Word Medicine

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

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.

 

 

 

 

A Communion of Sorts June 24, 2011

Ten years ago, I welcomed my first students to the Healing Writing Class at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support in Athens, Georgia.  Little did they know how nervous I was.  I was no “expert.”  Yes, I had a life-long passion for the written word resulting in a respectable number of publications, and  fifteen years of teaching college English.  But my main impetus had been an intuition and desire born of my own mid-life journey.

I was thirty-nine and my writing career seemed to be on track.  My novel had been a finalist in a national contest, I had a scholarship to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and I had been publishing regularly in small magazines.  Then, suddenly, everything changed: my father died, I suffered severe complications in childbirth, I was diagnosed with a mysterious and intractable illness, my husband had emergency heart surgery, my mother collapsed with a brain aneurysm and I became her caretaker.  Did I mention I had a thirteen year old daughter?

Just three years after placing my novel in the contest and acquiring an agent, I collapsed.  Bedridden, unable to track a line of print to read or write, I was told by the experts that there was nothing that could be done, that this would be my life.

Intuition is an interesting thing.  Despite all the evidence confirming the experts’ assessment of my condition, I didn’t believe my fate was to ride out my life in bed.  Yes, I could and would make the necessary adjustments to accommodate my new status as an ill individual.   I accepted that I was ill.  But I didn’t accept that it was the end of the story.  I felt there was something more.  And so slowly, very slowly, this tractable Catholic girl defied the experts, and handhold by precarious handhold, I pulled myself up and out of the pit.  I had told myself that if I was able to work again, I wanted to work with people who had also been in that pit or who were in it, people like me who were bedraggled and raw and dirtied, but also avid for life.

I saw myself as a facilitator, not an expert.  I was a fellow traveler, offering to others what had always been a great source of strength and healing to me–poetry, stories, the written word, that intimate and potent communication of one soul to another. What I had not fully grasped was how blessed I would be by my new work.  Each participant brought her own unique mix of pain and despair, hope and joy, understanding and bafflement.  As we struggled together, witnessing and supporting each others’ emerging integration, we were enriched in subtle and untellable ways.  What I had only sensed, like a mole feeling her way underground, that this was the work I was meant to do, was confirmed when I left each class spent, joyful, and profoundly grateful.

Our book, A Communion of Sorts, is an anthology of work that has come out of the workshop.  Of course, the real work is what happened within and between the participants as they wrote and shared their writings.  The stories, poems and memoirs in the anthology point to that more ephemeral work.  In our book, you can witness the chaos and pain of cancer and its treatment, but you can also share in the solace of  memory, and in the often unexpected joy that surprises, even in the darkest hour.  I hope you will join in our Communion of Sorts.

 

Climbing Above June 16, 2010

I recently received a call from one of the social workers at our cancer center.  She was concerned about a woman in my group who had scored high for depression on our intake forms.  She wondered why I hadn’t referred her for individual counseling.  “She didn’t present as depressed,” I explained.  As a matter of fact, she had been one that I least worried about.  She was engaged, lively, full of humor and right on the mark with new skills and ideas.  I knew the facts of her life; they were dire, and those facts would stand, to everyone’s grief.  But for two hours a week, she was not mired in those facts.  She was free to exercise the other parts of herself that were neither patient nor caregiver.  She was free to think, imagine, communicate, laugh. In the past, I have referred participants to our counselors, or have gently suggested that they might find what they need there instead of in the writing group.  But in this case I saw no reason.  It seemed she was doing what she needed to do to help herself.

Ted Deppe, a splendid poet and psychiatric nurse, often writes about his pediatric charges.  In a poem called “The Japanese Deer,” he describes taking the children on an outing to the Lost Village. On a walk in the countryside, he truly gets lost, then comes upon an “apparition of apple blossoms.” The children break ranks and run towards the trees, climbing the upper branches and adorning themselves with apple blossoms.  Here is a stanza from that poem:

What’s true in this story is that Marisol,

raped repeatedly by her mother’s boyfriend,

and Luis, who watched from the hall as his stepfather

stabbed his mother to death–nothing

can change those facts–climbed for a short time

above the brambled understory, outside history,

discovered a fragrant scent on their hands,

shredded more petals, rubbed the smell deep in their skin.

In the poem, the children are entranced by the apple blossoms and the idea of tiny Japanese deer.  Although they didn’t actually see the deer, the idea of them is so real, some of the children were sure they’d “seen the whole herd.”  I love this poem.  It does not deny the horror of the children’s lives, but it also does not deny them their moment of transcendence.  I love the visual pun of the brambled understory and climbing up above the facts of their histories. Our histories are a part of us, but they do not define us.  I love also how this moment is sensual, how instinctual the children are in rubbing “the fragrant smell into their skins.”  One thinks of all the Biblical stories of anointing by fragrant oil in the presence of the sacred.  This moment was sacred, and Deppe suggests this beautifully.

The social worker and I grieved together over my writer’s  plight.  Yet I have had the privilege of listening to her wonderful stories, full of beauty and drama and pathos and humor.  I think of the last line of Deppe’s poem “….impossible, all of it,/but this is the way he remembers it; this is the truth.”

