Illness and the
Art of Creative

Stories and Exercises
From the Arts
For Those with
Chronic Illness

John Graham-Pole, M. D.
(New Harbinger)
For the last thirty years Graham-Pole has been working with children with cancer. "Some people think this must be soul-destroying work," he tells us, "but it's not at all."

    These tens of thousands of young people have been my inspiration. They've given me much more that I could ever give back....Often they seem to carry their own families through.

Based on his experience of the patient as teacher, the author has seen that these children, often desperately ill, have two key survival techniques. One is living each moment at a time, ignoring (as much as possible) the past and the future, knowing instinctively that the greatest gift is "our precious gift of the present."

He finds, too, that children with life-threatening illnesses often turn instinctively to art,

    painting or song, poetry or dance --- whenever they need to make sense of scary or confusing things...whenever they need help finding words for things they have a hard time expressing.

From what these patients have taught him, Graham-Pole has put together a 200-page book filled with techniques to help others, children or adults, escape from what might be desperate tragedies they find themselves in, the tragedy --- for instance --- of a body gone strange and wrong. It's an excellent exegesis on using art as medicine.

The author gives us stories out of his own personal life, and, too, his experiences as a doctor. He demonstrates how some people with ghastly physical illnesses have somehow survived without going under. For example, one of his patients, suddenly, at age forty, developed aplastic anemia --- in which the marrow of her bones ceased providing the cells that make the immune system function. Here was an active woman, mother of three, suddenly reduced to invalidism;

    Worse...was the unspeakable strangeness of it all. Neither she nor her husband could begin to make sense of this invader that was suddenly devastating their well-ordered lives. "It was as though I'd gotten up one morning, gone out of my house, and found myself in a strange country where no one spoke the same language as me."

The hardest thing for her, as for many of us with new, incurable, chronic illness, is the loss of the experience of being master of the body, and our surroundings: "I'd been used to being in complete charge of my life. Now suddenly I couldn't control things anymore."

One reels from the knowledge that one will be dependent; one needs to rely on help, in some cases, not only from family, but from total strangers. Depression takes a terrible toll. Self-pity ravages one: the injustice of it all, the continuing question --- why-me? Some turn in anger on those who can continue their day-to-day lives free of such a blow to body and psyche.

What did this lady with aplastic anemia do? One night she had a dream in which she was six years old, with paintbrush and canvas, making pictures. When she awoke, she took the dream to heart. With no experience whatsoever, she started painting. On her many visits to the hospital, she "got into the habit of packing her overnight bag for each visit, complete with a sketchpad or some loose pieces of paper, paints, and brushes." She admitted she knew nothing about painting, but she forged ahead, making "colors on paper, great splotches and swirls and nameless shapes." She said later,

    It was comforting, sort of safe. I didn't have to explain it to anyone, I could just run away and hide with my paints and my paper. They were my friends. It was like I could tell them anything I was feeling and thinking. They didn't answer back, didn't give me bad news, didn't counsel me about what was best for me.

§     §     §

Illness and the Art of Creative Self-Expression is packed with personal stories like this, descriptions of patients who have taken things into their own hands to make it possible for them to survive when they find themselves in new and unexpectedly threatening circumstances. Mixed with these stories are specific suggestions from Graham-Pole. Keep a journal. Write poetry. Take up sculpting. Do fantasy work, or drama, or group tale-telling. Sing...or hum. Hum? One of his patients --- a 70-year-old with ulcers on his legs that brought him back into the hospital again and again sang to himself, all the time.

    I asked him once about this habit of his. It was obvious he was hardly aware of it, it was so ingrained. He though about it for a while, then said: "I s'pose it helps me concentrate when I get a bit unclear about things. And it keeps me happy, you know. Whenever I'm a bit out of sorts I just start up humming and I feel better."

Graham-Pole says, "For all his limitations and his frailty, Drew was one of the happiest souls around. He gave off a spirit of happiness and repose without having to declare it."

§     §     §

Graham-Pole is a merry and lively spirit who has put together a worthy workbook for anyone whose life is falling apart. The emphasis, he says, must be on giving full range to the child within (which is, after all, where the artist lives) and --- and this is key --- suspending judgment. If we are suddenly going to take up drawing or poetry or journal-keeping or song, we have to get rid of the ninny within that says That's not art or What a stupid poem! We can't permit such self-criticism because we aren't in competition with the world; rather, we are doing survival stuff --- we are teaching ourselves the very necessary tools for keeping on after all else has failed.

--- A. J. Kramer, M. D.


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