also as an example of how modern medicine limits its concept of responsibility, and in doing so, abandons, sometimes, its commonsense . Arthur Frank formulates it thus: “According to modernist universalism, the greatest responsibility to all patients is achieved when the professional places adherence to the profession before the particular demands of any individual patient.” He cites William James “I am convinced that the desire to formulate truths is a virulent disease….as if formulas about the Universe could ruffle its majesty and as if the commonsense world and its duties were not eternally the really real.” The formulas, in this case, revolve around the guiding principles set down by insurance companies and hospitals regarding the ideal patient. The commonsense world and its duties–the comprehensive needs of an individual patient, in this case–are sacrificed to those principles.

Why are you crying? Why are you asking?

 

 
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