Heather’s Story

Ask Dr. Heather Stuckey about her diabetes, and you probably won’t get the answer you’d expect. You won’t hear about insulin doses or what her blood sugar was earlier that day. She may not mention that she has Type 1, and not Type 2, diabetes.

What she might say, though, is this: “My diabetes is like dry bones. For me, it’s just a never-ending dryness.”

Heather has been managing Type 1 diabetes for most of her life, since she was diagnosed at age 12. And for as long as she can remember, creative expression has been part of her coping strategy. She recalls that, even as a child, she felt the need to search for support outside of traditional medicine, as she has long been aware of the emotional gap in diabetes treatment. “There are so many different specialists who treat diabetes,” she says. “But the psychological aspects of having diabetes are simply not recognized.”

Compelled by her love of writing and an interest in art, she sought to make peace with the range of emotions that often accompany chronic illnesses like diabetes. She did this by engaging in creative expression. “I was asking myself, how do I thrive with this disease? How do I deal with it?” she remembers. For her, expressive writing became the main outlet for the emotions that accompanied dealing with diabetes. She started to connect with others who were having a difficult time managing their diabetes. At the same time, she was also spending time with artists who had nothing to do with diabetes. Heather saw a place for these two worlds to meet as she observed the positive impact that art had on her own management of diabetes.

Now, as Assistant Professor of Medicine and Public Health Sciences at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine, Heather continues to work to create a bridge between art and medicine and to address this emotional gap in diabetes treatment. While words form the foundation of her own preferred medium of creative expression (writing), she is reaching out to other people with diabetes in a way meant to transcend words. She does this by asking them to express their experience with diabetes through images, such as drawings, paintings, photographs, or even simple metaphors. “A simple and stark image can be quite powerful,” she says. “So I work with people around that. I want to use simple expressions to help them deal with their illness.”

For many patients, it is their first time exploring the emotional, non-clinical aspect of having diabetes. So far, the images of patients have ranged widely, from a photograph of a tall building with a satellite dish perched on the roof (symbolizing how watchful one must be in overseeing diabetes) to an image of a kite splashed with colorful sprouting flowers (to represent the support and encouragement of friends). Heather herself has used the image of a doll-like figure being strangled by the cord of an insulin pump, expressing the discomfort and pain she felt when she first started using what felt, to her, like a leash. She hopes that images like these could become tools for treatment and could get at the answers to questions that medical staff may not know to ask.

Heather herself has dabbled in many art forms, including painting and stained glass, and says, “I was always expressing myself, which is why art and metaphors are so important to me.” And while she does not feel her talents lie in creating fine art, Heather says it is the creative process itself, and not the end product, that is truly important. For Heather, the benefits of art therapy come from tapping into different spheres of thought and processing. “When you see an image, sometimes it’s even hard to explain that image in words, because it’s more than just words,” she says. “Art can get where words limit people.” And it is that place that she wants to help others reach; she wants to use art and creative expression to find the deeper meaning of what it is to live with a chronic disease.

Heather’s own management of diabetes has not always been easy. Her metaphor of dry bones conveys the daily struggle she still experiences, and she says she hasn’t healed completely from this “dry bones disease” yet. But writing and creative expression have given her the tools she needed to uncover and deal with the negative feelings that arise. Art has allowed her to cope with having diabetes.

In the end, Heather finds that the recurring image of dry bones helps to remind her that managing her diabetes is an ongoing process. The metaphor has injected a new richness and purpose into her experience with the disease. “I don’t have these lovely images of diabetes [like others have],” she says, “and I still struggle with it. I am always in a process of healing from this dry bones disease. But whereas diabetes was just a part of my life before, now it has become my life’s purpose. If I didn’t have diabetes, I wouldn’t have this chance to improve the way it’s treated.” Researching and helping to improve chronic disease through creative expression is when she feels most alive. For a moment, the dry bones take on flesh and breath, and new life.

by Claire Berman