Writing Illness: On the Horror, the Beauty, and the Release by Zomi Bloom

I have been alone since birth.
The world with all its bigness has afforded no space
for a creature like me. My body has fought
me with every sensation and breakdown—except
when I can run, and that’s not an option anymore.

The question is how to write when the experience overwhelms you.

Sitting back and shutting off the frontal lobe, letting the other parts of your brain, neurons, body, guts and heart take over — this is the excruciating and eventually liberating process that creates art and poetry. This is not unlike the healing process. It is not easy to sit back and let our bodies do the work, to let go, and then eventually to recognize the point at which the work is to be born.

When a piece of art spills out it feels like catharsis. The frontal lobe comes back into play to birth the poem or the painting but it can only be a facilitating partner in the process.

The nature of the creative experience (which sometimes means riding a wave) exists in contrast to one of the most criticized aspects of western medicine which is the idea of fighting our illnesses. Sometimes it’s an apt metaphor—and has helped many a cancer patient keep their spirits—but it may also damage us. If you have chronic pain, or an autoimmune disease, or trauma, or any number of chronic illnesses—the trick to survival may just be to sit back and let the body manage. Fighting makes for an intolerable life. You marry the pharmaceuticals, the physical and cognitive therapies, your own heart, all together and find some measure of peace with a body that behaves in contrary ways.

I believe that learning this letting go, while allowing yourself to experience the enormous fear and pain and even shame associated with illness, is the pathway to relief; to block these excruciating feelings renders them all the more powerful. You end up locked in a fight with yourself.

But can practicing the arts, can writing, teach us a way to be free?  This is a question I ask myself daily, journal about, and often write around.

Sometimes the sense of loss and grief over not being able to turn the pain into beautiful poetry or prose is its own specific kind of hell; and that’s when you get to practice that patience and acceptance—the same radical acceptance it takes to live with a chronic illness.

I have a collection of poems I call “The Sick Poem Series” which tells the story of me, trying to learn to live with undiagnosed gastrointestinal pain, followed by the story of the diagnosis, and culminating in… further pain when my body still rejected food for years after the removal of a diseased gallbladder. During the times I really thought I couldn’t take the burning wound in my gut anymore, words would take over (not always words that made sense to anyone else) but words nonetheless that brought me a measure of peace and relief—no matter how fleeting. One of those poems is published alongside explanatory prose in a medical humanities journal called Survive and Thrive (St. Cloud State).[1]

Then there is the matter of living with anxiety and depression. The words sound so pat. I hear commonly in health campaigns that mental health disorders are common and easily treated. They may be common but they are not always easily “treated,” not for people like me at least, who need to find ways to deal with a hypersensitive nervous system, long-lasting effects of a difficult childhood complicated by the biology of predisposition, and unyielding intellect coupled with a darkness with power all its own.

You can’t fight this kind of darkness. You can’t wish it away, you can’t pray it away, you can’t medicate it away, and while I found that running long distances gave me relief for several years, even running can’t fix this permanently—injury or not (injury in my case).

But writing is always there, even if it results in expletives sown together for pages on end. Sometimes the sense of loss and grief over not being able to turn the pain into beautiful poetry or prose is its own specific kind of hell; and that’s when you get to practice that patience and acceptance—the same radical acceptance it takes to live with a chronic illness.

Sometimes after months of punching “I can’t take this anymore!” onto the page, clarity emerges. And it might look like an essay, just like this one.

[1] “After the Endoscopy, in Which You Looked into My Guts and Found Nothing,” available at https://repository.stcloudstate.edu/survive_thrive/vol4/iss1/21/

Zomi Bloom is a poet and mother of three in Duluth, MN. Originally from the East Coast, she has called Duluth home since 2012 and has been inspired by the stunning landscapes and expanses of water of northeastern Minnesota. She loves coffee and sleeping and is the author of the collection “Coming to Duluth.”

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