NAMING AN ILLNESS
I have recently begun a guided meditation practice the purpose of which is to call up and then neutralize negative forces and thoughts. My teacher tells me to name these thoughts—Anna, Rachel, Sue, etc.—so when I meet them during the day I have a concrete way of acknowledging their presence. I’m still a beginner at this and at first thought giving a name to something so negative would exaggerate it, give it a legitimacy I thought it shouldn’t have. But it’s easier to talk to people than to feelings and talking can reduce the sting. Grief, for example, is an impenetrable block; Greta, though, is a woman with a soft voice, long hair shading her eyes, a slight limp, and she is more comfortable in water than on land. I can lean into Greta to hear her speak, brush the hair from her eyes, take her hand and guide her to the rocking waters of the sea.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, in The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, says, “To name an illness is to describe a certain condition of suffering—a literary act before it becomes a medical one.” The true literary act, though, is in the renaming of the illness, to give it a moniker that is uniquely yours. This name is not the same as your diagnosis. Many people share that same name. Rather, it is an identifier of the nature and personality of what is afflicting you. It is a way to address your illness in familiar terms and to communicate what you are experiencing to others in a metaphorical form they can understand.
Write about your illness as if it were a person. What name does it have? Is it male or female and why? What does it look like—height, hair and eye color, skin tone, clothes, hands? Describe its mannerisms, habits, and moods. How does it speak? Create a dialogue between you and this character. When you are done, think about how, if at all, naming your illness this way has influenced your relationship to it.
Caregivers, family members, and healers can do the same exercise by developing their own character based upon how they interact with their loved one’s or patient’s illness. It might be interesting to compare the characters each has created, but that is strictly a personal decision because you, the writer, has to write first, and perhaps only, for your own eyes.
Try this same exercise by giving a name and character to a feeling or emotion, i.e., pain, grief, loneliness, relief, etc. You can also try naming your illness or feeling after an object, a plant, or an animal.