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Illness and the Art of Creative Self-ExpressionReview - Illness and the Art of Creative Self-Expression
Stories and Exercises from the Arts for Those With Chronic Illness
by John Graham-Pole, M.D.
New Harbinger, 2000
Review by Deborah A. Hill
Apr 8th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 15)

This book is for anyone who has experienced ill-health in body, mind or spirit or has a loved one who has; I think that should cover just about everybody. I can't imagine anyone not getting something out of it. The author is a pediatrician at a university medical center who has established some ways to heal the parts of us that can be healed through the arts--drawing, singing, playing an instrument, daydreaming (did you know this could be artistic?), etc. and has co-founded a model Arts in Medicine program at the medical center.

His philosophy in this endeavor is based on the idea that "the symptoms you develop when an illness or disability affects you are symbolic of what that illness means to you. Your body tells you what you need to hear, no matter how often you try to silence it. If you or a loved one are ill, you may have tried to create a story to explain it, one that has pieces of your own life and those of your family woven into its fabric." All of us begin adulthood with a story--unconscious or not--of what we expect to do and happen to us in our lives. Illness and disability can turn that into an unusable mush. The exercises in this book help us to find new meaning in our situations, whatever they may be. They allow us to "restory" our story.* So he presents exercises that can be done from all areas of the arts especially for those of us who are "artistically challenged."

The author emphasizes that even though a part of us may not be cured, that does not mean that some other part of us (mind, body or spirit) cannot be lifted out of the situation and be healthy in itself. Patch Adams, M.D., the "clown" doctor expressed in film by Robin Williams, is a friend of the author and wrote the Foreword, so humor is also a part of Graham-Pole's philosophy of healing. He prefers to call this process "health promotion" and the emphasis is on finding ways to control our situation rather than artistic excellence. Learning not to judge ourselves--to celebrate what's right with us rather than the wrong--in these exercises is in itself a valuable tool to learn in living with sickness or health.

Being creative in some way (painting, photography, writing, crocheting and even daydreaming) can help give voice to our stories--past, present and future. But its value can be especially apparent when we are in our most desperate straits. At times when we cannot adequately articulate our feelings to someone verbally, grabbing a crayon or a camera or swinging into a dance or creating some music may have the dual purpose of finding the apt expression as well as giving us a needed distraction.

The term "flow" has found a new meaning in our vocabulary in the last few years since Csikszentmihalyi penned the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. "It is the state, or process, of being totally involved with life at this moment in time. The passage of chronological time becomes essentially shut out from your consciousness." We may know it as a "rush" that athletes get when they get into a certain rhythm or a writer who writes for hours or days without stopping or a reader who finishes a book in one sitting or flying a kit on a great windy day--all because time has stopped for them. "You find that place that is just free. Freedom, just space--no time--it's just space and it's just energy and then you ride it." One of the exercises he suggests is to make a list of the activities that make you feel this way, and if there are none how to remedy it. If you have had these experiences, did you notice that they can improve your mood tremendously, that you have more energy or patience, feel more in control of things?

This book is not made to be read without stopping. You have to stop reading at some point and do an exercise. Some of them are in parts and can last the rest of your life or you may want time to reflect on what you have just read or created. It would be impossible to not find something that resonates with you in some way. One of the exercises is to write a gushy love letter to yourself, another to draw a mandala of your extended family. Everything needed (resources) are fully explained and within the scope of anyone--nothing is expensive or difficult to obtain. He suggests that some be done in the company of others, but it's not required if you'd rather not for whatever reason.

Other exercises are more physical. For example, he gently leads us into the thought of dancing by yourself. If you can't stand up, you can move in some way with your body. If you can't move your whole body, you can use a finger. If you can't move a finger, you can imagine in your mind. There are no easy "outs" here for sidestepping getting into the Flow!

With each type of exercise, Graham-Pole emphasizes that no judging is allowed. For example, he uses the circumstance of being given a compliment. Most of us tend to be self-effacing and will essentially negate what the complimenter has just said in some way--especially us women. To begin with, that's a slap in the face to that person, essentially saying she lied! Graham-Pole has devised some great responses. You can, instead, say "Thanks for noticing!" and "Hey, tell me more. I've got plenty of time.... So, what else is good about me? I want all the details now." and "So you like my work, huh? Well, just how good is it?... No hurry, take your time telling me all the good stuff." Isn't that grand! I double-dog dare you to do it the next time you receive a favorable judgment.

*The idea of using the metaphor of "story" for our lives has become common in the area of health psychology. Several other authors who have used it are: H. Brody, Stories of Sickness, G. Becker, Disrupted Lives, K. Duff, The Alchemy of Illness, and A. Kleinman, The Illness Narratives.


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