Correspondence and reprint requests: Robyn-Marie Butt, R.R.#3, Woodstock, Ontario, N4S 7V7
The art of healing lies not always in its ability to suppress a condition, but sometimes simply in its ability to understand, elucidate, and name a condition. Happily named and secure in the name, a patient may then decide to go on his or her way, and medicine has yet been perfectly well served, because the soul of the patient has been well served. Medical "success" need not be measured solely by whether or not treatment is accepted, undertaken, and executed.
Suppose you are suffering from an illness. Suppose you are not a physician, and you do not know what sort of illness you are suffering from. Because the diagnostic process takes time, for some weeks you are left hanging as to the name and treatment for this illness; in the meantime, your imagination begins offering up images and stories about your condition. These stories and images constitute your metaphorical or mythical condition; in the absence of a medical diagnosis, the images offer to infuse your illness with meaning.
It should interest every healer that the metaphor (story, myth) which a sufferer supplies for her illness may enrich both her own experience of suffering and her physician's experience of healing. Transforming an otherwise purely medical affliction, a myth moves its teller and its hearer from the sometimes over-whelming dictates of quantity of life to the ineffable experiences of quality of life. This being so, healers do well when they encourage patients to make metaphors while coping with their afflictions. Then, whether as healers or sufferers, we fulfill our primary responsibility as human beings, namely, to make meaning. Meaning need not be ponderous or solemn. It can also be comical, light-hearted or absurd. However, contrary to our prevailing Western assumption, meaning is not made in the intellect; true meaning is made in the soul, using the experiences of the body.
The rationalist Western bias asserts that a "myth" is something fanciful and untrue. As Robert A. Johnson explains, this arose "because of the misguided idea that myths were the childish way ancient (humankind) had of explaining natural phenomena that science explains so much better." (1) However, he adds, "certain psychologists and anthropologists are now helping us see myth in another light, to understand that mythology reflects underlying psychological and spiritual processes taking place in the human psyche." (2)
Myth has an additional value. (3) Jung believed a myth should be analyzed, but a gentler and more humorous view asserts simply that a story is always more valuable than silence. A metaphor does not need to be explained. At its deepest level--that of enjoyment and enrichment--a myth yields its treasure once it has been told and heard. In and of itself, storymaking carries soothing and healing properties.
My own story began with symptoms that were compromising my ability to study for university finals...
Feb. 3, 1985. If, when we're our usual selves, we're like a radio station perfectly tuned in, lately my brain is a box where the Strauss waltzes and Talking Heads songs slip off into crackle, as if some Trickster was playing with my dial. Because I'm not a radio, I think of It as "playing," but maybe these fluctuations are only a matter of fine tuning; maybe, when the voltage shoots up and my consciousness fades, it's Someone fiddling to improve reception. I think of the Talking Heads song:
Picking up something good--
The sound--of a brand new world...
Feb. 8. Radio ME still hums and crackles. But this week I've been having headaches, with the odd dizzy spell and nausea, which afflict my ability to read and write. I forget things, lose my sense of direction, and watch my hand write words with letters missing. Yet as the spells get worse, I also attend with pleasure the demise of a more nervous self... except at medical appointments. I spent three days this week in doctor's offices or the waiting-rooms of medical technology, because I could not stay upright when asked to stand, eyes closed, and stretch out my arms.
Day of the Brain Scan: Injected with radioactive particles to be differentially absorbed by the tissues of my brain for photographing. All my other tissues absorb the radioactivity too, but not in order to be photographed. The hall outside said NUCLEAR MEDICINE and I thought grimly of NUCLEAR WEA-PONS, NUCLEAR WASTE. Still, what was the trade-off between my brain now and something unspeakable induced by NUCLEAR MEDICINE 30 years hence? A technician ran the scanning room with sweet, shotgun authority. "It's a very low harmless dosage," she intoned, pressing a control-button on her belt. The gamma camera descended and brushed my head softly: a featureless robot's caress.
Next day: Eye Appointment. "You're a bit far-sighted," said the eye doctor, and then spoke gravely about "other tests I really should have," which scared me. Dabbing my weepy sockets with squashed yellow Kleenex flowers, I then groped my way over to Women's College X-ray dept. There a slouchy woman in pink made me press against a high bar and hold my breath while she exposed my chest to flying particles, meant to reveal things like T.B.
