Writing is writ large in our family, so to speak. My dad started his career as a finance journalist, one of my sisters is a sports writer while another is the author of several academic works. I married a journalist and together we’ve run a public relations firm for almost thirty years, writing everything from media releases to CEO’s speeches, website content to annual reports for various local and international clients.
One could safely say that I’ve made a career out of writing, but never in my wildest dreams did I think stringing words together would actually save my life.
Strange as this may sound it all started when I was eight years-old. I contracted Hepatitis A, a disease strongly linked to unsanitary bathroom conditions much to my mother’s horror. The inference that there might be a hygiene issue with the toilets in our home almost did her head in. For what it’s worth, Mum, all these years later I still blame the filthy ablution block at the Coorparoo State School where I was a third-grade student at the time.
I didn’t know it then but in addition to causing damage to the liver, viruses like Hep A also fiddle with one’s DNA causing all manner of strange and largely unexplained ailments further down the track. When I hit puberty at around fifteen, daily headaches to some degree of severity or other, had become my ‘thing’.
Over the ensuing forty or so years there were a couple of bouts of viral influenza and some hormonally disruptive life events like pregnancy, miscarriage and gestational diabetes. When the circumstances are explained, any right-thinking person would most likely agree that daily headaches resulting from liver damage early in life are well within the bounds of medical feasibility. They’re not some fantasy ailment dreamed up by an overly imaginative patient, nor are they simply ‘all in my head’, as one GP tried to convince me.
No. Real headaches, as opposed to imaginary ones, were/are my daily grind. Throughout my life I’ve tried a veritable A to Z of treatments for this pesky and persistent ailment, ranging from traditional western medicine approaches to their polar-opposites of alternative, metaphysical and spiritual therapies. It was at the ‘woo-woo’ end of this spectrum that I wound up, literally, in therapy where writing as a healing modality was first suggested. I was in my mid-forties by this time.
My therapist suggested asking my body the question, ‘what do you need?’ and then writing down the answer with my non-dominant left hand. The theory goes that the non-dominant hand accesses the sub-rational part of the psyche, enabling the body, as opposed to the mind, to answer the question.
I’d love to be able to say that my almost incoherent left-handed scratchings broke the hitherto encrypted code of daily headaches. It didn’t – but what it did do was prompt me to further explore writing as a pathway to healing. Somewhere along this road I decided to write a book – I’m still writing it, in fact – called My Friend the Headache – a sort of memoir that characterised the different types of headaches I suffered and chronicled my struggles and on-going search for answers.
I wrote upwards of twenty chapters, started a blog on my Epiphany Communication website to get fully into the discipline of regular writing, and even engaged an editor-come-coach to help things along.
During a particularly stressful set of life and work events (think difficult boss, a child diagnosed with dyslexia and an ageing father with Parkinson’s Disease living in another city), I started blogging on each of Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success in a bid to bring some peace to my chaotic life. It actually worked with the peace and chaos thing, but with the headaches, not so much. Nevertheless, that series of essays became a book entitled Vegetarian Vampires and What We Can Learn from Them, that brought me a great deal joy in the writing and even more joy when other people told me how my musings had helped them along their own path.
Then BOOM – on Tuesday December 17th 2013, aged 52, I was diagnosed with a hormone receptive, infiltrating lobular carcinoma in my left breast. You’d think with all the therapies I’d undertaken for the headaches that I might have been a bit more in tune with my body. Clearly I wasn’t because this diagnosis utterly blind-sided me. There’s no breast cancer in my family and I have three sisters, none of whom have been diagnosed with anything more cancerous than an easily dispatched colorectal polyp.
In a bid to make sense of what was happening to me I started writing a series of blogposts entitled My Big Breast Adventure while undergoing (if you’ll pardon the expression) the ‘pointy-end’ of treatment throughout 2014 and 2015.
There were thirty-two posts during this time and while I didn’t set out to deliberately shock, some of the headlines were a bit provocative, I’ll admit. These included Cut, Poison, Burn and Laugh, Dying and Other Inconveniences and What the FEC? The latter was in honour of the acronym given to the chemo cocktail many breast cancer sufferers are forced to endure. It stands for Fluorouracil (also known in oncology circles as 5FU – yes, you heard right), Epirubicin and Cyclophosphamide – FEC for short. Who knew oncologists had a sense of humour? Well, they probably don’t but blogging about it surely helped me and quite a few of my readers to see something amusing in the horror that is chemotherapy.
Let me confess right now that my reasons for blogging while going through treatment were purely selfish. I was trying to rationalise the tremendous shock of becoming a cancer patient, while finding a way to keep my tribe informed about my progress. I literally didn’t have the energy to return all the wonderful phone calls, texts and emails I received at the time, and I felt bad about that.
At first my posts attracted the kinds of comments one might expect – messages of love and support in the main. But as I progressed people started relating my observations on this ‘adventure’ to things they were going through in their own lives – an acrimonious divorce, the death of a parent, a crisis at work.
There, in the very depths of my own personal ‘valley of the shadow of death’ I was gob-smacked by the sheer healing power of simply telling my story and being told in return that my writing had helped somebody else. I kid you not – this is the best, most sanity-saving and life-affirming tonic of all.
So that’s why I decided to turn the whole blog shebang into a book entitled My Big Breast Adventure or How I Found the Dalai Lama in My Letterbox. My fervent hope is that my words might bring succour, comfort, a little laughter and ultimately, some healing to many more people beyond those who read my blogposts at the time.
Writing that blog, and producing it as a book, certainly did all that for me.
On Saturday 22 July at 2.30pm, I will be running a session entitled ‘Writing Saved My Life’ at the University of Southern Queensland’s Bookcase 2017 Writer’s Festival. Swing by if you’re in the ‘hood and we can chat about some tips that helped me write for my life.