Word Medicine

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

On Being a Recluse April 9, 2010

“And then there’s a lecture by Cornell West, and a wonderful Tchaikovsky concert, and how about going to see Spunk at the Morton?”  My friend’s breathless voice reels off the plethora of activities available in our college town this weekend.

I love my irrepressible friend, she of the bubbling enthusiasm and indefatigable energy.  I hedge.  I don’t know how to tell her I’m in no shape to do any of these things. I’ve been active lately, and she’s gotten used to it.

I would have loved to do all these things in my parallel life, the one I live in my imagination.  In my parallel life, I not only volunteer at my son’s school, ride bikes with my son and my husband,  go to concerts and plays, but I also have redecorated my house and give dinner parties “a plein aire”.  I’ve managed to get my novels published and I travel around teaching.  My husband and I vacation in Greece.  I get up early, work out with my personal trainer, and go to bed late after earth-shaking sex with hubby. Well and often.  I collect original art and sing jazz at local dives for fun on weekends. And oh, I just won an international tango contest and my photographs–just a hobby–hang in collections around the world….

In my actual life, I slowly and gingerly make my way into the day. If I’ve “overdone it” in some way–either physically or mentally–the day before, as I did yesterday and the day before, I am in pain and stiff from head to foot.  If I’m lucky, I’m out of bed by eight. Usually not. If I haven’t rested my still recovering broken back, the twinges of pain become adamant sledgehammers by three in the afternoon.  My personal trainer is my dog, Maisie, and on good days we take a half hour walk.  On bad days, like today, I struggle for fifteen minutes, the air in my lungs like knives, and flinging myself on the couch as soon as we return.  I then sort out the tasks that have to be done–teaching preps, doctors visits, the endless filing of claims–from the goals I’d like to get done–work on novel, finish essay–and I try to get the first done so that I can get to the latter.  Some days it is a personal victory to merely get the bed made, the dishes put away, the exercises done and maybe an hour at my desk before brain fog or pain make it impossible. Sometimes my despair at the necessary smallness of my life overwhelms me. On good days I have the energy left over to see friends, to go to a movie, to a party.  And when I’m there, I look and act “normal” and nobody thinks of me as sick.

No one has any idea of the careful husbanding of energy it has taken to have that moment. I even fool myself.  Then, like Cinderella, the clock strikes and I am back in my rags and ashes.

Probably one of the least understood aspects of chronic illness is how it shapes or distorts one’s identity, especially one’s social identity.  We are social animals, after all.  My need to connect with the world, to be part of a social matrix, is just as strong as in a person who is not sick.  But I cannot physically keep up a “normal” level of  interaction.  And I know I confuse people with my popping up and fading-out routines.

So, the question is, how to satisfy the desire to connect with the need to withdraw?

Hillary Mantel, who won this years Booker Prize for “Wolf Hall,”  says she became a writer because of illness.  One thinks of Keats, writing poetry as he is dying of TB, of Virginia Wolf”s essay, “On Being Ill,” of John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, his meditations on health, illness, and suffering, of D.H. Lawrence.  Forced by their health to withdraw from the active world, they nevertheless were passionately engaged, sounding the depths of  their own experiences and sending the world dispatches. Writing, they refused to be obliterated as personalities by illness, refused to let illness define them, even as they reported, like journalists at the front, on the losses illness entailed.

When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to be Brenda Starr, the star-eyed, red-headed reporter .  I remember how avid my twelve-year-old self was for experience of the world.  We spent a summer in Mexico and I remember thinking that I wanted to travel the world as a journalist or work in the UN.  That girl lives on.  She’s just sending dispatches from a very different place.

 

Tell It Slant January 29, 2009

I’m about to start a new class, and as always, I have some trepidation. I often work with very ill people, and my intention is to create a safe, nurturing environment. But I am aware that the trauma of cancer creates disorder and destabilizes a sense of self, often triggering memories of earlier traumas. And this is not always a bad thing. In the past, I have seen participants, through the ordering process of language and the stability of a community of witnesses, express emotions that have been locked up inside them for years. For most of them, this has been cathartic. For a few of them, it has been frightening, and they have had to back off from writing from their own experiences. I encourage the use of the third person and fiction or essay writing for these people, respecting that too close an inquiry into their own history can be re-traumatizing to them.

I think that while the lyric poem or memoir can be the most direct route towards healing writing for some people, for others such direct routes can overwhelm them with emotions. Patients are in various stages of treatment, with various prognoses, so that their ability to withstand anything they feel is threatening is variable. They also come with differing personalities: one study shows that for high avoidance women, disclosure actually is more traumatizing , while for low avoidance women disclosure is cathartic.

It was a patient of mine who taught me all this. She had been doing so well, writing poetry and responding to the fairy tales that we worked with. But when we came to memoir, she balked. She couldn’t do it. So I suggested that she write what was “too hard” as a story, which she did. As long as it was in third person, with enough fictional elements, the story she needed to tell could be told. I think the important thing here is that she accessed the emotional truths of her past, without having to go into the particulars of her own history.Jayne Anne Phillips said much the same thing in a recent interview. When asked if her book Motherkind was based on her own life, here is what she answered:

The book seems to be the blow-by-blow account of a real life, and it was my hope that it would seem that way. In truth I didn’t really remember what happened during the time that I was caring for my mother. It’s like the drug they give you during surgery: the drug numbs you and also blocks short-term memory. It keeps you from remembering what happened and that you were scared or confused. We have a kind of psychological counterpart. The book is based on the idea of a woman with her first baby who loses someone who is part of her identity, a parent, slowly and painfully, and being caretaker to that person. And that did happen to me. But I blocked it out. I didn’t write the book until ten years after the experience.

I reentered the experience and made up those details. There were certain things, like the paper she uses to line the baby’s drawers, that were real and certain key moments that I did remember and put into the book. But most of it was reentered and reenvisioned and seen by the character Kate, who is just as much an invention as Lark or Termite. What is it that Wordsworth said, something like, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility.” Writing is that. Living requires our full attention, as does writing. I, for one, can’t do both. An element of the writer is always held apart. You sit in a chair inside the space of the material, and you’re able to enter experience in a way that is not open to you otherwise.

The goal in healing writing is to access emotions and express them, build a coherent story, impose some order on disorder, and to create something that can be shared, so that the burden of suffering can be lifted. How this is done, through the practice of which genre, matters less than that it is done. As practitioners, I think it is important to be aware of the variable levels of comfort patients have about disclosure, and to offer as many different kinds of writing opportunities as possible.

“Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story, or if a story can be told about it,” wrote Isak Dinesen. In the end, we are simply helping our participants find their story.

Read the full interview with Jayne Anne Phillips about her new book, Lark and Termite, on Narrative, https://narrativemagazine.com/issues/winter-2009/jayne-anne-phillips

 

 
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