Posts tagged Coping
Living and Dying with Intention

Chris Davie died on January 8, 2019, at the age of 41. He was diagnosed with a grade 2 Glioma—a brain tumor—on the last day of 2007, when he had an unexpected seizure in the car with his wife Betsy and baby son Nathan, on their way to a New Year’s Eve party. It was a frigid Minnesota night; luckily, Betsy was driving.

The diagnosis was a shock and the initial treatments--including brain surgery-- grueling, but he was told his life expectancy with this type of tumor could be 10 to 20 years, and this seemed like a long time. “

I know this is the real world, that this is terminal,” he recalls thinking, “but I am going to do my best to go 20 years.” Despite regular medical checks, life went on as usual, for the most part, for the next 10 years. But in 2017 the tumor started to grow again and, after a second brain surgery, the tumor was re-classified as a Grade IV Glioblastoma, a diagnosis with an average life expectancy of 15 months. The cancer was no longer “surreal,” as it had been for so many years. Suddenly, it was a reality with a frighteningly short time-line.

Betsy Davie, Chris’ wife, contacted me by email in early June, 2018. She had learned about Health Story Collaborative after watching a live-streamed story event, co-hosted by CaringBridge, featuring Michael Bischoff, another patient living with Glioblastoma, and his neuro-oncologist, Dr. John Trusheim. Betsy and Chris resonated with Michael’s story and were motivated to reach out. “Chris is in a tough spot medically,” she wrote.

“The last few months have been difficult. To be transparent, the tumor is affecting his ability to communicate, particularly in written form, which is why I am writing to you. In the last month we have discussed, at length, the importance of being more open with family, friends, and possibly the wider community. We are exploring ways for him to tell and share his story while he still can.”

We met in August to record their story. Chris was clear on his goals. He wanted to capture a record of his experience, to communicate what he was going through, what he had learned and what had been meaningful to him. Most importantly, he wanted his kids, Nathan, now 11, and Julia, now 7, to remember him and to know, deeply, how much he loved them and how much their love meant to him. During our conversation, he mentioned a song that has been important to his family—“The One Who Knows,” by Dar Williams. A quote from this song hangs on the wall in the hallway between his children’s bedrooms, where it has been for years. “You’ll fly away, but take my hand until that day,” it begins, “So when they ask how far love goes, when my job’s done, you’ll be the one who knows.” He knew that he would fly away first, before they are grown, but the message still pertains.

While on his way out of this world, Chris worked actively and intentionally to deepen his connections and to make his love known.

ChrisandBetsy.png

Michael Bischoff, who, without his knowledge, led Chris and Betsy to me, also has young children, and has also committed himself to doing what he can now, before it’s too late, to share his story and deepen his relationships. Michael reflects on his first experience sharing his story in community as follows:

“I was putting my trust in the healing power of bringing forth what is inside of me, not in thinking that it will magically cure me of cancer, but in trusting that bringing together my internal and external worlds will bring me closer to life, and connect the sometimes-lonely landscape of moving through brain cancer with other people I care about.”

Michael is now part of the Health Story Collaborative team, our Healing Story Principal, guiding others in storytelling and leading by example. He has taught me that it is possible to heal even in the face of death. He has demonstrated the power of connection. If we fully own and openly express our vulnerability, the imagined walls that keep us separate often disappear.

At Health Story Collaborative, our work centers on using storytelling as a therapeutic tool. We work closely with individuals navigating health challenges to help them construct and share their narratives in ways that are psychologically productive and empowering. Our approach is grounded in research supporting the health benefits of storytelling. We encourage the development of certain narrative themes that have been linked to improvements in mental health, namely agency, communion, redemption and coherence. But the people we work with keep it real. It is not always possible to have a sense of agency in the throes of illness. And not everything is redeemable. It can’t get worse than death.

And yet, Chris and Michael, two men with Glioblastoma, a deadly brain tumor, have given me hope and inspiration. They remind me: it is not all or nothing. Even when death is imminent, we can look for threads of redemption and flashes of agency. We do what we can, and we do it with love. We nurture and celebrate our communities and connections. We give voice to what is in our minds and hearts. We expose our humanity. They remind us.

If this isn’t healing, what is?

Originally published on WBUR CommonHealth Blog on January 15h, 2019.

Facing Cancer More Than Once

Alicia has faced cancer more than once. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in college and has had to deal with both cancer recurrence and a new diagnosis of breast cancer since. More than half of her life has been colored by cancer. Today, Alicia has become an advocate for others living with cancer, and a voice of inspiration. She is a dynamic and powerful speaker and an excellent storyteller who delivers her message with compassion, wisdom and wit. 

Healing Trauma Through Narrative: A Social Worker's Story

I met Denise last spring, in a 6-week Narrative Medicine course I co-taught for social workers. She stands out in my memory of the group in many ways: her outfits were always exquisitely coordinated; her eyes sparkled and often glistened with tears; she easily offered humor, truth, and consolation. She always made comments that illuminated the texts we read together in ways I had not previously considered. Perhaps most striking of all was how profoundly the workshop seemed to impact Denise: “It was a monumental experience for me, in my life, as a clinician and as a person.”

For 28 years, Denise has been serving victims of trauma in Brooklyn and Queens. Although she considers herself strong emotionally and mentally, she inevitably experiences vicarious trauma through her work. Narrative medicine - a field based in the belief that effective clinicians must know how to receive, interpret, and help craft their clients’ stories - offers her a means to work through some of that trauma: “(It) is a healing measure that I can tap into that will keep me grounded, keep me available, keep me conscious. To never ever find myself in a position of ‘Oh, I’ve heard this, I’ve seen this before…’ No. Each time is my first time with that person. And (narrative practice) helps with that.”

