The Heroes’ Journey: A Therapeutic Writing and Storytelling Group for People Facing Life-Changing Illness and Disability

The artist is meant to put the objects of this world together in such a way that through them you will experience that light, that radiance which is the light of our consciousness and which all things both hide and, when properly looked upon, reveal. The hero journey is one of the universal patterns through which that radiance shows brightly. What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.
– Joseph Campbell

DEPARTURE

Call to Adventure:

I had been chronically ill for over twenty years, and a therapist for seven, when I came up with a brilliant plan. I would form a therapeutic writing and storytelling group for people struggling with life-changing illness and disability, and frame it around the idea of the hero’s journey. After all, wouldn’t it be better if people could come to think of themselves instead as heroes on a transformative journey rather than feeling like victims betrayed by their bodies?

The only problem was—I didn’t know a thing about the hero’s journey. But I was pretty sure that I was on one, and that anyone facing a life-changing illness or disability might be challenged to reframe their experience through that lens. So I started cramming.

You might say this was my Call to Adventure. I was being called to venture into unknown territory (Departure), and if what I would come to learn about the hero’s journey was true, I would face adventures and challenges, and what I learned as a result of meeting them would change me in some important way (Initiation), and I would return to the known world with some wisdom to share (Return).

I bought a copy of Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. If anybody was an expert on the hero’s journey, I figured it was Joseph Campbell. He studied myths from around the world his entire career. He wrote The Hero With a Thousand Faces when he came to see that all cultures share some key themes when it comes to the archetypal story of the hero’s journey. He called it the monomyth.

But dense! The book was so dense. By the time the group had begun, I had slogged through only about half of it.

Supernatural Aid:

I roped my colleague, David Bigelow, LADC, into joining me. We had previously co-facilitated a therapeutic writing group that used Erik Erikson’s stages of development to help men with addiction histories to more closely examine their life stories. We decided that our Hero’s Journey group would run twelve sessions, and found five willing participants with illnesses or disabilities ranging from diabetes to Lyme disease, to asthma, to chronic fatigue syndrome, to osteoarthritis, to multiple chemical sensitivity, to brain damage resulting from a stroke. A number of the participants struggled with more than one diagnosis, and most also faced co-occurring depression. Some were also in recovery from addictions.

David was fascinated by The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and offered to take on the task of synopsizing each theme we would address in group. In retrospect, I realized that David was the Supernatural Aid on my hero’s journey with the group. He would provide the special tools I needed to make it through to the other side. The book was our amulet.

And of course, I came to the group bearing my own particular set of tools. First and foremost, I had the experience of my own body. I knew what it was like to feel betrayed by one’s body. I remembered how helpless and how hopeless and how alone I felt that first year of my illness. I remembered scrabbling to make meaning out of what was happening to me.

I determined that I would create the kind of group that would have helped me in those early days of my illness. I would bring my years of experience as a therapist and a writer to the group. I would endeavor to create a safe place for people to share their stories. And I would bring my authentic self into this work.

The Crossing of the First Threshold:

Campbell wrote that it is only by advancing beyond the established bounds that the individual passes into a new zone of experience. When we all sat down together on that first day and shared the beginnings of our stories, we crossed the threshold from the known into the unknown. We started with some introductions.

Barbara* told us how debilitating osteoarthritis had led to two hip replacements. She said she was used to being in control of her life. But complications from the surgeries had shown her that her sense of control was an illusion.

Morley said that he had been living with diabetes most of his life, but the symptoms were getting worse. He was also a recovering marijuana addict, he said, and lived with terrible insomnia and bouts of depression.

Talking slowly, carefully enunciating each word, Sheldon, an impish gay man who wore a patch over his left eye, said that two years before, at age 51, he had suffered a stroke. His family wanted to put him into a nursing home, but his partner chose to bring him home and look after Sheldon himself. He added that he also had HIV and Hepatitis C, that he, too, was in recovery from a history of substance abuse, and that he, like Morley, struggled with depression.

Carla said she couldn’t ever remember a time when she was well. She was depressed even as a child, and now as an adult faced a case of chronic fatigue syndrome so severe that she sometimes had to use a scooter just to get around.

On the face of it, Grace, a slender, attractive woman, looked like a healthy woman. But sometimes, she said, looks can be deceiving. She had been suffering from a mysterious fatigue and a sensitivity to chemicals that just seemed to be getting worse and worse. Later, she was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

I told the group a little of my story. In 1989, at the age of 21, I came down with a case of mononucleosis that just never went away. Eventually I was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. I also dealt with harrowing depressions throughout most of the early years of my illness. Over time, the CFS seemed to morph into multiple chemical sensitivity. I said that now I am grateful to consider my energy “on the low side of normal,” and that I hadn’t suffered a serious depression in years.

Years earlier, David, my co-facilitator, had suffered a transient ischemic attack—a mini stroke—and fell like a tree to the pavement, incurring a head injury that left him hospitalized with amnesia for a few weeks before gradually recovering his memory. Even at the time—perhaps partly due to his inborn temperament and partly due to the nature of the head injury—he had a Buddha-like curiosity about his experience. As the one person in the group who had recovered, he would turn this Buddha-like curiosity on to the stories the participants shared about their lives.

On that first day, I explained to the group that in addition to the hero’s journey each of us was on as we faced our own illnesses and disabilities, we, as a group, would also be embarking on a metanarrative of the hero’s journey, and that David and I were on it too. I warned them that as a group we might go through some challenging times, and said that in some ways it was like we were in a dark wood, and none of us knew the path, but David and I had a map and a compass, and we would all find it together.

