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Sharon Bray wrote her first book on the bus from Northern California to Los Angeles at age six.
She hasn't stopped writing since.
It's been a saving grace during pivotal moments of her life: a near-death experience in her teens, the sudden death of her first husband, a breast cancer diagnosis in her 50s, and now, her journey as a heart failure patient at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.
"Writing reminds me of who I am," says Sharon. "It helps me explore my inner life and my history."
Over the years, Sharon's work has focused on helping others explore their thoughts and feelings through writing, particularly doctors and cancer patients. She is hoping to now extend her teachings to heart failure patients, primarily through her blog,
Writing the Heart. [Editor's Note: Link is no longer available]
The blog's intent is "an honest expression of the experience of living with heart failure," Sharon writes. In her monthly posts, she covers everything from the loneliness of living with a cardiac disease to her thoughts in the surgery waiting room.
Sharon's writing for therapy began in high school, when a medical crisis landed her in the operating room. During recovery, her surgeon encouraged she visit other patients on the hospital floor and ask how they were doing.
Breast cancer diagnosis put her on new path
"I think he was teaching me how to be compassionate and listen to others," says Sharon. "In so many ways, it's fundamental to what I do now."
Sharon wrote her way through high school, college and graduate school. She wrote during her years of teaching in both San Jose, Calif. and Ottawa. She eventually ended up moving back to California and worked in the consulting world for a few years – but didn't really feel fulfilled.
Then, a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer set her life on a new track.
"At that point, I was miserable, struggling, and very unhappy," says Sharon. "I quit my job and set out to start something new."
She ended up taking several creative writing courses in northern California, and a former colleague referred her to the work of James Pennebaker, a pioneer on using writing as a healing technique. At that moment, all the light bulbs went off – she decided she wanted to start an expressive writing workshop for breast cancer patients.
"That was 20 years ago," says Sharon, with a smile. "I've been doing it ever since."
Sharon's work has led her to speak at numerous conferences, write two books on writing for healing with cancer patients, and even lead a creative writing group for physicians, faculty and medical students at Stanford University.
"What's come out of these groups has been stunning," says Sharon. "This lovely little community starts to form. We've sometimes had people in the group nearing their final days, and the group members would take turns sitting at the person's bedside as well as honor them in their writing. It's beautiful."
Although Sharon overcame breast cancer, her cardiologist, Dr. Heather Ross at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, believes the radiation used to treat her may have been a factor in her heart failure.
Sharon was originally diagnosed with heart failure in 2008 while she was still living in California.
"The reality of heart failure was slow," says Sharon. "It didn't really settle in until I came to Toronto and met Dr. Ross."
'Honest writing helps improve the quality of life'
Sharon speaks of Dr. Ross with the same gratitude she uses for her neurosurgeon from high school. During their first appointment, Dr. Ross asked Sharon whether she wanted to be "retired or engaged."
Sharon said "engaged," and thus the idea behind her heart blog was born.
"I think of it as having two hearts, one, the engine, the pump; the other, the metaphorical heart, the seat of emotion," says Sharon. "One of the ways for me to understand heart failure is to write from my lived experience, and I want to encourage others to do so as well."
Sharon leaves suggestions at the end of her blog posts for other heart failure patients to follow. She hopes they will explore not only the condition, but how their lives have changed and what they've learned about themselves during the process.
"Honest writing helps improve the quality of life," says Sharon. "There's a transition that happens – it's felt in the body, but we can't make sense of it until it's spoken or on the page."
Sharon admits that accepting her heart failure diagnosis was difficult, but writing has helped her appreciate how well she's doing despite the disease.
"When you're living with a progressive condition, it's easy for it to become your life rather than experiencing the richness," says Sharon. "Writing will help you make sense of those feelings and you may even learn a thing or two about yourself."