Word Medicine

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

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

 

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.

 

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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