Healing Words was the intriguing title of one of the panels at this year's Melbourne Writers festival. The panel participants discussed the many ways the written word can aid healing. The sick and those with a disability often turn to the written word in in search of remedies and understanding.
The first port of call for those recently diagnosed with a disability is usually self-help books. There would probably not be a disability or illness that does not have at least one book offering advice on how to manage it. Matthew Johnstone's book
I Had A Black Dog is about living with depression. Mental Health Connect Trainer Deborah Green said the book made a huge difference on how she approaches her mental health. For her, the book's wonderful words and pictures accurately conveyed the experience of depression.
After using self-help books for information, many people read memoirs for more personal accounts of living with a disability. Memoirs typically start with a diagnosis of an illness followed by a set-back laden road to recovery. Memoirs are usually one person's unique experience with an illness or disability.
Melinda Harvey, one of the panellists at the writer's festival, said she could not find her experience in what she read. She had cancer in the face and lip so, unlike many people who battle cancer, she was unable to hide her illness. She was also pregnant when receiving cancer treatment.
Because each person's illness or disability is unique, self-help books and memoirs can't offer solace to all. Some people find healing in religious texts like the Bible and Koran, while others might find more novel healing words.
A Novel Cure
Novels, short stories and poems can help a person escape to a world without sickness and disability. Conversely, stories with characters who have disabilities can give insight into how to manage it. For example, Jodi Picoult's novel
Handle with Care is about a child with osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bones. The novel was recently reviewed on DiVine.Its reviewer said
the great strength of the book is highlighting the practical and financial challenges frequently faced by people with disabilities and their families.
A novel or short-story does not have to have characters with your particular illness or disability to be healing. Instead, the novel can have a story that leads the reader to some deeper insight into their own life. To enable people to use literature to heal there is a reference book called
The Novel Cure. Its writers, Ella Berthoud & Susan Elderkin, claim it contains an A to Z of literary remedies.
The Novel Cure website offers a few examples of literary remedies. Some of the recommended reads have characters with disabilities. They recommend
Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, for those who struggle with empathy. It is about a badly wounded soldier who wakes up blind, deaf and with no limbs. The website says that even the coldest heart will take its first steps towards compassion after reading that novel.
With the abundance of self-help books, memoirs and novels, it is obvious that many people are writing about their illnesses and disabilities. Apart from being cathartic, writing can lead to new understandings as a writer attempts to make sense of a disability. For example, Karen Tyrrell wrote her memoir,
Me and Her, as part of a manic obsessive drive to make sense of her bipolar and to seek answers to why she had become so ill.
Writing can be therapeutic. American social psychologist Doctor James Pennebaker is a pioneer of writing therapy. His research shows health benefits flow when people write about major traumas in their lives. People who wrote about their traumas tended to visit doctors less because their immune systems and psychological well-being strengthened. Writing about trauma helps explain what happened and how the writer felt about it. Pennebaker's research also showed that patients who were able to write a positive slant on their lives appeared to benefit more.
During the Healing Words panel, practicing GP Peter Goldsworthy said images of an accident victim he treated haunted him until he included that scene in a story he wrote. So why not join Doctor Goldsworthy by writing or reading some healing words.
Deanne's review of Handle with Care
Link to my Divine review of Me and Her