The highlight of my working week is a 90-minute creative writing session in the Statewide Eating Disorder Unit at Flinders Medical Centre (FMC). There are occasionally tears, but more often than not there is laughter and love and I guarantee great writing will happen.
I’m lucky to be part of the Arts in Health at FMC team that is as compassionate as it is professional. It’s lucky that the clinical staff, participants and I can all see tangible value in the work I do and, however challenging the session may be, I am always reassured that literature and voice are empowering.
The therapeutic value of writing has been recognised in eating disorder recovery for many years. Clinical science still does not understand the exact mechanism of brain healing. Clinicians know that sometimes talking is not enough and writing can help a patient with their recovery. The Statewide Eating Disorder Service uses therapeutic writing as one of the many ways it helps people recover from an eating disorder and find new ways to understand and deal with their problems.
I am beginning to understand why literature is so powerful in this environment. I will never fully understand the complex nature of an eating disorder, and I think this is one of the advantages I have. I am never the expert in the room. I understand writing and I’m versed in tricks, prompts and techniques to challenge people to write to the best of their ability, but I can only scrutinise the literary value of the outcome.
The participants are forgiving of my naive questions, my lack of comprehension, because it offers them a rare chance to be experts in their own lives. The writing activity gives them an opportunity to voice this experience as individuals.
Up close and personal material seems to happen, however I shape a session. Family, friends, love, ambition, life are all shaped and affected by this condition. There is no safe ground for literature. What I try to do is offer writers control over how they write and, therefore, think about their eating disorder.
Poetic structure, metaphor, character development can all offer a controlled process by which to explore personal pain and loss. The fact that I am a writer gives me a range of approaches to limit the devastating effects of reliving a trauma without being able to shape and own it.
We talk about mental health and happiness along with concepts such as love, faith and hope. We also explore meaningful and difficult ideas, but every session ends with a controlled and usually beautiful literary work that offers participants some mastery over their thoughts.
My interest is primarily to develop good writing. I haven’t experienced an environment that has offered me so much quality before. Occasionally, the writing is shared with staff, but more often than not it just exists in the moment. I am always left with the feeling that I’ve been useful and that my skills have real purpose.
David Chapple is a Writing Development Manager at the South Australian Writing Centre, Writer-in-Residence for the Arts in Health at Flinders Medical Centre program and a member of The Institute for Creative Healthâ€™s Arts and Health Leadership Group in South Australia.