“The Japanese Deer,” from Cape Clear  New and Selected Poems, by Theodore Deppe, Salmonpoetry,  www.salmonpoetry.com

 

 

 

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.

 

Reading the Patient, Reading the Text June 5, 2009

I broke my own rule, the last day of our workshop. Instead of keeping my focus on one of the participant’s texts, I focused on her, on what the startling absence of feelings and information about her mother’s illness and her subsequent fostering out at age eleven, meant. The piece was stunning, really, constructed in two parts: in the first, she describes with a child’s heightened sensitivity to sense, her mother cooking and cleaning, and yet also suggests an adult’s point-of-view when she writes: I wonder what dreams my mother had other than marrying her sweetheart and leaving her natural art ability wash away into the old style washing machine? There are wonderful descriptions of the freedom and fun the family of eight children had, the chicken dumplings her mother cooked–I watch my mother in our small kitchen standing and patiently waiting as she stirs another pot of chicken and dumplings–and then the information that her mother became ill and all the children were sent to other homes. There is nothing here about how that little girl felt. In the second part, she goes on to describe how she was burdened by chores in her new home, and how she longed to take ballet lessons, but couldn’t. In the piece there are themes of oppression and freedom, of dreams of artistry dashed, and a seeming identification with the absent mother.

In the discussion of the text, I mentioned the “presence” of an absence in the piece. This woman, a breast cancer survivor, as well as the survivor of her childhood family diaspora and a young unhappy marriage and subsequent single-motherhood, said, “Well, you know, sometimes it is like Pandora’s box. You are just afraid of what might come out.” We talked a bit more about how some things were very hard to look at. It was generally agreed on that we must look, but that it was sometimes overwhelming to do so.

James Pennebaker has done research that strongly suggests that people who have experienced undisclosed traumatic events before the age of 17 are much more likely to be chronically ill, have cancer or heart conditions. It seems that many if not most of the cancer patients I work with have had traumatic backgrounds, and this patient certainly seemed to. But the tricky part of working with people who, for their survival’s sake, have “encrypted” trauma, is that everything in them does not want to open that Pandora’s box, even if they intellectually understand that it could lead towards healing.

I thought of her piece as a whole–the fluidity of compelling childhood memories, then the less compelling reportage of feeling both needed and overwhelmed in her new life, and the ending, which seemed to not be organic to the piece at all: I have learned how to better understand who I am and to accept what I need to do to build onto the next level of who and why I am. Notice the stilted language.

I think we would have been better served to stick to reading the text, and let the patient make her own conclusions, to help her see not only “the presence of an absence” but to non-judgementally  observe the artistry: the two parts, the echoing themes of longing for freedom, of dashed hopes, the changes in language–the way it became less lived, more reportage. In this way, we reflect back to the patient, not what we think about her psychological state of mind, but what the text she has created conveys to us about her experience. This may seem like a fine distinction, but I think it has merit. She can then judge what she has written against what she wishes to convey, and from that stance perhaps move deeper into her own experience.

With many patients who have been traumatized, there is often a resistance to go back into their histories. In these cases, I have often found that writing fiction and not using the first person can help them get to the emotional truths of their experience in ways that going directly to their memories does not. In either case, though, it is important to read the text, not the patient.

 

Craft and Catharsis May 7, 2009

How important is it to focus on craft when we conduct a healing writing workshop?

As artists in healthcare, I think many of us get to this to question. We, ourselves, are constantly striving to refine our own work, but the aim of facilitating a healing writing workshop is not to create artists, but to create an opportunity for healing. So what is the role of crafting, of refining style and mastering elements of good writing, in the healing writing workshop?

Belleruth Naparstek, in her book, Invisible Heroes:Survivors of Trauma and how they Heal, states “those who wind up finding something useful to do in the midst of a traumatic event, who can take charge and effect some measure of improved outcome, usually wind up without symptoms of trauma or with feewer or lighter symptoms, than those who are frozen in hopelessness.” She goes on to say that through this doing, traumatized persons experience “the joyous self-love that comes from accomplishment.”

Writing something as small as a fable, or a short poem may seem insignificant compared to the overwhelming task of fighting cancer, but that small text represents an act of self-agency, a defiant rejection of hopelessness. To create out of the self, when the sense of self and its symbolic order has been fragmented, is often an opportunity not to be restored to a former wholeness, but to find a different wholeness, one which acknowledges loss, but is not devastated by it.

So, what does all this have to do with craft? According to Mark Robinson, a British researcher and teacher, a lot. Crafting that text, that artifact, seems to be an inherently important part of the process of healing. He states: “To sum up, there were strong indications that writers of all kinds felt thy gained psychological benefits from their writing practice. Only in a few cases was this separate from the normal literary writing and redrafting process necessary for good writing of any genre, form or school. An interest in quality, in producing a text which was more than instant or an outpouring but in some way crafted, was clearly integral to the process of writing enhancing  well-being.”

Many professional writers became writers first driven by a need to find healing, or stumbled upon writing as a way to experience the “joyous self-love that comes from accomplishment.” Through that experience, we took up the discipline of the craft, seeking to increase mastery as well as joy. I think it is not so very different for patient-writers. Although they may have various degrees of committment to their writing, for most of them, learning to craft their texts with as much skill as possible is an important aspect of their healing.

 

 
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