August 25, 2020: The Comfort Found in Books

I’ve been thinking about how much our daily lives have changed as the COVID lockdowns continue here.  More than that, I think about  what it is that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other on a daily basis, how the small daily routines or household tasks keep me going, providing a sense of normality to our lives even though this prolonged period of social distancing and relative isolation continues without any sure end in sight.    I’m not alone in fending off boredom, feelings of malaise or that constant low-level anxiety that is part of the uncertainly of this strange and isolating time.  Heart failure puts us in a higher risk category for contracting COVID just as those living with cancer, undergoing treatments and their continuing recovery.  

My experience with cancer was a mild one—very treatable, but the impact enough to influence my shift away from a life in non-profit management to what I loved doing most:  writing and teaching. And out of that change, I also began the twenty years of leading expressive writing workshops for cancer patients and others.   The writing workshops I lead for cancer patients and survivors have continued, despite this time of Covid, although virtually, and their feelings about living through this pandemic have echoed those of British author, Susie Steiner.   Her title of a recent article, “It has been easier to cope with my cancer during lockdown…” in the June 13th issue of The Guardian,  got my attention.  Currently undergoing treatment for  a brain tumor, she began her article saying “I wrote my latest novel…with a 9cm tumor pushing my brain over its midline.  But I didn’t know about it.”  Even more ironically, Steiner wrote, “…I was plotting a cancer storyline, not yet knowing that I had cancer.” (The Guardian, June 13, 2020).

 “So much of the experience of cancer is the waiting rooms,” Steiner wrote, “ is the hard chairs, the inequality between patients and medical staff—you feel so vulnerable in your elasticated slacks with your terrible hair…waiting for them, terrified, in the Room of Bad News.”  Yet she says that it has been easier for her to cope with her cancer during the  COVID lockdown knowing she was not the only one whose life was on hold nor fearful of contracting the virus and possibly dying. 

Cold comfort, perhaps, but like cancer, any of us who fall into that “higher risk” category are  all in a kind of waiting game, in limbo, taking greater precautions, dumping the plans we might have had for travel or evenings socializing with friends, amassing a supply of face masks to last however long this pandemic continues to spread.  Christopher Hutchins, author of Mortality, a collection of essays about his struggle with esophageal cancer, described cancer as “… a  bit like lockdown, you spend your time in treatment, saying to yourself, “I just have to get through this, then I’ll get my life back.” 

Nevertheless, as Susie Steiner remarks, “it has been easier, weirdly, to cope with my illness during lockdown, because I’m not the only one whose life is on hold, not the only one terrified of dying…”   What has comforted her—and what I find I have also found invaluable–are books.  “One thing you can do a lot of when you’re a patient,” she remarks, “is reading.”  

The idea that reading, like writing, are not new. Jenni Odgen, PhD, notes that Sigmund Freud was known to incorporate literature into his psychoanalytic practice in the late 1800’s, and even King Ramses II of Egypt was known to use reading for healing,  keeping a special chamber for his books with the words “House of Healing for the Soul” above the door.

The term “bibliotherapy,” the art of using books to help people solve personal issues, was first used in 1916.  It now takes many different forms, including literature courses for prison inmates to reading groups for elders suffering from dementia (“Can Reading Make You Happier?” by Ceridwen Dovey, New Yorker, June 9, 2015) .  In fact, two or three years ago, I stumbled onto The Novel Cure, written and published by two bibliotherapists, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin in 2014.  Written something like a medical dictionary, it matches ailments and illnesses with suggested reading “cures,” although there was no reference to heart failure or other cardiac conditions, mirroring my own frustration at not finding a wealth of literature (poetry, personal essays, memoir) unlike the abundance of such writing by patients and survivors of cancer. (I did find—and became immersed in — In the Country of Hearts, however a beautifully written l book written in 1990 by John Stone, MD,  that I have returned to more than once, despite it being 30 years old).

Nevertheless, reading,  whether for pleasure, information or healing, helps us to navigate periods of isolation, boredom, and worry.  We feel less alone in our situation.  Dovey cites research that demonstrates how reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation, bringing the same benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm.  Regular readers, she notes, sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression than non-readers.  Quoting the author Jeannette Winterson, she adds, “fiction and poetry are doses, medicines…what they heal is the rupture reality makes on imagination.”

