On the evening of March 26th, 2012, Yvonne Kent Pateras suffered a massive hemorrhagic stroke, leaving her unable to speak or move. She also experienced “locked-in” syndrome. These are Yvonne’s own words regarding the traumatic stroke she experienced:
“I had the experience of knowing what was happening to me from the beginning. I felt a sinus rhythm in my head becoming louder. I tried to center myself, but it was over before I had time to act. I opened my mouth to shout for help-the noise that left my body was the most primordial noise. My beautiful voice had been replaced by the noise of a wounded beast. I wouldn’t hear another word for the next for 3 months. I knew that I had not only suffered a stroke, I was paralyzed and locked in. I couldn’t tell my family that I knew what was going on. I tried to just keep my neurons busy and alive. I did simple counting exercises to stay calm and occupied-to keep my adrenaline levels under control. I was determined to survive.”
After four months in the hospital, to everyone’s surprise, and with extraordinary courage, Yvonne was able to regain speech and movement. Yet, in a span of approximately ten months, she suffered three ischemic strokes, and another hemorrhagic one. Since different kinds of strokes require different treatments, medical care was challenging.
Yvonne persevered. She said that recovery required “endless effort.” She can now walk without difficulty. She has a light speech impediment and lost some functioning in her right hand.
As we now know, with post-traumatic growth, trauma like this can often serve as a catalyst for a profound awakening to an emotional and spiritual transformation. Yvonne’s awaking came in the form of writing poetry.
“Following the stroke I went through a spell of re-learning, like being born again. Feelings were overpowering my mind’s concentration and understanding. Writing verses were facilitating the expression of my feelings. Publishing my work also gave me upmost satisfaction, particularly as the response by other stroke victims was so moving. Poetry takes the weight off my legs, gives me wings!!!”
You can find Yvonne’s poetry in her book, Stroke Journeys, by clicking on this link.
There is research that those experiencing PTSD reported improved well-being in response to poetry therapy. This might be the case because a hallmark of having experienced trauma is the subsequent difficulty processing the experience, which results in avoiding and suppressing associated emotions/memories.
Poetry therapy has provided an outlet for those suffering with PTSD to start to integrate many of these feelings, and even more so, to start to reframe the traumatic experience.
Poetry therapy itself is a bit abstract to describe, but there are a few ways to engage with it. Here is a multi-model poetry therapy practice developed by Nicholas Mazza, the founding and continuing editor of the Journal of Poetry Therapy.
According to Mazza’s model, poetry therapy involves three main components:
- Receptive/prescriptive: This part of therapy involves the clinician/therapist reading a poem out loud, and then subsequently encouraging the client to react to it, either verbally, non-verbally, or both. The therapist might even prompt: “Is there a particular line in the poem that resonated with you?”, or “I noticed you started to become teary-eyed when I read this line…”
- Expressive/creative: This entails actual creative writing. The therapist promotes stream of consciousness writing that might aid in discovering blocked emotions, parsing felt emotions, or retrieving memories that are difficult to articulate. The therapist might offer a prompt to help someone get started.
- Symbolic/ceremonial: This includes working with metaphor/simile to help further explain emotions that are hard to describe in a more literal sense. The ceremonial part may consist of writing a letter to someone they may have lost and then burning it.
The efficacy of poetry therapy is still being studied. Most of the empirical evidence for its effectiveness comes through James Pennebaker’s (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology) work in the therapeutic use of expressive writing. His studies have indicated that the use of expressive writing, even for as little as 15 minutes over the course of 4 days, resulted in positive health effects. In addition, his initial work dealt with the use of expressive writing to heal wounds from traumatic stressful events.
One case in point is that in the aftermath of 9/11, poetry was utilized as a healing mechanism. According to a New York Times article on October 1, 2001:
“In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way … Improvised memorials often conceived around poems sprang up all over the city, in store windows, at bus stops, in Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Heights, and elsewhere. …”
In some ways poetry gives us the way to speak about the unspeakable. It is more and more common for those suffering with medical challenges to write their story, many times in poetic form, to aid in their own healing. As always, it is crucial to note that just like with mindfulness approaches to trauma, poetry therapy is most often used in conjunction with other therapies.
On a personal note, I’m particularly drawn to this type of therapy and recently started studying for my MFA at Queens College. I am touched by the profound pain that is both individually and collectively felt, how this pain can displace someone from others and their selves, and yet, the profound capacity for resilience, healing, and growth. Aside from writing my own work, I hope to employ poetry as a technique to help my clients say what they couldn’t otherwise say.
Here’s an example of a poem that I recently published in the British Journal of Medical Practice in this vein:
I’ve been writing recently about the profound connection between the brain and our gut! Most of my writing was intellectual, sometimes metaphorical, maybe a bit poetic, and also humbly instructional (i.e., the way mindful eating fosters health vis a vis this connection).
Today, here is part of my own journey with #AlimentaryAngst, the story that sparked my personal and professional quest to help heal mind through body, and body through mind.
Thank you to Further Food for publishing this and thank you for all the support. I hope this resonates-ultimately, that is why I’m putting THIS forth! What has YOUR journey been like? Comment below with your thoughts, I look forward to responding to each one.
To Thriving, xo, Dr. Jen
This blog post originally appeared on Further Food.
Let’s rewind. February 2013, I noticed that I’d become more bloated than usual after a hearty meal. I experienced a feeling of pressure in my stomach, as well as visceral pain, both of which converged to create a really uncomfortable experience. I also had GERD, and my heart felt fiery. My xiphoid process felt irritated. I was a hot digestive mess.
