IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH

LITERARY THERAPY IS AN OFTEN UNDER-UTILISED MODE OF RECOVERY


By Mathilda Heller: Culture Columnist


Being ill is one of the most isolating human experiences. Whether it be mental, physical, or a mixture of both, being unwell can push people to periphery of society, gazing out of their cage as a throng of seemingly healthy people stroll by.

The feeling of being alone in one’s illness is particularly widespread now, when many people have lost their social support network due to Covid.

Illness becomes painfully obvious when contrasted with those who are well, and it is in moments like these that we need something to turn to: a form of solace during the hard times.

And what might that be? Friends and family – maybe. Hobbies, music, sport. Maybe. Or perhaps something that’s less obvious: the written word. One of the greatest medications.

The experience of illness is ubiquitous; any emotion that someone may feel when they are unwell has been felt before. And whatever pain or loneliness or frustration or despair or anger or disillusionment that they are experiencing – someone will have undoubtedly written about it.

There is nothing more comforting than finding out – in the depths of a difficult experience – that you are not alone. Reading about others’ similar struggles allows for connection, validation, solidarity and potentially, self-compassion too. People can find in literature what they may not be able to find in real-life relationships: someone who comprehends their battle.

For example, in his poem Your Voice in the Chemo Room, Max Ritvo writes: “and I don’t know/onto what uncertain ground I might fold like a sack”. This line is laced with an intense feeling of despair and exhaustion. We can sense the speaker’s deflation and his inability to fight his illness any longer. Yet whilst this image is desperately sad, it has a poignant kind of power. Lines like these validate others’ similar struggles, who can use the written word as a tool for feeling less alone. Someone undergoing chemotherapy could see this poem, and nod in agreement, feeling that Ritvo has put their emotion into words.

Sylvia Plath, who makes penetrable the most painful of experiences, writes in Face Lift that she feels “something precious is leaking from the finger-vents. At the count of two darkness wipes me out like chalk on a blackboard…” The uncertainty, the fear, the feelings of insignificance – she encapsulates the entire dehumanizing experience of being ill or in hospital, of feeling that she means nothing and has no dignity and no agency.


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whatever pain or loneliness or frustration or despair or anger or disillusionment that they are experiencing – someone will have undoubtedly written about it.

But, paradoxically, by dehumanising herself in this poem, Plath humanises the concept of being unwell; she takes a subject matter that is hard to express and makes it completely relatable. Here is a voice of suffering. Human suffering.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Sickness, and writing about sickness, often go hand-in-hand with writing about recovery. Plath symbolises the recuperative process in the final lines of Tulips: “The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,/ And comes from a country far away as health.” Here, she vocalises her feelings of uncertainty towards her illness; she doesn’t know how or when she will get better, and this frightens her. And yet she expresses recovery as something tangible – “a country” – something that she can reach, swim to, take refuge in. Plath shows the reader that recovery is possible, even when it seems impossible.

The process of writing about recovery is best described by Robert Adamson in his poem Winter, Hospital Bed. The entire poem is achingly beautiful, but one image – in the second stanza – stands out in particular: “I didn’t write poetry for publication/In those days but to grab the attention/ Of readers nearby who had been crushed by life/Who floated across the exercise yard like headaches”.

Here, Adamson demonstrates how writing is not necessarily for large audiences or acclaim, but about connecting to other people. He writes to reach those whose lives are embodied by pain, who are suffering and alone. And in doing so, Adamson succeeds in gifting his reader with a portal, enabling them to enter his world, and allowing them to see that they are not the only one going through difficulty. Thus, the written word instigates a kind of conversation between reader and writer.

Because writing through illness and reading through illness are ultimately the same thing. They are both methods of self-medication and of finding solace through suffering.

Whilst unwell, reading about others’ similar experiences or feelings is essential; literature may be someone’s only form of human connection. Raw, true, pity-free. Their life jacket in a tumultuous sea.

Poetry, prose, non-fiction – the genre isn’t important. All that matters is that the written word can heal and soothe in a way that conventional medication cannot. Words can work to heal the one thing that medicine cannot heal. Words have the ability to cure loneliness.


MACKAYAN: READING FOR HEALTH