My husband and I have been devouring books for the past many weeks.  He’s shifted from a diet of current affairs and research psychology to poetry—much to my surprise—systematically making his way through the wealth of poetry volumes on my bookshelves. I’ve added several non-fiction books to my regular diet of fiction, especially biographies of artists and writers, most recently getting immersed in Maggie Doherty’s The Equivalents, which led me to reading biographies of the women writers who were featured  in her book. 

I have, time and again, found as much or more comfort in reading as when I was a kid, sneaking books to bed and until I was discovered by a watchful parent, reading with a flashlight under the covers, immersed in the stories of others and a world beyond the borders of our small town.  In this time of COVID, books—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—have been indispensable for me to combat the boredom and those days when our moods can turn as grey as a dull overcast day.

In her article for The Guardian, Susie Steiner describes how her reading changed during the course of her cancer treatment, and why she turned to books written by other cancer survivors.  It’s something common to any of us diagnosed with any serious illness or progressive condition.   She was hungry, Steiner said,  for what she called “fellow feeling,” something that books and illness stories of others similarly diagnosed can offer.   As a patient undergoing treatment and feeling the anxiety of what might lie ahead, she writes,  “Living like this is gruelling,” she wrote, “ we need imaginative empathy in fiction to help us through it.” 

This is surely the … therapeutic power of literature – it doesn’t just echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it – it takes us places we hadn’t imagined but which, once seen, we never forget. When literature is working – the right words in the right place – it offers an orderliness which can shore up readers against the disorder, or lack of control, that afflicts them.—Blake Morrison, “The Reading Cure,” The Guardian/Books/ January 5, 2008. 

My sentiments exactly…

Writing Suggestions:

Have you found particular books, essays or poetry that have helped you understand or describe your experience of living with heart failure or other serious illnesses in some way?

Have you found comfort or inspiration from any books—no matter the subject?

What books, poetry or essays can you recommend to others living with heart failure?  Why?


 

May 11, 2020: Letting It Out: Releasing Negative Emotions

rant:  to complain or talk loudly and angrily for a long time, sometimes saying unreasonable things  (MacMillan Dictionary)

I don’t know about you, but I do know that the endless days of indoor living and social isolation are getting to me.   I am more easily frustrated, irritable and restless.  It’s taken some discipline to rein those negative feelings in, and I admit to days where I am less successful than I wish I was.  What about you?  Have you felt the need to get feelings or frustration with something off your chest, the kind that keep you awake at night or gnaw at you until they’re voiced?   We know that those kinds of feelings aren’t good for our health, as confirmed by a significant body of psychological research on the relationship between emotions and health–but I learned this in earnest the hard way. Some years ago, I realized I’d  been living under extreme stress for well over a decade, triggered by  my husband’s death, a significant career transition, and a decade of major moves from coast to coast.  I soldiered valiantly through it all, but cracks began to appear in my armor. I slept poorly, and I was often impatient and short-tempered.  A few close friends expressed concern, but it wasn’t until my diagnosis of early stage breast cancer that I really understood the impact all that bottled up emotional stress had on my health.

Around the same time, I  read Opening Up:  The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions (1997), the early work on emotional inhibition and health by James Pennebaker, PhD, whose subsequent research on writing and healing set off an explosion of similar studies and inspired numerous expressive writing programs.   Pennebaker demonstrated how expressing emotions was not only good for one’s soul, but beneficial to our physical and psychological health.  The studies he cited made one thing very clear:  holding negative emotions inside, also known as “inhibition,” is detrimental to health.

Our bodies respond to the ways we think and feel.  Stress and anxiety weaken immune system function, and negative emotions can have effect on circulation, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, even hormonal functioning.  It can heighten our vulnerability to disease or manifest itself as back pain, fatigue, or headaches.   Research suggests that holding on to negative feelings may actually shorten our lives.  According to some studies, optimistic people have longer lives than pessimistic ones.  Ridding ourselves of negative emotion may improve physical health as well as the body’s power to heal.

It’s not always as easy as it sounds.  Everyone experiences strong or negative emotions from time to time, and during difficult or painful experiences like a marital break-up, job loss, or a diagnosis of cancer, heart failure or other serious conditions, those feelings can be intense. Anger, anxiety, fear or pessimism are common, but that’s not all. When we suffer a new wound to our psyches, old, unresolved wounds from the past can re-open and bleed again. Fortunately, there are many therapeutic tools to assist in the healing process, and as the research shows, writing and telling our stories of our illnesses, hardships or struggles is one of them.

