Posted in after the diagnosis, art and healing, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, creativity and health, Storytelling

Paint Your Life

I’m very attracted to the idea and philosophy of “Art and Healing”.  It doesn’t matter if you’re an artist, we are all creative in our own way and those unique abilities allow us the greatest gift in life, ultimate self-expression.  One of the questions I asked all the artists in the interviews was whether or not they had created a self-portrait.  Overwhelmingly the answer was yes, but a few didn’t feel comfortable doing a self-portrait as a result of their health challenge,

Visual artists will most likely paint, sculpt, or create a self-portrait artistically.  They may sketch in a journal or on large pieces of paper, but that really isn’t the only way to do a self-portrait.  What if we painted our life with words or through choreography?  What if you we wrote a song that personifies our health and healing journey?  Painting your life doesn’t have to be colorful because you squeezed color out of tube or picked up a crayon; it can be colorful because your add color with the words you choose, the textures you create based on your life experience, and framed by your hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

Painting your life requires that you dig deep.  It means coming home to that place in your heart and soul that exemplifies the best you.  Your self-portrait is a reflection of your experiences, but also the attributes and strengths that allow you thrive in this crazy world, especially following the diagnosis of a chronic or life-threatening illness.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own self-portrait and what it would look like on the design wall.  I feel like it would be a mixed media piece with fiber being the predominant material used, but I also envision words, lots of words printed on the fabric surrounding whatever figure I translate onto the piece.  It’s something I believe I will do in the coming months because there is something magical, for me, in projecting myself outside my own body with all its challenges, it’s still my body and my life!

I’d love to see your self-portraits.  Feel free to email them to me at greg@survivingstrong.com.  Let the self-portrait fest begin!

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, Illness Narrative, Storytelling

What if You Were Interviewed?

It’s the beginning of the new television season and for the first time in years talk shows are filling every nook and cranny of the television schedule.  This year big names like, Katie Couric, Jeff Probst and Ricki Lake, have entered the race for ratings with some very interesting guests and well-seasoned interviewers.

As I mentioned yesterday, I just returned from California and have just conducted interviews for my dissertation.  I had the opportunity to interview artists in their homes/live-work spaces where there was an intimacy that’s hard to describe.  The experience of asking someone questions about their lives is a privilege that I will treasure forever.  Having the opportunity to explore the depths of artists’ stories was life changing.  When I got on the plane to come home I tried to think about what it would be like to be interviewed about my own life.

I’ve been pondering that thought for the past few days and now I’m asking you.  If you were being interviewed, what would you like to share with the interviewer?  As you move through life after being diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness, what would you like to share that would be relevant and impactful for those watching the interview?

It’s imperative that you share the moment you were diagnosed, because that’s the starting point for your health and healing journey.  Beyond that moment, what has driven you forward as you strive to get better of get well?  What resources have you utilized to serve as a catalyst for health and healing?  What did you learn the hard way that you’d like to share to make the journey for others a bit easier?

These interview questions serve two purposes.  They allow you to tell your story, and when others bear witness to our journey it is healing.  The other benefit of an interview like this is that it serves as a teaching moment.  You are able to serve others by sharing what you’ve learned; you’ve become the expert.

What are some of the most important things you’d like to share?  Feel free to share them here so we can create our own community.

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness, Storytelling

Journey to the Center of the Story

I’m in the midst of completing my doctoral dissertation.  It’s a long and arduous process at least that’s what I thought until I went on a trip to California the past 2 weeks.  I spent time with a nonprofit, Visual Aid, who works with artists facing life-threatening illness continue to create.   They were gracious enough to assist me in recruiting potential interviewees.

I was sitting in the first interview and felt like I had come home.  I was interviewing an artist whose story was so authentic, hopeful, and complex (not meaning difficult, but layered like his art).  As I moved through the interviews I found the same qualities with each participant.  I was taking a journey to the depths of storytelling that I’ve never experienced, even in my thousands of hours of hours working with psychotherapy clients individually and in groups.  These twelve artists shared with me verbal canvases that were masterpieces.  Their stories matched the work, and their spirits were the greatest masterpieces of all.

