How a writing workshop at Gilda’s Club has helped me find a place of refuge

I have been organizing and facilitating an expressive writing workshop for Gilda’s Club in downtown Chicago. The first six-week session was last fall, and the second is wrapping up next week.

Research by James Pennebaker and others shows that expressive writing can help us cope with difficult experiences. From pain and fear to loss and anger, from helplessness and alienation to relief and guilt, cancer confronts us with a tangle of emotions. It pulls the scab from old wounds and intensifies conflicts with friends and family. Cancer is exhausting and painful. It can shatter our identity.

I’ve written before about how writing can help us reshape our stories and bring understanding to us in the midst of conflict. As I’ve developed materials for these workshops and have gotten to know the participants better, I’ve been learning how to more fully use writing.

They say if you want to learn something, then teach it. Thankfully, Gilda’s Club has offered me the chance to do just this.

Gilda's Club belongs to the Cancer Support Community. It is a place for anyone touched by cancer: men, women, teenagers, families.

Gilda's Club belongs to the Cancer Support Community. It is a place for anyone touched by cancer: men, women, teenagers, families.

Yesterday, the prompt I offered to the group was focused on “places of refuge.” Though I’ve used this prompt before, I've recently developed it into a three-part writing invitation. I asked folks to write about the following:

  • In detail, describe a time when you felt at peace, free from pain, safe, comfortable. Where were you? How did you get there? What did you see, smell, hear, feel? Try to take yourself back to that time and re-experience it.
  • With no boundaries at all, imagine an ideal place of refuge. Who would be with you? Would you be on earth, in space, in the clouds? What would you have with you? What would you see and hear? This is a dream place. It can exist inside our physical world or it can be a spiritual place.
  • Thinking specifically, how can you create a place of refuge in your own life? Where can you literally construct a space where you can find peace (if only for a few minutes)? Or, where is a place you can go. Is it at home, on a train or bus, in a church?

My goal was to help people remember a time when they have actually felt peaceful. It’s easy to forget those places when you’re suffering. If we can recall what peace felt like, looked like, smelled like, then we can re-experience it and feel it again in our bones.

I also wanted them to create, inside their own heads, an imaginary place that could be a place of perfection. When you’re in a waiting room or a pre-op area, in bed exhausted or in pain, you can go to this perfect place in your head. By thinking of it in detail, and by writing it down, your brain can find another place to be.

Finally, I wanted them to think about making and identifying a physical space they can go to that might provide refuge. Sometimes we need to actually be in a safe space. If we learn to identify that place, we can also learn to go to that place when when we need to. We can provide ourselves a place for a time-out.

This group of writers really enjoys sharing their writing aloud, and I found their responses very moving. The detail they brought to their writing made me feel like I was in the spaces they had written about.

What surprised me, though, was being asked to read what I had written. I usually write with the group, and this time I was swept away by the third part of the prompt.

I have a chair in my house that is used only by our cat Ziggy. It used to be in my office, but I moved it to the living room to free up space. It occurred to me that because I’d never used the chair for anything. It doesn't have any associations, good or bad. It is a neutral piece of furniture in an emotional sense. It seems perfect for a time-out spot.

I wrote that I could move it back into my office, a room where I can close the door. I can put it next to the window where I can see the bird feeder, where I can listen to a guided meditation or to a favorite song. I can reserve this chair for my safe space. I can create associations of peace by being still and by seeing and hearing what’s around me.

Well, today has been a terrible day. Truly I would have preferred to stay in bed under the covers because I don’t want to deal with the emotions and frustrations of today. I feel emotion shooting out in three or four directions about a handful of situations. And, I’m tired. I’m just tired of coping.

It dawned on me that my writing from yesterday holds hope for me. When I get home, I will move that chair into my office, and I will sit in it, and I will listen to something on my headphones. I will be still, and I will take a time-out. I will begin creating my own safe space.

But, it also dawned on me that Gilda’s Club has become a safe place for me, too. I’m facilitating a writing workshop, but the participants are creating a space for all of us, where we can write, tell our stories, and reimagine them in ways that help us heal.

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Filed under: Cancer, Uncategorized, Writing

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