Word Medicine

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

An Invitation July 27, 2016

I’ve just finished Diane Morrow’s One Year of Writing and Healing: Writing to Transform the Experience of Illness, Grief and Other Trouble, a treasure trove of resources for anyone interested in beginning or deepening a healing writing practice.

Dr. Morrow begins her book with an invitation: to take one year of your life and write with the express purpose of “transforming difficult experiences into something…more bearable.” Her tone throughout is one of friendly invitation. What she offers comes from her own experience as a writer, a medical doctor, a counselor in mind-body training and a teacher. And as any good teacher would, she grounds the practice she offers in both time and space. Take a year, she says, to try these things, and moreover, I am going to walk you through each month, guiding you and building a solid foundation. In a low-key conversational tone, she creates a focus for each month, with chapters addressing each of the following: “Creating a Healing Place,” “Consider Healing as a Story,” “Drawing a Map,” “Developing  the Habit of Writing,” “Listening to the Voice of the Body,” “Making a Place for Grief,” “Figuring Out the Good Part,”  “Gathering Resources for the Long Haul,” and “Creating a Guest House.” Each of these chapters draw not only from her own experience and that of her patients and students, but also from an extensive knowledge of the literatures of both healing and writing, including excerpts and references to such seminal thinkers in their fields as Arthur Frank, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Pema Chodron and Peter Elbow. However, she wears such learning lightly, incorporating it into her book in an approachable way. Each chapter also offers exercises or prompts, all of which grow organically out of her own or others’ lived experiences. Although some of the material in this book can be found elsewhere—i.e., Arthur Franks’ exploration of the three healing types of stories—Restitution, Chaos, and Quest—Morrow interprets his work, expanding on it with examples from various sources, including the movie The Lord of the Rings.

Perhaps the most important chapter is the first two-month long chapter, “Creating a Healing Place.” This exercise in creating, inhabiting, imagining, conjuring and holding is the foundation for everything that follows. Morrow describes her own experience of going to a retreat at Santa Sabina, where she learned the process of interactive active imagination. It was there that she realized that writing could strengthen and deepen and hold the work of healing imagery. By creating a healing place inside one’s mind, one could have a sense of “deep refuge” in a portable retreat. “When we have this deep sense of security, it becomes possible—and bearable—to look honestly at the stories of our lives.”  She offers seven particular archetypes—seven ways of thinking about the landscapes we inhabit or could inhabit: Sea, Cave, Harbor, Promontory, Island, Mountain and Sky.“ Naming these archetypes “….allows us to look at the landscape freshly, to begin to pay closer attention to those spaces in the world which we most long for and need.” She suggests immersing ourselves, imaginatively, in the landscape, and discovering what it can tell us about ourselves, about where we are and where we would like to be. Do you need to nest inside a cave, away from the stresses of the world? So you need the viewpoint you might find high on a mountain? This extended imagination offers the chance to discover a correlative to our inner landscapes in a rich and interesting way.(By the way, check out another prompt here about landscapes : https://therapeuticjournal.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/landscape-the-desert/?iframe=true&theme_preview=true)

One of my favorite passages is in the section on Chaos stories. She writes: “Chaos can be an indicator of growth. Fear can be an indicator of growth. And it seems to me that just considering this—having some inkling about this—can change our experience. It can give us courage to keep moving with and through obstacles…..Meanwhile, I have sometimes found it helpful, at moments when obstacles arise….to imagine an older woman’s voice, a voice much wiser than my own. She tends to say something like this: Well of course, Sweetie, what did you thing? That it was going to be easy?” Diane Morrow herself is that wise encouraging voice. “Writing can become a powerful way to listen to your life, ” she writes. And this book is a powerful tool to help you in that endeavor.

another-april-book-cover

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/One-Year-Writing-Healing-Experience/dp/0692610278/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1466428919&sr=1-1

All profits for the book go to Write Around Portland, which you can read about here: http://writingandhealing.org/write-around-portland.

You might also enjoy Diane’s blog,  One Year of Writing and Healing, http://writingandhealing.org/

and a radio interview: http://safespaceradio.com/2011/09/writing-and-healing/

 

 

Body and Voice: Finding Self-Trust in the Midst of Illness October 24, 2014

Filed under: Writing and Healing — saratbaker @ 4:42 pm
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Nothing can throw me off-center faster than a bout of fibromyalgia.  Recently, I had an experience of intense pain that sent me into panic mode. I almost crawled to my doctor for medicine—I was way beyond the yoga/swimming/meditation panacea.  Worried that this might be something else, that my body was really betraying me big-time now, I fretted over Google, surfing for any information I could find. I had finally done it, I thought, finally ignored my body long enough, pushing through pain and discomfort, and now my body was roaring back. After much searching, I found a relevant article about trigger points that seemed consistent with my symptoms.

Having a cognitive framework relieved my anxiety, and luckily, the meds worked. Or time worked. Something worked. I changed some posture habits, began some exercises. But what interested me was those days before I got some kind of handle on what was going on.  I experienced fear–a profound sense of  ego disintegration, of losing my sense of power, of my confidence in navigating the world. I found myself casting about for answers, as if someone else could tell me what was going on. It was only when I was rested, in less pain, and able to amass information, that I finally was able to regain my poise.  I remember the moment when I thought—I can make an assessment, I can make decisions that will help this. I can trust myself. Energetically, it felt as if I was consolidated, rather than fragmented.

