The idea of “narrative medicine” can be understood in two ways. The first, a verb, is something for doctors, a way of practice that recognizes that the experience of an ill patient is important in medicine. Good ole’ Merriam-Webster defines a narrative as, “a way of presenting or understanding a situation . . . that reflects . . . a particular point of view or set of values.” So, in other words, the patient’s story about their symptoms or illness becomes just as important as the symptoms or illness itself because it reveals a wealth of information, and also shows their humanity. As Dr. Rita Charon, Founder of the Narrative Medicine program at Columbia University, says,
to recognize, absorb, interpret, and be moved by the stories of illness
is to practice medicine with narrative competency. It’s all about building on the belief that stories are our lifeblood and the way in which humans make sense of the world, and applying that directly to medicine. In fact, I’ve heard it argued that the human need to tell stories is really one of the facets that makes our species unique.
The second understanding of narrative medicine, a noun, is something for everyone, a way to craft art out of the chaos of life, no doctorate required. This understanding sees writing as a type of therapy – one that is cheap and uniquely accessible. Writing is a powerful tool that is almost always at our disposal: a pen and a piece of paper are literally all that is required. I mean, even a carpenter’s pencil paired with a Tim Horton’s bagel wrapper will work (I say this because I once had an English 30 student hand in an exit slip consisting of such a combination, I kid you not). Writing doesn’t discriminate.
The act of writing allows us to re-order, rearrange, and re-imagine our experiences, shaping them into stories that carry the meaning we choose to assign as we re-tell them to ourselves, and others. Remember that bit a few paragraphs ago about humans needing to tell stories? I’m sure we have that need because there are so many feelings, negative and positive, swirling around in our brains, and thus in our bodies, that we get overwhelmed, and therefore don’t actually make time to feel. Sure, we know they’re there, but dealing with those feelings is hard work. And I don’t say that sarcastically, it really is. It’s so much easier not to, so a protective barrier goes up in the form of keeping busy with everyday life.
Fold laundry – again.
Pay bills – Over data, thanks Bell.
Go to work – smile, emails, bells, exhausted.
Cook supper – maybe meatloaf ? Gotta grab more onions. & milk.
Book dentist appointment – Thurs. 10 a.m.
More work – smile, emails, bells, exhausted.
Get gas – 50 km to empty
Wash dishes – rush, rush.
I get it. Pretty soon days, weeks, months, or even years have gone by. But if that protective barrier remains in place, and feelings are not allowed some sort of release, some exit, they will fester, and we will, I firmly believe, become ill as a result. Writing is one activity that allows that barrier to be broken down. We need to write in order to reflect, and to re-connect with ourselves. We need to write to release feelings and. to make sense of our experiences. We need to write ourselves out of the darkness.
The verb understanding of narrative medicine attempts to make medicine patient-centric, with the goal of healing. But the noun understanding of narrative medicine can be just as healing, even without a doctor. There is something so powerful about taking control of what has happened to you, and owning it by shaping it into your story. As Dr. George Zaharias says,
The power of language should not be underestimated.