Using Stories To Heal: Pushing Back Against Isolation Through Expression…

Using Stories To Heal: Pushing Back Against Isolation Through Expression

Using Stories to Heal

I first met Teresa at a Lyme disease support group meeting in Pennsylvania. I was there to tell my own story, to discuss the ways I have navigated my seventeen-year battle with chronic Lyme disease, and — hopefully — to present living proof that despite the odds, it can get better.

At the end of the meeting, Teresa pulled me aside to show me something. She took a paper folder out from her bag. In the folder were her drawings of Bottles Trees, a project she calls, The Bottle Tree Art Project. “I really connected with the visual image of feeling as if my essence is trapped in a Bottle Tree,” she told me. “I can’t stop drawing them.”

About a month later, I was travelling with my family in Portugal, thousands of miles and weeks away from my conversation with Teresa. Walking through a garden there, I saw a bottle tree. Its braches were stuck inside of the clear, colored glass — trapped, just as Teresa had drawn them. I snapped a picture and sent it back to her as soon as I got home.

Throughout the last year, I’ve met hundreds of people living with chronic illness. I’ve heard their stories, and I’ve shared my own, but there was something about Teresa’s that stood out to me.

Her story wasn’t chronological; it wasn’t about her treatment or her doctors. Her story was an artistic expression exploring the way she felt about her illness.

Even though she worried it was fuzzy or unfocused, her drawing gave me a glimpse into her identity and experience that was incredibly clear and honest. I related immediately.

SEE ALSO: Mending A Broken Heart: 7 Steps To Heal And Love Again

The Healing Power of Self-Expression

Art therapy is now used regularly in trauma cases and with long-term illnesses patients around the world. As of 2009, 45 percent of U.S. healthcare institutions had established art programs, and that number has been on the rise ever since.

In one interesting study, Dr. Thomas Houston, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Bedford VA Medical Center, investigated the affects of storytelling on a group of 230 hypertension patients. His work demonstrated how narrative and self-expression actually could help people physically lower their blood pressure.

The healing power of art and expression on patients has been well documented, but there is an additional benefit that we don’t always think much about.  

Artistic Expression Helps Us to Let Other People In

One of the biggest challenges about living with chronic illness is the feeling of isolation that often comes with it. It’s the feeling that people in your life, sometimes even the people you love the most, don’t understand what you’re going through.

Sometimes, when I sit across the room from someone and try to explain what it’s like to live with chronic pain or chronic fatigue, I feel an intense pressure to articulate myself perfectly. I worry that if I don’t, people won’t be able to empathize with my experience. But the reality of the situation is, even those who share my diagnosis can’t empathize with every aspect of my disease. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t connect to it.

In storytelling and in art, there is some inherent, implied ambiguity. An artist does not expect us to perfectly understand every aspect of their work. And this ambiguity enables us to think about their art in a more abstract way. We relate to it and we can find ourselves in it. In chronic illness, artistic expression helps relieve the pressure that patients, friends and family often feel when it comes to discussing the experience of chronic illness.

I write. Teresa draws. Another woman I know writes music. These devices help us to share things about our experiences, things we may fear no one will understand. And through that creative expression, we can start a dialogue that people can connect to — even those who don’t know what it feels like to live with chronic illness or chronic pain.

Building Community

I will be the first to admit that writing and speaking out about illness can be hard. I didn’t tell people about my experience with chronic Lyme disease for years. I kept it as secret as possible. But by doing this, I struggled to fully heal myself, and I struggled to allow people to help me with that healing.

Once I was able to express my thoughts creatively, I was able to connect with people about my experience with so much more ease. Writing about life with chronic Lyme disease has helped strengthen almost every one of my relationships.

It’s changed the dynamics of my family and has helped to start more honest and open conversations with my friends.

I used to feel like I needed to hide my experience from my loved ones. Now that I’ve learned how to express it, they are helping me to heal.


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Allie Cashel

Allie Cashel was first diagnosed with Lyme disease in June of 1998; she has been a sufferer of tick-borne illness…

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