Written by Tara Broderick, PPM
I have been writing poetry since high school as a way to put words to my emotions, especially in times of stress. So after I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease nearly 9 years ago, I turned to poetry to help make sense of the overwhelming emotions I was experiencing.
There is a body of research in cognitive science suggesting that the onset of Parkinson's disease may produce a creative impulse in some individuals. That creative impulse seeks an outlet (be it art, music, dance, or in my case, poetry). And when the creative impulse is expressed, it helps to soothe us.
About a year and a half after my diagnosis, I started IPM’s training program to become certified as a Practitioner of Poetic Medicine. During the training program, I experienced the healing power of poetry myself. I realized that writing poetry was helping me to cope with the complicated changes in my body and mind.
Over the past 6 years, I have offered therapeutic poetry programs in schools, homeless shelters and mental health aftercare settings. But I wanted to also help people like myself with Parkinson’s. In 2021, I developed a healing workshop series especially designed for individuals impacted by Parkinson’s — both those who have Parkinson’s and their care-givers. In the Fall of 2022, I led the inaugural group of individuals through the program.
I named the poetry series There Are Words In Us after the title of a poem by Stephen Levine. Levine says:
“…Hope has put a pen in our hand for us to find our song…”
The overall goal of the series is for each participant to experience poem-making as a healing art. We explore our feelings about living with Parkinson’s Disease by reading, writing and sharing poems in a safe and supportive environment. No prior experience with poem-making is necessary.
The 8 sessions series loosely follows the documented stages of meaning-making after the diagnosis of any chronic and progressive disease. But I also relied heavily on my own experience of working through my feelings. I believe that discovering meaning enables us to better cope with difficulties and find strength.
Each session explores an emotional component of coping and living with Parkinson’s.
For example, an early session is called A Just Anger after a poem by Marge Piercy. In this session we explore the anger or other emotions (sadness, fear, denial) we experienced upon learning we or loved ones have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Piercy uses relevant and powerful metaphors in her poem to describe her anger such as “I am a burning bush” and “My rage is a cloud of flame.”
Also in this session, we explored what held us together during those early days. We read this poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate William Stafford:
The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
~ William Stafford
Here is a poem written by one of the group members in response to Stafford’s poem:
I braid a rope out of hope
and equal measure pragmatism and denial
tie it to the tallest tree in the forest of my fears,
and hurl it across the rocky canyon of the unknown
trusting it will find purchase on the other side.
All and all and all of these
I grab with curled toes
feel my balance reconcile
follow the thread as it disappears into the fog
knowing if my feet should falter
it will reweave itself into a net,
make lacework of my worries
a cocoon of grace
to cradle me onward.
~ Ashley Romberg
Other topics we touch on in the series include grieving our losses, anxiety about our futures, letting go, surviving, adopting fresh perspectives, and building community.