Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.
–Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, 1978
Poetry and medicine share a long history, dating back to the Greek god Apollo, who was responsible for healing and poetry. Today, the use of metaphor, a poetic tool and figure of speech that compares things seemingly unrelated is also common in illness and everyday life. Think of how we use sports metaphors almost unconsciously to describe daily life. In the workplace, you strive to be a “team player” or be encouraged to “run with a good idea.” In a budding romance, a boy might “make a pass at someone,” or in an emotional argument between two people, one is the other he is “way out of bounds.”
There’s little doubt that metaphors are visual and illustrative, but they can also run the risk of creating stereotypes and confusion, even becoming clichés. Some, like the sports and military metaphors so common in everyday language are frequently used to describe one’s medical experience. Jack Coulehan, MD and Poet, in a 2009 publication, discussed some of the most prevalent metaphors used in medicine, among them, parental metaphors (“She’s too sick to know the truth”), engineering metaphors, (“He’s in for a tune-up”), and the military metaphor, (“the war on cancer”). (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, v. 52, no. 4 (Autumn 2009):585–603 © 2009 )
In a 2014 article entitled, “The Trouble with Medicines’ Metaphors,” author Dhruv Khullar, MD, wrote: The words we choose to describe illness are powerful. They carry weight and valence, creating the milieu in which goals of care are discussed and treatment plans designed. In medicine, the use of metaphor is pervasive. Antibiotics clog up bacterial machinery by disrupting the supply chain. Diabetes coats red blood cells with sugar until they’re little glazed donuts. Life with chronic disease is a marathon, not a sprint, with bumps on the road and frequent detours… Military metaphors are among the oldest in medicine and they remain among the most common. Long before Louis Pasteur deployed imagery of invaders to explain germ theory in the 1860s, John Donne ruminated on the “miserable condition of man,” describing illness as a “siege…a rebellious heat, [that] will blow up the heart, like a Myne” and a “Canon [that] batters all, overthrowes all, demolishes all…destroyes us in an instant.”
As Khullar points out, “…we’ve internalized these metaphors, so much so that we often may not recognize how they influence us.” And while Susan Sontag famously argued in her book, Illness as Metaphor (1978) ” that illness is not a metaphor, and [that] being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking,” the fact is that metaphors can and do help us understand one another’s experience. They are visual, visceral and provide a shorthand route to our emotions. They offer a way to make sense of the emotional chaos that often accompanies a diagnosis of serious illness or physical condition. Metaphors help to communicate our feelings and experience to others, and in turn, doctors’ use of metaphors help patients understand the ramifications of their illnesses. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, found that “Physicians who used more metaphors were seen as better communicators. Patients reported less trouble understanding them, and felt as though their doctor made sure they understood their conditions.”
Metaphors get our attention. They give us a vivid way to communicate and understand the experience of illness. For example, consider the poem, “The Ship Pounding,” by former U.S. poet laureate, Donald Hall. The reader is offered a glimpse into his feelings and experience of having his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, frequently hospitalized in the final months of her struggle with leukemia. He describes the hospital using an image of a ship filled with ill passengers, heaving in rough waters, to describe and help the reader see and understand his experience.
Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship’s massive engines
kept its propellers turning…
At first, the narrator is hopeful:
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
traveled to a harbor
of breakfast, work, and love.
But the illness his wife has is incurable, evident in his final lines, as the narrator waits for his wife’s call, knowing he must be ready to:
… make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without moving a knot,
without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.
(From Without, 1998)
Anatole Broyard, whose book, Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death (1993), used metaphors to convey his experience of terminal prostate cancer, stating: Always in emergencies we invent narratives. . . Metaphor was one of my symptoms. I saw my illness as a visit to a disturbed country. . . I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before. . . When the cancer threatened my sexuality, my mind became immediately erect.”
Arthur Frank, Canadian sociologist and author of At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness (1991), his memoir of his heart attack and cancer, described his illness and recovery as a “marathon.” Frank was a runner, and the physical and mental demands of the marathon were apt comparisons to describe his experiences of illness.
Kat Duff, author of The Alchemy of Illness, (1993), was diagnosed with chronic fatigue and immune system dysfunction syndrome. She explored illness narratives as a way to understand the broader nature of illness She compared her illness to a landscape, a wilderness, or coral reef, and regaining health as an adventurous voyage through it.
Metaphors–so common in poetry and the arts–are invaluable in helping us to communicate and understand the experience of illness. They allow doctors to develop a common language with patients, and they give those of us living with serious or chronic heart conditions a way to express what we feel and experience. Perhaps Anatole Broyard said it best. As he reflected on his cancer experience he said, “Metaphors may be as necessary to illness as they are to literature, as comforting to the patient as his own bathrobe and slippers.” What do you think?
- Think of how you describe your condition to others. Are you aware of the metaphors that naturally come to mind? Explore these. What images do they convey? How do they help you communicate your condition to others in your life?
- Stuck? Begin with a phrase such as “Heart Failure is like a…” or “Cancer is like…” and finish the thought, noting what image or word emerges. Try listing several. Then, take the one that is most compelling for you and explore it further in writing. Remember, write quickly, without editing. Set the timer for five or ten minutes and keep your pen (or fingers) moving.
- Once you’ve finished, read over what you’ve written. Are there any surprises? Did you discover any unexpected metaphors? How have your metaphors helped you to explain your experience of illness to others? Describe one or two instances.
- Does your physician metaphors to help you or other patients understand the full extent and prognosis of your condition or illness? What types of metaphors do you hear most often?
- You may want to go deeper in your writing. Our metaphors inspire a poetry, such as Donald Hall’s, or they can communicate aspects of your illness experience to others. Let your metaphors be the inspiration for a poem or story.