It confirmed the importance of our stories.  The interviews catapulted the story to the top of my list when it comes to inspiration, hope, and possibility.  These are three qualities that are crucial when living life with a chronic or life-threatening illness.

While in San Francisco I was reminded by the importance of our stories.  I went to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and in the corner of one of the exhibits was a booth with the words StoryCorps written at the top.  National Public Radio airs stories of people from around the country who step into one of these booths and record for all of posterity a story that is important to who they have become and how they got there.  It was one more sign that the story was at the heart of the dissertation.

If you know an artist with a life-threatening illness who might be interested in telling their story, I hope you’ll pass on my information.  I think this project will impact how we look at illness, and the stories of those who tell them.  Please refer them to greg@survivingstrong.com and look for more stories!

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness

If Michelle Obama Said It; It Must Be True

The Democratic National Convention ended last Thursday, but more importantly, the week started off with a riveting speech by the First Lady, Michelle Obama.  She was eloquent and on point making her message clearly and powerfully.  It wasn’t until she said, “Life isn’t a sprint, it’s not even a marathon…Life is a relay”.

When I heard that line it clicked that she was talking about how reliant we are on others to make sure we make it to the finish line.  The African proverb goes, “If you want to get somewhere fast, go it alone; but if you want to go far, go with others”.  That’s the message Michelle Obama was sharing.  We wanted us to know that as a country all of our efforts are part of the solution and success of our country.   The follow-up question for some is what does that have to do when facing a health challenge?

Fact of the matter is that you only have so many internal resources at your disposal.  Most of us aren’t medical doctors or complementary health providers so there will be times when we need to pass the baton to those who will guide our journey.  Ultimately you’re the captain of the team, so what support do you need from your team members?

Aside from the obvious, medical knowledge, your team can help keep the team on its path on the journey to health and healing.  Your team members will help you recruit others to be part of the relay by referring you to specialists, or recommending other resources like support groups, benefits advocates, or spiritual directors.

It may be hard to pass the baton because we all want to feel in complete control all the time, but when you allow those with special knowledge and skills carry the baton you gain from their experience and give body, mind, and spirit a breather to regroup.  Your relay team will propel your forward in your quest for getting better or getting well if you allow them to show their strengths.  On a relay team they often put their fastest runner in the last spot of the race because they can make up time that may have been lost in earlier legs of the race.  Who is that person in your life?  The person who anchors your relay team may change based on the particular race you’re running on any given day.

The First Lady offered us as individuals and a country some sound advice; will you take it and make it work in your life?

Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness

Are We Stuck in Our Ways?

Yesterday I flew from Colorado to California to conduct some interviews for school.  The only difference is that instead of flying into San Francisco, I flew into Oakland.  You would think that wouldn’t make much of a difference, except it was different from my usual and I made silly decisions based on that “usual”.

I was driving in the car from the airport when I realized I was driving in the wrong direction.  If I continued in the direction I was going, I’d probably drive about 15 miles more than necessary and to top it all off, I’d be sitting in traffic too.  It took me a second to realize that the most prudent action was to turn around and go the other way, but why had I been so resistant?

We all like to do things a certain way.  Our lives are based on patterns whether you recognize them or not and when we don’t follow those patterns we feel a bit off.  So you can imagine what happens following the diagnosis of a chronic or life-threatening illness, all the patterns change.

How we did things changes for many of us because our routines change, our bodies sometimes change, and our emotional and spiritual lives often change.  When we try to apply our “usual” life patterns to our “new normal” we get confused, frustrated and resentful.

You would think that developing new patterns would be a no-brainer, but it’s complicated.  When develop these new patterns it means we’re making adjustments to our lives we never thought we’d have to make, leaving us a bit lost at times.  It requires us to be open to possibility because we may have a learning curve about how we’re going to live our lives from this day forward.

