FOCUS December 2006

Just Like Life, Only More So & Other Stories of Illness

by Dana Snyder-Grant, LICSW

Reviewed by Carol Curtin, MSW, LICSW

I read Dana Snyder-Grant's new book Just Like Life. Only More So & Other Stories of Illness on a weekend where I had no energy and was feeling shame about my lethargy and inactivity. I opened her book and read: "Living with illness is about living with vulnerability, about being susceptible to loss and hurt. ...We are all susceptible to loss, all the time, to the losses that come with being human." (p.l). Oh right, I forgot...I was experiencing the vestiges of my own chronic illness, which often bring fatigue and a loss of vitality and resilience. Reading Snyder-Grant's book reminded me that I am vulnerable from time to time, and that I must try to hold myself lightly in the face of a condition that has ups and downs, and at times, an unpredictable path.

Dana Snyder-Grant is a clinical social worker in the Boston area who has multiple sclerosis (MS). Her book is written as a personal account of living with MS, via a series of personal essays penned between 1999 and 2005 which tell stories that span 25 years, including the experience of being diagnosed one week shy of her 26th birthday. The essays are organized around themes that include 'the medical journey', 'loss and change', 'culture and stigma', 'letting go', and 'community and connection', and each imparts a personal account. We read of days where ceilings and walls spin, and of being confined to bed because of weakness, pain, nausea, and vertigo. Likewise, we discover the many joys in the author's life, such as her love of hiking and the pleasure she takes in spending time with friends and neighbors within her co-housing community. And, we catch glimpses of solitary moments such as pondering a tree's winter leaves pushed aside by new buds of springtime, and her awareness of "the process of the old dying and the new being born at the same time" (p.77). Through these essays we become acquainted with the author, her husband, friends and neighbors, her illness and its painful and discouraging symptoms, her work, her full life, and the lessons that illness teaches us. We learn about the juxtaposition of health and illness, vitality and vulnerability, independence and dependence, and the illusion of control. Snyder-Grant writes, "I can't control my illness, but I can control how I respond to it. Illness can make me vulnerable, but your exposure to the world can hurt just as much" (p.2). She artfully reminds us that illness is "just like life, only more so. We reset priorities, learn what's truly important, and understand our limits as human beings" (p. 113).

Snyder-Grant's book is eminently readable, written in the first person in a simple yet elegant style. This book is essential reading for patients with MS who will learn about the peaks and valleys of this disease, and that despite pain and uncertainty, a life of fulfillment, connection, and vitality is possible. The book is also highly recommended for clinicians. Snyder-Grant describes her struggles to adapt and cope, a process that is neither linear nor predictable, while reminding us that "healing [is] care, not cure...there are aspects of physical illness that we cannot control, that have a life of their own. We blame the victim when we hold out certain models of cureā€”if she only had a healthy diet, did more yoga, saw that acupuncturist, had more friends. It is models of care, not cure, that the life of community offers... Community and connection make a huge difference in the quality of our lives" (pp.113-14).

Her message is clear: helping our clients seek connection and community is among the most important ways we can facilitate coping and healing.

Perhaps the most profound aspect of this book is that its lessons hold universal truths and we can learn much from Snyder-Grant's insights. She writes, "We live in a society that harbors a 'myth of independence', a myth that autonomy and doing for self should be the aim of our lives. We view it as 'weak' to ask for help; it threatens our identity. When ill, help may be more necessary and the vulnerability that much more intense. We may feel ashamed, that we are somehow less than others. Paradoxically, to ask for and accept help is a strength that promotes the qualities we associate with independence: well-being, resourcefulness, and initiative. It is not always easy to depend upon and trust in others. But it is interdependence that brings deeper human connection" (pp.75-76).

Just Like Life, Only More So & Other Stories of Illness is a thought-provoking and poignant book. Snyder-Grant shares with us her humanity and her wisdom, and how illness teaches us about acceptance, fulfillment, and authenticity.

About the Reviewer: Carol Curtin, LICSW, Chair, NASW-MA Chapter Committee for Social Workers Concerned with Disability & Chronic Illness; Research Assistant Professor, Family Medicine & Community Health, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center, Waltham, MA.

Ordering information: Just Like Life, Only More So & Other Stories of Illness Trail's End Publishers, Acton, MA, 2006. 164-pages. $13.95 (ISBN: 1591139732) can be ordered on-line at http://www.JustLikeLifeOnlyMoreSo.com or special ordered through your local bookstore. More information about Dana and her work can be found at http://www.snyder-grant.org/dana.

(FOCUS is the monthly newspaper of the Massachusetts Chapter, National Association of Social Workers)

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