As uncomfortable as it was, I kept my cool. It was only a few weeks later, when I looked down towards the floor and couldn’t see my own feet, that I gasped with every ounce of guttural energy I had in reserve. I looked six months pregnant.
I used my hands to cradle my inflamed belly and I cried. I cried for so many reasons: the pain, the discomfort, the cruel joke of hearing my biological clock tick so loud I thought I’d go deaf. I only looked pregnant, but wasn’t. Was this some kind of phantom pregnancy? Was that even a thing? Was I about to be catapulted into psychological stardom with my new discovery? This faux-preggers state was characterized by the undoubted lack of a fetus, but a great yearning for one, and a belly the size of six-month gestational equivalence.
I went to the doctor. Gave her a history, which was mostly sparse, except for the few things I seem to always be relaying to doctors. I felt lethargic and tired all the time, and I couldn’t seem to ever get enough sleep. I never woke up feeling rested. Overall, I’m healthy, and thankfully so, but there’s health and then there’s “HEALTH.” The difference is the same as that between surviving and thriving. I prefer to do the latter.
My diagnosis: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which had nonchalantly decided to go camping in my gut, like a pesky parasite sucking the life out of every ounce of normal flora to be found. Camping: as in pitching tents, and starting fires, and sleeping in the dark hollows of my alimentary organs.
The road to wellness began with self-compassion. Then, I changed my diet, and embarked on a journey consisting of many lifestyle changes. This was both extraordinarily cathartic and vulnerable to write. Yet, as a mind-body-brain wellness advocate I truly think it is incumbent upon me to share my journey. Why? Well, because my journey is what catapulted me towards the process of researching, reading, conversing, asking, anything I could about the topic. Gut health became a focus of not only my own, but of my practice with my patients.
I am blown away by the connection between mind, body, brain and gut. In fact, the gut is so powerful, and exerts so much impact upon our daily lives, that it’s even been dubbed the second brain. For me, knowing there is a real live brain in my gut makes me think twice about what I put in it, and I’ve never felt better.
Check out my next post on Further Food-I’m going to keep it raw and real, but will get much more technical and science-y about the importance of gut health.
I am every woman
who serves our country on the front lines
who goes through puberty
awkward ashamed and framed
by mother nature
who feels stigmatized or satirized
as latter-day hysterics
made to think it is all in our heads
you are every woman
who gives birth to a hungry child
in war-torn Africa
who loses an ovary
or a breast or a uterus
to cancer or just to life
who cycles as each mood
is manifested by screaming hormones
she is every woman
who drinks to numb the pain
of post-partum lows
who feels betrayed by the body
as she ages physically but not in spirit
who binges and starves
behind society’s billboard of expectations
we are every woman
who dreams outside
of the box
eyes closed lips moving
who cries viscerally
laying in a fetal position
from a broken heart
or mind or body or soul
we are every woman who rises up-
every time. everywhere.
Who is a woman you are grateful for? Look up to? Respect? Tell us about the special woman in your lives and why they are EVERY Woman…
Once upon a time, during my postdoc, I became intrigued by the notion of personal narratives. As a psychologist, I always knew that obtaining at least some sense of one’s history is important to contextualize current difficulty. But this understanding felt different. This was a realization that language naturally becomes a way in which we come to understand ourselves in the context of the great big universe we are a part of.
One moment in time becomes another, and many moments strung together make a day, and then a year, and then many years. In parallel to that, our words become full sentences, and then paragraphs and pretty soon we have chapters.
As usually happens when I become intrigued by something, I did some research. What that really means is that I perused peer-reviewed journals, read many blog posts, and made a point to be mindful to personal experience I either had or witnessed (anecdotal stuff!)
Here are a few things I came up with. Let’s delve in together!
Actually writing about our emotional experiences influences our health
This is true for many reasons including:
1. By writing about emotional experiences we simply become more health conscious and then ideally change our behaviors. Seeing things in writing can lead to “Oh, I didn’t realize, but I can be more proactive in this way or that way…”
2. Just the act of expressing something in it of itself has been shown to be beneficial to our health. Get this…this is sometimes true even more so for expressive writing (verbal) than expression through movement (non-verbal)!
3. The act of converting emotions and images into written words can change the way we organize and think about traumatic experiences we’ve had. Through writing, we have the chance to integrate our sometimes-fragmented thoughts and feelings into a cohesively constructed narrative. Once that is formed, the traumatic event can be better understood linearly in our memories, and then better integrated into our every day lives. Basically, when experiences are translated into language, it becomes something we can grasp.
We each have a unique story
How do I know this, you ask?! Well, if I ever doubt it, I am reminded every single day when I sit with many patients back to back. Yes, people technically struggle with the “same” thing, for example depression, but EVEN when they have the same check-boxed criteria, their struggle is different. The same is true for positive experiences. Why? Simply put, because you are you and no one else is.
No one has the same lens through which we perceive our existence and interact with the world, which has evolved over our lives amidst all the people and places in it.
We have a say in how our story unfolds
You are the protagonist. So own it! Research shows that when you construct your narrative with yourself as the leading person, opting for the driver’s seat instead of shotgun, your mental health is improved.
Here’s the even more amazing thing…
We can CHANGE our story at any time. We can’t delete certain paragraphs that ooze with negative facts and daunting realities. We can’t cut out chapters that we rather have not had. They will always be there, and that’s ok. Research suggests that the actual experiences we have are less impactful than the story we tell ourselves about them.
At any single moment, we can change our scripts of helplessness and hopelessness, and move beyond them by empowering ourselves to do just that.
Are you ready try to write our stories from a different perspective, with a new belief system a la I AM enough/worthy/capable/lovable? I look forward to hearing your thoughts…please comment below and let’s get this convo started!
Dr. Jen @BrainCurves