Each time my diary mentions stressful symptoms--the fear or discomfort caused by my condition, even the alarm engendered by simple lack of familiarity with diagnostic tests--my diary record of it is quickly followed by one or more of three responses: 1. I make a simple metaphor--the hankies are "squashed yellow Kleenex flowers," the camera gives a "featureless robot's caress"; 2. I compose a description that shapes the experience into a colorful story --"a slouchy woman in pink," exposure to "flying particles;" 3. I muse philosophically in a manner that places my experience into a larger context --"thirty years from now, this may have a different meaning." My choice of words or images also gives the experience an emotional tone--humorous, fearful, etc. However, I don't seem to need to arrive at a comforting conclusion: simply the exercise of metaphor-making or of creating a larger picture for my experiences seems to bring comfort and renew my confidence.
Though these exercises were not followed consciously, having employed some or all of them on each of my day's events, I then quickly close the diary entry. Help--needed when I began writing--has been found. My suffering has decreased. I am no longer a victim in my own life; I am a player.
Some profound mechanism is operating here. How does it work?
Each of the exercises requires me to activate my imagination in order to express my sensual and emotional experience. Evidently, help has come because allowing imagination to interpret experience this way awakens and feeds the soul.
Feb.12. I've decided that my brain is not a radio, it is a pool. When my brain is itself, the pool sits protected and calm, its surface still. Then It happens, and It is someone--I see an angel--sitting above my head as she drops a pebble in. Plop, the small shock, the ripples, the pebble settles, the pool closes over it and goes smooth again. Other times this angel only blows on the surface, sending little eddies riffling across my skull from side to side.
Feb. 13. Today at the neurologist's I learned that the brain scan had been abnormal and that I have to go for more tests. The pebbles dropping may be seizures, and he suggested anti-convulsives, but not very forcefully. Told him I'd think about it. I prefer this understanding I have with the angel tossing pebbles into the water in my head. "Remember," the angel seems to say to me, "that you are mortal." And she drops a pebble. Then she whispers, "I want you;" and it seems clear that "me" anchored by a pen to this paper before me, or "me" feeling this brain part, as if into the Hereafter, like a Red Sea bowing before Moses, is one and the same to her. A week ago, after that first bad dizzy spell, I went walking in streets that were thudding gold-white under snow and announced to God that, considering my mortality, I was not yet prepared to bargain. I met with no resistance.
In this entry I come to the crux of every patient's fear about illness: "Am I ready, am I able, to face my own mortality?" In my case, although beginning to discover what was going on in my body, I was so far advanced into my imaginative experience that I recognized in it a meaning equal to the meaning provided by diagnosis and medication. The comfort my imagination provides is so effective, I can now admit in my diary that I have been wrestling with my mortality. Probably my life was in no serious danger; yet my soul recognized my illness as a call to a reckoning. How did I face mortality? Encouraged by this drama played out with "an angel," I took my hopes and fears straight to God and "met with no resistance." In other words, I realized I had the power to make choices in my life, including the choice to live and to prosper.
Further entries show how consistent these patterns of self-help prove to be.
Feb.23. I haven't heard yet from the neurologist about my CAT scan. It was the scariest thing done so far. I was directed into a room full of equipment and one person. One person for so much equipment! The white mechanized table had a padded trough running down its centre; two metal armrests swelled from its sides like a parody of angel's wings as if I would be fitted to rise up clanking in the antiseptic halls of heaven. I put my head in the brace; a doctor injected dye into my arm; then the table slid me into my halo, and my brain became the kernel in a white metal cylinder. A bright white dot of light went round my head, one-half of its parabola visible to me. On the edge of hearing I was aware of strange noises like machines talking underwater, like whales in outer space. This gentle lullaby soothed me: the sound, perhaps, of X-ray and dye greeting each other inside my head.
Thus it was that I acquired the diagnosis of Partial Complex Epilepsy. I was given a prescription for a low dose of phenobarbital to use at my discretion. However, because my seizures were mild and would not deteriorate if I chose not to take it, after a brief trial I left the phenobarbital unused. My personal myth had proved more compelling. This was not a final word on medication and the taking of it; it was just me exercising an option. Time could prove whether I'd made the best choice.
