Monday, November 10, 2008

Old Milwaukee and Art Therapy

Or - Old Montreal and Art-as-therapy.


I was in Montreal recently for the 17th International Congress on Palliative Care. For those of you who have never been, the conference takes place 'downtown' in the area known as the Quartier International (lots of banker-types in suits, cell phones attached to ears as they walk down the sidewalks). The QI is right next to Vieux Montreal ("Old Montreal"), an area on the St. Lawrence which looks and feels like a medieval center of a European city. It's a main tourist area, with lots of streets-made-for-strolling, and where I think most of the conferences goers ate dinner. It's a beautiful place, slightly decayed, and has incongruous vistas (at least to this Midwesterner) which combine Old World cobblestone charm and decaying 20th century grain tower hulks - a site familiar to me from the upper Midwest. For an American however the feel is very Old World, and on the last night I was there my dinner mates and I wandered over to the St. Lawrence to watch a chorus sing/chant an eerie aria (like something from Rosemary's Baby), while sitting on concrete pylons in the water, in the dark, with flames burning in the background and on the water. I'm not sure how they got the flames on the water. It was fantastically weird and creepy and the spell wasn't broken even when a mini-armada of paddleboats came out to retrieve the singers from the pylons when it was over.

Despite the lack of resemblance, however, I kept on calling Old Montreal 'Old Milwaukee' the entire time I was there. I've never drunk the stuff, although it's a legendary brew and I've become somewhat of a Milwaukee partisan since moving here (I think it's brewed in Detroit these days anyhow). The persistence of the substitution I decided was probably because I was missing my boys back in Milwaukee. And, I guess, we live in an older part of town, so on some level it made sense.

The entire time I was there in Montreal, I deeply missed my boys. I've never had such a sense of existential peril - fragility - since I had children. I know this is nothing profound, and I'm a pretty well put together person emotionally, but since I had kids what sense of vulnerability I have is very much focused on them. Worrying they will die and I'll lose them; worrying I'll die young and not be there for them and not get to see them grow into men. This sense of peril and vulnerability becomes heightened whenever we are apart - it's nothing huge - I don't freak out and lose sleep - but it's something I carry constantly with me - a presence - when I'm away or they're at their Grandparents, etc.

It's in this context that I stumbled across Cancer Connections/Cancer: vu et vecu at the Place des Arts, not too far from Vieux Montreal. It's a traveling exhibit of photos submitted by Canadians by/about/of people who have/have survived/have died from cancer (you can see all the photos at the website). There were several hundred photos on display, outdoors at the Place des Arts, and I was there around lunch time, completely by accident, surrounded by about 100 pre-teen school children on some sort of riotous field trip (whose major theme seemed to be 'run around like squealing like mad'), looking at the photos, balling my eyes out.

The photos on this post are from the exhibit, and if you look through the website and have ever taken care of patients with cancer (or have/have had loved ones with cancer) many of the images will be very familiar to you - scarred bodies, cachexia, alopecia, families sharing moments of affection and solidarity and grief, parents holding pale, Cushingoid toddlers. I found myself looking at my patients - at something very familiar to me - but also at myself. 'Myself' in the sense of my own grief and loss for my patients, but also my own fear that this will happen to me and the losses captured on film will be losses my children will experience if I die too young or I will experience if one of my children becomes ill.

There is inevitably a lot of grief in medicine, and certainly in palliative care. In order to function on a day to day basis I have to actively 'manage' my grief for the losses of patients I care about, and from the burden of witnessing others' grief and loss. Part of this is, at least at the bedside, being aware if a patient/family is challenging my boundaries due to the sheer magnitude of grief/emotion or because some aspect of the situation speaks to my own vulnerabilities (particularly as a father) - i.e. the situation runs the risk of becoming 'about me' and not the patient/family.

I don't mean to suggest that this is some sort of major struggle and that I'm on the verge of freaking out about my boys all the time. Nothing like that. It's more of a steady, low grade presence in my working life, something I keep a check on, and often diffuse with my interdisciplinary team. If you ever sit around with your team members, shaking your heads, saying This is a tough one - that's what I mean by diffusing it. But there's always some grief with me, and for professional sanity and to provide the best care for my patients I keep it to myself: at the bedside, it has to be about the patient/family. If not, and if it becomes unchecked you run the risk of fizzling out, avoiding rooms because they're 'too hard,' not sticking around to answer the tougher questions.

However, in front of these photographs, it was safe for it to be all about me - my losses, my affection for my patients, and my love and fears for my family, particularly my boys. There was only a hundred Quebecois schoolkids to witness; pretty safe relatively speaking, particularly as they were engaged in their noon-time riot. I began to cry, looking at the girl with her Granddad and the G-tube, and I realized boundaries I have in place to prevent me from overflowing with emotion at the bedside weren't needed in front of the photos - I had no therapeutic alliance to maintain or composed posture to defend. It was a wonderful hour of tears and catharsis, in a way I'd never experienced before. I've never understood catharsis, or people approaching art with the hope to see their experience reflected back to them in a way which allows for emotional release or whathaveyou. This may be because I'm jaded and cynical (and read a lot of art theory when I was younger and had 'ideas' about what art was supposed to be about and it's not a doctor blubbering about his existential dread while traveling for a conference); but it also may be because I've never had much in me that needed catharsis - I've lived a relatively blessed life (and still, to be sure, am living one) and it may only be the last few years - getting older, kids, hundreds of patients dying a year - that I had something that needed catharsis, particularly as the stimulus to much of my grief is one that I have to repress/manage as it unfolds.

So this was a first for me, at least that I am aware of, and the release and opportunity to it allowed me couldn't have happened without the images. Most of them are simple snapshots of familiar scenes - and scenes familiar to me from that place in me that knows how vulnerable my little life is. I am curious if others, as they've entered this work, or accumulated personal losses in their life, found that their relationship to the arts changed because of it, and found that they appreciated opportunities to cry for themselves about their patients and the way patients make them feel but in a 'safe' way; away from the bedside....?

Afterwards I headed back to the QI, and ran into a friend and told her about the exhibit. She thought it sounded a bit too heavy, so instead we went to see a showing of Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. God I love palliative care folks sometimes....

5 Responses to “Old Milwaukee and Art Therapy”

Ty Meyer said...
November 14, 2008 at 9:37 AM

Its funny that you talked about worrying about your kids. I was just in Chicago doing the EPEC training and had that same sense of dread about my kids here in San Antonio during the trip.


dethmama said...
November 21, 2008 at 8:55 AM

For many of us, coping can only take us so far.. and then we must have catharsis.

Thank you for sharing this moment.


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
November 23, 2008 at 4:03 PM

I agree with dethmama in thanks to Drew for this piece. Very powerful.

And thanks to you dethmama for the re-use of the word catharsis as it has found its way into my vocabulary in counseling patients and families as of late.


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

I agree with dethmama in thanks to Drew for this piece. Very powerful.

And thanks to you dethmama for the re-use of the word catharsis as it has found its way into my vocabulary in counseling patients and families as of late.


dethmama said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM

For many of us, coping can only take us so far.. and then we must have catharsis.

Thank you for sharing this moment.