As traditional narrative medicine occurs in a classroom, the course consisted of closely reading and discussing a piece of poetry or prose every week. Then each participant, facilitators included, composed a brief response to a prompt related to the reading, and shared our writing aloud with one another.

Denise has always used writing to sort out her experiences. But the practice of narrative medicine expanded her appreciation for the power of the written word: “Reading someone else’s writing and trying to make sense of it, how I might interpret it, and then using that to be able to reflect and write about a personal experience I’ve had – that blew me away.”

Denise models how clinicians can incorporate narrative practice into both their personal and professional life. She finds it helpful to do on her own during a busy day at work: “Sometimes I’ll have to sit in my office and close my door and start writing a thought that I had about an experience I just had with someone, and it’s safe. It’s in a place where I know I can go back to it. I can ground myself. I can be in a place of objectivity instead of subjectivity.”

Denise also introduces her clients to their own narratives during therapeutic encounters, by asking: “What was the first thing you thought when this happened to you?” She observes how an invitation for them to tell their first-hand experience of the trauma “allows them to push everyone else to the side. Often people don’t think about their first thought, their first emotion. And that gets them to a place where they can write a (first-person) narrative.” 

She guides them to develop their story, through writing or speaking: “Some write a paragraph, some only write three sentences. And those three sentences we can talk about for weeks. Some of them choose not to write at all, but instead to record their own voices. And they save those recordings in their phone, and they (listen to it) every so often.” Some of her younger clients even choose to narrate through rap.

Once they begin writing - songs, lyrics, poems, any genre - Denise sees them “healing and moving forward towards closure. They’re experiencing and developing or recognizing skills they had but suppressed or pushed to the side, because they didn’t consider it important. But it’s that very strength they have in them that draws them to a place of healing.” There is a sense of ownership, mastery, and pride that they gain from becoming authors of their life experiences.

Denise encourages her clients to see themselves as she sees them: individuals who have experienced traumatic events, not victims whose stories can be lumped together in domestic violence tropes. She discourages them from telling their stories as: “I’m a victim of domestic violence and this is what we victims of domestic violence…” Denise instead tries to help each client realize, through crafting a unique story, that “You’re an individual. This is what you went through. How did it affect you: your thoughts, your body, your emotions? I want them to be able to write that out. That narrative is so crucial.”

Denise recognizes, in herself and her clients, the radical changes that narrative practice can cause: “It keeps you from being stuck and unmoveable, to a place where there is mobility, and there are choices. And those choices can be so powerful that it can get people to move from A to B, but in some cases all the way down to Z (where they) find closure.”

Denise vows to carry onward in her clinical practice and personal life using narrative medicine as an unparalleled resource: “This story practice…I don’t think that there’s any medication that people can take that does the particular piece that this work does. On a cognitive level, physical level, emotional level – it’s not anything that can be replicated anywhere else.”

Below is a poem Denise wrote in honor of her clients and their experiences.

Out of the Darkness

Wounded outside in

I felt as though I have sinned

Wounded inside out

Oh how I wanted to shout

But there was no way out

 

Confused by the tormenting of my mind

It often told me to flee

And escape this life of mine

These intrusive thoughts

Powerful and fierce

Lead me into a world of

Self-affliction and fear

 

In the shadow and secret nights

You told me I was your Queen

Once you called me wife

Confused by your touch

Why did you love me so much?

 

Your hands strong and mighty

Forming a fist that would crush my body

So, still I stood, unaware of my own breathe

Somewhere in the corner of my mind

Wondering when will the night terror end

 

The story is out now and my song is strong

No longer will I hide in the corner of my mind

No longer confused and afraid of the midnight air

It stops here

 

Listen to my story loud and clear

I am free of the misery and constant fear

No longer vulnerable or invisible I am here

I will sing loud and strong for the courts to hear

What you have done to me over the years

It stops here.

 

The table has turned now

Hide in the shadow and behold your fate

As you will spend the rest of your years

Fearing those who have heard my song 

More about Denise Briales:

Denise has worked in the field of social work for the past 28 years servicing victims of trauma both from secular and sectarian backgrounds.  She herself has been exposed to many traumatic events that have made powerful imprints in my personal and professional life. Denise has long used journaling as a therapeutic tool. Since being exposed to narrative medicine, when she reads back her written words, she attains centering, grounding, awareness, and healing from the experience of vicarious trauma that affects caregivers in mental health professions. 

More about Annie Robinson:

As a patient, and as a caregiver in the role of a doula supporting women through birth, abortion, and miscarriage, I have experienced the power of stories in healing. I recently graduated from the Narrative Medicine master's program at Columbia University, and will begin at Harvard Divinity School next fall to explore the borderlines between ministry and medicine.

I also curate an oral narrative project called “Inside Stories: Medical Student Experience”, for which I interview medical students about their experiences in medical school with the intention to provide a platform for their own person healing, self-realization and empowerment through the sharing and receiving of personal stories. You can listen to their stories on iTunes podcasts or here: http://in-training.org/inside-stories.

Over the coming year, I will be working as an intern for Health Story Collaborative and writing a series of blog posts that profile remarkable individuals committed to honoring and making use of stories in health care. If you or someone you know might be interested in being interviewed, please contact me at healthstorycollaborative@gmail.com.