Gillian Shirreffs reflects on using writing to manage chronic pain – and to renegotiate the objectifying medical gaze.
As an erstwhile student of English Language and a former Secondary School English teacher, the relationship between subject and object has long been of interest to me. As someone with a neurological illness, this relationship has taken on new meaning.
At times, I, the medical subject, have been known to wonder if I am, in fact, more object than subject. This may happen as I lie, immobile, deep within the 60 centimetre bore of a 1.5 Tesla MRI scanner listening to the banging and clanging that seems to be such an integral part of its work, whilst clipped into a moulded plastic head coil that looks remarkably like the outer shell of a Cyberman’s skull.
This more object than subject feeling has also been known to rear its head when someone, too harassed to look up, tells me to take a seat; when someone, too tired to talk, wheels me from this place to that; when someone, too busy to notice I am terrified of needles, inserts one into my arm.
As a creative writer (and the owner of a well-thumbed copy of English Grammar for Today), the way in which I seek to manage this variation on the subject-object relationship is to inject a verb: I write.
This act of writing creates space between subject and object, allowing me to breathe, to fathom, to contend. I write my way in and through and around a problem that feels as personal as it is shared, as simple as it is complex, as human as it is institutional.
I mainly write fiction. As I write, I become not the object of a medical procedure but a subject equipped to interrogate such experiences by means of storytelling. Often, I choose to give other people (albeit fictional characters) a neurological condition and sit back and watch (metaphorically) as she, or he, responds to a new normal. As I shape words into sentences a story unfolds and I am able to sample myriad futures.
This odd form of snooping is not, however, my only impetus.
I have neuropathic pain as a result of multiple sclerosis. During an early period of extended bed rest, after I had tired of playing endless games of solitaire on my laptop, I began to write. I noticed that when my brain was fully engaged in the challenge of writing and rewriting sentence upon sentence, it was too busy to pay attention to anything else, including the invisible shards of broken glass that had wilfully, and stubbornly, attached themselves to my fingers and toes. Invisible shards of glass that had proven themselves impervious to the usual round of drugs.
I therefore became hooked on a daily writing practice, long before I discovered that such a thing as distraction technique is deemed efficacious in the management of chronic pain (based on research into phantom limb pain and neuroplasticity). This need to write led me to an MLitt in creative writing at Glasgow University, which, in turn, led me to where I am today, in the second year of a PhD in creative writing.
My doctoral project seeks to explore the relationship between object and illness by means of a novel, Brodie, and a collection of essays and images entitled, Subject-Verb-Object.
Brodie is narrated by an object (a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). The story spans 30 years, from 1988 until 2018 and begins with the eponymous narrator being given to Violet Munro by her Aunt Sandra as a sixteenth birthday gift. The novel seeks to function as a metaphor for the experience of life with multiple sclerosis. Brodie’s experiences mirror something of my own: of the period of unwelcome intervention, confinement and oddness an MS relapse will inevitably bring. Hungry for information, Brodie is able to see, hear, smell, intuit and can communicate with other objects. Our narrator is, however, limited in that she/he (Brodie has no fixed gender) cannot move unaided. This existence may be marked by limitation and a lack of control, but it is full and vital thanks to Brodie’s keen interest in the lives and stories of others. Betrayal – a nod to my body’s inclination towards treachery – is a theme that, in common with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, threads through the novel. However, it is Brodie’s longing to return home to Violet (life before) that drives the narrative. A desire that, without the help of others, Brodie is powerless to satisfy.
The creative/critical element of my project is an examination of three medical objects: an MRI scanner, a hypodermic needle and a medical plinth. Each object holds significance in that it will likely be encountered during the process of being diagnosed with MS. Each also holds personal significance for me as in the last twelve years I have had a lumbar puncture, five MRI scans and what feels like gallons of blood drained from my veins. Through a series of essays, I interrogate the history, development and use of each object. These essays will ultimately be accompanied by interviews and images, which will further scrutinise the relationship between medical object and medical subject.
To help unite the two elements of my project I have written a personal essay, “There’s an Elephant in my Jam Jar”, to help explore my own experience of the way in which the animate and the inanimate can become confused in a medical setting. By doing so, I hope to expose the limitations of language and highlight the difficulty of trying to put into words the lived experience of neurological illness: the way in which, in the absence of le mot juste, it is often necessary to resort to the figurative.
 In linguistic typology Subject-Verb-Object (or SVO) denotes the basic word order in a typical declarative sentence in English: I hate needles. I like dogs. I write fiction.
 A note on the image: This is not in fact a head coil into which I have been clipped. Rather, it is one I encountered whilst on a tour of The Imaging Centre of Excellence at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. During this visit one of my supervisors, Dr Kate Reid, and I were fortunate to meet extremely gracious individuals who gave of their time to help me with my project.