The fragmentation I experienced briefly was akin to what Arthur Frank in his seminal book, The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics, describes as the chaos initiated by a major illness or event like a heart attack.  Frank himself, a sociologist, experienced both cancer and heart disease. Through his own experience, he was able to describe the stages of  our psychological response to illness, the first being chaos. He cautions those who love and work with people experiencing chaos, to simply witness it, not rush to tidy it or minimize it. He describes the burden placed on the ill person to be cheerful, positive for others. He posits that it  is only by experiencing the chaos that we can find our way through to a new narrative, whether one of accepting an illness and finding meaning through the quest, or indeed restitution. “Seriously ill people,” he writes, “are wounded not just in body but in voice.”  Without body integrity, we lose voice. Without voice, we also are fragmented.

I’m glad that this whole experience happened over a matter of weeks, not months or years.  But I was reminded again of how real the journey is from chaos to narrative. I’ll end with the quote prefacing Frank’s book:

“I had grasped well that there are situations in life where our body is our entire self and our fate. I was in my body and nothing else…my body…was my calamity. My body…was my physical and metaphysical dignity.”-Jean Améry

Wounded Storyteller

 

The Art of Medicine in Metaphors December 20, 2012

Fellow “healing writer” blogger, James Borton, has just come out with a new book , The Art of Medicine in Metaphors: A Collection of Poems and Narratives.

I met James at the 2011 Examined Life Conference hosted by the University of Iowa Writing Program and the Carver College of Medicine and was riveted by his story.  Like many of us who have experienced a life-changing health crisis, he returned to the world with a mission.  He began the blog, allheartmatters.com, where he generously writes about Medical Humanities and solicits healing narratives.  His anthology is a welcome addition to the growing literature on writing and healing.   He describes his book below:

Poetry and stories about illness address more than just the symptoms of disease. Narratives and poems are the pathways for people to make sense of and discover meaning in life’s difficult events. Three years ago, I learned a painful lesson about how a pa­tient bleeds a story. Following a triple bypass, I emerged after nine dark days from a coma after losing all of my blood from a ruptured coronary artery. It is no wonder that my call to others to learn about their broken health stories met with remarkable responses.

Every patient’s story, whether it be through the admission report, the clinical medical chart, or the arc of an entire life history, translates into a valued healing narrative. The poems and stories presented in this anthology are all written from the heart. They are about losses and they are also about gains. What patients and doctors continue to understand is the power of telling and listening to personal stories.

This anthology includes thematic re­flections on death, diagnoses, fears, humor, joy and transforma­tion—both physical and spiritual. These writers all succeed in telling their story, sharing their brokenness, discovering healing metaphors, and—at unexpected moments—offering grace and renewal.

James Borton teaches in the English Department at Coastal Carolina University and is a faculty associate at the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at the University of South Carolina. He is also a past National Endowment Fellow at Yale University.

AOM Tear Sheet

 

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.

 

Chaos Narrative/Gone to Seed August 20, 2009

Arthur Frank, in his wonderful book, The Wounded Storyteller, describes three “narratives” that ill people use to navigate their illnesses. There is the restitution narrative, which is the story that one will be restored to the previous state of health; there is the chaos narrative, which can not be written, only lived, as it is so traumatic can not be formulated into words; and finally,there is the quest narrative, which seeks to find meaning in the experience of illness.

Frank says that people cannot and should not be rushed out of their chaos narrative. As health care workers, we often seek to formulate people’s experience for them, because we are uncomfortable with the formlessness of chaos, the incoherency of it. I’m thinking of this because I’m only now beginning to emerge from a small taste of dissolution, from my own chaos narrative.

I was recovering pretty well from my fractured thoracic spine, walking, beginning to take showers and getting into the pool for 20 minutes of hydrotherapy. I was still in pain and exhausted, but feeling as if I was getting a grip on the situation. Then my son brought home a summer cold, which quickly passed to me and morphed into a severe bronchitis. I was shaken from fits of coughing, each spasm seemed to threaten break a rib or shatter my already broken spine. The bone pain returned. I had been slated to start on a strong antibiotic therapy to fight my C.pneumonia Igg titers, so I went ahead and took that. Then the trouble really started. The vertigo was so bad I couldn’t even move my head lying down without the room spinning; I was queasy and my skin itched. All the side effects of a hangover without the fun of a party. Still, I thought these would pass and stuck with it for three days out of fear of having pneumonia again (I had walking pneumonia for four months this spring). Finally, I got to my doctor and he changed the antibiotic and upped my breathing treatments.

For almost two weeks I couldn’t think. I couldn’t find a metaphor, naw, not me. There was no pulling me out of the experience, no distancing. I lay in bed watching the pecans ripening on the tree, watching the graceful dance of the trees and the distant white clouds in the blue Renaissance sky. The lace curtains billowed, the breeze was mercifully cool, and there was no I, only the sensations of distress or the abatement of distress. Out on the edges of consciousness I knew there were things I needed to attend to, but I had to let them go, let them drift off and trust that when I finally came ashore there would be a coherent self to deal with them.

When I was well enough, I dragged my poor ruin of a body out to the back porch. I sat and looked at my garden–the cone flowers and bee balm prematurely dead from drought and neglect. Was everything in and around me blighted? Just then, there was a flash of brilliant yellow in herb garden. I squinted. There it was, a goldfinch alighted on the dried bee balm. I had tried for years to attract goldfinches, and yet, without even trying, here it was. I held my breath. It was as if God had sent down this most beautiful emissary to tell me–“I am bigger than your dissolution,than your pain.” And that was the beginning. The beginning of the end of my chaos narrative. Yes, I have gone to seed. But look, there are worse things.

I sent Todd out to buy what he considered a ridiculously expensive goldfinch feeder. The goldfinch pair stick around. I’m feeling better.

 

 
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