Our routines change, and as you read from my driving experience above, we rely on routines.  They provide comfort and allow us to live life on autopilot.   We have to create new routines and that means we have to be conscious (at least for a time).

We know this shift in our routines is possible because science has shown us it’s true.  When individuals suffer a stroke, it’s not unusual for the brain to create new neural pathways to restore functions.  If the brain can do it, don’t you think you can do it?

Where are you stuck?  What do you keep doing over and over that creates angst in your life?  Recognize it and make the shift, you’ll feel better!

Posted in living with chronic illness, Living with Illness, Spirituality and Health, Storytelling

Hildegard of Bingen in God’s Hotel

Prior to moving to Colorado I lived in the Bay Area for fourteen years.  I’ve been involved with health and healing since I started graduate school and that’s where my heart still resides.  I moved to the Bay Area from the east coast in 1986 at what would become the AIDS crisis at a time when medications weren’t very effective and people were dying all the time.

I’d met a woman who was a doctor at Laguna Honda Hospital.  It was a very old building and was considered an almshouse, a place for those who were poor and very sick.  For many, it became San Francisco’s AIDS hospital/hospice with its looming old structure tucked away, almost like a haunted mansion.  I always wondered about Laguna Honda, but never delved into its mysteries.

Then I ran across Victoria Sweet’s book, God’s Hotel.  She’s a doctor at Laguna Honda Hospital and has been for more than twenty years.  I could go on and on about the hospital, but it’s Dr. Sweet’s attraction to Hildegard of Bingen that caught my attention.

Hildegard of Bingen was a nun, mystic, medical provider who lived in the 12th century.  Dr. Sweet, after years of medical school and training went and received her PhD in history and social medicine focusing on the work of Hildegard of Bingen.  What Dr. Sweet shares is Bingen’s philosophy about the prescription of time when it comes to treating a patient.  She also comments on how Bingen’s triumvirate of care, Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merry were methods of treatment not just comic relief as we might believe today.

Dr. Sweet’s devotion to invoking the essence of time into her treatment plans, as much as she was allowed in modern medicine is a tribute to her knowledge of Hildegard of Bingen’s methodologies, and her believe in the human body and the human spirit in healing.

One of the beautiful aspects of “God’s Hotel” is how Dr. Sweet describes her personal pilgrimage.  In addition to walking the Santiago de Compostela, she discusses her personal pilgrimages experiences by her interactions with staff and patients at Laguna Honda.

So what do you think about Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merry?  In case you’re wondering it’s about diet, rest, and joy.  The book is a great read not only for the history of Laguna Honda Hospital, but for the incredible devotion Victoria Sweet takes us on both personally and professionally.  She’s the type of doctor we all wish we had.

Posted in after the diagnosis, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness, Spirituality and Health

Leave it All on the Stage!

They say when you audition for any type of performance art that you need to leave everything you’ve got on the stage.  It’s crucial that you not hold back because the selection/judging committee is seeing lots of people all vying for the same position.  When you hold back the only person you’re sabotaging is you!  Let’s face it, what have you got to lose, absolutely nothing.

I was looking at Facebook and found the following posted by one of my friends, “Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘Holy S**t…What a ride!”  I felt a sense of jubilation when I read this because it follows the idea that you should “Die Broke”, at least physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Allow your life to be spent wisely, but completely.

Perhaps this philosophy isn’t new, but we don’t talk about it much.  In all my years of working with those facing a life-threatening illness many hold back.  They talk about the big plans, but often that’s as far as the planning goes, but what if that changed?  What would happen if you had a personal activity director for your life?  What would you be doing if you had full-fledged encouragement to live everyday to its fullest?  What’s the one thing you would be doing today if you had to spend (figuratively) everything you had by the time you go to sleep this evening?

Life is finite!  The day is finite!  The possibilities are limitless!  Leave it all on the stage of life and let your life expand to its full potential.