INITIATION

The Road of Trials:

According to Campbell, by surviving the challenges put before them, heroes realize an expansion of consciousness. Each week, David and I collected key quotes from the book, and added some writing prompts, and handed them out to the group. At home, the participants delved into their stories. Then, based on the previous week’s assignment, they shared the pieces they had written about their lives. Then David talked for a little while about the next phase of the hero’s journey.

Things were going along fine, I thought. Members were sharing their stories, expressing their feelings, reframing their struggles, and forming empathic bonds. But about the time of the Road of Trials, I got a phone call. Carla said the group wasn’t meeting her needs and she was thinking of leaving. I did not want her to leave the group, and I asked her to tell me more about how it was failing to meet her needs. She said she didn’t like the structure of the group, and would prefer if it were more open-ended.

David and I had put a lot of thought into the structure of the group, and I was a bit attached to following the design we had prepared. And while it’s true that some heroes refuse the call, I thought this member had something important to say, and that it was even possible that others in the group felt the same way. So I asked her if she would come back one more time, to see if her concerns might be shared by others. When she did, a space was created that opened the group up to share some honest feelings, and, sure enough, I learned that there was room for improvement. Participants agreed it was our best session yet. I determined to listen to the needs of the group and to change it in a way that would work better for them, without letting go of the vision that I had when I formed the group in the first place.

So the next week, David and I crammed three units of information—the entire Initiation phase—into one. The Initiation phase is the meat, really, of the hero’s journey. It is the middle phase, when the hero faces adventures and challenges (The Road of Trials), and is rewarded with life-changing wisdom (Apotheosis and The Ultimate Boon). Quoting Campbell, David talked about the importance of approaching the journey with a “gentle heart.” But something wasn’t jiving. Finally, Sheldon spoke up. He said he didn’t feel connected to what was going on in the group in that session. He burst into tears, describing his sense of isolation and “otherness.” This was a life-theme for him, but I had a feeling that he was not as alone as he thought, and checked with the group. Sure enough, none of us felt connected. We were all in agreement: the session had kinda sucked.

Apotheosis:

I went home and thought about it. I wondered what had happened and tried to figure out how to make sure it didn’t happen again. And thinking about it, I realized that our group had just gotten to the middle of the hero’s journey, right into the place where many of us were in our own individual journeys. The dark wood. No wonder we were befuddled. And when he spoke of the “gentle heart,” David had skipped right over the Road of Trials—the struggles that were so integral to the participants’ illness experiences.

So we decided to throw our structure out the window and trust the organic process of the group. In the hero’s journey, this is called the Apotheosis, when, as the Wikipedia synopsis describes, “The hero’s ego is disintegrated in a breakthrough expansion of consciousness.”

The Ultimate Boon:

The hero is changed by his or her experience. After plunging into the dark unknown and facing a series of challenges, heroes are rewarded by some new awareness that, upon their return, will benefit the society they have left. This is the Ultimate Boon. As I listened to the group over those weeks, I began to discern certain themes that repeated themselves in our discussions: courage, unsolicited advice, doctors, families, satire and black humor, the “new normal.” People were transforming their stories right before my very eyes.

Each one of these participants had something powerful to share about his or her illness experience. Only they, through their stories, can do justice to each of the messages they bring. Barbara, who in her previous life had walked on fire, taught us about the courage it takes just to reach for her cane every morning. Morley reclaimed his story when he showed us how a dehumanizing and demoralizing trip to “The Looney Bin” could be reconfigured as a satirical “fractured fairy tale” through which he could turn the tables of power and recover his sense of dignity. Hidden between the lines of a story she wrote about a boot, Grace unearthed some unacknowledged truths about her life. Sheldon shared an important revelation one day when he said that if he hadn’t had his stroke, “I would still be the controlling mess I used to be. And I’m no longer that person. So we can celebrate that. This is a new person. Yes, I have a disability. But I understand now why I had to have the stroke. I think I’m done with the pity party.”

RETURN

Refusal of the Return:

I have neglected to report how much we laughed in the group. Here we were, a group of people struggling with Lyme disease, osteoarthritis, multiple chemical sensitivity, diabetes, stroke, and depression, and we laughed more in two hours than I laughed all the rest of the week. We had built a true camaraderie, and I, for one, did not want the group to end. Sometimes, according to the Wikipedia synopsis, “having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world.” But the participants had gotten what they had needed and were ready to move on. I had to face the fact that this group would come to a close.

Master of the Two Worlds:

And yet, this group—my first hero’s journey group—would never leave me. The Master of the Two Worlds may now perceive, according to Wikipedia, “both the divine and human worlds.” The participants, having plumbed the depths of their illness stories, were ready to return to the world bearing the strength of what they had learned as all of us found our way together through the dark wood.

There was so much I knew I would always carry in my heart about this group. For instance, I know with certainty that there are things a group can do that I just can’t in individual counseling. There is a special magic to a group. Open hearts. Connection and camaraderie. In a supportive group, isolation withers away.

The group has its own wisdom, its own process, its own trajectory. I learned to trust the organic collective process of the group. My most important job as the facilitator is help to create a safe place for people to make their own journeys.

Freedom to Live:

Sheldon’s revelation led me to one of my own. I realized that my illness had made me fierce. I am fierce about fighting for my own growth and my own vision, and I am fierce about advocating for the other “dispossessed” people in the world, people who struggle like I once did and still, sometimes, do. Before I became one of “the dispossessed,” my beliefs were more philosophic; now I live them in the deepest parts of me.

In this last phase, according to Wikipedia, “the hero bestows the boon to his fellow man.”

I’m planning the next group. And I can’t wait to begin.

*All of the participants’ names have been changed to protect their confidentiality. In addition, they have signed releases allowing me to share their stories here.