May 1. Since I stopped taking phenobarb, my relationship to the world has changed. My interaction with its physical laws has altered; space seems less like emptiness and more like an embrace, time has seemed to relax. When I swim, I am more aware of lights flashing in the splash, bubbles exploding, sun rippling on the blue pool bottom, and less aware of the speed of motion. I feel more like a drop in the pool itself, and less like a separate structure fighting to subdue water. My observations, though acute, are calm as if emerging from a dream. Most of the time I feel that I float in two worlds at once: the world we all know; and a place of the mind where everything I experience glows with significance.
The seizures settled into cyclical bouts that arrived from time to time like relatives at holidays. I greet them as I greet guests. Today, as a practicing psychic looking back at her neurological history, I realize that what my imagination told me was happening may actually have been happening. It is commonly acknowledged that some psychics come into their gifts following brain injury--after which psychic "reception" (remember "Radio ME?") is improved. Now, when I give a psychic reading, it is as if someone with angelic intentions is communicating helpful insights meant to be of service to my client.
It is striking to me that the diaries convey such calm. Even as I fell ill, I entered a dynamic world where simile lived and breathed, where physical sensations and distress signaled the presence of heavenly creatures dancing through my life. Thus even my worst moments became a meditation on experience and mortality. Saved from the role of victim/patient, I became a traveler in an exotic psychosomatic land.
My experience leads me to propose that other patients know more than they tell about the characters and creatures that inhabit their own sufferings. Money is scarce and professional time becomes ever more precious, yet life is about meaning and depth of experience, not only about efficient performance. Physicians can activate their own souls and also the patient's by listening carefully to these illness "stories." Usually, when a story veers into metaphor, physicians tend to interrupt, wanting to push on to more concrete "facts." Yet it is in the metaphoric slips of the tongue that the patient reveals the potential meaning of her illness. Physicians would do well to encourage such flights of fancy. Contrary to appearances, this exercise reduces the physician's healing load because, as imagination enters, the patient's suffering diminishes. The patient may not be conscious of his improvement and may still need physical healing, but both will be aware of a positive shift at the level of the soul.
My advice to physicians is this: listen; allow a parallel reality to emerge and take its place beside the crucial one of physical symptoms and diagnosis. Be attentive also to your own spontaneous metaphors: these, too, contain help. Encourage your patients to keep illness diaries and keep your own healing diary in which you freely express your imagination and feelings. For those who prefer, illness stories can be recorded on cassette or can be drawn or painted. Ask both yourself and your patient not only what the symptoms are, but also, "What are they like?" Similes, metaphor's first cousins, contain the words "like" or "as if." Finally, copy this paper; post it or put this issue of Humane Health Care International in your waiting-room. Affliction diagnosed and treated is a job well done; affliction mythologized is a life fully lived.
Summary and Conclusion
A personal myth--a spontaneous description in imaginative narrative language of one's experiences and feelings--can contribute deeper meaning to an illness and the life that follows. Diaries kept during an illness may reveal healing levels of humor and comfort, which then ease the patient's greatest fear: mortality. The myth-making process contributes positively both to the patient's experience of illness and to its successful resolution. Physicians are urged to listen for and encourage personal myth-making in their patients and themselves; making metaphors for illness activates deep healing and assists the physician's task.
Writer and professional psychic Robyn-Marie Butt is pursuing a part-time M.Div. with a focus on chaplaincy and medical ethics. She was formerly part-time Chaplain to the Meeting Place, a street drop-in center in Woodstock, Ontario. Her latest book, Seasons of Ordinary Time, was published by The Mercury Press.
(1) . Johnson RA. He Religious Publishing Co., 1974; 1.
(2) . Ibid., p.2.
(3) . From here on, I shall use "myth" synonymously with "metaphor" and "story." Though they actually bear technical differences, these differences are relevant principally for clinical analytic and literary discussions. This paper purports to be neither. This paper wishes to celebrate the simple power of folklore at its source: as imagination, hearsay and story-telling.…