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The Language of Pain – a review

August 29th, 2010

I recently finished The Language of Pain, by David Biro, M.D. A practicing physician in Brooklyn, NY, Dr. Biro also has a PhD in literature. This interesting combination of educational disciplines, together with Dr. Biro’s own experience as a patient with a blood disorder, leads to his thoughtful and philosophical writing on the isolating experience of pain. I presume that his earlier book, One Hundred Days: My Unexpected Journey from Doctor to Patient must focus more specifically on his personal (and unexpected) experience in bridging those worlds. The Language of Pain is a more general and outer-focused book, discussing how profoundly isolating the experience of being in pain is (be it physical or emotional pain) and how important it is to find means of expressing the experience.

The Language of Pain is an interesting read, pointing out that an understandable expression of the pain one experiences is necessary both to get proper treatment for the pain (or the underlying condition that causes the pain), and to keep people in pain from being isolated from their families, friends and community. Drawing on many examples from art and literature, Dr. Biro explores how metaphor enables us to take the diffuse experience of pain and put it in terms that others can understand. The book is illustrated with some of Frida Kahlo’s gripping paintings, as well as patient-generated works of art gathered by Deborah Padfield in a pain clinic in the UK, and other art. We read many passages from literature describing pain, disease, and bodily peril, from works by Tolstoy, London, Crane and Joyce, among others.

This is not a long book, but it took me a long time to finish. I found that some of the descriptions of pain were, well, painful for me to read. It may be that for one living with chronic pain, this book hits too close to home. Nor is it an easy read. His points are excellent, but perhaps Dr. Biro couId have expressed them in a more accessible manner. This may sound funny coming from me; an inveterate user of big words. I could have used less literary and philosophical analysis and more practical examples of how finding language for their pain has helped pain patients.

The book is subtitled “Finding words, compassion and relief.” Without doubt the writing is compassionate, and ignites the reader’s compassion. There was inspiration for me personally in the examples of words used to express pain; certainly I remembered them in my own moments of pain, and tried to be more conscious of expressing myself. It is the “relief” that I would like to have heard more of in the book. Maybe because relief from pain is something I long for in my own life, and for other sufferers. It wouldn’t be fair for me to fault Dr. Biro for not providing a magic wand! He pulls it all together very well in his postscript, stating:

More than just communicating one person’s experience, the metaphors of great writers contribute to our collective experience of pain. They add to our ever-growing repository of language, and to our ever-growing understanding of what it means to be human. Indeed, we should think of our great artists no differently than our great scientists. Both have profoundly practical goals; each works to help us understand and talk about what is not fully understood or communicable. But where the scientist shines his searchlight on the objective world, the artist strives to illuminate the subjective one.

One of the things that fascinates me most is the meeting and communication of our left and right brains, our analytical and intuitive sides, the scientist and artist in each of us. I love thinking about what having both an MD and a PhD in literature would bring to a person’s thinking and understanding of the world. Dr. Biro thank you, you have done an elegant job of sharing your thinking with us. I’ll expose my own prejudices as a coach when I ask, next book, would you give us a little more of how to use those two sides of the brain for relief in our own lives?

- Megan Oltman


To keep the FTC happy I will disclose that the publisher asked me if I might like to review the book in my blog, and sent me a free copy so that I might do so. They did not pay me to puff the book, and I won’t receive anything else from doing this review unless some of you decide to link in to Amazon and buy it there, which would net me a few pennies per book. The publisher has no doubt given up on me, as they sent me the book before it’s publication in January of this year.

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Posted in Books, Communicating, Managing, Medicine | Comments (0)

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