Many writers, novelist Henry James once said, begin writing from a port of pain, finding a kind of release and solace in putting their deepest—and most fearful—feelings on paper, whether in diaries, journals or poetry and stories.  Port of pain or not, it’s often hard to get started, difficult to give ourselves the freedom to express all we’re feeling on the page, even though we want to. “Keep the pen moving,” I often say to the participants in my writing groups.  “Write without stopping or thinking about what appears on the page.”  The time limits imposed for different writing exercises helps, because it forces them to write quickly, in effect, silencing their internal critics.  Often, when someone chooses to read what they’ve written aloud, I hear the comment, “I didn’t know I wrote that…” after an especially powerful sentence or paragraph.

One of my favorite examples of “release” through writing is in learning to free up and write a rant, something that just “lets it all out.”  I often use a poem by   Rosanne Lloyd, a contemporary poet who combines eloquence with directness and forcefulness in her writing.  her poem,  “Exorcism of Nice,”  is one I find helpful in inspiring  writing group members to “just let it go.”  In this poem, the  poet reacts to a litany of long-time restraints, expressing anger and pain that has silenced her own voice:

Mum’s the word
Taciturn
Talk polite
Appropriate
Real nice
Talk polite
Short and sweet
Keep it down
Quiet down
Keep the lid on
Hold it down
Shut down
Shut up
Chin up
Bottle up
Drink up…

Tucked in
Caved in

Shut in
Locked in
Incoherent
Inarticulate
In a shell…

Oh, Wicked Mother of the Kingdom of Silence
I have obeyed you
long enough

(From: Tap Dancing for Big Mom, 1996)

Lloyd’s poem is a useful model for freeing up to express negative emotions on the page.  “Anything goes,” I frequently say as group members begin writing.  “Whatever is on your mind, whatever is irritating you, making you angry or frustrated–just write it.”  What invariably happens in the writing that follows is always powerful, even sometimes hilarious, and coupled with a newfound freedom to write honestly and deeply—the kind of writing that has the potential for healing.

In this time of social distancing, self-isolation and uncertainty, I know my frustration tends to surface more often than usual, and in those moments, I become irritable and negative.  It has helped me to write regularly, and I’ll confess that a few rants have appeared in my notebook, but the beauty of doing so for me, is that my list of frustrations turns into a parody of my feelings and results in  rather light-hearted and humorous endings to whatever frustration I’m  feeling.   More than a few silly poems have resulted in the pages of my notebook in these many weeks of indoor living.

Perhaps trying out a rant is something you can try writing when COVID-19 necessary restrictions on our lives gets to you.  Why not give yourself permission to “let it all hang out” on paper—to expel any anger, frustration, or pain that may be building inside as the days continue to move slowly and with increasing monotony.  It’s an exercise for release—and it can even be fun.

Writing Suggestion:

Try writing your own rant.  It can be about anything.  You can use Roseanne Lloyd’s poem as a model or write one in letter form, as in Tony Cross’s “Open Letter to Hummingbirds,” appearing in McSweeneys, 2004, or Canadian comedian Rick Mercer’s video  rants against things like winter, Tim Horton’s and some  people’s behavior during COVID-19 (available on You Tube).   Here is an excerpt from Cross’s letter to hummingbirds:

Dear Hummingbirds,

Hey, would you take it easy already? What’s the freakin’ rush, hummingbirds? I don’t get it—why must you flap your wings so damn fast? You need to chill out.    Here I am, sitting in my garden, quietly reading a book and sipping on a fruit cocktail, and all of a sudden you’re buzzing into my field of vision…

I found the You Tube video rant by Canadian comedian Rick Mercer on seasonal amnesia personally relevant this past weekend. Our balmy spring weather from a week ago turned wintry, and snow flurries completely hid the view from our balcony of downtown Toronto.  I ended up writing my own anti-winter weather rant too…the weather didn’t improve, but my mood did.

The nice thing about writing about difficult emotions or frustrations is that it helps you release them from you body to the page.  You can be honest.  No one needs to see what you’ve written.  You can tear up your rant into a hundred tiny pieces or simply hit the “delete” button when you’re finished writing.  What matters is that you write, without self-criticism, and release the frustration and negative emotions from the body to the page.   Set the timer for fifteen minutes and have at it.   Write a rant.  It can be about anything.  Exorcise those negative emotions or frustrations.  You’ll just might feel better once you do.