Experience with Angels: The Value of Myth-Making in Adapting to Neurological Illness

Article excerpt

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:

Transmitter, oooh--

Picking up something good--

Radio Head

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. …